Our gospel reading today tells of a healing. Jesus restores sound and speech to a man who had spent his years imprisoned and isolated by silence. Unlike Matthew, who excludes some of the uncomfortable details from this story, Mark describes the strange healing techniques Jesus employed in the healing. He stuck his fingers in the man's ears, and touched the man's tongue with his own saliva. Some biblical commentaries speculate that these actions embarrassed Matthew, for they were the same methods used by a host of ancient sorcerers. Letting on that Jesus used the same procedures as ordinary charlatans opened the early Church to ridicule and scorn.
I was, in a small way, in a similar position as the deaf man this week. I needed healing. I have a slight curve to my spine that acts up every so often. A couple times a year I'm knocked out of commission for three or four days by spasms of pain. Sometimes a visit to the chiropractor grants some relief, and so this week I ended up in the office of a holistic doctor who also practices chiropractic medicine. Unfortunately, this doctor was awful. Instead of the chiropractic adjustments I came in for, I was subjected to a host of alternative healing methods that were questionable at best and an outright sham at worst. The worst of which involved a laser pointer. The good doctor pointed it into my ear and expected my back to suddenly be healed. Needless to say, I left that office in just as much pain as I'd carried in with me.
And so I can imagine how the deaf man might have felt when Jesus started poking around in his ears and mouth. The man quite possibly had already been treated, unsuccessfully, with the same tiresome and useless techniques. I wonder if his eyes rolled with disbelief and disappointment, frustrated that his friends had forced him to face yet another scam artist.
But then something changed. Though Jesus began his treatment with ordinary spit, he diverged from the ordinary practice of faith healers. He groaned, and looked at the Heavens, and with the power of God he spoke a commandment in Aramaic: Ephphtha! Be opened!
Be opened. And the man's ears were opened, his tongue released. He was healed.
The deaf man had no reason to believe he would ever be the man who could hear. He was locked in silence and sealed with a feeling of utter desperation. And maybe he had given in to the fact of his existence. He didn't volunteer to be healed; his friends lead him to
Jesus to receive a healing touch. And then he was taken aside by the Son of God, subjected to a dubious drama of healing, and then-- surprise of all surprises-- healed.
Isaiah had spoken of a day in which the blind would be released from darkness and the deaf set free from silence. And in Jesus, this prophecy is realized. Through his ministry on earth, Jesus shared gifts of healing and wholeness. Jesus set men and women free from spiritual-- and physical-- captivity.
For Jesus, spiritual healing was infinitely more important. He didn't even want the crowd that overheard the healing of the deaf man to share what they had seen. His compassion for those who suffered was so intense that it caused him to groan, and yet he knew that physical relief was only a fragment of his mission.
Though the gospels bear witness to miraculous physical healings, the primary work of Jesus was not to cure ailments but to open eyes and ears, hearts and minds, to the good news of God's redeeming love. Be open, he commanded. Open your eyes to imagine a restored Creation. See what Isaiah saw-- the hope that roses will bloom where now there is only parched dust. Open your ears to hear the Word that transforms cries of mourning into shouts of praise. Be open to the amazing grace of God, and you will be transformed, you will be healed.
The words of Isaiah are echoed and fulfilled in the healing acts of Christ. Isaiah promised that God would save his people and extend healing to his children. Mark’s account of the healing of the deaf man signifies that the age of salvation has arrived. But I think the authors of the lectionary—the pastors and scholars who prayerfully discerned that churches throughout the world would consider these scriptures in tandem—recognized a second connection between these passages from the Old and New testaments. Isaiah charges those with fearful hearts to “Be strong.” Despite his often difficult message to the Israelites, he reminds God’s people that God will come and save them. “Do not fear,” he proclaims.
These two commands— “do not fear” and “be opened” are two sides of the same coin. We cannot be open when we are afraid. When fear holds us in its grip we are anything but open. We lock our doors and shutter our windows. Anything and anyone that is different is perceived as a threat, a danger. And so we live a smaller existence when we fear, an existence that does not leave room for good news, for pure joy, for abiding hope.
Fear is a fist: held tightly closed, defensive, untrusting. Beginning to trust God, to really believe that God is really doing something about the mess of the world, feels to me like slowly unfurling a fist I’ve gripped for far too long. Nothing illustrates trust and hope and openness and faith for me like a hand, held open. Open to share and receive love, open to share and receive healing.
We could easily dismiss the prophecy of Isaiah and the promise of Christ. We could arm ourselves with fearful skepticism, blind and deaf to the healing power of God. We could join the early detractors of the Church in dismissing Jesus as a sorcerer, or we the contemporary detractors of the Church in writing him off as a very wise man that affected people so deeply that they made up stories of miracles and healing. Or, we can trust that the invitation to give up fear and be opened to good news is an invitation worth heeding. We can entrust the most wounded and terrified parts of our bodies and souls to God, not in blind faith but because we see that Christ alone is the source of all healing.
Five years ago tomorrow, we were commanded to fear. Our nation was wounded and many people were killed so that we would be afraid, so that we would live in a prison of terror. And yet the wisdom of our faith instructs us not to fear. Just as Isaiah encouraged the exiles to trust in their God and hope for the restoration of their land, we must fearlessly place our trust in the One who heals our suffering and redeems our souls. We must hope for a transformed world where terror is no longer a weapon, where death no longer holds a sting. This caliber of hope is impossible if we do not heed the groan of Jesus to be courageously open to the gospel.
As the United States commemorates September 11th this week, we will be reminded of the horror and the heroism that emerged from the destruction. For as much evil as we saw that day, we also witnessed the human capacity for compassion and courage.
One of the simple yet profound images from the rescue and recovery operations was that of a rugged steel cross, discovered amidst the bent and twisted ruins of the World Trade Center. That cross was a fierce and glorious reminder that our God transforms suffering and death into hope and resurrection. The rescue operation continued beneath the foot of the cross, a constant reminder that God has given us every reason to hope for new life.
God will come and save us, God will repair what has been broken, God will restore what has been lost. We will be healed.