Artwork: Healing of a Deaf-Mute, Ottheinrich Bible, Page 55v, 1425-30. Manuscript, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich.
The audio recording of today's service is attached below under 'Downloads.'
This had been yet another troubling week in the news – and I’m thinking in particular of events south of the border. This week we have seen more racial violence and tensions, including the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. All of this has been made worse because it’s happening in the midst of a pandemic and a very divisive presidential election campaign.
I certainly don’t mean to beat up on the U.S. – it's is a country I love very dearly. Half of my extended family and many of my friends and mentors are Americans. So I offer these reflections not with judgment or condemnation, but out of an earnest and loving desire for righteousness. And in any case, this is not just about the U.S. - these are issues that affect all of us and the entire human family.
The good news is that our readings today from God’s Word speak quite directly to these issues and shine some light on the subject – the very light of Christ Himself. And like Moses in today’s first reading (although even more than Moses), we are called to come into Christ’s presence here this morning, so that His glorious light may rub off on us, that we may reflect it into the world.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus travels far from His home to the regions of Tyre, Sidon, the Sea of Galilee and the Decapolis. By listing all of these locations, our story-teller this morning, St. Mark, is making a clear point: Jesus is now in a region inhabited by Gentiles – that is, people who are of a different ethnic group than Jesus, foreigners, those who are outside of Israel’s covenant with the LORD God; and so these Gentiles are also considered to be unclean.
So there are racial and religious barriers, tensions, and prejudices in the background of today’s Gospel story. There is a dividing wall of hostility between these peoples (Eph. 2:14): the Judeans, represented by Jesus, and the Gentiles.
So what happens next is surprising to say the least.
Mark tells us that they brought to [Jesus] a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged Him to lay His hand on him.
Who are they, we might ask? Presumably they are Gentiles. And we know that they good and generous people, because they seek help, not for themselves, but for their disadvantaged neighbour: the man who is deaf and mute. So out of love and concern for the disadvantaged, these folks initiate the breaking down of this dividing wall. They beg Jesus to lay His hand on the deaf and mute man.
And Jesus agrees. He reaches through the dividing wall of hostility with compassion.
Jesus then takes the man aside from the crowd privately. Jesus is not an attention-seeking faith healer, a charlatan, one who would abuse perceived spiritual power for His own gain. (It is a disgrace and a scandal there are so many today who do precisely those things supposedly ‘in the Name of Jesus’).
Once they are out of the public eye, Jesus heals the man. But He does so in a way that is downright shocking, even earth-shattering.
If Jesus punched a hole through that dividing wall of hostility to reach out to the man with compassion, now He tears the wall down altogether. Jesus put His fingers into the deaf man’s ears and after spitting touched his tongue. The man had a speech impediment, his tongue was tied in knots. And Jesus uses His own saliva as a healing balm to soften, loosen, moisturize and relieve.
I want to dwell on this remarkable cure for a moment. Why is it remarkable? Because Jesus erases the old distinction between clean and unclean. This is a culture in which spittle was seen as a disgusting excrement. And Jesus is bold to use saliva as a healing balm on a person who was considered unclean!
This may seem especially striking to us in this present pandemic. There’s no concern here about droplets spreading a virus!
Friends, the Old Testament distinction between clean vs. unclean, especially as we read of it in the Book of Leviticus, seems very outdated and strange to us. Well, it should not seem strange anymore! Because, you see, we have simply replaced or updated the old categories of clean vs. unclean with some words we’ve been talking about a lot lately: hygienic vs. unhygienic; sanitized vs. un-sanitized; disinfected vs. infected, contaminated vs. uncontaminated. It's all basically clean vs. unclean.
There were of course pandemics or plagues in biblical times, though there’s no reason to think there was one at the time of this story Mark tells us this morning. Even so, a similar dynamic of clean vs. unclean is at play.
For the sake of healing this man, and all of humanity, Jesus is willing to make Himself unclean and infected. Through His many acts of healing, in which He came close to people in their suffering, Jesus fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” (Matthew 8:17 ESV)
And Mark actually gives us a little hint of this. After Jesus put His fingers into the man’s ears and rubbed His saliva on his tongue, Jesus looked up to heaven and sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ That word sighed can also be translated as ‘groaned.’ It seems this healing was a struggle for Jesus.
All of Christ’s miracles point us to His Passion, to His saving death for us on the cross. There, Christ took upon Himself our sins, our brokenness, our hostility and divisions, our separation from God and neighbour. Jesus also took upon Himself the particular infirmities of this deaf and mute man. Psalm 38 gives voice to Christ’s suffering in this way: I am like a deaf man; I do not hear, like a mute man who does not open his mouth. (Psalm 38:13 ESV)
Jesus became deaf, so that we might hear. He became mute so that we might speak. Because, you see, the deaf and mute man stands for all of us.
How often do we turn a deaf ear to the cries of those in need, and even to our own conscience. We plug our ears to God’s Word, to His Law and Gospel. We are deaf, but worse, this deafness is often deliberate, wilful and chosen.
And so often we are mute as well. How many times have we failed to speak up for someone, have we been silent to speak the truth out of fear? We are also so often silent in prayer, praise, confession and sharing our faith in Jesus.
Friends, you and I are the man in the story. But Jesus Christ has the power - if we have the faith - to heal us.
Jesus heals the man first, by opening his ears, then by loosening his tongue. Throughout the Gospel, hearing comes first, then speaking. As you know from your own children and grandchildren, they learn to speak by hearing. The same is true in the Christian life: It is by hearing God’s Word that we learn to pray, give praise, and proclaim. The same is also true in our relationships with one another. In an argument, we are always tempted to get our own point across without first really listening to what the other person is saying. So let us then be swift to hear and slow to speak. Until we hear, we have nothing to say.
Our tongues are meant to be loosed and our mouths opened in prayer, praise and for the building up of one another and for what is good in the world. But so often we use these unruly members to tear one another down and even to curse and blaspheme the Name of God.
Speaking of ‘blasphemy,’ I realize it’s an old word, but we need to reclaim it because this past week, at a political convention and rally, the current Vice President of the United States, a professed Christian, uttered a word of blasphemy. He quoted from the Bible, Hebrews 12:1, but replaced the Name of Jesus with a symbol of nationalism: ‘Let us the run the race marked out before us and let's fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents.’ Blasphemy means to disrespect God or to deprive something - in this case, the God's Word - of its sacred character.
Friends, all of these things ought not to be. The man in the story, who is deaf and unable to speak properly, stands for all of us - each in our own way. But the good news this morning is that the Lord Jesus Himself would restore us, reconcile us to God and, in Himself, to one another. He comes to open up our ears, our mouths, and our minds and hearts.
He became deaf and mute, that we might hear and speak. He was bound that we might go free, condemned that we might be forgiven. He died, that we might live. And so we read in the Prophet Isaiah,
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; (Isaiah 53:7–8 ESV)
It is by the cross and passion of Jesus Christ, by His death, that we are reconciled to God, and in Him, to one another.
Thus are we brought into a New Covenant – a new way of relating to God and one another. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which we read from this morning, we are told that we are the ministers of this new covenant, for God has given to us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-21).
This applies directly to us here at St. James. We are called to be reconciled to God through penitence and prayer; we are called to be reconciled to one another through forgiveness and love; and we are called to be agents of God’s mission to reconcile the whole world to Himself.
To be sure, the circumstances of this pandemic may present us with some challenges for carrying this out in our community of Caledon, but we will be blossom and thrive despite the adverse conditions, if our eyes are fixed on this mission of reconciliation.
And though it may all seem overwhelming, Paul gives us this reassuring reminder: we are not sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God. It’s not up to us, it’s up to God and His power working in us, which can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
I invite you to pray and reflect on these things in the words of our Psalm and Collect of the Day.
'Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray and to give more than either we desire or deserve: pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.'
Also, meditate on the Psalm and reflect on it in light of your own life and current events. Here is one such example: