(Second of a three-part reflection on Mark 7:31-37)
By Pastor John Christopherson, Senior Pastor
To set a brief context for our gospel story from Mark, chapter 7… Jesus is exhausted, for he’s just completed a long journey along the coastal region of the Mediterranean. He’s moved northwest from Galilee, preaching and teaching – moving throughout the countryside of Tyre and then up to the city Sidon (which represented one of the most extreme expressions of paganism). Why might this be? In part it’s because he’s expanding the scope of his ministry beyond anything conceivable of the Messiah (cf. Mark 6:34 and John 10:16). In the preceding account of Jesus’ ministry to a Syrophoenician woman (in stark contrast to the Pharisees) … a woman whom Jesus refers to as a “true Israelite” (Mark 7:24-30) … we see the boundaries of the law now transcended and fulfilled by “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1). This also affords Jesus some time to be alone with his disciples, to prepare them for future ministry and mission (cf. Mark 6:7-13, 30-31).
Now, in our gospel story from Mark 7:31-37, Jesus is returning with his disciples, back down toward the Sea of Galilee, where his ministry had begun some three years earlier. And now, Jesus is setting his face toward Jerusalem, to that fork in the road which Robert Frost, the American poet describes as “the road less traveled” … to the cross. But Jesus refused to rush into things or make a spectacle, as the crowd pulled the man who was deaf toward him – as though to make the man feel like some kind of object lesson. Rather, Jesus gently took him aside. He looked the man full in the face. And one can only imagine that the man probably had sweat running down his forehead with anxiety and fear. And knowing that it would be useless to talk, Jesus explained what he was about to do through “two signs of love:” two sign-language pieces of love that all of us experience, now some 2000 years later, whenever we come to the Lord’s table for communion. And so, Jesus took his fingers and placed them in the man’s already deaf ears. Then he spat on a finger and placed it on the man’s mouth.
But before the man heard or said even a word, Jesus did something I never would have anticipated. He did what? Jesus looked up toward heaven and then he what? … He sighed.
Exactly. He sighed. Jesus sighed. Now I might have expected an “Alleluia!” or some clapping of hands … at least some kind of expression that would have been a “teaching moment” or parable (those “little stories with a big point”). But the Son of God did none of these. Instead, Jesus paused. He looked-up into the heavens, and he sighed. And from the depth of Jesus’ being came a rush of sympathy that said more than any words could ever say.
Jesus sighed. When I “heard” this word (estenazen = “sighed”) last evening, as I worked though this gospel story … well, it just seemed a bit out of place. I’d never thought of God “sighing”? Coaxing, yes. Maybe even weeping (cf. John 11:35) or calling the dead to life with but a command (cf. Mark 5:41; John 11:38-44). Or creating with but a word (cf. Genesis 1:3,6,9,11,14,20,24,26). But a God who sighs? It seemed out of place. But then, it struck me: “It’s actually in a perfect place, right in the middle-of-things, as was Jesus’ whole ministry!”
Looking up to heaven, Jesus lets out this deep sigh, a creative breath as at creation. It created quite an opening. The imagery here is really amazing: of Jesus looking up into the heavens to the source from which all healing comes and then breathes out life upon this man who is deaf and opens-up his life. What a wonderful and amazing kind of “opening image” there is here for a right angle on life. “Ephphatha,” says Jesus. Be open.
Perhaps this word caught my ears because I share in sighing quite a bit myself. I do quite a bit of it actually. I sighed as we entered this New Year – as I felt the huge whole in my heart, with the absence of so many matriarchs and patriarchs of faith in our congregation, whose lives we commended to God’s tender bosom gather in 2015. I sighed a week ago as I embraced a young 13-year-old girl and family after the memorial service for her beloved father. Her mother’s memorial service was just three years ago. Both parents now missing from her life, as she seeks to navigate all the questions of her own brave new world …
I sighed yesterday, as I visited with a family who’d just helped their beloved “grandpa” into a nursing home setting: more and more are the days that he no longer recognizes even his daughter or grandkids. I sighed this morning with a middle-aged woman who stopped by the church offices, because she can no longer carry the heavy load of grief that weighs her down like timber. She and her younger sister no longer speak to each other. They haven’t spoken to each other now for nearly a decade. There’s no forgiveness: still angry about something that happened years ago. They’re deaf to each other. And the irony is that they live in the same town …
And … I sighed a couple of hours ago as I read through today’s Argus Leader, with all the “wars and rumors of war” (Matthew 24:6) going on in our world, the staggering number of children who go hungry each day (and right here in South Dakota), the alarming amount of vulgarity and violence that surrounds what ought to be civil “presidential” campaigns in these United State, or the many signs of increasing moral and spiritual bankruptcy.
Please listen carefully … The Latin word for deaf is surdus. And to take that further, to be absolutely deaf is the Latin word, absurdus – from which we get our English word absurd. And that’s what happens to our lives when we don’t listen to God’s voice. Life becomes absurd when we’re deaf to God’s assuring and guiding Word. When we turn our ears and block them from God’s Word and we’re not at prayer – when we’re not listening to that “still small voice” (I Kings 19:12) of God reaching-out for us. Life becomes absurd when we drift from any disciplined life of worship or reading the Bible … no longer staying within ear-shot. St. Paul writes in Romans 10:17: “Faith comes by …” What? By hearing. And if we don’t hear, we can’t tell. That’s the logic of Jesus’ healing in our gospel story. It begins with the ears so that the mouth is then freed. And so for us in our proclaiming the good news of God’s forgiving grace and love for the world.
No doubt you’ve done your share of sighing as well. I’m particularly sensitive to those of you who maybe had a kindergartener or a college student leave for the first time this past fall. Seeing that little guy, that little girl of yours get on an orange school bus or back-out of the driveway as you brushed away a tear with one hand and waved “good-bye” with the other. Perhaps it’s a sigh that comes because of failed intentions, a love rejected, or standing at a tombstone with regrets. Or now being alone in the house, where all you hear is the shuffling of your own slippered-feet, and a sigh that’s heard only in your heart. Let’s see what the meaning of this “sigh” is and where it leads us …