Sunday, September 03, 2006

Sermon: Trinity 12

3 September 2006 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Mark 7:31-37 (Isa 29:18-24, Rom 10:9-17) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

There is a close relationship between hearing and speaking. When a person is deaf, unless he receives special therapy, he will likely also be mute. For how can one talk when one can’t listen to the words to imitate them?

The same is true with the Word of God. To be deaf to the utterances of God is the worst handicap of all, for as Paul points out in our epistle that faith comes by hearing – and not just any hearing, but by hearing God’s Word.

And when one can’t hear God’s Word, he can have no faith. Without hearing, one cannot speak what he has heard. Nor can he confess what he doesn’t believe.

To become a Christian is to have one’s ears unplugged and one’s tongue loosened, to hear, to believe, and to speak. But because of sin, we are all born blind, deaf, and dumb. We are all suffering from a terminal illness. We are damaged goods, in the body and in spirit.

And this is why Jesus is constantly working miracles to restore those who are broken in both body and spirit. For all forms of sickness – physical, psychological, and spiritual – have a common source: the brokenness brought on by sin. Into this worldly sick ward comes our Great Physician. And unlike the eastern gurus and masters of the false religions, Jesus doesn’t tell them to distance themselves from their bodies and to focus only on spiritual health and wellbeing. Instead, in our Gospel text, Jesus first attends to the physical needs of this handicapped man. He physically touches the man, he uses his own spittle, water from his very mouth, and he finally uses his own words, sighing and looking toward heaven, he commands: “Ephphtha – be opened.”

In curing his deafness, Jesus also cures his inability to speak. In taking away his impediment to hear, our blessed Lord also removes the barrier to faith. And once this is done, the natural thing for the now-healthy man to do is to confess what happened to him, to tell others of the good news of his redemption, of being made whole, of his ability to believe because of what he hears. In fact, Jesus tries to prevent this man from publicly confessing, for it is not yet time. Ironically, the man’s faith and need to confess conflicts with what Jesus tells him to do, and in his weakness, he proclaims the Gospel.

And this, dear brothers and sisters, is how the Church operates even to this day. Oh, sure, we have TV and radio, satellite technologies, cell phones, text messaging, and the internet – and these technologies can certainly assist the Church in her proclamation of the Gospel, but the divinely mandated method is really as low-tech as you can get. For as Paul points out, “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But in order to call, one must believe. And since this belief, this faith, comes by hearing, someone must do the talking. That means some authorized speaker, some preacher, must be sent by God.

This is how the Gospel is spread. This is how your faith is quickened and nourished. Jesus himself encounters all of us broken and crippled people, and using a preacher to speak and a baptizer to administer the water from the mouth of Jesus, our blessed Lord cries out “Ephphatha” to each one of us. Our ears are unplugged from their resistance to the Gospel. We are able to hear and to believe. And by this same act of healing, our tongues are loosed, our mouths are opened, our speech is clarified so that we might repeat what the preacher has himself repeated to us.

This is why every Sunday we confess what we believe in. Having just heard the Word of God in Scripture, we opened our mouths together to confess just what it is that we believe, what faith has come through hearing. And that faith is summarized by the Nicene Creed.

This, dear friends, is what our tongues have been loosed to proclaim! This is the faith that enables us to call upon the name of the Lord. This is the faith through which we are saved. As the apostle teaches us: “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.”

It is not enough to simply believe in the Nicene Creed. For what comes out of the mouth is simply the overflow from the heart. Belief that is not confessed is not belief at all.

Nor is it enough to confess a general belief in Jesus. This is very important. For just about everyone has some kind of belief in Jesus – some kind of respect for him as a pious teacher, a good man, a moral example, an interpreter of Judaism, a misunderstood religious genius, a prophet, a buddha, a saint, or a defender of the poor and outcast. Some of these things may have some truth to them, but if this is the center of your faith in Jesus, you are in danger of the fires of hell. For the faith that God bestows on us as his gift, by virtue of his unstopping our ears and loosening our lips, is faith in the divine and human Jesus who is raised from the dead. “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”

Brothers and sisters, this confession is what is required of you. You are to simply repeat what it is you believe in. You are not required to preach (unless you are a pastor). You are not required to try to argue or reason people into the faith (as though that were even possible). You are not required to try to manipulate non-believers into the holy faith with gimmicks and programs.

For unless the Lord Jesus himself opens a person’s sin-silenced mouth and sin-clogged ears with his own command: “Ephphatha,” you will waste your words on a person who cannot hear them. And St. Paul makes it clear how this divine “Ephphatha” is spoken: “How shall they hear without a preacher?”

For as helpful as radio spots, TV commercials, free bibles, websites with testimonies and counters of “critical events,” as well as trademarked slogans on t-shirts and office supply gimmicks may seem to be, they do not bear the promise of delivering God’s Word unto sinners to bring them to everlasting life. Only the Word of God proclaimed by a preacher has the promise of effectiveness.

If you truly have missionary zeal and a desire to save the lost (as I hope every person in this sanctuary does), the best thing you can do is this: invite people to church (where the Word is proclaimed by a preacher, and where Jesus opens ears and lips) and pray for those who need the Gospel, that the Lord will open their ears and lips and give them faith. Pray in the words of our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, that “those also who erred in spirit will come to understanding. And those who complained will learn doctrine.” While not as flashy as big numbers on a website, this personal, even intimate access to the Word of God is how God himself has designed it to work.

One of the greatest preachers in the history of the Church was the 6th century Pope St. Gregory the Great (who was praised both by Luther and by the Lutheran confessions, whose book on pastoral care is still used as a text in our seminaries). Today is actually a day of commemoration of St. Gregory according to the church calendar. It’s fitting that Gregory writes concerning our Gospel text: “The Spirit is called the finger of God. When the Lord puts his fingers into the ears of the deaf mute, he was opening the soul of man to faith through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”

For just as according to St. Gregory Jesus worked through the humble means of his own words, fingers, and saliva to impart the Holy Spirit to the deaf-mute, he continues to create faith in the hearts of men through the humble means of men ordained into the office of preaching. And along with the Nicene Creed, we Lutherans also confess in the words of our Augsburg Confession, “so that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given.” And this is just another way of saying: “How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” God has ordained men for this purpose, and he chooses to work this way even if we think technology, “lay ministers” and sales gimmicks can do a better job of it.

And so, dear Christians, please pray for your pastors. We are unworthy mouthpieces for the Gospel, charged with the impossible task of not only confessing the Gospel, but teaching and proclaiming it. And through this proclamation, through the “Ephphatha” of preaching and the administration of the baptismal water from the mouth of Jesus, the once-deaf are allowed to hear, the once-faithless to believe, and the once-mute to confess the “faith once delivered to the saints.” And “in that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity and out of darkness.” They shall “hallow the Holy One of Jacob, and fear the God of Israel.”

And let us not only confess the faith, but praise the Author of the faith for all he has done for us, for his miraculous “Ephphatha.” “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise.” Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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