27. August 2024
And He took him aside from the multitude, and put His fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue. Then, looking up to heaven, He sighed, and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” Immediately his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plainly.
In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.
Today’s Gospel has to do with a man who could not speak. He could only make noises because he could not hear what he said. Though we want to be kind about it, uncontrolled outbursts in public are downright annoying. Parents sometimes have to wrestle with noisy children. In the worst cases, every parent considers heading out the door so that the rest of the congregation is not distracted. Solemn occasions like funerals and weddings demand silence. Mistaken parents think their children are better left at home because we cannot control what they say or when they will say it.
Today’s Gospel is not about noisy children but about a noisy adult. Some people simply cannot control what they say. Hearing moans and groans can be downright terrifying if we don’t expect to hear them. Christians, from the very beginning, have helped these people. In a certain sense, they duplicate the miracle of Jesus by relieving their physical distress and bringing them to faith in Jesus. Our Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has well-endowed institutes in Detroit and Long Island to help people with hearing and speaking disorders. If we live long enough, we will all lose our hearing. Sooner or later, it will happen.
But there is another kind of hearing and speaking which is much more important than what we do with our ears and mouths. St. Paul says, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Even your hearing is gone; the divine hearing and speaking really counts. This divine hearing and speaking does not come from taking a speech course or applying some modern technology but is worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Science is making great strides in restoring hearing and overcoming speech impediments. Nerve endings can be replaced. Electronic signals can be sent directly to the brain. Surgery can restore the speaking function of the tongue and lips. Stuttering children can take speech therapy. But hearing the Gospel so that we believe is a miracle only God can perform. “No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Co 12:3). For 168 years, the Holy Spirit has worked the miracle of faith in this place by a succession of faithful pastors through their preaching.
If our faith is a miracle, unbelief is a mystery. If you have unbelieving relatives, you have probably asked yourself a thousand times why they don’t believe. We can diagnose the loss of hearing. We cannot diagnose the inability to receive the Word of God. The prophet Jeremiah said, “Hear this now, O foolish people, Without understanding, Who have eyes and see not, And who have ears and hear not” (Je 5:21). Unbelief defies our greatest efforts to understand it. Isaiah asks, “Who has believed our report?” Jesus said that when He returned, He would find very little faith. Faced with the twin mysteries of belief and unbelief, faith and unfaith, we have no choice but to rely on God, who alone creates the hearing of the Gospel, so that we see our Lord Jesus Christ in every word we preach and hear. All we can do is pray repeatedly, “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done.” When Luther was asked how deaf people could hear the Gospel and believe, he replied that the Word of God creates its own hearing. Only God can create faith.
But look around! The prayers of this congregation have been heard, and for 168 years, the miracle of faith has been worked. People have heard the Gospel and believed. God has opened ears. He has done this with entire families. He has done it with strangers. Jesus has been putting His fingers into your ears so you can hear the message of redemption. He has unloosed your tongues to praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the sacred liturgy of the church and her hymns. Your tongues confess that Jesus is the Lord to the glory of God the Father.
Many congregations still need to reach fifty years. Drive through downtown Milwaukee or any other metro and see large abandoned churches. People older than 90 must have an even more acute sense of this. Their dearest friends and relatives are gone. They made it. Others have not. As a church, you must feel something like that. You made it. Others did not. By anyone’s standards, your accomplishment is remarkable. Or, should we say, it is God’s remarkable accomplishment that He worked among you. One hundred twenty-five years after Luther’s death, his church went into a steep decline in Germany and never recovered. Lutheranism is not even an option in Germany today. The past is no guarantee of the future. Lutheranism is alive in this congregation. Thank God and cry out for His mercy that your future may be as prosperous as your past.
Israel was a united kingdom for 120 years. You have outdistanced them by forty eight years. Saul, David, and Solomon each ruled for forty years. With Solomon, we pray that God would overlook our shortcomings. We pray that God will restore us when we fall through weakness or iniquity. We know that we are not worthy of any of these benefits and are made worthy not by our merits but only through the bitter sufferings and death of Jesus Christ, whose benefits are given to us through His Gospel and Sacraments. “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, But to Your name give glory, Because of Your mercy, Because of Your truth” (Psalm 115). We fall down in penitential sorrow before the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, beseeching Him not to forsake His children. Create in us a clean heart, O God, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from us.
Only St. Mark records the account of the healing of the deaf man with a speech impediment. The man was a nuisance, but he was not ignorant. He could make sounds, but no one understood them. Jesus did not destroy that man and create a new man. He took what was defective and perfected it. He changed the configuration of his nerves so that he could hear again. The Bible does not simply say he could not speak. It says he was “tongue-tied.” Jesus untied the knot of his tongue. His tongue was released from its cage, and he spoke with glorious babbling. He was like an adolescent who just discovered the telephone. He was like an elderly preacher who could never end a sermon. His speech was endless and magnificent because he spoke about what Christ had done for him.
The word spread like wildfire. That kind of news spreads fast. Jesus commanded those who saw the miracle not to tell anyone. They did exactly the opposite and told everyone. And the people everywhere believed. No one really knows for sure why Jesus told them to keep quiet, but this shows that we do not have to be told to preach the Gospel. We just do it. The miracle of evangelism is done when a mother or a neighbor brings a child to baptism and Sunday School. It happens when you bring your houseguests along with you to church. The miracle of opening ears has been happening here for 168 years. Pray to God it will continue for another 168 years.
At the time of the Reformation, Luther wrote a baptism rite that retained some ancient practices we might find superstitious. One custom is taken right out of this Gospel. The pastor would touch the ears and the tongue of the child. In baptism, Jesus is putting His fingers into our ears and putting His finger onto our tongues so that we might believe and confess Him as Lord. As gross as it may sound, baptism is divine spittle. To paraphrase Luther: it is not the spittle or the saliva that works a miracle, but the Word of God in that spittle or saliva or water that creates faith. He opens our ears to hear His Gospel, and He opens our mouths to sing His praise. When we look at this congregation, we can say in the words of the Gospel, “[Jesus] has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin
Based on a sermon by the Rev. Dr. David P. Scaer.