He Makes the Deaf Hear and the Mute Speak

The text for this morning is our Gospel, Mark 7:31-37, which has already been read.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen

Jesus is in the Decapolis, the Ten Cities.  He’s just come from the region of Tyre and Sidon, where He healed the daughter of a faithful, Canaanite woman.  These locations are part of what make these miracle accounts important.  Jesus is healing and preaching to the Gentiles.  He’s not just the Savior of the Jews, but of all people.

Believing the Word they’ve heard about Jesus some people bring a man who is deaf and mute to Jesus that He would heal him.  The loss of any sense is terrible, but this is a dreadful combination.  The man is isolated, unable to hear the sounds of the environment around him, much less those who try to talk to him.  He can’t speak intelligibly, even if he is in dire need of assistance.  Jesus takes the man aside privately.  He puts His fingers in the man’s ears.  He spits, and He touches the man’s tongue.  Then, looking up to heaven, He says to the man, “Ephphatha,” the Aramaic word which means “be opened.”  Just like that, the man’s ears are opened; his tongue is loosed.  He is healed.

There are a few big things we learn about Jesus from this unusual miracle.

First off, the way He does it, teaches that the healing comes from His person.  The miracle comes from Him.  In other words, Jesus doesn’t produce a secret potion or bag of herbs.  He doesn’t wave a magic wand.  He heals the man with Himself—with His own fingers, His own spit, and His own voice.

Second, this miracle gives you a physical demonstration of Jesus’ righteousness and power.  Physical disabilities and illnesses are part of sin’s curse, and you really don’t have to try hard to become disabled or sick.  In fact, I would wage you spend a lot of your waking hours trying to avoid it. 

You make sure you stay in your lane while driving, and keep a sharp eye to make sure that everybody else does, too.  You look both ways before you cross the street.  You wash your hands with soap and water.  You put on sunscreen.  You exercise, watch your diet, and try to get enough rest.  You do all sorts of things to try to stay healthy and whole, because good health doesn’t naturally happen in a sinful world.  Death does, because the wages of sin is death.

Under normal circumstances, you also have to be careful to take care of your senses.  It’s very good advice not to put anything in your ears.  In fact, outside of toddlers and their fascination with small objects, the only time people usually put things in their ears is to keep from hearing the outside world—to block out noise with ear plugs, ear buds, or their own fingers.  Putting stuff in your ears tends to hurt them and keep you from hearing—that’s the way things go in a sinful world. 

But what happens when Jesus puts His fingers in the man’s ears?  The opposite happens.  Jesus’ fingers don’t add to the man’s deafness; instead, they cause the man to hear.  Why?  Because these fingers aren’t normal, sinful, dying flesh like those of everybody else around.  These fingers are the sinless flesh of the righteous Son of God.  God, who created all things to be good, touches the man to give him healing, to open his ears.  

Under normal circumstances, ever since the Fall into sin of Adam and Eve, sickness trumps health.  You don’t have to be a medical professional to know that if you put a sick person and a healthy person in the same room, the one who’s sick isn’t going to catch the other’s health.  It you have a sterile surgical room at the hospital and release a bunch of germs inside, the sterility doesn’t kill the germs—the germs destroy the sterile condition.  That’s how it goes in a sinful, dying world. 

In such a world, then, it is good advice not to go around letting strangers put their saliva in your mouth.  Human saliva is not known for its purity or cleanliness, but contains a host of germs.  Saliva has a lot of potential to make you quite ill.

But Jesus is not just another sinful human being.  He’s the righteous Son of God.  He puts His saliva on the man’s tongue—and He heals him!  He causes him to speak.  This is what the Son of God does.  He comes to reverse the curse brought by the first Adam and the fall into sin.  Sin brings deafness, so Jesus takes it away.  Sin brings darkness, so Jesus makes blind eyes see. 

This leads us to our third point about this miracle: it’s a fulfillment of prophecy, as you heard in our Old Testament lesson.  When the long-promised Messiah came, He would confirm His calling by performing miracles like these: “In that day the deaf shall hear… the eyes of the blind shall see.”  So as Jesus performs these miracles, He’s establishing His credentials.  He’s proving Himself to be the long-awaited Savior.  But those aren’t the only prophecies He fulfills.  There are others, including Isaiah 53:5: “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities… with His stripes we are healed.”  Being the Messiah is not all about the happy days of healing: it is most of all about the cross. 

Jesus isn’t staying in the region of the Decapolis, but He’s gradually making His way to a hill outside Jerusalem called Calvary.  On His way, He bears the sins of the world.  He bears the world’s infirmities, too.  He takes the man’s deafness and muteness away, and takes it on Himself.  It is part of the heavy load that He carries as the Redeemer.  On the cross, He fulfills the prophecy and is wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and we are healed by His stripes. 

This is likely why Jesus tells the crowds to be quiet about this healing: they don’t have the full story yet.  They know about the miracles, but not about the cross.  Telling the half-story is likely to lead people astray.  It’s going to give them the wrong impression.  If they think that the Savior is all about—and only about— working miracles and healings, they’re going to look at Him on the cross and say, “That doesn’t fit—I guess He wasn’t the Savior after all.”  But the cross is Jesus’ victory over sin and death.  His resurrection is not only proof of all He claims, but is His greatest miracle. 

One who is able to raise Himself to life will certainly heal you as well.  In fact, this is your hope because the same Jesus who healed the deaf-mute man and rose from the dead is your Savior, too.  Do not forget the reasons for Jesus’ miracles: as we already mentioned, one reason was to establish His credentials, to fulfill prophecy, and prove He was the Savior.  But there is another reason: it was to give you a foretaste of what lies ahead.  In other words, the Lord will heal you of all your diseases and infirmities—on the Last Day, if not before.

You and I are especially attracted to instant miracles, when and where we want them to happen, so a word of caution is appropriate.  The Lord works according to His holy will and wisdom; and His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways.  When Isaiah declared, “In that day the deaf shall hear … the eyes of the blind shall see,” that day was still a long way away.  But it did come to pass.  The delay did not mean that God was unfaithful: He kept His promise.  Likewise, the man in our Gospel lesson was not healed the same day he became deaf and mute.  For all we know, he had been born that way.  He had a long wait, and difficult life, before Jesus healed Him.  But Jesus did heal him.

The Lord heals in His time, according to His plan.  This is important, because some have looked at the miracles of the New Testament and said, “As soon as people came to Jesus for healing, He healed them.  Therefore, if you come to Jesus in prayer for healing, He will heal you right away; and if He doesn’t, you must not have enough faith.”

This is simply false; it is a lie that slanders God and endangers faith.  The Lord doesn’t promise to heal you when you want, but when He wills for your good.  That may be in this life.  It may be on the Last Day, when you are raised from the dead.  But it will happen, for Jesus has died to make it so.  He has borne all your sicknesses and infirmities to the cross to make it so.  He has also borne your sins to the cross, that you might have faith and life in Him. 

Healing and forgiveness are both miracles brought about by the cross, and this is another reason to rejoice in our Gospel lesson.  Even if you were born with fully functional ears and tongue, you were still born deaf and mute before God.  You were born in sin.  You were born unable to hear His Word and keep it.  You were born unable to sing and speak His praise.

This is what David is getting at in Psalm 51 when he cries out the words we just sang to begin Matins: “O Lord, open my lips; and my mouth shall declare Your praise.”  David wasn’t mourning the loss of hearing and speech: he was grieving his sin.  He’d committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed.  He’d done great damage to his faith; and if he was to recover, it would have to be the Lord’s doing. 

The Lord would have to grant forgiveness—which He did.  God used the mouth of Nathan the prophet to say, “The Lord has taken away your sin.”  In other words, “Be forgiven.”  In other words, to David’s mouth, “Ephphatha: be opened.”

The Lord has done the same to you.  In the waters of Holy Baptism, He cleaned out your ears with His Word.  He gave you faith—ears to hear His Word.  By opening your ears, He also opened your mouth: for by giving you faith, He gave you the joy of declaring His praise. 

Now, here’s the part that most people don’t think about: This forgiveness—this healing from sin—is a far greater miracle than the one in our text.  If you are forgiven, you have the promise of eternal healing.  But if you are healthy in body but have no faith, only death and destruction await.

No wonder this text was taken up by the Church in the ancient baptismal liturgies.  Before entering the church, the pastor would take the candidate for baptism, baby or adult, touch his finger to his tongue and then his finger to the candidate’s ear and quote Jesus’ words.  Here’s how it says it in Luther’s Order of Baptism from 1523: “Then the priest shall take spittle with his finger, touch the right ear and therewith say: Ephphatha, that is, Be thou opened.”

Both Jesus’ healing of the deaf-mute and the ancient rite of baptism sound strange, don’t they?  But they remind us of an important point: The Lord uses means, physical elements, to do His work.

In the Old Testament, He uses the blood of the slaughtered lamb, spread over the doorposts, to save the children of Israel from the angel of death.  He uses Moses’ rod, lifted over the water, to part the Red Sea and make a path of dry ground for His Church to walk through.  He uses the pillar of cloud and fire to lead His people through the wilderness.  He uses the bronze serpent, lifted up on a pole by Moses, to heal the people.  He uses a coal, taken from the incense, to purge Isaiah’s sin.  He uses the humble Jordan River to wash away Naaman’s leprosy.  In the New Testament, He uses spit or mud or a well or the hem of His garment or His touch to do the work of healing. 

This is how the Lord chooses to deliver His gifts, His healing, His salvation—through means.  And it is no different today.  The same Lord, who speaks to the deaf-mute and heals him, also speaks His healing, life-giving Word to you.  In Baptism, the same Lord, who puts His fingers in that man’s ears and touches his tongue, uses the simple means of water connected to His Word to bring you forgiveness and make you His child.  In simple bread and wine, Christ gives you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and to strengthen your faith.  Salvation is yours because of Jesus’ person and work—because He consented to have His blood shed and His body nailed to the cross for you; and because He still works to deliver His Word, body, and blood to you now.  

Through each of these means of grace, the Savior is with you.  He speaks to open your ears.  He speaks so that you might repeat His promises.  He does so even now as He speaks His “Ephphatha” to you and opens the gates of heaven with this Good News: “I forgive you for all of your sins.”  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

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