The Sigh That Sets Us Free (Mark 7:31-37)

The 15th Sunday after Pentecost (September 5, 2021)

Many things are vying for our attention today via social media, the public media, advertisers and even members of our own family. Often it is the sensational, the glitzy, or the most outrageous that ends up succeeding in getting our full attention, sometimes even to the detriment of everything else that is going on in our lives.

One of the things that we are often most captivated by is the abject and undeserved suffering of others, whether it be that of an individual or a whole group.  In fact those who seek to get our attention toward such suffering will often go to great lengths to boldly display it in living color before our very eyes so that we cannot escape noticing it. 

This is no doubt a good thing.  After all, in our inbreed self-centeredness, it’s all too easy for us to turn our heads when we encounter someone else’s pain and misery.  The thought that goes through our minds is if we don’t look at it we can pretend that it does not exist and we can avoid any responsibility toward getting involved and helping rescue those imprisoned by such infirmities.

In our text from the Gospel of Mark this morning, we see some rather zealous individuals make sure they grab Jesus’ attention for the sake of a friend of theirs.  Jesus would have had to go to great effort to ignore this suffering.  Talk about in your face!  Mark writes:  “And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him.”

The Greek could actually be translated a bit more graphically. This poor man not only could not hear a sound he was also totally mute. He could possibly grunt out some sounds but nothing intelligible.  He was deaf and dumb!

It’s hard to imagine a more lonely existence?  It would be like living in a silent cocoon.  Through our hearing and speech we communicate with others.  Without these wonderful senses, we are totally dependent upon our sight and touch to know if anyone is even in the room with us.  For you and me, sometimes, simply the sound of another person breathing next to us is comforting.  The thoughts, concerns, hopes, and fears of others come to us through our ears.  We receive relief sometimes just being able to voice our concerns and feelings to others.  But this poor man was in an isolation chamber of absolute silence and loneliness. 

Imagine this man’s joy, then, when Jesus took notice of his plight and suddenly opened his life up to the wonderful world of sound... a world we often take so much for granted.  He probably didn’t even know where his friends had taken him.  More than likely he didn’t even know who Jesus was or anything about him.  And yet, with Jesus’ amazing touch and one spoken word, his life was truly reborn! He was set free from his prison… free to enter the world of sound… free to hear His Savior’s voice…. Free even to praise Jesus and tell others about Jesus and what He had done for him. 

Amazingly, Jesus did it all by speaking one word:  “Ephphatha!”  It is an Aramaic word, which simply put, translates:  “Be Opened!” With this exhortation Jesus spoke well beyond mere physical healing.  Ephphatha is a command of opening up toward true healing of the soul.  It’s a cry of emancipation!

Now, the setting of this miracle is crucial to its understanding. Jesus and His disciples had just concluded a brief tour through the Phoenician (Gentile) lands in the vicinity of the ancient cities of Tyre and Sidon.  They were once again along the south-eastern shores of the Lake of Galilee, not far from where Jesus had earlier miraculously fed the masses from the 5 loaves of bread and two fish.  It was the region of the “Ten Cities,” in Greek called Decapolis.

From Matthew’s account we learn that the masses had once again caught up to Jesus.  By this time, Jesus’ great healing powers were being reported everywhere.  Matthew tells us that the people were bringing their sick, lame, blind, and deaf/mute friends and family members to Jesus that He might heal them with His touch.

Mark, however, does not even make a passing reference to the masses.  Guided by the Holy Spirit, he chooses instead to record only this healing of this deaf mute. Clearly, by doing so, Mark is telling us that this was a special case.

Mark had good reason to isolate this one case for us. Unlike, the many other people Jesus was healing, He gave this man His most intimate attention.  Jesus, literally, took the man aside to Himself. Then He put His fingers in the man’s ears.  Finally, He took some of His own saliva and put it on the man’s tongue.

Jesus’ actions went well beyond a simple empathetic concern for the plight of this man.  Most of the time Jesus merely spoke and the sick were healed. This deaf man was different. Jesus was personally identifying with his plight.  Jesus was communicating to this poor man in the only way he could understand.  Since he couldn’t hear or ask questions Jesus’ fingers in his ear canal and on his tongue communicated to the man in a manner he could understand the healing Jesus was going to give him (C.H. Lenski, Augsburg, 1961,p. 309, 310).

Jesus now had the afflicted man’s full attention.  He intently and up close watched as Jesus looked up to heaven.  Again, Jesus’ action was purposeful.  Jesus was making it clear to the man that the freedom from his imprisonment that the deafness and muteness imposed upon him was from above; that is, it was from God and that in the flesh of Jesus God had come down to him to free him.

Next, Mark notes that Jesus let out a deep sigh.  A more literal rendering of the Greek would be that “He moaned.”  It was a gut-wrenching moan!  Jesus saw in this man a need that went well beyond physical impairment.  He was personally identifying with the physical impairment and confinement imposed on this poor man.

Fresh in Jesus’ mind and heart was the impoverished spiritual condition He had witnessed in the Gentile lands.  He had seen up close and personal victims imprisoned by their own ungodly lusts.  He had also witnessed the spiritual bankruptcy of His own people.  They had forsaken God’s commands and turned to following myths and doctrines of their perverted leaders.  Their spiritual ears of faith were blocked from hearing the truth. 

I believe Jesus so personally identified with this man’s plight because his physical deafness and muteness was a most graphic representation of the spiritual bondage of the people around Him.  The very sight of it made Him “groan” to the depths of His being. Sin had not only marred His beautiful creation, leaving damaged goods where there should have been perfect bodies, but sin had also imprisoned mankind under the assaults of the Devil and under the massive weight of God’s condemning wrath.  Jesus’ personal connection was inescapable.  As God’s Son in human flesh, He had come for this very purpose to free men from all bondage to sin, death, and the devil’s evil control.

It is this “sigh” (moan) more than anything else Jesus said or did here that ought to bring us all the greatest comfort and hope.  It assures us that Jesus is not aloof to this man’s plight nor to your and my hurts and needs.  He had come for the very purpose to take up our infirmities and carry our sorrows, to be pierced for our transgressions that by His wounds we would be healed (Is. 53:4,5). 

That utter divine empathy and compassion for the plight of sinners would later be in full display as Jesus would look out over the hungry crowd of 4,000 and, literally, His bowels would ache for them” (Mark 8:2).  It was clearly evident to all when he saw the grief of Mary and Martha over the death of their brother Lazarus and as John records, “Jesus wept.” 

This sigh of Jesus ought to be heard around the world!  God is not deaf and dumb to our imprisonment… our deafness… our muteness…our suffering … our grief.  He feels it in His own flesh.  Our world and political leaders and rulers often tell us they care about our struggles and plight in this world.  But when push comes to shove, instead of sacrificing their control, their reputations, their power, their wealth or their livelihood to rescue their people, they ignore our plight… they run and hide… they leave us behind!  Not Jesus, though!  His heart aches for our plight.  He willingly became flesh of our flesh to share in our imprisonment and to grant us release from it.  God so loved the world that He have us His only begotten Son to be the atoning sacrifice to free us from our sins (Jn. 3:16). Jesus’ very sigh is the well-spring from which the waters of our freedom come forth.  His empathy manifested itself in His own suffering on the cross in your place and mine.

The unique character of this man’s plight and Jesus’ deliverance was further evidenced by what Jesus said.  He didn’t simply say, “Be healed!”   or “Receive your hearing back!”  Instead, Jesus commanded:  “Ephphatha!”  Mark quickly translates:  “Be opened!” 

Such an expression might sound a bit strange for a healing. But this was not simply a healing. It was a freeing from prison.  Look how Mark describes what happened to the man.  Literally, “and immediately, his hearing was opened and the chain of his tongue was loosed.” 

This is not mere healing language.  It is freedom language!  Jesus was delivering this poor deaf/mute from jail!  He was loosening the chains that were binding him and opening his prison door to freedom.  Mind you, not simply physical freedom.  But Jesus freed him from spiritual bondage as well.

Today, Jesus still speaks with His “Ephphatha!” to grant each of you release and freedom.  After all, we are all by nature deaf and dumb.  Scripture assures us that we all have been conceived and born in sin.  As the prophet Isaiah tells us, our iniquities have made a wall of separation between us and God.  Our sins have caused His face to be hidden from us.   So much so that He does not hear us and we can not hear or come to Him.  (Is. 59:2,3).  Our hearing is closed to His voice.  Our tongues are tied to falsehood and lies.  King David himself laments in his Psalm this tragic human condition:  “I am like a deaf man, who cannot hear, like a mute, who cannot open his mouth...” (Ps. 38:13). 

This is indeed a most serious problem!  We are held captive by death.  “By nature we are dead in our transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Dead men can’t hear or speak.  There is no communication with God.  In fact, hell awaits the spiritually deaf and dumb. The devil loves to keep us captive to death by closing our ears to the good news of the Gospel.  After all, only those who have been “opened” to hear the voice of Jesus Christ will enjoy eternity in glory and he knows it.

How wonderful it is then, that Jesus took personal interest in your case.  He did not simply pronounce some sympathetic platitudes in your behalf or put His fingers in the deaf ears of your stony hearts or touch the tongue of your wayward mouths.  Instead, in His compassion, He took upon Himself your very bound-up condition.  He became flesh of your flesh so He could be imprisoned by the devil’s tortuous assaults, by the guilt of your sins, and by the just sentence of death and eternal punishment due all of us.

But then came that beautiful word from Jesus’ cross uttered by his pain-stricken and bloodied lips, “Tetelestai!”  that is; “It is finished!”   With that word the prison doors of sin, death, and the devil were forever opened and all you who believe in Jesus were set free to hear God’s voice of forgiveness, to sing the praises of His wonderful grace, and to see His glory! 

That release from bondage was visually and dramatically displayed upon Jesus’ death as the curtain in the temple, closing off the Most Holy Place, was torn in two from top to bottom and the graves of believers in the Jerusalem cemetery cracked wide open and the bodies within rose to life again.  Loud and clear those remarkable events proclaimed: “Be Opened!”

Jesus has personally extended to you His compassionate touch through His Word and Sacraments.  Through the Word of the Gospel proclaimed to you by your parents, your pastor, your Sunday School teachers ......... through God’s promise of sins forgiven applied to you in Holy Baptism… through the Word of absolution pronounced to you by the pastor… through the very body and blood of Christ given you in the Lord’s Holy Supper, Jesus takes you aside, sighs, lays His hand upon you, and says, “Ephphatha!” “Be opened…” “Be Free!”

The devil loves to keep us deaf and dumb to the Word of Christ though.  The poor man Jesus encountered was held in the physical bondage of deafness.  But devil also seeks to keep you and me in the spiritual bondage of deafness.  He does so by diverting our attention away from the true preaching of Christ’s Word and the right administration of His Sacraments and luring us into heterodox churches.  The devil deafens us when he fills our ears with the philosophies of men… when he causes us to follow the tenets of our pop culture instead of God’s Word… when he seeks to fill our lives with worldliness and busyness so that we become apathetic and lazy in attending church.

This ought not be.  In the freedom Christ give us, we must avail ourselves of every opportunity to listen to Jesus’ Word that His healing voice and His Ephphatha might resonate in our ears and hearts every day, keeping us free from all that would seek to enslave us.

And what about all those around us, who do not know of this freedom but remain imprisoned by spiritual deafness?  The final thing we see in this text is how great is the need for others to be brought to Jesus that their deafness might be opened.  The man in our text would never have been healed if not for the fact that others brought him to Jesus.  Being a deaf man he could not hear the Good News of Jesus. He wouldn’t have known to come to Jesus to be released from the devil’s chains.  How blessed he was to have friends who cared enough about him and his plight that they brought him to Jesus.

As those who have already been “opened up” to life and salvation in Jesus Christ, having been given the gift of faith in Jesus as our Savior, do we care enough for those around us, still deaf in spiritual bondage, to bring them to Jesus that they might be opened up to hear His sigh for them and be set free?  Or are we content to let them languish in prison and suffer eternal death?

It is not as though any of us lack opportunity to bring them to the Healer!  There are abundant avenues available to us in our congregation alone to bring ourselves and others into the healing grasp of Jesus.  Every Sunday morning through our worship services, as well as other days during week through Bible studies, Jesus meets with us in His Word and Sacraments.   Who could you invite and bring along with you that He might set them free?  Our Lutheran Classical School, Sunday School and Vacation Bible Schools all share Jesus and His Word with both those in and outside our congregation.  Our prayers for these ministries, our offers to aid and teach, and our financial support ensure that these bondage freeing ministries endure.

God bless us that we heed the sigh of Jesus and bring the imprisoned to Him that He might set them free!

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