The following sermon was preached by Dr Thomas Winger in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the first divine service of the 2022-23 academic year.
Tuesday after 12 Trinity 2022 – Mark 7:31-37
Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ: This coming Sunday afternoon I will formally announce the opening of this seminary’s 47th academic year. When I was appointed Acting President in 2008, Dr Stephenson handed down to me the traditional formula with its invocation of the holy Triune Name. For fourteen years I’ve pronounced it at the close of my sermon; and since I’m not preaching this Sunday, today’s Eucharist is an opportunity for me to inaugurate the year. I’m tempted to borrow the words of Jesus from our text and simply say, “Ephphatha, be opened!”, but that would be more than a little blasphemous. Nonetheless, I’m struck by how appropriate this Gospel story is—for it’s not the opening of doors that will make this year fruitful, but rather the opening of ears and eyes and minds and then, in the right order, mouths.
Jesus’ healing of the poor man from his deafness and inability to speak clearly was more than just a medical procedure emerging from the great compassion of His tender heart—though it certainly was at least that. Yes, He healed because He loved. He was able to heal because He was the Creator. His spitting and touching of ears and tongue evokes God’s down and dirty work in creation when He moulded a man from clay and then stuck His fingers into the man’s side to draw out his wife. I wonder if God even had spat on the ground to make that muddy man in the first place. It’s the same Creator God who now comes as the divine healer to restore His broken handiwork. And as the news of His miracles spread throughout Galilee, Jesus was inundated with cries for help from His broken people. But the singular description of the healing of this particular deaf man (together with the parallel healing of a blind man in the next chapter) suggests far more is going on than just a medical mission.
In our OT reading, Isaiah, the Fifth Evangelist, gives us that “far more”. It was a prophetic message addressed to a people smug and content in their mountain fortress, the seemingly unassailable Jerusalem, who believed God was bound always to protect them from their enemies because they had the Temple and made the required sacrifices. But despite these outward actions, their hearts were far from God. These were the people of whom God said, when He sent the prophet to them:
9 Go, and say to this people: “ ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Is. 6:9-10)
They weren’t listening to God when He called them to repent. And so, ironically, the prophet was sent to increase their deafness and blindness and hardness of heart until Jerusalem could be destroyed and the people scattered and the way made clear for a new city to be raised up with a new and faithful people. Isaiah was doomed to preach a message they wouldn’t hear and to write a book they wouldn’t read; his prophecies would be rolled up and sealed until the day when the people were ready (Is. 29:11-12). And now, as Jesus said at the synagogue at Capernaum, that day had finally come. And so when He opened the man’s ears and loosened His tongue He wasn’t just healing his body; He was opening the scroll of Isaiah and fulfilling its prophecy, restoring the ears of this man to hear its message, words that were calling him to the promised Messiah.
Jesus’ healing of the deaf man in Mark 7 and of the blind man in Mark 8 were fulfilments of Isaiah’s prophecy, which we heard this morning: “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book [the prophet’s book, that is], and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see” (Is. 29:18). But though this fulfilment “proved” that the Messiah had truly come, it wasn’t just an arbitrary miracle. It was a sign. In John’s Gospel that’s a way of describing a miracle that points to something beyond itself. And I’m reminded of the way John in his ninth chapter understood the healing of the blind man as a symbolic act. Even the blind man himself figured it out. While he was blind, he could see that Jesus was the Messiah. But the Pharisees who excommunicated him, though they could see with their physical eyes, remained in spiritual darkness. So also here in Mark 7 this deaf man has been separated from the Pharisees, who earlier in the chapter had sparred with Jesus over their rules about kosher foods and cleansing rituals. Jesus accused them of being “deaf” to God’s Word over which they exalted their manmade traditions. Though listening, they did not hear or understand. But this faithful deaf man was focussed intently on the Word of God incarnate, who opened his ears to listen to His verbal gifts and loosed his tongue so he could pray for them.
There’s an irony in the word “Pharisee”, which means something like “separated one”. They thought they could separate themselves from the unholy masses, but instead they ended up separated from the Holy God. And so before healing the deaf man, Jesus first needed to separate him from them; He took the man aside to Himself, not just for privacy, but to begin forming a new people of God, who would occupy the new city Isaiah foretold long ago. It’s vitally important that Jesus healed the man with the Word of His mouth, not by some magic trick—and it was, of course, the same Word that his ears were opened to hear. But by also spitting on His own fingers, plunging them into the man’s ears and grasping his tongue, Jesus accompanied that Word with a holy anointing, a cleansing, like the blood and oil with which the priest anointed the leper’s earlobe to cleanse and restore him to God’s people (Leviticus 14)—and, of course, like the water of Baptism which accompanied the Word in making you and me His holy children.
It’s intriguing that Mark retains the Aramaic word Jesus used in this ritual act, Ephphathah, giving it special significance in the story. Many of the early baptismal rites took up that word of our Lord and repeated it in the preparatory rites of Baptism. The pastor says to the child, “be opened!” That ritual was declaring that what happened to the deaf man was now happening also to the baptised, that what Jesus said to him He says also to us. The water of Baptism is the spittle of Jesus’ mouth that comes with His promise to make us His children, to separate us from the uncleanness of the world, and, crucially, to open our ears to hear. For Baptism isn’t just the end of an old life, but also the beginning of a new one, one that’s continuously open to hearing Christ’s Word. And then that Word opens our mouths to speak it back to Him, as we sing in Matins with Psalm 51, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise.”
Dare I therefore say to you on this first day of a new year, in this place that’s devoted to Christ’s Word: “Ephphathah!, be opened!” Don’t be deaf and hardened against what God wants to say to you about your sin, your unfaith, your unrighteousness, laziness, self-reliance, or self-satisfaction. But open your heart to His Word of wisdom, so that you can know yourself as He knows you, and so you can learn to know Him as He has revealed Himself in Christ. And so start the year by praying, “Lord, open now my heart to hear, And through Your Word to me draw near; Let me Your Word e’er pure retain; Let me Your child and heir remain” (LSB 908:1). Amen.