We started our prayer today with a strange comment – “Almighty and merciful God, by Your gift alone, your people render true and laudable service…” It is God’s gift that we serve him faithfully. That means any works we do are a gift from God. They are no credit to us. The Gospel reading shows that this is true. So let us consider this word which God caused to be written for our instruction and benefit.
Jesus has been hanging out just outside of Israel. Tyre and Sidon were Gentile cities. Jesus comes from them, over to the sea of Galilee – the region where he grew up – and then heads farther east to another Gentile area – the Decapolis. It means the ten cities. Everywhere Jesus goes in Israel – Judea, Samaria, Galilee, he is followed by crowds, and the people bring him the sick, lame, blind, demon possessed so that he can heal them. Now, he’s going outside of Israel, and still he is surrounded by people who need healing. This time, it’s a man who had never heard of Jesus. He’s never heard anything. He is deaf, and so can not talk either. Grunts and crude gestures were all he knew. He knew nothing of Jesus. His friends did. They must have heard about him somehow. And when they knew he was coming through, they took their friend, and brought him to Jesus.
We talk about faith and love. Here we see faith, and we see it in action. The men had faith in Jesus to heal. And so they come to him, they bring their friend, they ask Jesus to heal him. Faith moves into action. We’ve seen that this year. The initial fear over sickness turning into a hunger and thirst for the word and promise of God, for his holy sacrament. And so, back to the source we come. Back to the church, the place where we are given life.
Our inner thoughts and desires play out in our actions. Those who know that Jesus is the only source of life, that he is the truth in a world that is one lie after another – they will find a way to hear and receive that word of life from the lips of Jesus.
In China, churches are being bulldozed, Christians taken to prison, where they disappear for years or for ever. And yet the Christians are memorizing scripture as quickly as they can – if buildings and books are taken, they will still have the word and promise of Christ on their lips and in their hearts, engraved in their thoughts. Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned in Phillipi, and yet they sang songs of praise. Even prison can not stop the songs and hymns and psalms of the Christian. Even persecution can not stop the church from gathering to hear and receive the gifts of Jesus given through the water, through the absolution, through the body and blood.
When we say that only by God’s gift can we render him service, we have in mind that Psalm: “O Lord open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.” We must wait for the Lord to open our ears to hear, our minds to understand, our hearts to believe, and then our lips to sing his praise. Otherwise, we are like that deaf mute. We can hear and receive nothing of God’s gift. Jesus has to give that man even the ability to hear the name of Jesus. His friends in faith bring him to Jesus, just as we come before God in faith to hear and receive his gifts.
That is faith.
And then, we see love in action as well – the love of Jesus who heals the man of his deafness and gives his tongue the ability to speak. Love is an active word, not mere feeling. It is showing kindness to others. We see love most clearly in Jesus death and resurrection. Today’s Gospel points us to that tremendous event in salvation history – Jesus is undoing the curse of sin that causes sickness and death, that causes a man to be born without working ears, and without a tongue that can speak. All of Jesus miracles are just arrows pointing to the salvation he will earn on the cross. And it also shows that God saves more than our souls. He saves our bodies as well. The false teachers of today say that the body is of no account. That we can do what we want to it and it’s none of God’s business. The deaf man shows how much of a lie that is. He could hear nothing. If he self-identified as a hearer, it would not have changed who he was. He needed Jesus to open his ears. The same Jesus that was in the beginning with God when man was created. That formed man from the dust of the ground gave him a body in this world, and then breathed into him the breath of life. We are more than mere matter and dust. But that does not mean we are no longer matter and dust. The body matters. What we do matters. Our sins effect our bodies in ways we do not even know or understand. We speak of being weighed down with sin. If you’ve ever had a guilty conscience about something – a friend that you betrayed, a lie that you told, a wicked deed you did, you know what it is to be weighed down. You can physically feel the weight of your sin, pressing on your shoulders, pressing on your heart. To be relieved of that burden is a great relief. To have someone take that away is a wonderful gift. If your friend forgives, or you make right the wrong you have done, you feel lighter, you bounce a little when you walk. Sin and guilt oppress us. And ignoring the conscience, dulling it so it no longer weighs down and cuts at our heart doesn’t relieve us of the guilt. It just places the burden elsewhere in our heart. We need forgiveness. Not that we forgive ourselves. Not that we find peace within ourselves. That is a false forgiveness and a false peace. It won’t work. The sin the guilt is still there, festering like a wound that you try to ignore, but that gets worse and worse. Only the word of forgiveness from God can heal the wound, can take the burden, can lighten the load. Forgiveness from God – spoken by Jesus through his ministers – that is the wonderful gift which he gives so that we can serve him, and render him true and laudable service. The sinner can not serve God, or even come into his presence. That’s why forgiveness is such a tremendous gift. Because it takes away the burden, it heals, it gives us the ability to once again hear and receive the promise of God through Jesus Christ. To raise our voices in song and praise him for his wondrous deeds.
Back to the miracle recorded in our Gospel. The man is brought to Jesus, who takes him aside from the crowds. How else will he know who heals him. He can not be told. Jesus touches his ears, spits and touches the man’s tongue. I will heal your ears, loosen your tongue he says in a way that the man understands.
The idea of Jesus spitting and touching the man’s tongue perhaps makes us a bit squeamish in our germ-phobic world. We can’t even breathe or speak without protection now. Jesus makes a physical connection between his mouth – the word that he speaks – and this man’s mouth which is mute. Jesus will release his mouth, and the man will sing praises. And those praises will spread to all around him. But it begins with this simple and humble gesture between God and this deaf mute.
The early church was accused of cannibalism. That’s pretty easy to see why “This is my body, this is my blood.” We eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus when we gather. When the early church had to defend itself, it could have said “It just represents him. It isn’t really his body and blood. It’s only really bread and wine.” They never said that. It would have been the easy way out. Instead they said, “We don’t kill anyone. It starts as bread and wine, but is the body and blood of God that we eat and drink.” Why would they say this – it only confuses and makes them look guilty and gives their enemies more ammunition. But they could not deny Jesus. They could not deny his word. And they knew and confessed, as Justin Martyr says, “as Jesus Christ, our Savior, having been made flesh and blood by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise … the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word and from which our flesh and blood… are nourished, is the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh.”
How much easier it would have been for them had they just denied the truth. But we can not deny our Lord and his word. And early on in the current crisis, President Hill went to go to the governor and explained what communion was, and what we confessed, and what we did – and they were astonished at what President Hill and Pastor Maas told them. By the grace of God, they relented with their decrees which would have denied us the sacrament. But even had they kept those decrees in place, we would have gathered and received the gifts of God anyway. Because here in Christ’s church is offered something that we can not get anywhere else, that can not be bought with gold, or refined in a factory or a lab, or injected in a clinic – we get the remedy for death. We are given the life of God himself – a life that can not be overcome by death, and we know this because he went through death for us, and overcame death so that we would overcome death.
That is why our Lord Jesus touches this man in such a strange and to our ears kind of disgusting way. Because he is God in the flesh. And even his spittle is greater than the finest and most precious medicine. Do not doubt. But believe this word of God. And if his spit has such power, how much greater the power of his blood which was shed for you and which is now given to you with his body, for you to eat and to drink, so that you would be saved not only from your sin, but from death itself, from the grave that looms at the end of every life in this world, to save you from the gates of hell, the bars of that eternal prison which ends in a lake of fire.
We aren’t dealing in worldly things here, although we are in the world. We aren’t giving out things that pass away, although we ourselves will pass away to this world. We are not just talking about spiritual mental images. We are handing out the holy things of God. And the world laughs. It mocks us, and calls us unimportant, and turns its attention to the kingdoms of this earth, and the wisdom and learning of this earth. But those will pass away. The word of the Lord will never pass away.
And the song of the people sung so many years ago “He does all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” That song will be sung by angels and archangels and all the saints who have gone before us and who will come after, when we are taken to be with Jesus in His kingdom, we will join in these songs of praise to the Lamb who was slain, and now reigns above all things. For from him and through Him and to him are all things. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given us a new birth of water and the spirit that we might praise him forever and ever. He gives us his gifts, so that we might render true and laudable service to him. He does all things well. Amen.