The Christian faith is not a work of man. That is, we as fallen creatures do not, according to the natural course of things, trust in the promises of our God. In fact, we do not call upon Him or seek to draw near to Him. Bound up in sin we reject Him when we hear Him and forget quickly what He has said. We know then, and our own experiences in life bear this out, we know faith is a gift. Faith is something God has called us to, something He has awakened in us. To fear, love, and trust in God above all things is not a product of human effort but a response of our faith. By faith you cling to the Words of God. By faith you rejoice in His promises. By faith you trust what He has declared will bear fruit. Saint Paul famously said, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?… So, faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17).
Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. But what if you cannot hear? What if the words of Christ do not have an avenue to get in? In Mark 7, we hear the story of a deaf man who is brought to our Lord. This man cannot hear. Because of this his speech is impacted. Though he has some good friends who clearly care about him, care enough to bring him to our Lord and plead for his blessing, he must also live a life where he is somewhat locked away from the rest of society. In the very days the living Word of God was walking among the people he was unable to hear it, unable to inquire as to what all the fuss was about. Faith comes by hearing, but he could not hear. The gift of faith, the gift which leads to eternal life, was cut off from him.
Of course, this is no big obstacle for our Lord to overcome. He takes the man aside and does some very hands-on problem solving. It reminds me of the scene in Isaiah where the prophet finds himself in the throne room of God and confessing how he is a man of unclean lips. Then the seraphim takes the burning coal and touches the very place that was unclean. It is tactile, tangible, and real. Jesus puts His fingers in the man’s ears. He touches the root of the problem. Then He spits and touches his tongue. He says in Aramaic, “Ephphatha,” which means “be opened.” There is a lot written about the ancient belief that saliva held some healing properties, which may be why Jesus does it, but what I like about it is it makes this grittier and more bound-up in the realities of human existence. This is the Word of God made flesh, the Word of God walking on the earth. He is the Word of God who has fingers and spit, so He can touch and open what had remained closed to His blessings. For at the command of the Christ the man’s ears were opened and his tongue was released. That which could not hear the Word received the Word non-the-less. Jesus gets right in there and does the impossible.
What we are given in this short little text is something far beyond the miracle of healing. It is more than another moment to stand in awe of Jesus’ power. It is a sort of parable, if you will, of the reach and scope of our Lord’s work. It tells us something about the conditions into which faith is given and true hearing, eternal hearing, hearing that leads to life and salvation, is created. All of us, to one degree or another, struggle with barriers or obstacles to the promises of God. For some it could be simple doubts about the Word Himself. You are not sure if what He has said is true, or if it properly belongs to you. Others see their own sinfulness as the obstacle. The promises of God may very well be true, but you know your own sin and backstory and you are pretty sure such promises could not actually include you.
We have all become too comfortable with the idea that if something sounds too good to be true, it most likely is. We have been jaded by years of aggressive advertising campaigns, so we tend to distrust any promise which sounds really good and lasting and free. Faith comes by hearing. Faith comes as a gift of God. Faith comes without cost and promises life eternal. And you say, “Well that sounds wonderful but there must be something we need to do, something to make us worthy of such a gift.” Nothing in life is really free. You need to at least try to do something. If nothing specific is spelled out, we do not hesitate to make our own parameters for who can receive such a gift and who might need to put a little more work in. So, you look to those who seem to have it all together, those who are the example of what a saint of God ought to look like. We begin to direct people to become more humble, more honest, more reverent, more pious, and then you can be sure the promises of God are theirs.
But this takes another turn, a darker turn. For when we doubt the promises of God or attach their efficacy to our own habits and choices there is a deafness which becomes insurmountable. See, there comes a time when you stop assuming you have it all figured out, stop believing you can amend your life enough or make the right changes and be worthy of the promises of God. There comes a time when all that hope comes crashing down and you see your sin is simply too much. You take a real sober look in the mirror, and you see things correctly. You see how you have conducted yourself. You know your own thoughts and desires and they are saturated in sin. There are those in your life whom you have hurt willingly. There are those you have failed to help when you could. There are the countless moments of gossip and other shameful acts you do not ever want to see the light of day.
When you are honest with yourself, when you recall all you tried to pretend is not really there, when the whole façade comes crashing down and there is nowhere to hide, it is a moment of true despair. How could the promises of God be yours? Who are you to think you could be saved without first undoing all the harm you have done? Oh, He promises love and mercy and compassion, but that cannot possibly be yours, not a broken sinner like you. Your actions, your thoughts, your desires render you deaf to His promises, cut off from His gifts.
But the promises of God are not so easily pushed aside. His gifts are not so easily halted. It turns out even your own sin, even your own hesitation, even your own unwillingness is not a barrier to the Word. The living Word of God that puts His fingers in the ear of the deaf man has put your sins on His shoulders. All that separates you from the promises of God, He took as His own. As Paul says, “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). He becomes your sin. He takes all that is rightly yours and gives to you all which is rightly His. He gives to you His own righteousness, His perfect obedience, His faithfulness, and His purity. With a broken body and spilled blood, with cries of forsakenness and separation, with sweat and tears and spit He sets you free. He calls you brothers and sisters, heirs of all the promises of the eternal King.
The promises of God are for you. He has done it all. He knows your sin. He sees it all and declares, “You are forgiven!” Now, you may run from that Word. You may turn away back to your effort and despair. But He does not relent. He does not give up on you. He comes to you one more time. He comes to you this very day to again proclaim His Good News. What more can we say than what has already been said, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” (Mark 7:37).