Mark 7: 31 Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. 32 There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.33 After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. 34 He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). 35 At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. 36 Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37 People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
“Epphatha!” That’s what Jesus said to the deaf man, in his native language of Aramaic. How many Aramaic speakers do we have here? I wouldn’t understand what that word means either, except that Mark, the Gospel writer, gives us a translation of what Jesus said: “Be opened,” or “Open up!”
This is not the only time that Mark’s Gospel does that. We get another Aramaic language lesson when Jesus raises a little girl from the dead, when he said to her, again in Aramaic, “Talitha Koum,” “Little girl, Arise!” We get a third Aramaic language lesson toward the end of the Gospel, as Jesus dies on the cross, and he quotes the opening words of Psalm 22, again in Aramaic: “Eloi, Eloi, lamach…My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So, for the first Question in the sermon outline: Why would Mark give us these brief language lessons? And in a language that the vast majority of his readers would never speak? Why should we even care about the exact Aramaic words, when they work perfectly well in English or Spanish or Urdu, except maybe to win a Bible trivia game, or a spot on Jeopardy?
Well, for one thing, giving us the actual Aramaic words could be a way of saying, “You can believe this; this report could only have come from an eye and ear witness, someone who was there.” But I think it’s more because of the importance of these words: these brief language lessons in First Century Aramaic are like red flags popping up as if to say, “Hey! Stop and think about this: not only is this important (everything that Jesus says is of life and death importance), this is personal, and deeply so. These words of Jesus are words we will either hear, or say, in our own languages, or even at levels deeper than words. They are words with which we can most intimately identify. Or they are words by which Jesus most intimately identifies with us.”
Take the Aramaic words of Jesus to the little girl, “Arise!” Is that not a word from Jesus that we shall hear, personally, when it comes time for our own resurrection from the dead? As Jesus said, in John 5:28: “a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear the voice of the Son of Man and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.” So, let’s get familiar with that word and that voice even now.
But “Arise,” following our name, is not just a word for our resurrection future. Are there not also ways in which we have heard that word already? And personally? Like if and when something first arose in our own hearts to say, “Yes, Lord, I believe?” and “Yes, Lord, I will follow you?”
And do we not hear that voice even yet, from time to time, calling us to arise from our satisfaction with things as they are, to arise from all that distracts us from God, to arise from our death-dealing desires and preoccupations, to reawaken in us holy aspirations, to remind us of holy promises and purposes?
As for Jesus’ words on the cross, again in Aramaic, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” have there not been times when we could identify with such feelings of utter desolation, when it feels like we too have been abandoned by God? When all the faith we have at such moments is just barely enough faith to cry out to God in confusion, even in anger? That then is a phrase by which Jesus intimately identifies with us.
As for “Epphatha,” “Be opened,” there’s more here than meets the eye. Or, make that, the ear. This healing happens on the Eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the ten cities, the Decapolis. That’s Gentile territory. It’s Jesus’ second missionary foray into Gentile turf. It was probably a Gentile to whom Jesus said, “Open up.” So, it’s not just one man whose ears are being opened to the word of God, not just one man whose tongue is being loosed with something from the mouth of the Lord, but the first man of a whole society, make that, even the whole Gentile world. “Ephphatha” could then also mean, “Let the nations be opened to hear the healing, releasing and recreating Word of God. Let the mouths of the Gentiles as well be opened to testify to the healing, releasing and recreating works of God.” That’s what the Prophets promised, and the Psalms prayed for.
And when people marvel and say, “He makes even the deaf to hear, and the mute to speak,” that echoes the promises in the prophets about the coming Messiah, like Isaiah 35: 5-6: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” These words will be as true among the nations, as in Israel.
But “Ephphatha” is not just a missionary message. It is also a very personal message, something which Jesus speaks into the depths of every heart that would open up to him. Again, that’s why we get this language lesson. “Open up. Open not only your ears, open also your hearts and minds and lives to me,” Jesus says to each and every one of us.
That makes Jesus’ voice, and Jesus’ words, “Be opened,” the sound of grace. “Open up to me” is what grace sounds like, from the mouth of Jesus. Which brings me to the second point in the outline: Jesus speaks the language of…….grace. The grace of God. That language he can speak into any ear, any heart, in any language with which any mother in the world sings her baby to sleep. He can even say it at levels deeper than words.
By “grace” I mean not only mercy, pardon, forgiveness, and acceptance, which is how we usually speak of grace. God’s grace is that, but if it’s only that, then we risk cheapening grace into just a sinning license. I mean grace in the fullest biblical sense, as God’s initiative, God’s work and God’s power to heal, to renew, recreate, restore, reconcile and release us, independent of our earning, deserving or achieving such gifts. Grace begins with forgiveness and acceptance, but it doesn’t stop there. God loves us just as we are, which is grace. But God loves us too much to leave us that way. That too is grace.
If, in this fallen world, the human self is also fallen into bondage and unable to get back up, then grace is divine love lifting us back up and setting us free. If, in this broken, fractious and fragmented world, the human self is also fractured like the jagged pieces of a mirror, then grace is the power by which God is putting our innermost parts and pieces back together, so that we might better reflect him. If we take addiction as a model, and say that we are powerless over our fatal addictions to rebellion, resentment and rejection of God, Creation, others and self, and are self-destructively reliant on idols and illusions, then grace is God in the process of substituting our destructive and death-dealing cravings with hopes and hungers for better, life-giving things.
Such grace came to the deaf man in today’s story, through what may have been the first thing that he had ever heard in his life, had he been born deaf: “Open up.” Grace through the ears: that’s what the best sermons of some preachers have been for me. I pray that it’s something we experience from time to time here. I even wonder if God’s grace is what makes some music so beautiful and stirring, as well as the most lovely sounds of nature, like the babble of a brook, the song of a bluebird, or the wind rustling through the cottonwood leaves. Could they be so beautiful and stirring because they are derived from the most beautiful sound in the universe, coming from the heavenly throne of mercy at the center of the universe, where angels and saints are gathered in joyful assembly? The song of grace, the voice of God saying, “Open up to me?” If so, then no wonder the old song begins with, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound……”
Such grace this deaf and mute man heard in his one-on-one encounter with Jesus, when Jesus took him aside for a personal touch. We too must cultivate this practice of setting time and space apart from the crowds in prayer, reading and reflection, to hear the voice and feel the touch of God’s grace.
Yet, this man’s healing was not a do-it-yourself self-improvement project. He would not have heard of Jesus on his own, let alone hear his voice. Other people brought him to Jesus. Which brings us to the third point in the outline, the two kinds of grace, of which theologians, preachers and scholars often speak. They are: a) what we might call the supernatural grace of God; and b) natural grace, that is, grace working in normal, subtle, daily ways and means, through the natural, unremarkable activities of nature and people, which we so often take for granted.
What we might call, “supernatural grace,” are those remarkable, instantaneous breakthroughs that seem to happen directly from heaven, events that seem to defy the laws of nature, logic and probability, like a man suddenly being able to hear at the touch of another man’s hands, and the sound of another man’s voice.
As for natural grace, Cal Ripken is a good example. He’s the former shortstop and third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007 for having played the greatest number of games over an extremely long career of 21 years. That’s how he got nicknamed, “The Iron Man.” I don’t call him an example of “natural grace” just because he is such a good athlete, though he is. It’s because of the answer he gave when a journalist asked him, “What’s the secret to your longevity and endurance through twenty-one Major League Baseball seasons?” and Ripkin said, “I just kept showing up.”
He just kept showing up. So do the police and the paramedics, should you need them, and usually pretty quickly, too, without stopping on the way for a burger and fries. So do our school teachers, and our Sunday School teachers, and the farmers who raise our food, harvest it and get it to market, plus the construction workers who build our shelters and work spaces, the mechanics who keep our vehicles running so we can get to work, and the civil engineers who build our roads and bridges and maintain them, so that we can get here. Doctors, nurses, aids and orderlies keep showing up at the hospital or the clinics to save lives by the thousands, daily, but so does the engineer at the water treatment plant who monitors the water quality and administers the chemicals that keep it safe to drink. Most of the time, they keep showing up, enough so that we can take that for granted, by the grace of God. If we should object and say, “But society expects that of them, and encourages and rewards them for it,” well, that too is by the grace of God.
One fruitful spiritual exercise we might want to try someday would be to sit down with a pen and a journal and recount all the ways in which we are who we are, and where we are, and we have what good things we have, because of all the people who “just kept showing up” for us. Then thank God for the grace at the source of all that grace.
Now, these distinctions between “natural grace” and “supernatural grace” make some sense from our human perspective, but not so much, perhaps, from God’s perspective. The stunning, supernatural grace that instantly opened a man’s ears happened because other people did what good friends and family members should naturally do in his case: when Jesus showed up with power to heal, they brought him to Jesus. So, there you have a partnership between natural grace and supernatural grace.
Jesus said that God “makes his sun to shine and his rain to fall on the just and the unjust,” and we take such goodness and dependability for granted and call it “natural.” But to Jesus, the very regularity of sunshine and rainfall is every bit as gracious, undeserved and intentional on God’s part as when he supernaturally healed a deaf person. The same is true for the fact that trees keep pumping out oxygen for us to breathe, and sleep refreshes our bodies and minds. It’s all natural. But what did we do to deserve that, or achieve it? So, it’s all still grace.
Remember that when we celebrate Labor Day tomorrow. We’ll be celebrating the faithfulness of the community’s laborers, leaders and servants who just keep showing up for our good as well as theirs. But the source of that is God’s gracious nature.
Now, What difference does learning Christ’s language of grace make? That’s the fourth question in the outline. There are three things I would say in response to that question. First of all, point A, is that learning the language of grace makes us more conversant with God. Conversant with God not only through words, but also with our actions and our attitudes. For life with God is like a conversation, one which God graciously initiates. God initiates the conversation with commands and questions. Commands like the ones which we hear in Jesus’ original Aramaic: “Open up to me!” and “Arise!”
As for the questions, life is always posing us difficult problems and dilemmas. But behind them stands our Maker, using them to ask of us questions, like the one he posed to Adam and Eve in the garden: “Where are you?” Or the one he posed to Cain: “Where is your brother?” Or the one which Jesus posed to the Pharisees: “What do the Scriptures say? How do you read them?” Or what the land owner in Jesus’ parable posed to his grumbling workers, who were angry because he paid the latecomers the same as what they got: “Are you jealous because I am so generous?”
That God would even initiate such conversation with us is unmerited grace, sheer gift unachieved. And God’s questions and commands always point us in the same direction, toward our dependence upon God and each other, and upon God’s achievements and virtues, more so than our own. For us to answer God’s questions and commands aright, we must dispense with all calculations of personal merit, worth and just desserts. We must abandon all thought of whether or not we are worthy of being loved, or if someone else is worthy of our love, or who among us is more worthy and why. When we accept the grace that not only forgives us, but which awakens, empowers and recreates us, then our lives and prayers become grace-filled conversations in actions and attitudes, as well as words, in response to God’s initiating questions and commands.
Being more conversant with God will also make us more cooperative with God, which is the second benefit of learning the divine language of grace, point B of question 4. We become better able to cooperate with the workings of God’s grace in this world, like those people who brought the deaf man to Jesus. For that is the nature of the Christian life: not earning things from God, not achieving and accomplishing things for God, but recognizing, responding, and cooperating with the gracious initiative of God.
Which leads to the third difference that learning the language of grace makes, point C of question #4. I call it “relax and release.” We can relax and release so much of the performance anxiety that I sometimes sense, especially among us Mennonites, with our high ideals about following Jesus. I’m glad we have them. Chalk that up to the grace of God. But by the grace of God as well, we are not required to justify ourselves and our existence in the world; God in his grace has done it for us. We are not expected, nor is it demanded of us, that we fix and save the world, first of all, because we are not capable of that on our own, but also because we are what needs fixing and saving first. God’s work of fixing and healing this broken world begins with fixing and healing us. That power is not ours to operate, like some machine or some technique; it is God’s power, and ours to co-operate with.
We can also “relax and release” our regrets or resentments about our past, and any fears about our future. Regrets about what we have done in our past can accumulate with time, like snow in the mountains, to freeze and seize our spirits up with guilt and shame. I notice that whenever I get the quarterly magazine from my old college Alma Mater, and I look through the alumni news to see if there are any names I recognize from my years there.
Confession time: It’s not just to catch up with some long-lost friends; I’m also looking for a few certain names because of something stupid I said or did to them in my ignorant youth, to see if there’s any information that would tell me where I might send a “Please Forgive Me” card, now some 35 years later.
Another confession: I’m always glad when I find that their names are not there. I suppose that’s another area of life in which I must open up, learn the language of grace, and cooperate with the renewing, releasing, restoring work of God.
The same with the resentments that accumulate through the years, if we hold on to them. I know of a man who kept a notebook of names throughout his life, the names of all who had injured, offended, betrayed or disappointed him in some way or another. As the list grew longer over the years, the circle of his friends and intimate family shrank, no surprise when you think about it. If ever he prayed during those years of keeping score, it was probably for God to punish his offenders. But when, in the waning years of his life, he first prayed, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” the opposite began to happen. After he burned the notebook, released his grudges and prayed for forgiveness, theirs and his, his circles of friendship and intimate family began to grow in number and strength. That was grace opening him up to life and to love.
By the grace of God we learn to look back in time and see, as the song put it, how “tis grace hath brought me safe thus far.” That is a recipe for gratitude. It also enables us to look forward in time, at all the uncertainties of life, and at life’s coming changes, even at looming losses, like death, and still sing, “and grace will lead me home.” That is a recipe for peace and assurance.
So, open up to hear the sweet music of God’s grace, to learn the language of God’s grace, so that we can better converse with God, cooperate with God, and relax and release to him our tongue-tying fears, regrets and resentments. That should, as the Psalm puts it, “put a new song in our mouths, a hymn of praise to God,” one that we shall sing forever with angels and saints in joyful assembly around the Throne of Grace, beginning with our very next song.