1st sermon as vacancy pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Pleasant Dale, Nebraska
IN NOMINE JESU
As I take a look around this morning, I would suppose that a considerable number of you have undergone surgery at some time in your lives. And whether you have or not, you know someone who has. The procedure is similar for most patients: the doctor examines you and has you undergo tests, all the while hoping that surgery would be a last resort. But when everything else has not provided the desired results, the doctor and you decide it's time for an operation. Just prior to surgery, the anesthetist puts you under (which is the only way I'd want to go through surgery). Shortly after that, the surgeon begins the operation and opens you up and does his work so that you may begin the healing process. But for you to be made right, you must first be opened at the source of the pain. Even if you have not had surgery, I am certain you have all been to the doctor for a routine checkup, treatment of an illness, or a physical examination. What is one of the first things the doctor asks you to do in his exam room? No, he doesn't ask for your money (though it may feel like that sometimes). He gets a tongue depressor and asks you to open your mouth and say "ah." He has you open your mouth to see how well you are. In order that you would be well or declared well, there must be an opening of some kind, whether surgically or physically.
In our text, there is an opening that leads to total healing, an opening and healing that only the Lord could provide. He healed a man who was deaf and mute…unable to hear and speak. The Lord took him aside, away from the crowd, and showed him where He was going to do His work. He put His fingers in the man's ears. He spit and touched the man's tongue. By a single word, Ephphatha, that is, "Be opened," the Lord restored the man's hearing and speech. He could hear! He could speak! Praise the Lord! "He has done all things well," the people said. "He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak" (v. 37). If they had read the Scriptures, they would have realized that this Jesus is the fulfillment of the Prophets. In our Old Testament reading we heard this spoken of the Lord: "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy" (Is. 35:5-6a). This is the same Lord, spoken of by the Psalmist, who "opens the eyes of the blind; the LORD raises those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; He relieves the fatherless and widow; but the way of the wicked He turns upside down" (Ps. 146:8-9). This Jesus they saw and marveled at was the long-promised Messiah, the very Son of God and Son of Man. This is the same Lord who fed the 5,000 with just five loaves of bread and two fish, as we heard a few weeks ago in Mark 6. But they saw Him as nothing more than a miracle worker. They needed their eyes of faith opened. They were walking not by faith but by sight, but they did not see the Lord for who He really is because they were spiritually blind…blind and dead in their trespasses and sins. They needed their eyes, ears, mouths, and hearts opened so that they would truly behold Jesus Christ and believe in Him.
This did not happen, did it? They remained steadfast in their unbelief, for they kept themselves closed off from Him and His message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His was a message the people needed to hear, and His is a message we need to hear some 2,000 years later. Why do we need to hear this message? We already answered this question when we confessed "that we are by nature sinful and unclean" (LSB, p. 151). We have shown ourselves as sinful and unclean by sinning against God "in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved [God] with our whole heart; [and] we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves." For this we "justly deserve [God's] present and eternal punishment." We have sinned against God by closing ourselves off from Him and His Word, by not heeding His call to repentance and faith, and by making light of His Word and Sacraments, as if none of this matters. Yet it is through these means that the Lord comes to His people to bring us His gifts of healing for our souls, to bring us the forgiveness of sins. We don't want to be opened up by God's Law and exposed for the poor, miserable sinners we really are. But it is when we are opened up that He touches us with His Gospel, bringing us healing for our souls and soothing for our consciences terrorized by sin.
But sometimes, after a trip to the doctor's office, we don't want to take what he prescribes for us because it can be a bitter pill for us to swallow. Yet even the bitterest of medicines can provide the greatest healing; so why not take what the doctor has prescribed, so that you would feel better again? The medicine that Christ, our great Physician, offers us in His Word and Sacraments is the only medicine that can heal our souls and mend our hearts broken by sin; yet it is not bitter; it is not sour. The Psalmist writes: "How sweet are Your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way" (Ps. 119:103-104).
One word from Christ was sweet to the deaf and mute man: Ephphatha, that is, "Be opened," for it meant that his ears and mouth were opened. He could hear the word of the Lord and confess Him plainly, for the Lord touched ears and mouth, and as we hear from St. Paul, "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). One word from Christ is just as sweet to us: Tetelestai, that is, "It is finished," for it means that the way to heaven for you has been opened. We get to hear the Word of the Lord and confess Him plainly, as we have heard His Word read and proclaimed and will in a few moments confess the Nicene Creed. He has touched your ears with His words of forgiveness in Holy Absolution. He touches your lips with His body and blood, the very body He gave and the very blood He shed on the cross for the forgiveness of all your sins, the very body and blood He gives in His holy Supper.
We have come to receive healing from the Great Physician of our souls, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He brought about our healing when He died on the cross to take away the sin of the world, including your sins and mine. For hours on end heaven was closed to the Son of God, forsaken by His own Father for our sake. From the cross the Lord cried, Tetelestai, which means, "It is finished!" It was as if He had said Ephphatha, which means, "Be opened," as He said to the deaf mute, for when our Lord died, the temple curtain was ripped from top to bottom, thereby giving us access to our heavenly Father through Christ. And on the third day Christ rose from the dead, giving us the promise of eternal life, opening the kingdom of heaven to all believers. The risen Lord bid Thomas to touch the sacred wounds of the Lord, so that Thomas would touch others with the Word of God that the Lord called him to preach, likely in the Far East. But wherever the Lord sends His messengers, He sends them to touch His people with His healing Word and Sacraments. Listen to the words of the ancient church father, Ambrose of Milan: "Every Sabbath we witness the 'opening up' of a mystery. It is in outline form the type of that liturgical opening when the minister once touched your ears and nostrils [at Baptism…]. What does this mean? Remember in the Gospel, our Lord Jesus Christ, when the deaf and dumb man was presented to Him, touched his ears and his mouth: the ears because he was deaf; the mouth, because he was dumb. And He said: 'Ephphatha,' a Hebrew word, which…means [be opened]. In this way the minister is now touching your ears, that your ears may be opened to this sermon and exhortation."
And again, Ambrose says, "So open your ears and enjoy the good odor of eternal life which has been breathed upon you by the grace of the Sacraments. This we pointed out to you as we celebrated the mystery of the opening and said: 'Ephphatha,' that is, 'Be opened,' so that everyone about to come to the table of grace might know what He was asked and remember the way He once responded. Christ celebrated this mystery in the Gospel, as we read, when He healed the one who was deaf and dumb."
Our Lord has touched our foreheads and our hearts in Holy Baptism, marking us with the sign of the cross, marking us as those redeemed by Christ the crucified. He touches our ears in the Word which is in and with the water, as we became baptized in and into the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. He continues to touch our ears in the daily living of our Baptism, in the forgiveness of sins, as the Old Adam by daily contrition and repentance is drowned and dies with all sins and evil desires, and as the new man daily emerges and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. He continues touching our ears in the public reading and proclamation of His Word. Our Lord touches our ears and our lips in His Supper, where He gives us His Word, which is in, with, and under the bread and wine, thereby giving us His body to eat and His blood to drink, as He bids us to do in His own testament. By a word, Ephphatha, our Lord opens our lips, and our mouths declare His praise, having received the gifts He brings in His Means of Grace, namely, the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation. He gives us these gifts through these means, that our faith would be strengthened so that we would truly do the good works that are pleasing to God, works that are borne of the faith He has given us and strengthened in us.
May our prayer be that of the Psalmist, who writes in Psalm 51, the words we pray at the beginning of Matins and Vespers: "O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise" (Ps. 51:15). God grant this in Jesus' Name and for His sake. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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