✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
It is a terrible thing not being able to hear. Perhaps you’ve been in a restaurant eating with a large group of people. A spirited conversation is going on at the other end of the table, and you want to know what’s going on, but you can’t hear; you’re cut off. Or perhaps your hearing is failing from age or other problems. Even normal conversations are strained. You’re tired of asking people to repeat themselves or guessing at what they just said. You can imagine, then, the isolation that someone might feel who is completely deaf, especially if he was living in Jesus’ day–no closed captioning or anything like that. This man in the Gospel was feeling the damaging effects of the fall in his body in a very real way. He couldn’t hear properly; and so he couldn’t speak properly either.
Jesus had just come from the region of Tyre and Sidon, where he had cast out a demon from a young girl. Now He again comes face to face with someone who has been attacked by the devil. For this is Satan’s goal: to disrupt and tear down the lives of those created in the image of God, to cause people trouble in both soul and body. He does this in an attempt to turn our hearts away from the Lord.
It is not wrong to see the working of the devil in your physical troubles. For wasn’t it through Satan’s temptations that sin entered the world, bringing with it sickness and pain and death itself? Doesn’t Satan still seek to bring destruction and heartache, especially to the people of God? That is why St. Paul refers to his “thorn in the flesh,” his bodily ailment, as “a messenger of Satan to buffet me.” Likewise, the Old Testament reading connects deafness and blindness and poverty to the work of “the terrible one” and “the scornful one,” namely, the devil.
Nevertheless, the Lord uses even Satan’s destructive schemes to accomplish His own righteous purposes. The Apostle Paul spoke of how although God wouldn’t take away his physical troubles, He taught Paul through those troubles to trust entirely in His grace and His power in Christ. In this way the devil’s onslaughts are turned upside down so that they cause us to cling even more tightly to the Lord’s promised salvation.
You’ve probably experienced this in your own life. Isn’t it true that you often turn to God most eagerly and pray to Him most passionately in difficult times–like when you’re facing financial or relationship difficulties, or in the midst of illness or bodily pain? And so even through those bad things the devil, the destroyer, is turned against himself. No matter what the devil does, God works it for good to those who believe in Jesus. For though we may be weak of ourselves, yet we are made to be strong in the Lord. Our trust is then directed ever more completely to God’s strength and mercy. When Satan buffets us, the Holy Spirit draws us to pray in faith the words of the Psalm, “Make haste, O God, to deliver me! Make haste to help me, O Lord!”
However, we cannot pray in this way unless the Lord first opens our ears and unlooses our tongue. For like the man in the Gospel we are by nature deaf and mute towards God. Being bound by Satan even from birth, our ears are closed off and calloused towards God. We’re tuned out. We prefer to listen to other more entertaining voices or voices that promise more immediate help and success. We don’t naturally grasp God’s Word. I Corinthians 2 says, “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them.”
The impediment in our hearing also causes an impediment in our talking, our praying. It’s sort of like trying to have a conversation with headphones on and music playing. If someone tries to talk to you, the noise keeps you from hearing them. And if you try to speak back to them, your speech is liable to be slurred and funny sounding because you can’t really hear yourself. You talk too loudly. That’s also how it is in our relationship with God. The noise of the world and of our own fallen nature keeps us from hearing Him speak and grasping His words. And our speech back to Him, if there is any, is just loud gobbledygook, slurred and turned inward by sin. In a very real way, we are just like the deaf-mute in today’s Gospel.
The people bring this man to Jesus and beg Him to put His hand on him. Immediately, Jesus takes the man aside from the multitude, away from the familiarity and the security of his friends and the people he knew. The deaf-mute’s attention, his trust was to be entirely focused on Jesus now. So it is with you. When Jesus deals with you, he calls you to find your security not ultimately in the familiar people or things in this world, but only in Him. For you have been taken aside from the multitude to be His own.
Jesus also does this away from the crowd because this wasn’t for show. He wasn’t making sure this was videotaped so that it could be uploaded to YouTube and Facebook and go viral or maybe get on the news. He was completely there for the deaf-mute, one on one, just as He is for you in the Word and Sacraments.
Jesus uses a bit of sign language. He puts His fingers right into the deaf man’s ears. And then He spits and touches his tongue. Jesus is hands-on. He isn’t above lowering Himself to the point of making contact with this man’s ailment. He literally touches the deaf mute’s problem as if to draw it out of him and absorb it into Himself. When Jesus touched this man, God Himself was touching him. Those were divine fingers in His ears. For Jesus is God in the flesh, who came for this very purpose of sharing in our humanity and taking into Himself all that holds us in bondage so that He might destroy it and the devil forever. Jesus wore our chains so that He might break them once and for all at Calvary. Spitting and grabbing tongues and sticking fingers in ears doesn’t sound very spiritual, or even sanitary. But that’s the earthy, ordinary way in which Jesus deals with us fallen human beings in order to save and restore us.
Jesus looks up to His Father heaven. Then Jesus sighs and says to the deaf mute, “Ephphatha,” “Be opened, Be released.” Immediately his ears are opened and the impediment of his tongue is loosed, and he speaks plainly. Jesus was not simply speaking to the man’s ears and tongue but to his whole person,”Be released!” Jesus here is freeing this man from his bondage to Satan. Jesus’ miracle is more than just evidence of his power over bodily ailments; it is evidence of His triumph over the devil. Jesus’ words shatter the chains by which the evil one holds his victim bound.
But of course, like any battle, that victory doesn’t come without a cost. As Jesus is about to speak, He sighs, He groans. Our Lord does this because He is making our pain and loneliness and troubles and sin His own. He groaned and cried out for us on the cross. The cost of our healing is His death. But through that death Jesus is not defeated but victorious. For in so doing He takes away the sin that gives Satan his power. Jesus overcame all that makes us sigh and groan in this fallen world and put it to death. And by rising bodily from the grave, He restored the bodies of all the faithful to life that is whole and immortal and imperishable–no more deafness (or even hearing aids), no more blindness and disease and death. That resurrection life will be revealed to us and to the whole creation when Christ returns on the Last Day. Isaiah prophesied of this when he said, “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity and out of darkness. The humble also shall increase their joy in the Lord, and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. For the terrible one is brought to nothing, the scornful one is consumed.”
All thanks and praise be to God, then, that He has sent His Son Jesus to open our ears and unloose our tongues, that we may believe in Him with our hearts and confess the faith with our mouths and be saved. Jesus still sticks His fingers in your ears. He really does! For in the Scriptures the term “finger of God” is a reference to the Holy Spirit. Therefore, when Christ preaches and teaches His words to you, the finger of God is being put into your ears, the Holy Spirit is coming to you to open your ears and your hearts and your minds, that you may believe in Christ and receive His life and salvation. The Epistle says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”
And Jesus still spits and grabs your tongue, too, in the Sacraments. After all, what is baptism but water and words from the mouth of God? This divine water and words are applied to you at the font to rescue you from your bondage to the evil one and to set you free as a child of God. When you were baptized, Jesus said His “Ephphatha” to you. “Be opened, be released.” You were marked with the sign of the holy cross by which Jesus destroyed the devil’s work and broke the chains of hell for you. Released and liberated, the body and blood of Christ are now placed on your tongue for the forgiveness of your sins and that you may endure in the faith to the end.
Let us then give praise to God, knowing and believing that whatever ailments the devil might yet inflict us with, he can do us no real or lasting harm. For our bodies, together with our souls, have been redeemed through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus is Lord over death and the devil, and therefore all those who are baptized into Him will be fully restored in the resurrection of the body on the Last Day. Some of you have seen those videos of people having their hearing restored with cochlear implants. If there is great and tearful joy in that, just consider the rejoicing that will occur for those who are in Christ in the resurrection of our bodies! It’s hard to even imagine. So even when it seems like age or heart disease or cancer are getting the best of you, even as you take your last breath, you are given to say confidently with St. Paul in Philippians 3, “Christ Jesus will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body by the power the enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.”
Truly, Christ has done all things well. Even in this place He has made the deaf to hear and the mute to speak. Trust in Him to do all things well for you.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠