15th Sunday after Pentecost
The man was all ears…but he could hear nothing! Jesus said to him, Ephphatha! (that is, “Be opened!”) If the man was deaf…to whom was Jesus speaking?
It is the miracle of the Word of God. The miracle is not so much that a deaf man became a hearing man. Modern medicine can make that happen. The miracle is that Jesus spoke and it happened! Ephphatha! And it was so!
The irony in this miracle is that, like Pandora’s box, once Jesus opens this man’s ears and looses his tongue, He can’t get the bunch of them to shut up! Mark notes, Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more He charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. It is as though once Jesus had said “ephphatha” He couldn’t say “‘azur.” He opened and no one, not even He, could close!
And out of Pandora’s mouth comes words, words, words, words. We get all the talking heads on television—news, entertainment, and the unreality of reality programming. Speeches at political conventions piling up noisy words (followed by more words from all the rival “fact checkers”). Lectures droning hot air into a classrooms. Words, words, words. And in sheer self-defense…we go deaf. ‘azur Shut-up! Zip it! Put a cork in it!
And yet…we fear silence! Why, we’ll turn on the TV or the radio, not because we’re going to listen to it, but because we’re uncomfortable with silence. We flee silence. Oh doomed and muddled people, we! Who will rescue us from such a wretched state?
And then…the Word of God must compete with all of that? It’s no wonder that we think of the Word of God in the same light! We think of the Word of God as more information in our already information-glutted lives. We think of the Word of God as more of the same kind of stuff that we tune out on any given moment of any given deafening day. We even toss aside the Word of God for visual images plastered on big screens…for the eye rather than the ear!
But then, we hear a Word: Ephphatha! Be opened. It’s the Word which does not shout over our deafening sea of words, yet comes to our ear nonetheless. Ephphatha! Be opened. It’s the Word which neither shrieks into our ears nor blinds our eyes to pierce our defensive walls, yet it does get through. Ephphatha! Be opened.
This is the Word which creates its own hearing, creates its own path into our deafened ears. Through all the fearful silence and the deafening noise, this Word captures our ear. Ephphatha! Be opened. And, behold, there is a way, a way through the conflict of words. This Word has opened the way.
It is significant to note what St. Mark records for us, because he is the only one of the four who mentions this episode—the miracle of the Word in this deaf man’s life. Jesus looks up to heaven, as He often does in this Gospel, and then, as St. Mark writes, [Jesus] sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha!” A sigh; the word means a deep sigh, coming from the depths of Jesus’ being.
That deep sigh is significant. No, not because it was hard work for Jesus to heal this man, nor was He annoyed to do so. No, the deep sigh is significant because with this healing, Jesus already dies a little. The deep sigh, with the heavenward glance, is a foretaste of the crucifixion. The crucifixion—where silence and words clash in close combat—the crucifixion is the event which empowers this miracle of hearing, by the creative Word spoken from Jesus. On the cross Jesus speaks in the midst of God’s silence and the mob’s noise. With a deep sigh, He breathes His last, a final “Ephphatha!”
At the cross many ears were deaf; they could not hear what Jesus was truly saying. And their tongues babbled all the louder, “Physician heal Thyself!” But one ear heard the deep sigh. Ephphatha! Be opened. It was the ear of God. That divine ear which was turned in deafness toward a sinful world, the holy ear of God was seized by the Son’s dying sigh, Ephphatha! Be opened.
And with that divine ear opened, God’s tongue was loosed to command, three days later, the stone-deaf tomb, Ephphatha! Be opened. And death and the grave were deaf no longer. They heard that voice and they yielded up the crucified Word. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the way to life, the way to God, is open.
Jesus has opened, and no one can close. God now hears our stammering human tongues in Jesus Christ. Death itself is forced to listen to the voice of Christ which opens. And a life lived in deafening noise and deadening silence need no longer enslave us…because of Jesus Christ. The sighing Word from the cross and the rising Word from the rending tomb has created a way. Ephphatha! Be opened. And that great opening is present right here, packed into Jesus’ deep sigh and His ephphatha to this deaf man’s ears.
So…woe to us preachers if we take such a Word of God and preach it as if it were only religious information, just another word needing all kinds of bells and whistles and visual projections to compete in a world of words! Woe to us teachers if we have taken such a Word of God and presented it to our students as if it were only just stuff to learn, to memorize, to endure. Woe to us hearers and learners, if we receive such a Word of God as if it were only a yammering, babbling, take it or leave it word!
For the Word of God is none of that! It is the Word that kills and raises up Jesus in order for Him to speak it to us. It is the Word that with Jesus’ dying and rising creates its own opening in our ears. Ephphatha! Be opened.
So to sinners deaf because of the shouting of their own sin, we do not speak the world’s words—“Oh don’t sweat it, everyone does that these days.” No, not such useless words. We speak the absolving, opening Word: “Your sin is forgiven in Jesus’ name.”
That’s why we do not simply say the world’s words of information to the grieving, speaking helpless words. We speak the Word that opens the way through grief to hope. It is the Christ Word: “I am the resurrection and the life…though you die, yet shall you live.”
To the unbeliever, the skeptic, the critic, it’s not words of worldly persuasion that we heap up to force an entrance for faith. We speak the sighing, dying, and living Word of Jesus: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Because faith comes by hearing…and hearing by the Word of Christ.
This is the Word which creates a way where there is no way, which opens and none can close. But as Jesus Himself faces in this episode, His opening Word triggers a response from many tongues, including the healed man himself, who are totally deaf to what Jesus has really done! It’s the hunger of the wilderness. A farmer knows this well—no matter how prepared the soil, how well kept the fences, how maintained the buildings, just let that farmer neglect his property a while and it will be swallowed up by the wilderness. The bias of nature is toward the wilderness, not toward the cultivated field.
This world of words has a bias toward deafness—sometimes a selective deafness, sometime total. Even for us Christians that entropy is strong; there is so much religious, spiritual babbling all around us! But while we are tempted to shout ‘azur, “Shut up!,” instead we speak the creative, opening Word of God. Ephphatha! Be opened. Week by week by week, the Word of God, the Spirit’s sigh by the cross of the Son, it goes into our ears to create a hearing, opening to a life of faith. The opening Word. For there is no other opening to God than by the hearing of His Word through Jesus.
The mid-20th Century, Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, once said about her grotesque stories, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.” So she said, “To the deaf, you must shout!”
Perhaps in the neurotic 1950s, with only hints of the coming madness moaning around the edges, Flannery O’Connor could afford to shout. But I suspect, had Miss O’Connor lived today, she’d whisper creatively.
And Jesus, too. I wonder whether His deep sigh at saying ephphatha came with the realization that opening human ears to the sigh of God in His Word would also leave our ears vulnerable to all the shouting human tongues that assault them! And these days, man!, do we have a lot of lunatic shouting! (With Christian voices right there among the loudest in the asylum!)
But here, today, in this beginning of another year for Christian education at St. Peter’s, right here in the midst of our wordy lives, Jesus speaks: Ephphatha! Be opened. Here in the midst of our deafening fears and our fearful deafness, Jesus speaks: Ephphatha! Be opened. Right here, captive as we are within our too-often-sound-proofed souls, here He speaks: Ephphatha! Be opened. And where He speaks, here is the miracle. A way for the Word of God where there is no other way. The Way. The Truth. The Life. The miracle of the Word spoken from Jesus.