Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
I need new glasses. Isn’t it crazy how we put off doing something as important as going to the eye doctor? I especially need a new pair of what I call “computer glasses.” They give me good vision of everything that is about arm’s length away. The pair I use at the office still work well, but the pair I use at the computer at home have become useless. Consequently, when I’m working at home I wear bifocals and bob my head up and down like a silly duck in a shooting gallery.
It makes me think of how much I take my senses and everyday abilities for granted. I can get used to different glasses. If necessary, I could even adjust to seeing poorly, but what if I couldn’t see at all? What if I couldn’t hear? What if (the preacher’s nightmare) I couldn’t talk?
In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, a man who suffered from two of these maladies was brought to Jesus–the man was deaf and had a speech impediment. Mark does not reveal if these problems were lifelong or recent. It is conceivable that the first words the man ever heard were the words of his Lord, but it is not likely. Unless Jesus’ miracle included a gift of tongues or language, it is not likely that a person who never heard any speaking could suddenly speak plainly himself. The words of the text imply a defect in speaking rather than the muteness normally associated with a person who has never heard language or speaking, and thus cannot participate in it.
It is interesting that Jesus performs a sort of ritual in connection with the healing. His actions were described by one scholar as an “appeal to senses other than the auditory … an attempt to communicate the purpose of the general activity, and thus provoke expectancy and faith.” In any event, it worked! Jesus said, “Ephphatha” (be opened), and the man could immediately hear and speak plainly.
It is difficult, if not impossible, for us to imagine what this man felt when he could suddenly hear his Savior’s words, and his own leaden tongue was turned to silver. We could safely say that no one has ever heard God’s Word the way this man heard it. I have never, even in a physical sense, heard Jesus’ voice as this man did. At the same time, no one has ever heard God’s Word as I have, or you have, because we all hear it from our own perspectives.
Lutheran Christians usually follow a written, rather formal, order of worship, but we do not believe that God intends for all His children to be little “Praise the Lord” clones–all walking in a line. Our worship of God and our lives as His children are not superficial matters that occur only on the surface. They come from within us and are motivated by the Spirit who guides and strengthens us. Of course, the question remains as to how we can tell the difference between those who simply perform a ritual and those who act on the basis of the Spirit’s guidance and power. Well, we can’t tell the difference– at least we can’t tell about someone else–but then, that doesn’t really matter. Does it?
We can only know about ourselves. God guides and enables us through His Word and Sacraments. That little sentence is one of the most theologically sound sentences you will ever read. On the practical side, I have also found it to be profoundly true. Only the most hypocritical of persons can surround themselves with God’s Word and Sacraments and still remain untouched by His Spirit. Like a person wearing headphones tuned into some irrelevant gibberish, or like the man in Sunday’s Gospel, they are right there in the presence of the Redeemer, but remain ignorant of His saving and empowering Word. Most people suffer from an even simpler form of deafness–that brought on by distance.
On a typical Sunday, half or more of the members of a typical congregation do not hear any word spoken at their church. They are deaf to whatever Word God has for them that day. Now, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t speak to them–we have no idea about what they hear on the radio, or at some other church, or on TV. We do not know what they may read or what some other child of God may share with them. Even if they hear no Word of God at all, it doesn’t mean their hearts are far away from God.
Interestingly enough, we know very little more about those who do attend. If they sleep, they don’t hear. If they think only about the temperature in the room, what someone else is wearing or about the company coming later, they don’t listen. Ephphatha!
Sunday’s Gospel provides several excellent comparisons to help us think, believe and act as God’s children! According to Mark, “people” brought the deaf man to Jesus and begged the Lord to heal him. It’s great to have friends! We often read in the Gospels that someone “heard” about Jesus and then went to Him to be taught, healed or helped in some way. This man obviously didn’t “hear,” but his friends did and they were good friends.
When he arrived, Jesus took him aside and, with a kind of sign language, demonstrated that his tongue was going to be loosened and his ears unstopped. The man was totally helpless. He couldn’t even hear what was going on. He probably didn’t have any idea where he was going or to Whom. By reassuring actions, Jesus showed him that he would not be harmed, but helped, and the man trusted Jesus.
Every day people are brought to Jesus who are sick in sin. They are totally helpless and lost. By His self-sacrificing actions and all-encompassing love, Jesus leads them to trust Him. By His death and resurrection He heals, restores and saves them. The man was completely healed–he heard and he spoke plainly. Sinners are healed completely by their crucified and risen Lord. He forgives all their sins, not just some. He gives them eternal life, and He equips them for abundant living.
God touches or “speaks to” each Christian in a unique way. Somehow He gets through to us and the seeds are planted. Some people can point to certain moments or events in their lives when the Holy Spirit and faith took hold of them and blossomed. For St. Augustine, it was just a very small part of the Bible, which he suddenly saw in a whole new light. For Luther, it was a concept in the Word–the whole meaning of righteousness before God–the realization that it is not a human achievement at all, but the free gift of God’s grace.
Frederick Buechner, a present day author and theologian, tells about a sermon, and particularly one line from the sermon that made all the difference for him. In his autobiography, Buechner wrote that his early life in New York had the appearance of being relevant, but was really meaningless–a farce: “Part of the farce was that for the first time in my life that year in New York, I started going to church regularly, and what was farcical about it was not that I went but my reason for going, which was simply that on the same block where I lived there happened to be a church with a preacher that I had heard of and that I had nothing all that much better to do with my lonely Sundays. The preacher was a man named George Buttrick, and Sunday after Sunday I went, and sermon after sermon I heard.”
Apparently, Buechner “heard” of the preacher and “heard” sermon after sermon, but his ears were not really open. Then, one Sunday, Pastor Buttrick was explaining that Jesus refused the crown that Satan offered Him in the wilderness. The preacher added that Jesus is King nonetheless because again and again He is crowned in the hearts of people who believe in Him. That inward coronation takes place, Buttrick said, “among confession, and tears, and great laughter.” Buechner wrote, “It was the phrase ‘great laughter’ that did it!” He recognized that the door was open all along, but that was the moment he stumbled into it.
The most fascinating part of the story is that some 25 years later, Buechner wrote for a transcript of that sermon, and the phrase was not in it! He says, “I can only assume that he (Buttrick) must have dreamed it up at the last minute and adlibbed it–and on such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that, I suppose, hang the destinies of us all.”
Here is an interesting puzzle–when Jesus said, “Ephphatha,” did the man hear it? It would seem that his ears were opened as the result of a word he never heard. Perhaps something similar happened to Frederick Buechner and to each of us as well. Jesus is still saying “Ephphatha” to people all over the world. He calls us all to be open to His healing, guiding and empowering Word.
The call requires three things: that we hear, that we listen and that we speak. The first part is the easiest to do, but we must be within earshot. If the man’s friends had not brought him to Jesus, he would have remained deaf and speech-impaired. Many people in the world have no opportunity to hear and no friends to help them. Those who have heard and believe have the mission to bring the Good News about Jesus to all the world.
The second thing we must do is listen. It is a step beyond hearing. In Sunday’s Epistle lesson, James suggests that we be quick to hear and slow to speak. If our ears are open, we must also have our hearts and minds open. Let’s not always assume we already know everything God has in store for us. I am convinced that God’s gifts always greatly surpass our expectations!
Finally, like the man Jesus healed, we must speak plainly. If he were your friend, where would he be? Bring your friends to Jesus. “Ephphatha” (Be opened), in this order: ears, minds and hearts, then mouths.