Listen to the Music
The Introit tells us, “It is good to praise the Lord and to Make music to Your name.” In 1972 the Doobie Brothers admonished us to “Listen to the Music.” While I don’t want rock and roll in church, I can’t help but hear it when I’m listening to the music made in Jesus’ name by this text.
I start out hearing “Jesus is Just Alright.” That was written in 1965 and then “alright” was saying something was very cool, a good, positive, comment. But by the time the Doobie Brothers recorded it in the 70s, that’s not how I heard it. I thought they were singing Jesus was just ‘meh’ to them. That’s the attitude I find toward Jesus expressed by the people of the Decapolis. They carry to Jesus a man who is incommunicado. He is deaf and anywhere from unable to speak to tongue-tied by a speech impediment. And the people of this non-Jewish league of 10 cities begged Jesus to place His hand on him.
The Decapolis was formed about 100 years before when the Romans invaded the land. It was alliance of 10 cities formed for common trade interests. History knows all about this place, but what’s more important is that this place knew a lot about Jesus. Two chapters earlier we read: “And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis what great things Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.” Who’s the he? The healed Gerasene demoniac. The guy with a legion of demons in him. The guy who lived among the tombs and had superhuman strength, like Hulk, so that even chains couldn’t hold him. The guy Jesus cast about 2,000 demons from and sent them into pigs who, driven by the demons, rushed down hill and drowned themselves. In that account, the healed man ‘begged’ same word used here, Jesus to take him along. But the people of the Decapolis begged, same word, Jesus “to leave their region.” Jesus does go, but leaves the healed demoniac behind as a witness to all the Decapolis.
They know all about Jesus’ power, particularly the power of His Word. He had freed the demoniac by just words. Here, however, they carry this guy to Jesus and ask for Jesus to place His hand on him. They had wanted Jesus to leave this area, but He’s back. They know He has some sort of power, and He has compassion for people no one else can help. As they begged Him to leave, now they beg Him to help. Jesus is just alright with them and with me too. I want Jesus around some times, don’t you? But sometimes I don’t. He’s alright if He’s answering my prayers, protecting my life, and doing what I expect Him to do. But when He doesn’t do what I want or expect, well that’s not alright. Yes, I expect that on the Last Day Jesus will say, “Well, done” to me for having finished my course in the Faith, but all I can manage now in the face of political, societal, and medical upheavals is to tell Jesus, “You’re alright.”
But then I hear another song coming from this text: “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I hear the swelling grandeur; I see Jesus at last appearing to the crowd as He really is. He does everything beautifully. He does the impossible of making the deaf hear and the mute speak. I remember seeing a live performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar”, and it came close to making me what they called then “A Jesus Freak.” Today it would be called the Emergent Church, certain flavors of Nondenominational, or Charismatic. All of these have “Jesus Christ Superstar” as their theme song. Jesus’ power and glory are front and center. Contrast this with Graham Greene’s 1940 novel The Power and The Glory. The novel is set in 1920’s Mexico during the persecution of Catholicism. A priest travels the countryside with his Communion kit. He’s revered by the peasants for having the almighty God who is much more than just alright, in that box. Really? It looks like nothing more than Bread and Wine not at all like Jesus Christ Superstar.
And it’s the Superstar Jesus who is for me and for the people of the Decapolis evidently. Jesus had specifically charged the healed-demoniac to tell what the Lord did for him and how he had mercied him. Look what the people blown away by Jesus Christ Superstar are told. They are commanded not to tell anyone but they tell everyone. And it’s not comical that “The more Jesus commanded them not to the more they kept talking about it.” It’s not funny when the more you tell your child not to do something, the more they do it. You don’t laugh, do you? Neither does Jesus. And note they don’t mention the Lord or His mercy, just what Jesus did.
Easter is always a bigger Sunday than the First Sunday in Lent. Oh Ash Wednesday might be a big day, but 40 days of focusing on Jesus of the cross and why He was a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief is a little much. People will listen, even today, how Jesus opened the mouths of the mute and the ears of the deaf, but they don’t want to hear or speak of how in our sins and sinfulness we are blind, dead, enemies of God. We don’t want to hear the truth about our sins or speak the truth about what it took to redeem us lost and condemned creatures. God the Son taking on our flesh and blood to do Jesus Christ Superstar things is cool, but Him taking on our flesh and blood so that He might take our place under God’s Law and suffer, sigh, bleed, and die because we break those laws is just too much of a downer what with all the bad news of today.
So, I start out hearing “Jesus is Just Alright with Me” and get swept up in “Jesus Christ Superstar” but then I get to Petula Clark’s “A Sign of the Times.” At seminary, the professor in charge of ministry to the deaf preached on this text, and I still remember it. Actually, not so much what he said, but how Jesus demonstrated to this man who could not hear who He, Jesus was, and what He would do. That’s right: by means of signs Jesus conveyed His Person and Work.
Jesus takes the man away from the crowd. He puts His fingers in both ears. Then Jesus spits and touches His tongue or spits and tongues the man’s tongue with His spit. Commentators go both ways. Grammar tells us this isn’t important. “Spiting” is a participle. “Touch” is the main verb. “Looking up into the heaven” is also a participle. The sigh, the groan is the main verb here. Stenaz? is what Paul says in Rom. 8 we do while waiting for our adoption as sons to go through. In 1 Cor. 5 stenaz? is what we do in this old tent as we are waiting for it to be taken down and our mortal coil to be swallowed up by immortality. And stenaz? is what Heb. 13 says you don’t want your pastor do as he gives an account of your soul. But you do want to hear Jesus stenaz? for you as He did this deaf and mute man.
However, it’s bigger than Jesus, isn’t it? Jesus, gives A Sign of the Times to this man who can’t be instructed with words. Jesus gives a sign that all of heaven in His Person groans with him over his infirmities. The professor thought Jesus had pulled the man in close so he who couldn’t have heard him groan could feel it. I’ve told of sitting on the lap of my 1st grade teacher in Lutheran School. When the PA announced that President Kennedy had been assassinated, I didn’t understand that, but I did understand that my teacher’s body heaved and when I looked at her face I saw a tear run down her cheek. And this man after Jesus touched His ears and tongue, after He spit and looked to heaven, could know by that felt groan that God in heaven through the Man Jesus groaned with him.
Think this too much? Hear 4th century Ephrem the Syrian. “The power which may not be handled came down and clothed itself in members that may be touched: that the needy may draw near to Him, that in touching His manhood they may discern His Godhead. For the dumb man whom the Lord healed…discerned that…he touched Godhead, that may not be touched (Homily of Our Lord, 10). We’re not to wonder what the invisible God thinks about what is going on in our world. We don’t want to stare at the Light unapproachable and draw conclusions from that blinding glare. We don’t want to seek our warmth or comfort from the God who is a consuming fire as if He were a campfire or hearth. Since no man has seen God at anytime, we turn to the only begotten God in the lap of the Father who explains Him, who puts the language of divinity into the words of humanity, who opens our human ears to hear divine things.
You want signs for these times? The Man Jesus gives you them. He says He has compassion for sheep without shepherds. He says when you’re perplexed by what the invisible God is or isn’t doing in this fallen world, you can look to Him. Hear Him weeping over those who reject Him. Hear that He is unwillingly to snuff even smoldering faith. Hear that He doesn’t lift His voice in the streets. Hear that He opens ears to hear impossible things. In our text, the fingers in the ears, on the tongue, the spitting, the looking to heaven, and even the groan, we’re not the miracle. The word, Ephphatha, be opened, was. That’s Aramaic. This was the man’s own language. He hears it. That’s impossible you know. He’s deaf. But just as Lazarus dead to the world hears Jesus bellow, “Lazarus come forth,” so the deaf man hears the Word of Jesus because it has power to do what it says.
And you hear Words of Jesus too. You come here burdened with sin and sinfulness, staggering under loads too big to carry or even know, and Jesus speaks forgiveness and your sins are sent away before God in heaven by a Word spoken on earth. You come here sweaty and grimy with life in a fallen world. And the water and blood that flowed from Jesus’ side 2000 years ago is there in that Baptismal Font for sinners to plunge into and lose all their guilty stains. And talk about Words doing the impossible. Jesus brings heaven to earth in His body and blood in Communion. Here all that Jesus did for sinners when He walked the earth, He does for you. In this Meal He groans for you, heals, forgives, and saves you. No wonder we sing before, during, and after this Meal. Listen to that music. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20210912); Mark 7:31-37