Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
August 14, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
It doesn’t take long for a person to find her voice. Long before you can talk, you learn that if you scream, you can get what you need. A good deal of a child’s upbringing is the task of focusing those shrieks, screams, and cries into intelligible words spoken with dignity and grace. You do this not by buying an English dictionary and grammar and going through the rules of language, but by actually talking to children. And the irony is that once you have finally made some progress and the child has developed a significant vocabulary, then the teenage years hit and it’s back to grunts and mumbling. At least that’s how I was.
Speaking is so fundamental to life, you know there’s something wrong if a person doesn’t do it. Even introverts such as myself need to speak (We have just learned to budget our social interactions because you extraverts drain us of energy).
One of the impediments to speech can actually be an impediment in the ears. I remember the first time I ever encountered a deaf person. It’s not the person or the circumstance that sticks in my brain, but how she spoke. As a child, you’re very matter of fact; another goal of raising a child is to teach them to be sensitive to people with disabilities, not to stare, etc., and to recognize when a person has overcome a disability. I believe that I remarked something like, “What’s wrong with that lady, she talks funny,” and I remember my mom explaining to me that if you have trouble hearing, that will often mean you have trouble speaking, because you can’t hear yourself, and you can’t hear how other people speak. This is simply a layman’s observation; for a more detailed understanding, consult your local speech pathologist.
But it’s clear that words go in ears and come out of mouths. And if there’s some sort of short circuit, both ends are affected. So what could cause such a problem? When Jesus encounters a deaf and mute man in the region of the Decapolis on the way to Tyre and Sidon, we don’t know the story that precedes it. Mark is the only evangelist who tells this story in detail (take that, Markan priority!), and he simply says that the man was deaf and had a speech impediment.
In the Gospels, disabilities, deformities, illnesses, and the like are treated in two ways. First, there are things that are the result of sin. Others, like the man born blind, are not a result of sin at all, but for God’s glory. Actually, that’s a bit of a simplistic way of putting it. Every dysfunction of the body is a result of sin, either directly or indirectly. We often bring our own hardships upon ourselves by the sins we commit. But more often the disability is not from our sins, but from Sin. Sin has a cumulative effect. All the sins from Adam have been imputed down through the generations; we bear that original guilt by nature. Likewise, the little sins we commit—the ones that don’t necessarily take a visible toll on our bodies—each of them do their little bit of damage. So the little fib you tell your parents, or the juicy gossip you spread, they affect you in your body even if you’re not aware of it. It’s like a death of a thousand cuts.
Whenever Jesus is presented with the sick, the lame, the blind, the mute, and the deaf, He never leaves them in their former condition. This isn’t because He’s some sort of Miracle Max, traveling the countryside with magical healing powers. It’s because He’s the Savior who bears the sins of the world. And whenever He meets a sinner, He bears not only their sins, but all of the consequences of that sin as well. He not only revives the soul, but saves the body.
And He went out again from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon, into the Sea of Galilee, in the midst of the region of Decapolis. And they brought to Him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and beseeched Him, so that He would lay His hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd to Himself, He placed His finger into his ear, and after spitting, touched his tongue. And looking up into heaven, He sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened” (vv 31-34).
Now, who is foolish enough to talk to a deaf man? The One whose foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of men. The word that Jesus speaks isn’t just a column of vibrating air that enters your ear and registers on your eardrum. This is the word of the Word made flesh—a living and active word. It’s a creative word, that called creation into existence. St. Mark highlights the word by writing it in Aramaic—ephphatha.
This is the precise word that Jesus spoke, and it means, “Be opened.” Not, “Open yourselves.” Jesus’ command is a passive imperative. Theologians call this a divine passive; whenever the passive voice is used, and the doing of the action is not identified, it’s generally an act of God. When Jesus says, “Be opened,” it is He who is doing the opening. And He does so by speaking to a deaf man.
By nature, our ears are closed to God’s Word. Some corners of the Christian faith believe in a prevenient grace, or a general grace with which we’re all born. But that’s simply wishful thinking and a way to minimize our guilt before God. By nature, we are not only deaf to God’s Word, but we stick our fingers in our ears like a petulant child and scream because we don’t want to hear God’s inconvenient truth. It’s much more to our liking if we could live life by our own word, and listen only selectively to the voices that tell us what we most want to hear. St. Paul calls this, “itching ears.”
But the Word of God is no ordinary word. It’s not simply a column of vibrating air that enters our ears. It’s not simply information about God, or inspirational religious verses. The Word of God is carried along by the Spirit of God. That’s the point of Jesus’ little ceremony of spit, finger, and sigh before speaking to the deaf man. It’s sign language to show that it’s the Spirit who is entering the ear and opening it to hear God’s Word.
Lutherans describe this as the internal and external clarity of God’s Word. Any person can hear the words of Scripture and understand what they say. It’s not gobbledygook. The external clarity of the Scriptures mean that they are accessible to anyone; you don’t need a special degree in biblical interpretation, you don’t need to be a part of a special class of people. The Scriptures assert in clear language. If a particular reading is obscure, it is obscure for a reason, and the same thing is said plainly elsewhere.
The internal clarity of the Scriptures, on the other hand, is not something that you just have by opening a Bible. This clarity is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Not only do the words make sense, but the Spirit opens your ears to hear that these words testify to Christ. Without this internal clarity, the best that the Scriptures can ever been is a rule book or a guide for living. It remains dead letters on a page. But the Spirit’s clarity means that the Word of God is living and active, creating and renewing.
This work begins with your ears. Jesus healed the man’s deafness with a word: “Be opened.” It’s the same Word He speaks to you. That Aramaic word, Ephphatha, is wrapped up in each and every absolution that you hear. Because deafness—both physical and spiritual—is a result of sin, Jesus addresses the root cause of the problem. He forgives your sin and thus removes the impediment to both hearing and speaking God’s Word.
There’s a funny thing that happens after Jesus opens the man’s ears and mouth. And immediately his hearing was opened to him, and the binding of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke rightly. And He charged them for His own benefit, that they would tell no one. But the more He was charging them, they all the more were proclaiming. And they were astonished beyond all measure, saying, “He has done all things beautifully; He even makes the deaf to hear and the non-speaking to speak” (vv 35-37).
After giving this man a blessed gift of hearing an speech Jesus says, “Don’t use it.” I’ve never quite figured out why Jesus says this. Is it just not time to speak of these things? Is He using some kind of reverse psychology? Perhaps we should avoid such questions and simply believe that the Word of Christ is powerful and active. Like a child who learns to speak by hearing her parents and others first speak, we learn to speak God’s Word by first hearing God’s Word. His Word not only opens our ears to hear His Word with clarity, by the power of the Holy Spirit, but in hearing His word we also learn to speak. Not just speaking, but speaking rightly.
All of this is God’s Word. He gives a right faith by opening your ears, and He gives you right worship by opening your lips. This is what the Psalmist means when he writes,
O Lord, Open Thou My Lips; and My Mouth Shall Declare Thy Praise
To God alone be the glory.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard