Text: Mark 7:31-37
“O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” The Church has sung these words of King David for nearly three millennia. They come from Psalm 51, the great psalm of confession. These words spring from a terrible time in David’s life where he had fallen very wide of God’s commandments. After he saw Bathsheba bathing on the rooftop, he began lusting after her and scheming ways to get her into his bed. It resulted ultimately in the death of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, whom David had put at the frontline hoping that he would be killed in battle. The prophet Nathan made known to David his sin, and the king was brought to repentance.
The words that he sang echo true for all humanity: we were brought forth in sin and conceived in iniquity. That is, today, we also confess that by nature our ears are closed to God’s Word and our mouths are used for anything other than speaking His pure and saving doctrine. But, as in our text Jesus opened the ears and loosened the tongue of a man born deaf and unable to speak rightly, so He speaks to us His divine, “Ephphatha.” Through His saving Word, Christ opens our deaf ears and loosens our mute tongues to sing His praises and proclaim the forgiveness of sins that is found in Him.
We pick up this week in the seventh chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel. The last time we were in Mark was a little over a month ago, when we looked at the Feeding of the Four Thousand. We spoke then about our Lord’s great compassion for all people. The people assembled at the feeding were not Jews, but Gentiles. We learned from that text that our gracious Lord has compassion on all people, including us, and He provides for all our needs of body and soul. That text, Mark 8:1-9, is what directly follows our Gospel today. These readings together, along with the whole of Mark 7, teach an important part of Jesus’ message: Jesus became incarnate for sins of all people. So, we find in Mark 7 Jesus journeying through Gentile territory.
St. Mark writes, “He returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to Him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged Him to lay His hand on him.” We learned last month that Tyre and Sidon were Gentile cities along the cost of the Mediterranean. And, actually, some translators don’t really know what to do here, because Sidon is a bit north of Tyre. The verse ends with Jesus in the Decapolis, the ten cities, southeast of the Sea of Galilee. So, in the days when most travel was done by foot, it’s odd that Jesus would go in that sequence; some say that there is an error in the Greek text. Not so. St. Mark is simply demonstrating for us the point Jesus has already made: He has come to die for the sins of all people, so He’s going to tell all people – and that involves going all over the place.
As He was preaching and teaching, some brought to Him a man who was born deaf. As a result, though able to speak, he would’ve been prevented from speaking plainly. (Remember that idea for later.) There’s no indication from the text that these people knew exactly who Jesus was, which is kind of a theme in Mark, but they knew that Jesus had great power – power to heal. So they begged Jesus to lay His hand on their friend.
“Taking him aside from the crowd privately, He put His fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue.” Sometimes in the Gospels when Jesus performed a miracle, it wasn’t received in an entirely right way. After the feeding of the five thousand, they tried to make Jesus king by force since He filled their stomachs. Perhaps perceiving that the crowd might again misinterpret the miracles He was about to perform, Jesus took the man aside in private. As the man was at that time unable to hear, Jesus took the time to demonstrate what He was going to do – He was going to open the man’s ears and loosen his tongue. Jesus may also have been preparing us to understand how God works: through the external, spoken Word, and through the Sacraments – which are the Word combined with physical actions for the forgiveness of sins.
“Looking up to heaven, He sighed, and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And his ears were opened, his tongue was released and he spoke plainly.” After taking the man aside, Jesus conversed with God the Father, and groaned. That is what St. Mark says. Sighing is what you do when you’re angry; groaning is what you do when you hurt. It pains Jesus to see the havoc that Satan has wreaked by the Fall into Sin. Because of sin, men are born with terrible ailments, contract ruinous diseases, and die. Jesus came to put an end to these things, and actually the healing today itself foreshadows the time where there will be no more affliction, disease, or death. When St. Mark says that man had a speech impediment, he’s using a specific word that is found only one other place in the Bible. God says in Isaiah 35, “‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God…will come and save you!’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” Jesus spoke and the man was healed. This is what today’s healing means – in Christ, the salvation of God has come to man.
Jesus groaned and said to the man born deaf and unable to speak correctly, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened.” Since ancient times the Church has seen in our text today a fitting opportunity to talk about our Lord’s work in Holy Baptism. In fact, the Baptismal liturgy of the ancient Church included a moment where the pastor would touch the child (or adult’s) ears and mouth and say, “Ephphatha.” In Baptism, through the application of our Lord’s Word in and with the water, our sins are washed away. We are given the gifts of faith and eternal life. King David prays in Psalm 51 for a clean heart and a right spirit. Those are received through the preaching of Christ’s Word and in Baptism where the Word is applied to us in a tangible way.
Thanks be to God for this great Sacrament, for we stand in dire need of it. We may not have been born deaf and unable to speak, but our ears and mouths are anything but innocent. By nature, our ears are closed to the Word of God. Instead of hearing God’s Word preached and taught, we devote our ears to hearing gossip and other sinful things. Instead of using our tongues to proclaim the glory and mercy of Christ, to preach His pure and saving doctrine, we use them to deceive others and glorify ourselves at their expense. In the text, it says the man’s tongue was released. Literally, it reads, “the bond of his tongue was loosed.” Similarly, our tongues are held captive by Satan until our Lord frees us.
In our text, the Lord travels quite a bit – from Tyre and Sidon to the Sea of Galilee – so that all people may hear His Gospel. Today, Jesus continues to travel the world through the preaching of His Word. He continues to send pastors, missionaries, teachers, and us, to share the forgiveness of sins found only in Him. Jesus speaks to us, even today, “Be opened.” Through His Word, in Baptism especially and in preaching, Christ opens our deaf ears and loosens tongues to sing His praise. Our ears, He opens to hear His Word rightly – to hear that all Scripture is about Him, about His grace and mercy. Our tongues, He loosens from Satan’s bonds to speak His Word rightly – tongues which were formerly used for deceit and murder, are now used to proclaim Christ, and Him crucified for the sins of the world.
Thanks be to God that He has caused His Word to be preached among us and has washed us through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. As with King David whose ears and lips were mired in sin, through these things God has given us a new and right spirit – the Holy Spirit. He has forgiven us our sins. He has spoken His Ephphatha to us. He has taken our ears and opened them to understand His Word and caused our tongues to speak it plainly. Let us pray: O Lord, let my lips be opened by your divine and saving Word, and my mouth be led to declare your praise all the day.