Here is a sermon about Jesus’ power to open the innermost ears of our souls to hear the good news of God’s love, and then to open our mouths–and lives–to share that good news.
A Sermon on Mark 7:31-37 with allusions to Psalm 51
We don’t know what had gone wrong. We don’t know what caused the man’s hearing loss. It could have been a problem from birth. It might have been the result of ear infections or injury. One overly loud noise is all it takes to cause permanent damage. My father-in-law traces his hearing loss to machine gun practice during basic training after he got drafted. Dad served in the Philippines during the Korean War.
People can experience hearing loss as a blanket of silence, or as the loss of some sounds. Many people that are hard of hearing experience tinnitus—ringing in the ears, phantom sounds ranging from high pitched whistles and hissing to wailing sirens or blaring musical notes. These unreal noises drown out the real sounds that they want to hear. The ringing in my ears sounds so much like the sounds on the hearing test that I often can’t tell if the sound I’m hearing is real or not.
The man in the gospel story had hearing loss, and he also had difficulty speaking. Hearing and speaking go hand in hand. Most people learn to speak by hearing and repeating what they hear. It really is a miracle. When they come into the world infants already recognize and respond to their parents’ voices. When our daughter Laura was a year old, we saw very clearly that she was well on her way to learning how to talk. One night she came downstairs after my mother had given her a bath, and I said in a sing-songy voice, “Hi, clean girl!” And Laura imitated my exact intonation: aye een irl! It was only missing some of the consonants.
Ordinarily children are born able to hear and imitate the sounds of all languages. The sounds they hear and repeat get reinforced, and the ability to make the sounds they don’t hear falls away. After a while it gets so that what you don’t hear, you can’t hear. That is why it is much harder to learn to hear and speak another language later in life.
Children learn to hear and reproduce music in the same way. And that is why we encourage babies and toddlers and their caregivers to participate in Music for Little Friends, our children’s music classes. It develops their musical ears and their ability to make music.
What children hear—or don’t hear—matters. And what they hear from the adults in their lives is incredibly powerful. I recently read a story about a little girl who was born very prematurely, and the medical personnel were pretty sure she would die within minutes of birth. The parents wouldn’t let them take her away. The parents insisted on holding their daughter and talking to her for however long she was alive. The nurses left them alone, and they held their baby. They looked her in the face, and the mother softly crooned over and over, “We’re so glad you are in the world. We’re so glad you’re here. We are so glad God gave you to us.” Immediately the child’s heart rate improved, and after a while it became apparent that she was not going to die
When I read that, I thought about how every child needs to hear that message, and about what happens when children don’t hear those words in some form. They might get so they can’t hear those words, or can only hear them after a major breakthrough.
Because we don’t just hear with our ears. We hear with our hearts and our souls, too. Many people live with damaged spiritual hearing. People can go to church their whole life and hear the words “Jesus loves you” week in and week out with their physical ears, but that good news doesn’t go deep down into their souls where they can be healed. They miss the deep healing, the deep meaning, the wonderful power that comes from knowing God’s love down deep.
Instead, they have spiritual tinnitus. Inside their minds and hearts harsh, insistent voices sneer: You’ll never be good enough. What do you have to show for yourself, huh? If people knew the real you they would run you out of here. You are defective. You are a mistake. Or even this: you are an abomination.
In their heart of hearts, they believe the true voice of God is harsh. God’s voice is the voice of an easily offended, easily enraged parent. God may appear to have a smile on God’s face, but it’s just temporary. It’s just an illusion. One day the smile is going to run away from God’s face.
For these people, somehow bad news seems more real, more true. Truer. Good news sounds too good to be true.
They’re stuck in the pain of Psalm 51, in the hurting, in unrelieved remorse, in aching verses like these: “My sin is ever before me. I have done evil in your sight. I was born guilty. My sin is ever before me, ever before me.” And they are unable to get to the hopeful prayers in Psalm 51, like these: “Let me hear joy and gladness. Let me hear it! Put a new and right spirit within me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” Something is blocking them from getting to and going through the cleansing, healing, saving part of that psalm. And when a person has a hard time hearing the gospel for him or herself, it’s mighty hard to speak that healing word to someone else. It’s mighty hard to pay the good news more than lip service.
How can people pass the good news on if they haven’t truly heard it?
Where did this damage come from? Who hurt these souls so deeply? All it takes is a few cutting remarks, or even one deeply painful one. All it takes is one experience of being made fun of, or bullied, or criticized for something you can’t help. Or maybe they got silence when they so badly needed to hear the message, “We are so glad you are here. We love you.”
Distorted messages from people claiming to speak for God are another source of the damage. Imagine hearing over and over again that the word “sinner” is the number one thing that identifies you. Sin is the number one truth about you, and God hates it. Already the bad news is sounding more real, more true than good news. How can God love somebody so unclean, so utterly worthless? Instead of telling the story of a God who is longing to welcome all prodigals home, the story is told like this: Everybody is doomed when they are born. God is holding the threat of eternal torture over everybody unless they get their beliefs straight. Stop and think about it, what that implies: in the end God is going to be even more cruel than ISIS. At least when ISIS burns you, you die relatively quickly, and then the pain is over.
I’m not saying God is okay with sin. God is not okay with sin because God is not okay with the things that damage and destroy us and the world God made. But God is eager to rescue and heal and redeem. Judging what’s wrong is part of God’s work to heal what’s wrong. God’s judgment is like a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting away dead tissue so the person can live. God is eager to be friends. “I call you friends,” Jesus said.
But just as loud, clanging noises damage ears, loud clanging, ungracious, unloving ways of telling God’s story damage hearts and souls.
How can people pass on the good news of God’s amazing love if they can’t hear it? If it hasn’t gone down into the very marrow of their bones? If God’s love is only theoretical, out there somewhere? Does there come a point when what you don’t hear you can’t hear?
We don’t know what damaged the man’s hearing and what made it hard for him to speak. But we do know what Jesus did. Jesus gently led the man aside so he was not on display. Jesus spoke with his hands. He signed what he intended to do. Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears as if to poke through a blockage. Jesus spat and touched the man’s tongue as if to put the power of speech into the man’s mouth. Jesus groaned in deep, wordless prayer. And then Jesus said, “Ephatha! Be opened.”
Immediately the man’s ears were opened. He could hear! His mouth was opened. He could speak!
How the Lord Jesus must groan now when injured souls, people with damaged spiritual hearing are unable to take in the wonderful words of grace, mercy, forgiveness, power, and life that he wants with all his own being to give us. The Lord Jesus wants that so much for us that he went to the cross for us. The word of the cross is the word of infinite love and everlasting life! Children, can’t you hear it?
How the Lord Jesus must grieve to see people whose ability to love others and speak the word of love to others is crippled.
How the Lord Jesus longs to cradle each and every one of our faces in his hands and to use his fingers to poke through whatever blocks us from hearing the joyous news, “You are my cherished child. Your sins are forgiven. You are safe with me forever.” How Jesus longs to restore to us the joy of salvation!
Jesus is ready to take wounded people of all kinds apart with him this very day, to reach deeply into the ears of their souls where old hardened scars block them from hearing the wondrous word of God’s grace. Where pain and despair make it hard to hear. Where they’ve lost all expectation of hearing words of blessing from God, and from the people of God. The Lord Jesus reaches into their souls to heal them, praying and groaning with sighs too deep for words.
Be opened, Jesus says to them. Be opened, he says to us. Open your heart. Hear the powerful, loving word of the Lord. Open your mouth. Speak the powerful, loving word of the Lord. Open your life and pass that word on.
Be opened! Believe it when one of my people tells you that you are cherished and dear and precious just as you are, and I have good plans for you!
Be opened! Those harsh noises in your minds and hearts, those voices that tell you that you are trash—they are not the truth! It’s a phantom. It’s ringing in the ears! Don’t listen to it! Listen to my gracious words that are real! Hear the word of the Lord! What’s real is that I have redeemed you, and you are mine!
Be opened, Jesus said to the man, and his ears were opened, and his tongue was set free from its fetters, and he spoke plainly. Everyone was astounded. They exclaimed, “Jesus has done everything well: he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
Sisters and brothers, we don’t have to live with damaged hearing and damaged speaking any more! We can be healed! Jesus sets us free to speak the language of love and grace with our words and with our lives!
Sisters and brothers, I say to you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ: Be opened!