Looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”Mark 7:34
There are actually two miracle stories in today’s gospel reading (Mark 7:24-37). Last Summer I preached on the first of these miracles, the story of the Syrophoenician woman of great faith. You can find that sermon here: Woman, Great Is Your Faith!: My Sermon on Matthew 15:21-28. And so, today I thought I would preach on the second miracle, the healing of the deaf man in the region of Decapolis.
But how do we find our way into this story? The first story is easier, I think. Most of us can relate to a mother desperate to find healing for her child. But what about the healing of the deaf man? Most of us are not deaf, and even if our hearing isn’t what it used to be, it might be difficult to relate to someone who is completely deaf.
So, where are we in this story? Maybe we are the friends who brought their deaf friend to Jesus. It is interesting to see how many stories there are in the gospels of Jesus healing people who did come to him on their own, but were brought to him. Even in the first story in today’s gospel reading, the girl who was healed did not go and find Jesus, and in fact never even met Jesus. It was her mother who went to Jesus. In the story of the deaf man, it was his friends. So, maybe we are the friends.
But I think that it is important to see ourselves in this story in another way. I think it is important to realize that the deaf man represents something greater than just the lack of physical hearing. I think that there is a spiritual hearing, a hearing of the heart, that we all struggle with at times. And that Jesus wants to heal.
Harden Not Your Hearts
There are many times in scripture when people with perfectly good physical hearing do not hear God’s voice. Why? It is often described as a hardness of heart. Going back to Exodus, we can remember that the Pharaoh’s “heart was hardened, and he would not listen to God or to Moses.” But it is true of God’s people, too. In Psalm 95, God’s people are told not to harden their hearts, but instead to listen to God’s voice. That passage is important enough that the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews quotes it and reflects on it:
As the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, as on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your ancestors put me to the test …
Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God …
Today, if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your hearts.
We might be able to hear just fine, in other words, but still not be able to hear God’s voice. Because we don’t hear God’s voice with our ears only, but also with our hearts.
So, let’s think this morning about how to listen to God’s voice with the ears of our heart.
Hard to Hear the Gospel These Days
But first, let’s remember why this is so difficult. Now, as much as ever.
It’s hard to listen to God’s voice with the ears of our heart, in part because there is so much competing noise.
We live in a noisy world, where we hear other messages all day long. On tv, in social media, in the words that we read and the words that we hear, our world is filled with words, and this can make it hard to hear God’s voice.
But the Bible tells us that there is a deeper cause of our lack of hearing, our hardness of heart. And that is sin.
Sin blocks our ears from hearing God’s word of hope. Sin shuts our eyes so that we can no longer see the glory and love of God in our midst. But most damaging of all, sin hardens our hearts.
Jesus, the word who became flesh to live among us, was on a mission, and still is, to open the world’s eyes and ears, but also to open the world’s hearts, to soften them, so that the voice of God could be heard, with the ears of our heart.
But Jesus knew what he was up against. He quoted Isaiah about this very thing, when he said:
“This people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them” (Matthew 13:15).
Our hearts have grown dull, and our ears are hard of hearing. So, what do we do? What did Jesus do?
In the case of the deaf man, it was pretty simple, really. Jesus took him aside, put his fingers into his ears, spat and touched his tongue. Then he looked up to heaven, sighed, and said, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Simple enough, right?
But what about for us? When our hearts are hardened, it is more challenging, isn’t it? How can Jesus open our hearts? What does an “Ephphatha” moment look like when it involves the heart? How does Jesus open our hearts, so that we can hear his good news, not just with our ears, but with our hearts?
I want to call these “Ephphatha Moments.” Ephphatha being the Aramaic word that Jesus used to open the deaf man’s ears. What does an “Ephphatha Moment” look like when it involves the heart?
Let’s think about some famous ephphatha moments, when people’s hardened hearts were softened and opened, to get an idea of how Jesus accomplishes this.
Saul / Paul
We can start with perhaps the most famous “Ephphatha Moment” of them all, the conversion of Saul or Paul. Before his heart was opened, Paul was an angry Pharisee, breathing threats and murder aginst the first Christians. He was headed to Damascus to bring any Christians he found there bound to Jerusalem. And on his way, a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” A dramatic “Ephphatha moment” and conversion, to be sure, but sometimes that is how Jesus opens our hearts to the gospel.
St. Augustine is another who had a famous “Ephphatha Moment,” although his was a little different. Augustine’s conversion began with a visit to a famous orator, Ambrose. Ambrose was a bishop and a famous preacher, but Augustine was only interested in his skills as an orator. Augustine would later write that he “began to love [Ambrose], not at first as a teacher of the truth, for I had entirely despaired of finding that in the Church—but as a friendly man.” Think of how many people in your life have despaired of finding the truth in the church, but who desperately need a friend. This friend began to soften Augustine’s heart, and prepare him for his “Ephphatha moment.” As he later told the story, in his autobiography, Confessions, it happened one afternoon when he heard a child’s voice say “take up and read.” When he heard this, he looked around and saw a Bible nearby. He took it and read, converted right then to Christianity, and went on to become a priest, bishop, and theologian, who has influenced the church as much as anyone in history.
How about a more contemporary example? Thomas Merton is considered by some to be the Augustine of the twentieth century. He even wrote a famous autobiography detailing his conversion, just as Augustine did. But Merton’s conversion happened a little differently. He had graduated from college in New York City with a degree in English and was living the good life in New York. A friend of his introduced him to a Hindu monk who was visiting New York. Merton was taken by this monk, and felt drawn to explore his spiritual side. But this Hindu monk encouraged Merton not to study Hinduism, but to reconnect with his Christian roots.
“He did not generally put his words in the form of advice,” Merton recounts in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, “but the one counsel he did give me is something that I will not easily forget: “There are many beautiful mystical books written by the Christians. You should read St. Augustine’s ‘Confessions,’ and ‘The Imitation of Christ.'”
Merton read these books, and began reading more about the Christian faith. He eventually converted, became a Roman Catholic, and then became a Trappist monk a few years later. At the monastery, his abbot ordered Merton to write, and he did, becoming one of the most important Christian writers of the twentieth century.
What About Us?
I could tell countless other stories, of course, of “Ephphatha moments,” of people converting to Christianity after having their hearts opened to the gospel, and after being able to hear the good news with the ears of their hearts.
But what about us? Most of us don’t have a famous conversion story like these. Most of us don’t have a dramatic “Ephphatha moment” like Paul or Augustine or Merton. In fact, most of us have been Christians for as long as we can remember.
But we still need “Ephphatha moments,” don’t we? We still need those moments in life that soften our hearts, and help them to hear again, as if for the first time, how very much we are loved by God. We need those moments, and God gives them to us in an incredible variety of ways. Moments when we remember, in our heart of hearts, that we are God’s beloved. That Jesus died for us. That we are forgiven, that we are loved, and that nothing in life will ever separate us from that love.
So, I invite you to think again of those times in your life when your heart was softened, and when your ears and your eyes were opened. It may have been in church, or when you were reading the Bible, but it may have been at other times. It may have been through a friend. It may have been through what others would call a coincidence. It may have been through a beautiful sunset, or an unexpected rainbow. It may have been at a concert, or experiencing the birth of a child, and on and on. We all have those moments when something happens that causes our hearts to soften, and when we find ourselves hearing again God’s loving voice in our heart of hearts.
Let’s call these “Ephphatha Moments,” and let’s look for them, and let’s ask for them, and let’s not miss them when they come.
One last point to make about Jesus healing the deaf man. When Jesus healed him by saying “Ephphatha,” he did not just open his ears. He also released his tongue. And this man began zealously proclaiming what Jesus had done.
When our hearts are opened to the gospel, our tongues are released, too. To proclaim the good news of God’s love in Jesus, the news that is far more important than any other news we will hear, this day, or this week, or ever.
So, let’s pray not just to have an “Ephphatha Moment,” but to be an “Ephphatha Moment” for someone else. Let’s pray for the opportunity to share our hope, to invite someone to church, to send them a timely text, or share a quote or a book or something that helps to have their heart opened again to God’s amazing grace, mercy, and love. So that they, too, can hear with the ears of their heart, and remember that they are loved by the God who is love.
Ephphatha. Be opened. May the ears of your hearts be opened, that they can be filled with God’s love. And may your tongues be released, to share this love with all. To the glory of God. Amen.