14 August 2016
Text: Mark 7:31-37 (Isa 29:17-24, 2 Cor 3:4-11)
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
When something is really important, we say that it is a “matter of life and death.” Christianity is of the highest importance of anything in this world, and St. Paul calls it a matter of death and life, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
The way the world works, you start out alive, and end up dead. You do anything and everything to stave off death, for you love your life, and will do anything to save it. But according to the Spirit, we are born dead (in sin), and end up alive (in Christ). At the first opportunity, we take a child and drown his or her sinful nature in Holy Baptism, making the child a disciple and killing off the Old Man so that a New Man might arise in its place. And our Lord Jesus says that whoever loves his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake will find it.
And though we Christians understand the death of a Christian to be a portal to eternal life, we, unlike the world, don’t see death as a part of life, a friend, or the solution to a problem. No indeed, we Christians see death as a vile enemy, but, a conquered enemy, a defanged tiger, a grounded dragon, a subdued foe.
Indeed, the letter of the Law kills. It kills our pretensions and claims to righteousness. It kills our hypocrisy and dishonesty with ourselves. It kills any hope of salvation through works. And once the sinful flesh has been put to death, this flesh is restored, just as Jesus restored the flesh of lepers, restored sight to the blind, restored hearing to the deaf, and restored speech to the mute. As St. Paul says: “Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters of stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?”
The apostle tells us that the “ministry of righteousness” given by the Spirit under the Gospel is of greater glory than the “ministry of condemnation” given under the Law.
So we Christians start off dead and end up alive by the Spirit, who is the “Lord and giver of life.” And yet we are surrounded by a kind of walking dead in this world, people whose bodies function but whose spirits are not made alive by the Spirit. We are surrounded by a culture of death in which the solution to pain is euthanasia, the solution to unplanned pregnancy is abortion, and the solution to conflict is murder.
We look around at our shrinking churches and the growing hostility to the faith. Christians are forced to take part in antichristian ceremonies, children are forced to bear with the opposite sex in their restrooms, the elderly must live in fear of being declared a burden and put to sleep like a sick pet, Christians are threatened around the world by militant jihadists, and the popular culture mocks us, marginalizes us, and draws our children into secularism and selfishness.
But hear anew the promise of the Prophet Isaiah, dear brothers and sisters: “The ruthless shall come to nothing and the scoffer cease, and all who watch to do evil shall be cut off.” “For when he sees his children, the work of My hands in his midst, they will sanctify My name; they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob and will stand in awe at the God of Israel.”
These are promises of hope, dear friends, and they were first given to the people of God who were held captive in Babylon, defeated by their enemies, enslaved, force-fed a new language and a new culture, and kept by military might from ever going home. And yet, the Lord uttered these promises to these very people.
These words have been fulfilled, and will be fulfilled, in, and by, our Lord Jesus Christ.
In our Gospel, our Lord is brought a victim: a victim of sin, of death, and of the devil, a man whose body bears the scars of the Fall, not only marked for death, but impeded by silence, by the inability to hear and to speak. In his distress, this poor man from the Decapolis cannot cry out to Jesus for help. He cannot hear the word of Absolution, the words of forgiveness, the words of the Gospel. He cannot hear the words of the prophets and the words of promise of hope. Moreover, he cannot speak words of prayer, words of praise, words of thanksgiving. There is something of death in his prison of silence.
But Jesus has come to rip the prison doors off the hinges, to burst the very bars of the portal to the grave, and to blast open the gates to heaven itself. That which has been silenced is to be heard. That which has been slammed shut is to be flung open. That which has been condemned to death is to be restored unequivocally to life.
“And taking him aside from the crowd privately, He put His fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, He sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’”
And, dear brothers and sisters, look at what was opened: his ears to hear the condemnation of the Law and the forgiveness of the Gospel; ears to hear the words of the prophets, the words of Christ, the words of the apostles, the promises of God and the assurance of the resurrection! And what else was opened? His mouth was opened, “his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” His mouth was opened to thank His Lord and Master, to praise His God and Savior, to tell his neighbors the good news of his restoration, to sing, to pray, to praise, and to give thanks unto the Lord, even as the Psalmist prays: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise.”
And what’s more, heaven was opened to this man as the sin-induced closure was unobstructed. Righteousness was opened because the impediment to hearing the Gospel was taken away. The path to victory over evil was opened as the Word of the Lord, delivered by Word and by earthly element, presented by hands, and testified in Scripture – broke through the oppressive silence with the Word of Life.
And the same miracle happens to us, dear friends. For sin closes us up, turns us in on ourselves, shuts our ears to the Word of God, and clogs our mouths so that we do not pray, praise, or give thanks. In reflecting on this miracle from our text, the great preacher St. Ambrose noted: “In this way the minister is now touching your ears, that your ears may be opened to this sermon and exhortation.”
And so, once more, my dear brothers and sisters, this “Ephphatha” that you hear yet again in the Aramaic language of Jesus, in the very sound that reverberated in the ears of this man from the Decapolis twenty centuries ago, this “Be opened” is not my word, and not my command. It is rather the word of Jesus. It is a command that not even Satan himself can silence. Hear this word, dear people of God, “Ephphatha, that is, be opened.”
And by the power of Christ, may your ears be opened to the Holy Word, and may your mouths be opened to receive the Holy Sacrament, and may your tongues be loosened to sing the praises of Him who won eternal life for you at the cross, and may all of our tongues confess and profess ever more zealously and boldly that our Lord “has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” And let us add that He has saved us from our sins and given us the gift of new and everlasting life.
Ephphatha! Be opened! It is a matter of death and life. Amen.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.