In September 2012 in his Sunday address titled Ephphatha Pope Benedict XVI said this one word sums up the mission of Jesus Christ. That can be a misstatement, understatement, or restatement.
Ephphatha is heard as a misstatement when instead of hearing "be opened," it's heard as "be open." This is has been the world's slogan for at least 25 years. Be open to the new, the different, the better. Be open, and they love to say this, to whatever gets you outside of your comfort zone. And this can be a good thing. Bigger minds are open to new experiences, new ideas, a new way of looking at things. Many great inventions happened because someone looked at an old problem in a new way.
But understanding Ephphatha as "be open to new ideas" has it limits Biblically speaking. I first heard this in the 90s but I think the up and coming generation always says some form of it. "Hey it's the 90s." Hey it's the 90's; you gotta be open to the fact couples are going to live together before marriage. Hey it's the 90's; every teen is having sex before marriage. And now it's "hey it's the 21st century," and we are told by the government that we must be open to not just homosexuality, not just gay marriage, but to men who think they're women and women who want to be men.
If you lived in pre-Civil War America, the government expected you to be open to the idea that blacks weren't people. If you lived in 1940s Germany, that government expected you to be open to the idea that Jews weren't people. If you've lived in post-1973 America the government has expected you to be open to the idea that unborn babies aren't people. And in order to do any of these, you have to be open to new theology. One where the Word of God doesn't dictate what is right and wrong but the words of men or popular opinion does.
No, hearing Ephphatha as a command to be open to all that is new, better, different is making it a misstatement. It can also be an understatement. This is a great miracle. The man in the text was cut off from society. No words from them got to him, and done of his words got to them. The closest most of us will get to this is if we find ourselves in a foreign country where no one speaks English and we have no electronic device to translate.
If that happens, it's a passing condition. This man was locked in for life. He was in a pitiable state and his neighbors had pity on him. People from this mostly Gentile area where Jesus had earlier healed a demon possessed man and then sent him out to spread the Gospel brought the deaf and mute man to Jesus. And "they begged Him." This is strong word to use of prayer. I wonder; how many of us have ever begged in prayer? They did. All they ask is that Jesus place His hand on him. They don't even ask Jesus to heal him.
Jesus doesn't just place His hand on Him. He could have. He healed others with a touch, others with just a word. But this man He takes away from the others. You might say the One who bought him takes him away from those who brought him. Jesus does more than place a hand on him. He sticks his fingers in his ears, spits and touches his tongue, and with a deep sigh so that this man who could at least see sees Jesus chest heave, and if he was in close contact he would have felt Jesus' sigh. This Guy was on his side.
Then Jesus said Ephphatha! Be opened! Jesus speaks to the deaf and they hear. Jesus speaks to the mute and they speak. The way in and the way out are now open. But it is an understatement if you think this says it all. Don't get me wrong. It says at lot; it probably says all that the people wanted Jesus to do for the man. If so Pastor George Kraus wasted his life.
Pastor Kraus taught at the seminary when I was there. He had spent 40 years ministering to the deaf. I heard him preach this text in a seminary chapel service. It was wonderful. He walked you through Jesus' actions, His sighing, and the moment of Ephphatha! But you know Pastor Kraus never saw that happen. He spent a lifetime ministering to the deaf, yet he saw not one healed. Not one in 40 years. Yet he went on ministering to the deaf, and that was a waste unless there is something more important than physically opening a man's ears and mouth. There is, and the title of Pastors Kraus sermon tells us what: "He has done all things well."
That title focuses us on Jesus, but it takes us back to the Garden. "He has done all things well" is close to what the Lord declares after completing creation. "Behold it was very good." Now the Lord who created the earth good is waking an earth where nothing is good, nothing is holy, nothing is right. He is walking the earth where men are deaf and mute. He is walking an earth where legions of demons were at work. He is walking the earth where Death rides a horse and hell rides with him. So if the only good He does is to restore hearing and speaking so a person can hear demonic threats and speak demonic lies is that enough? Pastor Kraus wasn't in ministry to the deaf in order to impart hearing but to impart salvation. So Jesus in our text. So Jesus in your life.
Though most of us hear and speak just fine sin closes our ears to the Word of God. The words of men we hear just fine. We all know what we are suppose to say, think, and do about abortion a tragic choice; let's make them rare and safe. About homosexuality being attracted to the same sex is normal and no different than being attracted to the opposite; it's hardhearted to not let gays marry and narrow-minded to say it is sinful. We all know what we are to hear and speak about evolution being a fact, about everyone who dies going to heaven, about all religions being equal.
The world now literally floods our eyes, ears, and minds with their truth. We are not blind or deaf to that, and their truth is natural to us. It's what all fallen people naturally believe. That's why we have no hope unless Jesus reaches out to us. Unless He has compassion on us. Unless He opens our ears to hear the truth our tongues will be bound to chant the same mantras of the fallen word and not loosed to sing the praises of the Him who bought us.
How does, how can Jesus open our ears to the truth and our mouths to praise? First throw out your understanding of God as Cosmic Santa Clause who can "ho, ho, ho" your sins away. See that God could no more do that than you tearing up a mortgage makes it so you don't owe the money. God can no more laugh your sins away than you would laugh away the crimes of a criminal against a loved one. The loan illustration shows you that this is a legal matter that can't be dismissed on a whim. The criminal illustration shows it's personal wrath and it must be satisfied.
Sinful men couldn't be touched by the Gospel unless a Man paid off our soul's debt which gave Satan the right to own us. He claimed us using God's own Law that the sinful soul must die and die eternally. And God's wrath against sinners is as real as your wrath against any dog that bit your hand while feeding it. You and I don't laugh away betrayal, lies, insults, yet somehow we think the Holy God should laugh ours away.
He doesn't. He didn't. He won't. He sent His only beloved Son into our flesh and blood. He came as one whose ears were opened and whose mouth sang the Father's praises. Unlike us He never skipped an opportunity to hear God's word. Unlike us He didn't give more credence to what men say than what God does. But Jesus who heard every Word of God was treated as one deaf to it. Isaiah 42:19 predicts that saying, "Who is so deaf as the Messenger I send?" So Jesus was treated as we deserve to be, as one whose ears were closed to God's Word, and who had wronged, insulted, betrayed, and bit the hand that fed Him.
Your ears will be deaf to the Word that says Jesus bore your sin and guilt if you think of sin but lightly and imagine your guilt not great. Your ears will be closed to the Good News that Jesus satisfied God's wrath against your sins if you don't think God has any reason to be angry at you. Likewise, your mouth won't be open to praising Him if you think you have only got what you deserve or worse that you deserve more. I deserve more than my ears opened to the Gospel and my mouth singing His praise. I deserve health, healing, happiness, and more.
If the glorious Gospel has opened your ears, than this text tells you that in the Man Jesus heaven sighs with you. Jesus didn't just deeply sigh; He looked up to heaven while doing so. Heaven that can be so dark and foreboding; heaven that can appear not to care when you're hurt, lonely, scared, or dying, never ceases to groan and sigh for you in Jesus.
But what does He do it about it? I ask this not as a challenge but as a child. Jesus shows in this text that His spit is miraculous. Go ahead read the debate; did Jesus just spit in the air or did He spit on His finger and touch the tongue? Well to heal a blind man Jesus mixed His spit with dirt to put on the man's eyes. If Jesus' spit is that powerful, what can't His Body and Blood given to you here do?
The Church has historically gone with this text where Pastor Kraus did. Very early, the 3rd century, the Church had the right of Ephphatha (Baptism in the Early Church, 890). Those to be baptized were handled just as Jesus did this man. The fingers, the spit, the touching of ears and tongue saying, "Ephphatha!" Luther retained these things in his 1523 baptismal rite and removed them in his 1526. Keeping them helps put Ephphatha in perspective so that we neither miss hear it or hear it as primarily about physical health. No, it's a restatement of God's original creation: He created us with our ears open to His Word and our mouths open to His praise, and Jesus recreates us that way. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20150913); Mark 7: 31-37