Text: Mark 7:31-37
Theme: How closed are we?
Lesson: Our hearts need to be opened to God. Jesus can do this.
Dear friends in Christ:
I was a little worried about placing this Sunday’s theme on our roadside church sign. I imagined people driving by and saying, “They’re closed? What next, a For Sale sign?” Then I remembered that we need to advertise our new service times this week, so we placed those on the sign instead.
In today’s Gospel reading people brought to Jesus a man whose ears and mouth were closed. The man was deaf. His mouth could open to make sounds, but he had great trouble communicating.
Jesus, as he so often did, healed the man. He enabled him both to hear and to speak. Jesus describes the miracle as an opening of the man’s ears and mouth. “Ephphatha,” he said as he performed the healing. “Be opened.”
In looking at the healings of Jesus in the Gospels it is important to look closely at the language used in each account. There are great teachings embedded in the specific words and details.
Many teachers have focused on the fact that Jesus touched the man’s ears and tongue. Touch conveys a connection. When the great Michelangelo was asked to depict the creation of Adam on the dome of the Sistene Chapel, he decided to paint God and Adam touching, finger to finger. Indeed, touch is an important part of the Genesis account.
The man who was healed by Jesus in today’s text also experienced the touch of God. The same God who formed Adam with his hands was re-forming, as it were, the deaf man through the hands of Jesus.
The power of Christ Jesus to heal as God is the main message of this text. But, this text also leads us to think about our need for Christ’s power. It reminds us that we are naturally closed to God and need to be opened.
In Michelangelo’s painting Adam is reaching out to touch the finger of God. He is connected. But the deaf man before Jesus is just standing there. Jesus touches him. The difference is that Adam is very much connected with God before his fall into sin. Once man has sinned, however, there is a disconnect. There is a gulf that divides God from His creation. The man who was deaf lives in that reality. So do we. When sin entered the world all kinds of brokenness ensued.
Just how broken, or far away from God are we? Or to put the question back in the language of our text—just how closed are we?
The man in the text may not have been able to hear or speak, but he could still do many other things. He could see, run, think, touch, eat, smell, etc. He had a life. Maybe it was a very good life. But it was also a life with limitations. Things were not perfect. So it is with all of us.
In last Sunday’s Gospel reading we heard Jesus explaining just how limited the life of every human person is. “From within, out of the heart of man,” he said, “come evil things, and they defile a person.”
We have a problem with our heart. And because of this our hearts are closed to the Word and will of God. Our heart problem results in a hearing problem. Our sinfulness blocks out the voice of God. As Pastor Yang explained in the sermon last Sunday, God’s voice does not come from within. It must, instead, come from outside us. But sin blocks our ears.
Our Lutheran Confessions state it this way: “Man possesses some measure of freedom of the will which enables him to live an outwardly honorable life and to make choices among the things that reason comprehends. But without the grace, help and activity of the Holy Spirit man is not capable of making himself acceptable to God, of fearing and believing in God with his whole heart, or of expelling inborn evil lusts from his heart.” (AC 18)
Just how closed are we? Theologians have debated this question for centuries. The simple answer is to say that we have free will in regards to our reason but have no free will in regards to spiritual things. But of course this becomes complex once we start to break down that which belongs to natural reason and that which belongs to the things of the Spirit. Luther wrote a whole treatise on “The Bondage of the Will.” Many other theologians have tackled the subject in depth as well.
Looking at the Scriptures, we notice that some who were healed by Jesus first came to him in faith, while others were simply healed by him with no evidence of action or faith on their part. The man in our text did absolutely nothing to show faith or even his interest in Jesus. It was others who brought him to Jesus, and Jesus himself who took the man aside. The man was purely passive. This suggests a man who was completely closed and completely dependent on God.
There are good reasons for confessing our absolute dependence on God. If we think we are capable of connecting to God on our own we might be deceived into thinking that our faith has to be strong enough or our lives good enough to find this connection. Likewise, when we think that there’s some spark of God inside us we may think that knowledge of God can come from within, and we might be led to make God in our own image.
The man in today’s text shows us just how closed we are to the things of God. Even the word that Jesus spoke to the man was not heard by him. And yet the man’s ears were opened. The Holy Spirit came to him. He was connected to God. As God at the Creation said “let there be light” and there was, so also Jesus’ “ephphatha” created faith in the heart of this deaf man.
It is true that we have an absolute dependence on God to give us His Spirit and bring us to faith. Yet it is also true that you and I will experience many of the gifts of faith through our actions and decisions. The actions we take to hear God’s Word will help us. “Faith comes from hearing the Word of God.” Likewise the decisions we make to step forward in faith will prove to be a blessing. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
But our part always comes after God’s. In today’s second reading we heard James telling us that “faith without works is dead.” True enough. But the faith must come first. Therefore we are justified by faith alone, apart from works.
Sound theology is important. But so is good practice. You and I have a responsibility to live out our faith. Therefore, for the remainder of the sermon, we will take the question of “how closed are we?” that we just addressed in a very theological way and ask it in a more personal way. In other words, we’ll take some moments to think about the barriers to God that we might be dealing with at this time.
For some people these barriers might be teachings of the Scriptures that they are struggling to understand or accept. To those people we say: “come join us as we study.” Other people might have been hurt by someone at a church and thus have fears or anger as a barrier. To those people we say: “come and heal with us as we confess our sins together and learn to love as Christ bids us.” Still others might be struggling with a habit or desire or schedule they know is wrong, but which they are unwilling to give up and which serves as a barrier to God’s working in their life. To those people we say: “come and experience the fullness of life and joy that Christ offers in His holy Word.”
Each of us no doubt has his or her own areas in which we are closed to God’s working. We hold back parts of our lives because we fear change, or responsibility, or loss of pride. This is a spiritual problem, and one we need to address.
Thanks be to God that we are not saved by how open we are. God can save us despite our weakness. Jesus went to the cross to pay the price for our sins. While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
Still, we do well to examine our lives and look for the obstacles that we have placed in God’s path. Our joy, and at some point even our faith, could be at stake.
One good time to examine ourselves is when we come into the presence of God at worship. Worship is like being pulled to the side by Christ Jesus and having him look you in the eye, as he did to the man who was deaf. It is like feeling the touch of God’s fingers in your ears and on your tongue. And it is hearing in new ways as our hearts are opened to God’s Word.
The man who was deaf may not have brought faith or any spiritual longings to his meeting with Jesus that day, but there’s one thing he did do—he stood there and didn’t walk away. That might be all we feel like we’re capable of sometimes, but God is ready to give to us nonetheless. In those days and every day may we be ready to hear our Savior say: “Ephphatha, be opened.” And may we be opened as the Lord wills. In the name of Jesus. Amen.