TRINITY XII – Deus in adjutorium
Introit: (Ps 70) Haste thee, O God, to deliver me: O Lord, make haste to help me: let mine enemies be ashamed and confounded that seek after my soul. Ps. Let them be confounded and put to confusion: that wish me evil. Glory be … Haste thee, O God …
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Thus saith the Lord: In that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness. The meek also shall increase their joy in the Lord, and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. For the terrible one is brought to nought, and the scorner is consumed, and all that watch for iniquity are cut off: that make a man an offender for a word, and lay a snare for him that reproveth in the gate, and turn aside the just for a thing of nought. Therefore thus saith the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob: Jacob shall not now be ashamed, neither shall his face now wax pale. But when he seeth his children, the work of mine hands, in the midst of him, they shall sanctify my name, and sanctify the Holy One of Jacob, and shall fear the God of Israel. They also that erred in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmured shall learn doctrine. (Isaiah 29.18-24)
Gradual: (Ps 34) I will alway give thanks unto the Lord: his praise shall ever be in my mouth. V. My soul shall make her boast in the Lord: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad.
Epistle: Brethren: Such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: how shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. (II Corinthians 3.4-9)
Alleluia. O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, came unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis. And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him. And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain. And he charged them that they should tell no man: but the more he charged them, so much the more a great deal they published it; and were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak. (St Mark 7.31-37)
“And they bring unto Jesus one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech.”
Way back in Eden, everyone could hear just fine. Adam and Eve heard the wind and the rain, the animals and the birds; and they heard one another. But more than this, they heard the Voice of God Himself speaking to them, regularly and directly. In their garden home, Adam and Eve heard, because hearing is what we are meant to do. Hearing belongs to human nature; and it also happens to be quite enjoyable. Think of all the things you love to listen to … If we were to sit down and make a list, it would probably grow quite lengthy, but this is the necessary thing: when God created us, when He gave us ears, it was for a reason: we are meant to hear because we have a God who speaks to us. This is part of God’s design for us, and it worked beautifully. God spoke and brought everything out of nothing. God spoke and His creatures were formed by Him, guided by Him, and blessed by Him. God spoke and told them what was best for them, and what was not.
But then Adam and Eve listened to another voice, a voice that spoke what seemed a simpler wisdom, that told them what they wanted to hear, couched in phrases like “Did God really say?” And as they listened, and embraced that message, hearing went bad. Once they heard, listened to, and believed the lie, deafness entered the world – both spiritually and physically. On that day in Eden, when Adam and Eve covered their ears, the whole world went deaf. But the deafness of the world has not silenced God. He continues to speak to us as He once spoke to that formless void, that primordial chaos. This is how creation happened in the beginning, and it is how re-creation happens, as well. God’s Word is a creative Word, a truth made clear in today’s readings.
In our Gospel lesson, the Word Himself, Jesus Christ, comes to the region of the Decapolis, to be met by a crowd of anxious people who bring Him a man who has not heard a sound or spoken an intelligible word in his entire life. Knowing Jesus to be a healer, they reasonably ask Him to lay hands on the man—a man who could not hear nor ask for himself what he needed. They ask Jesus for a miracle. Now certainly He could have healed the man by laying on a hand, or speaking a word, or praying a prayer, right then and there … but instead, He takes him off to the side, away from the crowd, and there He gets conspicuously personal (and profoundly weird). Jesus puts His fingers in the man’s ears. And then He spits (on the ground, presumably), and then reaches into the man’s mouth to touch his tongue. “And looking up to heaven, he sighed…” Luther says, “he sighed, not just for this man’s brokenness, but for all of humanity’s inability to hear God and knowing the great evils that come forth from the mouths of humanity.” He sighs, as elsewhere in His dealings with His beloved people from the beginning He laments, “Hearing they do not hear.” (Isa 6.9; Mark 4.12)
For most of us, our ears are functional, but they are finicky—something parents and spouses would call “selective hearing.” We tend to hear only what we want to hear. Jesus speaks and says one thing, but we hear something else, which, in a way, is worse than hearing nothing at all. It is a very handy trick when we want to justify ourselves: our favourite sins that don’t appear to hurt anyone, our little white lies and secret animosities, our own private versions of Christianity. We choose to hear around what God says until, eventually, some can no longer hear that Voice at all. They tune Him out altogether. And then they seek out friends, counsellors and gurus, preachers and teachers, who will tell them what they want to hear, who will explain away Christ’s teaching for them. “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (II Tim 4.3 NIV) And suddenly we are right back in the Garden, hearing those familiar words: “Did God really say?”
But that is not the life Jesus wants for us. God gave us ears for a reason. We were meant to hear His Voice. And even though we have been stubbornly covering those ears ever since we left Eden, God Himself has come to open them. And that is precisely what Jesus is doing today. For anybody who has imagined a God who is distant and unsympathetic, for anybody who has imagined a Church that is cold and sterile, note how personal and hands-on this healing miracle is. First Jesus touches the deaf man’s ears. But more than just touching, Jesus actually puts his fingers into the man’s ears; and so Christ enters the deaf man. And then Jesus spits and touches his tongue. This is not just some sort of shamanistic ritual, it is divine sign language. Jesus is speaking to the man in a way he can understand. And His gestures mean just what He says with His mouth: “Ephphatha. Be opened!” And just as He once spoke to the תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ, that primordial chaos, and there was light and life, so now again He speaks, and it is done. God’s creative Word says what it does and does what it says. Just as it was in the beginning, when God spoke to the nothing and made everything, so now Jesus speaks and touches, and just like that – the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he began to speak plainly. He can hear! He can talk!
But then Jesus does an even stranger thing. He addresses the man whom He has just made able to speak, and immediately tells him not to speak. Because, think about it: what would he say? He doesn’t really know that much yet. Hearing must precede speaking. This, very simply, is the life of the Church. Jesus speaks to us, Jesus touches us, Jesus gives us His words, and then He bids us share them with others.
Hearing and seeing are the biblical senses of understanding. It might seem, at first, that they are simply about what is received, that they are merely passive senses, the senses of reception. Something seen is received by the eye; something heard is received by the ear. But there is an activity as well—the activity of seeing, the activity of hearing. What is seen and heard must be understood. Something is communicated, the meaning of which we enter into through the deeper activity of understanding. For it is not just the words which are heard or the vision which is seen that is received. What the words signify, what the sight reveals, is given to be understood.
Our understanding, our wrestling with the significance of things, is a profoundly spiritual activity. It speaks to who we are in the sight of God – those to whom God would reveal Himself and into Whose presence He would have us come. Hearing and seeing, as the senses of understanding, mean that there is an acting upon what is received. There is a similar double-sidedness to our “being opened.” In the Gospel reading, there is the putting of Jesus’ fingers into the deaf man’s ears, the spitting upon the ground, the touching of his tongue – all outward, tangible and physical acts – but, as well, there is Jesus’ “looking up to heaven,” His sighing and saying unto him, “Ephphatha, be opened.” There is, in short, a true healing: “and straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain.” As with all the healing miracles of the Gospels, they signify the restoration of our nature. God desires not the deformity of our being but the perfection of our humanity, our being made totally and completely open to the truth of God, willing what God wills for us.
“Ephphatha, be opened!” We are opened in two senses. We are opened not only to receive, but to give of ourselves from what we have received. “Open your hearts,” as St Paul tells the Corinthians (II Cor 7.2). Only then are we acting in the image of the One who has opened His heart totally and completely to us in the sacrifice of the cross. In this healing miracle, Christ looks up to heaven. This reveals His openness to the will of the Father whence comes the healing grace in fulfilment of the words “be opened.” Even the word itself is opened to us. It is spoken in Aramaic – “Ephphatha” – but its meaning is opened to us by St Mark, who gives the interpretation, “be opened.”
On the cross, Christ also looks up to heaven, and His last word is to commend all into the hands of the Father: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Here we see the total openness of the Son to the Father in prayer and praise. Hence, there is a fundamental connexion between the healing miracles of Christ and the death and resurrection of Christ, with the give-and-take of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit—the perichoresis of the Trinity itself. Likewise we are opened out to the Truth of God so that we can enter into that Truth, give ourselves to it, and offer our prayers and praises for it. For what do we give in the giving of ourselves to God? We give our prayers and praises, which in turn must impel us towards one another in love, because our prayers and praises are never solitary. They always connect us to one another and to God in a community in praise and loving service. If ever we are to be the Church, the Body and Bride of Christ, and not just some pathetic impostor, it will require nothing short of the giving of ourselves to what has been opened out to us, to the great and wondrous things of God Himself given to us and for us – the mysteries of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, and the redemptive work of Christ. “Our sufficiency is from God,” as St Paul says.
In the Epistle, St Paul contrasts the Old Covenant, describing it as “the letter,” with the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, described as “the Spirit.” He says the Old Covenant is the “ministry of death carved in letters on stone,” referring to the tablets of the Mosaic Law. It is the “ministry of condemnation,” because the words themselves act as a kind of mirror to show us that we are all sinners deserving of death and in need of forgiveness. The New Covenant, the “ministry of the Spirit,” is the “ministry of righteousness,” and “far exceeds [the Old Covenant] in glory,” for several reasons.
First, it reveals our sin, not by external regulation, but by hearing inwardly the call to repent. That inner Voice reveals to us the Truth about ourselves, and calls us to the highest love, not only in our outward deeds, but in the thoughts of our hearts. But that Voice of the Spirit speaks not only of sin, but of the love of Christ, words of encouragement – like the wooing of a Lover – the Voice of the Bridegroom (cf. John 3.29), the Voice of Holy Wisdom (Proverbs 8). With the calling to account, is the song of the turtledove (Song of Songs 2.12), the unveiling of a new home, a place of eternal Spring – the Paradise of God. The Spirit leads us from sin, but also gives us not aprons of fig-leaves of our own fashioning, but the cloak of righteousness won for us by Christ-God Himself, the wedding garment of purity through our union with Him (Isa 61.10). And the Spirit gives us also the grace to amend our lives—to change inwardly—not only to be accounted righteous (justifying grace), but to become righteous even as Jesus is righteous (sanctifying grace)—both an inward hearing, and a willing of the good that we hear. We are filled with the Voice of Love, and it, in turn, makes us better able to love. This is a “ministry of righteousness” far exceeding in glory what is possible by the hearing of the Word—the Law—outwardly only, with our bodily ears. This is the ministration of the Spirit in the New Covenant to each one of us: the opening our ears to hear God’s Voice, the Voice of Jesus Christ, and the loosening of our tongues to speak more plainly, more clearly, more boldly, more truthfully.
What is it to hear God’s voice? The desire to hear the Voice of God is at the heart of the whole mystical tradition of the Church through the ages – the desire and expectation to hear that still small Voice. But what about the rest of us? Will we take the time to listen? And will we hear the Voice of God only so long as it fits in with our own plans already? What if we hear that Voice calling us to something that seems our very destruction? Jesus tells us, unless we lose our lives for His sake – that is, give up our own ideas of what life is – only then will we find true life. (Matt 10.39; 16.25; John 12.25) Hearing, then, has to do not just with understanding the actual message itself, but with obedience to that call. This is not at all easy – but if we think the Christian life is easy, we have not been hearing the Voice of God.
And what about the gift of speaking? At its most basic level, it has to do with opening our mouths in prayer to ask God for those things that are most important: to be filled with His Spirit; that His Truth might transform us, illuminate us, even wound us that He might make us whole; that we should use our mouths not to tear down but to build up others; that we should use our mouths to give praise and glory to God, which is our ultimate end.
After the miracle, Jesus charged the people to tell no one. “But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” They “hear,” in a sense, when they see the power of God, and only then are their tongues loosed to speak, perhaps for the first time, the praises of God – he has done all things well! But we see also a kind of ambiguity – because the crowd both “hear” and they do not “hear.” Why are they speaking out? Is it to boast about being there to see some spectacular event? Quick, post it to Facebook, or Twitter! I was there! But will their hearing of His words, the seeing of the miracle, change their lives? Have they heard but not heard?
What about us? Do we see how we are both hearing and not hearing? Do we expect, do we truly desire, to hear the voice of God inwardly, personally, to our souls today? And what about our obedience that Word, that Voice? What about our obedience to the high calling of the moral life, which is to truly love our neighbour? Are we ready to act upon what God is speaking to us in our hearts? Perhaps a radical giving up of something very dear to us, that we might find everything? To “be opened,” then, means to give. This is the strong counter to our contemporary “consumer” religion of pleasure and comfort which is all take and no give. It is not open but closed to the Truth of God revealed. We can be open to one another only by being open to the things of God. And only then shall we truly behold His glory. God’s Word today challenges all of us, because you and I know that no one of us is fully responding to that Voice. But we also know that that Voice only wants what is best for us. It is a Voice most patient, most kind, most loving, most merciful; it is a Voice that woos us, speaking to us from Paradise … and even now is calling us to the marriage feast of the Lamb.
It begins at the Font. Jesus touches us with Water and Word just as He touched the deaf man in today’s Gospel. In Holy Baptism Christ drenches us; He gets into our eyes and our ears, into our nose and mouth; and He prises them open. That is why in the ancient Baptismal rite, the priest puts his fingers in the ears of the candidate and says, “Ephphatha, be opened,” and then places “salt of wisdom” on the candidate’s tongue—to signify to all present that this is what Jesus is actually doing through Baptism. “Then the Lord put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth.” (Jer 1.9) But note the order: ears first – tongue second. (Remember the old adage: God gave us two ears, but only one mouth; so we should listen twice as much as we speak). So Jesus wants us to hear with our new ears before going out and speaking with our new tongue. It sounds a lot like the Liturgy, doesn’t it: praying the Psalms, and singing the hymns, saying back to God what He first says to us. That is why we ought to pray the Daily Office, do Bible studies, and come to church each week to listen to God’s Word read and expounded: we need to hear and internalise the Word of God before we can speak properly, boldly, and convincingly. This is why the Office of Mattins begins, “O Lord, open thou my lips.” Because if you are opening your own lips, what comes out is bound not to be so great, so we had best leave the opening and utterance to Him. That is Christ’s job—to open our ears and our mouth. His Word is speech therapy for us who do not know what to say or how to say it. He puts His Word in our ears, and then He draws it out again through our mouths. And then we are to proclaim that Word to others, sharing with them the Good News that by His cross and passion Jesus has purchased and redeemed us; that by His resurrection He has justified us; that by His Holy Spirit He has given us a new heart to receive Him, new ears to hear Him, and a new tongue to confess Him to a world gone deaf; so that all would hear Him and know Him, and that He would bring us all back home again to Paradise.
“I will alway give thanks unto the Lord: his praise shall ever be in my mouth.”
Collect: O Lord, from whom all good things do come: Grant to us thy humble servants, that by thy holy inspiration we may think those things that be good, and by thy merciful guiding may perform the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.