He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

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Sermon for Trinity 12

Isaiah 29:18-19  +  2 Corinthians 3:4-11  +  Mark 7:31-37

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Jesus called out those words on more than one occasion during His ministry on earth, and also in His revelation to St. John. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” In other words, are your ears working? If so, then these words are for you to hear and to heed. They come from God’s Spirit and even convey God’s Spirit. If you claim to have working ears, but fail to hear and to heed the words of Jesus, then you might as well be deaf.

But what about those who don’t have working ears in the first place? The truth is, sometimes those who are deaf can hear better than those who have working ears. And those whose tongues don’t work can speak better than those who have working tongues.

The Holy Spirit illustrates this for us in today’s Gospel. In the first part of St. Mark, chapter 7, Jesus encountered a group of Pharisees who claimed to hear, but wouldn’t listen to Jesus’ teaching, a group of Pharisees who wagged their tongues in criticizing Jesus, but who wouldn’t use their tongues to praise His goodness or His wisdom or to acknowledge Him as Lord. In our Gospel we encounter a man who couldn’t hear or speak when he first came to Jesus, and yet he had already learned far more than the Pharisees who had ears: he had already learned that he had a great infirmity, and that Jesus was the only One who could heal him.

That’s the very basic lesson of the whole Bible. All people are miserable sinners before God, but Jesus has come to help. He has come to help, not by helping you to help yourself, but by healing you from your debt of sin before God by releasing you from your debt, by forgiving you your sins. Today’s Gospel is yet another picture of how Christ, still today, through His Word, heals sinners by forgiving sins to all who trust in Him. And where does that trust come from? From hearing His Word. Faith comes by hearing.

The deaf man in our Gospel couldn’t hear, but his friends could, and they had heard that this Jesus of Nazareth was kind and merciful and good. And the good report they had heard about Jesus worked faith in their hearts. They believed that He was merciful. They believed that He would and could help them in their need. More than that, they trusted in Him to help their deaf and mute friend with his need. So they brought their friend to Jesus and begged Him to lay His healing hands on their friend. That’s not only faith toward Jesus. That’s love toward their friend, to take him to the place where Jesus was and to commend him to Jesus’ care.

And as always, Jesus proved faithful to His reputation. He took the deaf man 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.

That’s the first and the general lesson to learn from this Gospel, and it’s the same lesson that we learn in every Gospel: faith and love—faith in Jesus as the One who is always trustworthy, merciful, kind and good to those in need, and powerful to heal and to help. And we learn love, to help our neighbor in his need, starting with his most important need: his need to be brought to Jesus, the Savior and the Great Physician.

We can also learn some specific lessons from the way in which Jesus performed this healing.

First, he took the man aside and dealt with him one on one. Jesus wanted there to be no doubt in this man’s mind: “You are the sick one. You are the one who needs help, and I know it and am willing to help you, as if you were the only man on earth.” Jesus does the same thing today through the ministry of the Word as He sends pastors, not just to deal collectively with the congregation, but to hear individual confession and pronounce private absolution, to hand out His body and blood, not to the congregation as a whole, but to the congregation as individual communicants who kneel at the Lord’s Table.

Then, He put His fingers in the man’s ears and touched his tongue, as if to emphasize: “I know exactly what’s wrong with you, I know you can’t hear, and can’t speak. Your help comes, not from the inside, not from you and your works, but it comes from outside of you, from me.”

Jesus spit. It seems like a strange thing for the God-Man to do, but then it seems strange that God was born in a manger, and took on a human body just like ours. It seems strange that He would subject Himself to all of our physical infirmities, and that He would allow wicked men to nail Him to a cross for our sins. But all of it demonstrates His zeal to heal us by His holy incarnation, by joining Himself to our flesh. It’s as if he were to say to the deaf man: “Your healing won’t be magical. It only comes from My body, from My mouth alone, from my Word, from My very saliva, from My blood shed for you.”

Jesus looked up to heaven. That’s important. It signifies, not only that Jesus came down from heaven and is the very Son of God; but it also signifies that heaven matters. God matters. You need more than just healing for your faulty ears and tongue. You need more than just food and money and clothing and stuff. More than any of those things, you need God—the true God, and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent. Only He can heal. Only He can save from death.

Then Jesus sighed. Now, a sigh can be a sign of both frustration and relief, and both would fit here. Jesus wept at the grave of His friend Lazarus, not out of despair, but out of compassion for His friends in their sadness and out of frustration for the loss that characterizes life on this earth. Jesus knows better than anyone how much damage sin has done to the human race, how much pain and suffering and trouble it has caused.  It’s our own fault. We get the suffering we deserve for our sins. At the same time, Jesus is the very One—the only One! —who brings relief from the damage of sin.

“Ephphatha!”, He said in Aramaic. “Be opened!” The Word of the Son of God is more powerful than all the pain and destruction sinners have brought on ourselves. With a word He takes away the man’s deafness and muteness. With a Word from the cross as He was about to die, “It is finished!”, He indicated that all sins had been paid for by Him. All the good deeds necessary for sinners to win heaven had been done, by Him, finished. With a word, spoken through His ministers, with a Word attached to baptismal waters, with a Word attached to bread and wine, He applies His death and His righteousness to sinners, forgiving sins and healing a person’s entire sinful history in an instant.

Your ears and your tongue may work just fine. But the deafness and dumbness that afflict some people are signs of a deeper illness that infects all people. It began in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve chose to hear the serpent’s voice instead of God’s voice. From that time on, human ears have never worked right when it comes to God. By nature, we stop up our ears to God’s Truth, to God’s Law and God’s Commandments, and we also stop up our ears to Christ’s preaching of repentance and salvation by faith alone in Him alone. Instead, people go about searching for someone—some church, some friend, some expert—to tell them what their itching ears want to hear, as the apostle Paul says to Timothy. By nature, our tongues know very well how to make excuses for our sins, how to tear others down and build ourselves up, but they don’t know at all how to confess our utter unworthiness before God, or how to sing His praises for the free salvation He has won for us in Christ Jesus.

But here is the powerful Word of Jesus again today, calling out to all who exalt themselves to humble themselves before God in repentance, and calling out to all who are humbled and troubled and terrified of their sins to take heart, because the Savior is here. He hasn’t come to destroy you, but to help you, to save you and to give you the life that is truly life. He has come to open your ears so that you hear His Word and believe it, and keep hearing it, and keep believing it. He has come to loose your tongue so that you can confess your sins, receive the healing of forgiveness, not just once, but over and over again throughout this life, and learn to speak the praises of Him who has rescued you from sin, death and the devil. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Amen.

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