The Finger of God

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church and Oxford Lutheran Mission 2012 on 26 August 2012, Trinity 12.
Text: Mark 7:31–37

A recording from Our Saviour is available here.

Image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum under Creative Commons Licence 3.0

As is well known, the Gospel according to St. Mark is the shortest of the four gospels by quite a margin. Of all the evangelists, Mark is the most economical with words. Where Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount and other long discourses of Jesus, where Luke records long parables and John gives us nearly chapter-long sermons by Jesus, Mark hardly ever quotes anything longer than short snippets and summaries of Jesus’ teaching. He leaves out many of the events and details that we find in the other Gospels, as if in a great hurry to get to the Passion Narrative, the description of Jesus’ death. So breathless is Mark’s account, that one of the most common words in his Gospel is the Greek word e)uqu’s: immediately. Mark uses it 41 times, whereas in the rest of the New Testament it only appears ten times. Jesus was baptised and immediately he was taken to the wilderness by the Spirit. Immediately, Jesus went into the synagogue. Immediately, immediately, immediately. Hurry along.

One effect of this breathlessness is that when Mark does slow down, we need to sit up and pay attention. When he gives us more than the bare bones, when he pauses to dwell on some detail, we need to slow down with him and follow his gaze to that detail. If it wasn’t important, Mark if anyone would pass over it. In Mark’s account of Jesus, it’s not the devil that’s in the detail but the Gospel!

We are before one such moment in this morning’s Gospel selection. Most of this passage is not unlike other healings by Jesus. Mark records several of them in the short space of his Gospel. But unlike at other times, here he draws us in to observe in detail how Jesus heals, what the Lord actually does:

And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

Why all this seemingly unnecessary detail? Why does Mark want us to stop and stare as Jesus takes the man by the arm, walks him to the side and performs this strange ritual?

Mark slows the Gospel to slow-motion so that me might see Jesus use his fingers, his touch, to destroy the power of sin over the deaf-mute man. By doing this, he connects this particular healing to a rich theme that runs through the Bible.

Throughout Scripture, the finger of God appears as God’s chosen weapon against the power of sin and for the creation of goodness and holiness.

We are told in Psalm 8 that at the beginning, at creation, the heavens themselves were the work of God’s fingers. The life-giving sun, the source of the refreshing rains, the image of God’s own dwelling place came from the finger of God.

So also after the fall, God established the ceremonies in the tabernacle as a means for His people to be restored to the holiness their sinfulness had lost. And time and again, the priests whose task it was to administer God’s gracious gifts to the people were commanded to dip their finger in the blood of the sacrifice and sprinkle it as a means of purification. Thus purified by the work of the divinely appointed finger, the people had access to life in the presence of God and a cure against the power of sin and death.
Likewise, on Mount Sinai, God gave His law to His people, to guard them against sin and to direct them to the paths of righteousness. Not only did God speak to Moses, but having spoken He carved the Law on tablets of stone with His finger. This handiwork of God was stored in the ark of the covenant in the sanctuary to be a permanent guard against sin and disobedience.

In the same way, God’s finger is also His instrument for destroying the power of His enemies. During Israel’s last days in Egypt, the Pharaoh’s magicians were able to replicate the first two plagues sent through Moses, but by the third plague their magic no longer worked. Stumped by the power working through Moses, the magicians declared, “This is the finger of God.” The powers of darkness could go so far in their war against God, but when God moved His finger, they were thwarted and stopped. This was a warning to Pharaoh to give up his resistance and give glory to God. But since Pharaoh didn’t pay heed to the warning but hardened his heart, he met with the judgement of God to which God’s finger had already pointed.

Likewise nearly a millennium later, when king Belshazzar desecrated the sacred vessels of the Temple at his feast, it was the finger of God that appeared on the wall to declare God’s judgement on him—and that night, he was killed.

Here we have learned that when our attention is drawn to the fingers of the Son of God, we should sit up and take notice.

The deafness and the muteness of this man was more than merely a physical handicap that impeded his life in a cruel way. It was a great spiritual handicap, too. Here was a man who was unable to hear God’s word, a man who was unable to speak God’s word—whether in prayer, in praise or to make a confession of faith. No doubt he had learned ways to alleviate the effects of his disability, but compared to his peers, he was at a fundamental disadvantage.

For our God is a God who speaks. He spoke creation into existence, He spoke covenants with Noah, Abraham and Moses, He spoke blessing and He spoke curses. He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets who have been since the world began. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that in many and various spoke God spoke to our fathers through the prophets. And through such speaking, Noah and Abraham and Moses received faith, David was brought to repentance after his adultery with Bathsheba, the walls of Jericho fell down and Goliath was defeated.

“Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ,” St. Paul writes to the Romans. And if this is the case, what happens to the deaf man who cannot hear? How can he believe if he cannot hear? How can God’s word do its work in him if he cannot hear the word? I should add that in those days, reading was a poor substitute since reading, too, was always done aloud, unlike today.

Likewise, St. Paul writes, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” What about the mute man? Even if he can form his thoughts, his confession and his prayers in his heart—and God sees into the heart—a mute man is condemned to stand by in silence as the congregation of God’s people join their voices as one to confess the faith, to send up their prayers, their thanksgiving and their praises.

To this impediment, this great disability, the finger of God brought mercy and healing, opening ears to hear and lips to speak. You can hear Jesus’ great compassion in Mark’s simple description: “Looking up to heaven, [Jesus] sighed and said to him, ‘Be opened.’ ” And the ears were opened to hear the Word of God and the tongue loosed to speak it.

We mustn’t think that these are questions of merely historical interest. Even today, the deaf are some of the most disadvantaged people in our society when it comes to hearing the Gospel. Great efforts are being made in some quarters to break the silence and to bring the Gospel to those who cannot hear—our sister church in the USA, the Missouri Synod, even has some congregations for the deaf, where the whole service is signed—but the need far surpasses these efforts. When we pray for the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into the field, we do well to think especially of those who are unable to participate in the life of the church through deafness: labourers who will learn sign language and use it to break the silence in our churches for those whose ears cannot hear.

But we mustn’t think that these are questions concerning merely a small disabled minority amongst us, either. For the deaf and mute man was at the same time a perfect picture of the effect of sin on all people. Whether hearing or not, all natural ears are closed to the sound of God’s word. Listen to the sounds of the world, and all you hear about is the world: its past, its present, its future; its interests and dislikes; its offerings and its disadvantages; its people and its gods. Filter out the sounds of the world and strain to hear the sound of God, and all you are left with is a profound silence. The last time the sound of God was heard in the world by natural ears was on that fateful day when Adam and Eve hid from God before they were expelled from His presence.

And like a child growing up in an English-speaking environment is unable to speak Russian because it cannot hear Russian, the children of this world are unable to speak the words and language of God, because they cannot hear them. Before God, we are in ourselves all deaf and mute, incapable of sound hearing or right speech.
But when Jesus comes to you, He puts His powerful finger in your ears and His cleansing spittle on your tongue—He touches you through the hand of the baptiser, the confessor, the distributor of the sacrament—and He opens your ears and looses your tongue. To make yourself heard to deaf ears is impossible for man. But Jesus speaks to deaf ears: He says, “Ephphatha,” and the deaf ears hear and are deaf no more. To argue, to cajole, to persuade, to love a lost and condemned sinner to faith is impossible; but the Holy Spirit, who is the finger of God, the finger of Jesus, can speak hearing to deaf ears and faith to unbelieving hearts.

This is why we begin all our services of Matins and Vespers with the prayer of Psalm 51: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise.” This is why it has been a custom since ancient times to make the sign of the cross over the lips during this opening versicle: to add the touch of the cross to the words of the Saviour. This is why it has been a custom since ancient times to make the sign of the cross over the forehead, the lips and the heart when the Gospel is announced in the Divine Service: to apply the touch of the life-giving cross to our minds, mouths and hearts as we hear the life-giving word. For in the Christian church, the word and touch of Jesus, His finger and His word, are the channel of His powerful and gracious work to bring life to that which is dead.

As Jesus touches you, He destroys the power of sin in you, as He destroyed the power of the Pharaoh. But as you come to Him repenting over your sins, not hardened as the Pharaoh, His touch is ultimately a healing touch: to mend ears deafened by the world, to open mouths that have become entangled in the confusing noises of the sinful flesh, to open eyes that have been blinded by sin and temptation.

700 years before the incarnation of Jesus, God promised through the prophet Isaiah:

“… As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.” (Isa. 59:21)

So as you come to be touched by the Lord in His Holy Supper, hear the words of the Saviour: Ephphatha! Be opened that I may enter in, to cleanse that which is soiled, to rejuvenate that which is dead and to cast out that which is alien, so that you may hear my voice and to sing my song in all eternity, in my words, words that will not depart from out of your mouth.

In the name of † Jesus.

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