Monday, March 4, 2013

A New World: Creation Unbound

Preached on Sunday, March 3, 2013

Scripture readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; Mark 7:31-37

A middle aged man named Ralph was a member of the church I served on the Oregon coast. Ralph was a lumber mill worker who was not completely illiterate, but he was essentially, functionally illiterate.

Photos Around Live Oak, California in Early January
Some of the smartest people I have known read with difficulty because they are dyslexic, but Ralph wasn’t dyslexic. Ralph was also pretty smart, but he simply had never learned how to read.

Then he became a Christian. He came to know Christ as his Lord and Savior. That happens, sometimes; even to church members.

And that is not the only miracle that happened to Ralph. Ralph suddenly became able to read.

He read voraciously. He read everything. He read the newspaper. But he especially read the Bible. He even got interested in Bible history, and so he read the works of the first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Ralph became a scholar.

He didn’t read like most people read. He read, and he read, and he read, and he read.

He changed in other ways, too, as a person. He changed from being gruff and hard, to being kind and patient. His family and friends were very surprised and didn’t always know what to make of him. He changed as a husband, a father, and a grandfather. His family was especially thankful and impressed. If they had one reservation about this change it was only the wish that it had happened sooner.

Ralph wasn’t perfect by any means; and sometimes he reverted to what he had been before. But he was a much better man with Christ than he had been without him. He knew this, with a suitably humble and grateful heart, and so did everyone else.

We can all talk about having a change of heart without realizing what a miracle a real change of heart means. Ralph illustrates this miracle because it was accompanied by the additional miracle of becoming a reader.

It’s true that Ralph didn’t read straight through the Bible the next day. He didn’t read the works of Flavius Josephus the next month, but he read it within a year or two. I have had almost sixty years to do it, and I still haven’t read Flavius Josephus.

For me, the miracle of the deaf/mute man is not that Jesus gave him hearing, but that Jesus gave him speaking. Before his healing, the man spoke with great difficulty because he could hear some sounds. He could hear people speak, but not clearly, not well, not the way others heard them. He must have lost most of his hearing at some time before he learned to talk.  

Even if he suddenly heard everything clearly, he wouldn’t recognize anything he heard. Words he thought he knew, and thought he could say, sounded very different when Jesus healed him. To suddenly hear everything clearly would be completely bewildering. The fact that Jesus made him suddenly able to speak clearly meant that he not only gained the skills that most of us learn as babies, by trial and error, but he also suddenly knew how to make sounds he had truly never heard or learned before. No one learns to talk like that.

The deaf man was suddenly able to navigate a new world of hearing and speaking with very little experience hearing and speaking. Those who were present at the miracle, being able to hear and speak for themselves, told this miracle story in terms of the miracle of hearing and speaking.

Perhaps what they didn’t understand was that, for this miracle to be possible, it required the miracle of understanding. But they didn’t understand that.

The deaf man understood what he had never experienced before. He understood what things meant, when he had never known what to call them before. Soon he was going to find himself living on a level he had never imagined before.

There is a certain point, in the life of a kid, where you get fairly good at being a kid. You have it down pat. Then, all of a sudden, you become an adolescent and you fall in love. Even though you had been good at being a kid, being a good kid never prepared you for this. You find yourself living on a whole different level, and it is hard to understand what the meaning of it all is.

It’s like our basketball team going to the state tournament. I can’t imagine living on that level. I was never on the basketball team, or on any team, when I was in school. The fact is that none of our teams were ever good enough to go to any state competition at all. I couldn’t even have gone as a spectator; not for my school team. That is a totally different level of experience.

The healing of the deaf man and any of the miracles of Jesus are big like that; only infinitely bigger. The healing of the deaf man was more than the healing of his long burst ear drum and a reconstruction of his inner ear. The healing of the blind was more than the correction of the tissues, and fluids of the eyeball or a mending of the optic nerve.

The miracles of Jesus were the coming of the kingdom of God and the ruling power of the king. For the deaf man, it is as if God had created all things new, and everything in that new creation worked.

All the work of Jesus (the miracle of his birth in Bethlehem, the miracle of his death on the cross, and the miracle of his rising from the dead) is for the purpose of bringing us into a whole new world in which everything is going to be able to work as it was created to work. In this new world we are free to live as children of God, which is beyond our experience and our understanding.

All the work of Jesus is for the purpose of giving us a new life in this new world that will never end. It is like being born again.

When we want a miracle, we never want nearly enough. When we want a miracle as a child it is because we want to win a game, or pass a test. When we get a little older, if we are guys, the miracle would be to have a girl say yes to the most important request you have ever made. At whatever age we may be, when we want a miracle, we may want healing, health, and strength for ourselves, or for someone we love.

These are all wonderful desires and we are full of these yearnings and achings. Jesus came down from heaven to fill himself with these yearnings and achings of the heart. He showed this in the gospel stories, with his angers, his fears, his tears, and his joys. He filled himself with our yearnings and our achings so that we could know that he knows us and cares. He knew, from his own heart, what he was giving to everyone who came to him for help.

He also came into our world to give us more. He came to give us a new world of life in the kingdom of God. He came to give us what the prophet Isaiah had promised. “Be strong and do not fear; your God will come, he will come with a vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue sing/shout for joy.” (Isaiah 35:4-6)

The blind, and the deaf, and the lame, and the mute are actually God’s people. They are us. If you read the whole Book of Isaiah, you find God himself calling his people blind, and deaf, and lame. It is what God’s people were, because they did not trust him or listen to him.

They refused to take him to heart and so they were, by nature, blind, and deaf, and lame, and mute. What else could they be? His response to their not trusting or listening would be to come to them with vengeance and retribution against their lack of trust and their unwillingness to listen.

And what would be the result of this? They would see, and hear, and leap and shout and sing for joy. Jesus fulfilled the prophecy that God would come to his people and open a new world to them. He would give them an ability to see, and hear, and live, and sing a life they had never imagined and could never have understood. God came in Jesus, to make them become what they could never be on their own.

The strange twist to this is that his vengeance and retribution was against everything that separated his people from his love. In Jesus, the vengeance and the retribution of God take place on the cross, where God, in flesh and blood, did battle with the sins of the world.

When we move from being blind to seeing, from being deaf to hearing, it is as if we have really come alive. We could imagine that this is what people mean when they talk about arriving at one’s full potential, or like achieving true self-fulfillment; only any such achievement on our own is in some way false.

We don’t really know ourselves. The path that people take to self-fulfillment often robs other people of their own self-fulfillment. What we do, on our own, to fulfill ourselves turns out to fulfill our own idea of what we are and doesn’t take us where we think it will.

Only God knows who we are and what we need. He is our creator, and he recreates our lost creation, the creation we no longer even understand, through Jesus.

We were created to be his children. This is to us what sight is to those born blind, and what hearing is to those born deaf. John says as much, in his first letter. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)

This is God’s great passion. It is his passion, in Jesus, on the cross, to make us what he knows we shall be. When our blindness and deafness are healed, then we will know our role as his children and we will know our roles in the lives of other people. We will learn to deal with them according to what they can be in Jesus, as children of God. This requires us to be involved in the work of the kingdom of God in the world around us, and in the lives of the people around us.

There is a description that C. S. Lewis gives of this hidden identity which we are to work for and support in others. “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously - no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”(“The Weight of Glory”)

It involves our being involved in our world and in the lives of people around us in nitty-gritty ways. The healing of the deaf man was a very nitty-gritty miracle. Jesus stuck his fingers in the man’s ears. Jesus spit and touched the man’s tongue. Did he touch the man’s tongue with his spit? It could be. I would call that miracle nitty-gritty.

Jesus didn’t have to be nitty-gritty. He could heal with a word, from a distance. A mother could leave her sick child at home, and go out in search of Jesus, and Jesus would grant her request, and tell her to go home where she would find her daughter well, and she would go home and find her daughter well, indeed: long distance healing; no muss, no fuss. How convenient! Why didn’t he do all his miracles that way?

The truth is that Jesus never did the same thing the same way twice. He never treated any two people the same. Jesus was good and his goodness was not bound by any rules. He was sovereignly good. He was and is the king of goodness.

We live in his kingdom, but we try to set rules for his goodness and power. We say, “If your request follows the rule for miracles then you will get what you ask. If you fail to get what you ask then you have failed to follow the rules.” But Jesus never allows his goodness to be subject to the rules.

Jesus even breaks the rule of faith. He would heal even those who didn’t know him and had no way of believing. He was sometimes nothing more than a man coming out of the crowd and disappearing back into the crowd.

In the gospel of John, Jesus healed a man who was born blind. All the man knew was that another man, named Jesus (and Jesus was a common name) had come to him out of the crowd.

This Jesus had spit on the ground, and made mud, and put the mud on his eyes, and told him to wash the mud off. Later on Jesus searched the man out and asked him if he believed in the Son of Man. Son of Man was one of the scripture’s titles for the one who would bring the kingdom of God. This was a title of the Messiah.

The blind man had no idea that this had anything to do with Jesus. The man asked Jesus, “Who is he sir? Tell me so that I may believe in him.” (John 9:35-36) Only then, did the man see who Jesus was.

Jesus follows no rules. He treated everyone differently. He treated the deaf man according to his needs. Jesus acted out for the deaf man what he could not tell him in words. He put his fingers in his ears, as if to reach in and fix them. Jesus spit in a world where any good man spitting represented a defiance and rejection of any evil (evil such as the deafness that isolated the man from his family and neighbors). Jesus touched the man’s tongue as though he was going to change what it could do. He looked to heaven to show that something from God was about to happen.

Jesus treated the deaf man according to his need so that this one man could hear Jesus, and discover who he was, and praise him. Jesus treats each one of us in a different way, according to our need, so that we can see what we have not seen, or hear what we have not heard, and be able to say what we have not been able to say before.

His first concern is to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah foretold. In Jesus, God comes to us. If we are blind, he will make us see. If we are deaf, then he will make us hear. If we are crippled and lame, he will make us leap and run and live with grace. If we are silent, he will make us shout and sing for joy.

In a strange way, we could say that Jesus got physical with the man, and handled him so that he could know rightly who Jesus is, and what Jesus wants to do for him. Jesus, in fact, is God getting physical with us. He is God coming to us, becoming a human being, in order to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

In Jesus, God became one of us to die for our sins on the cross; to share our pains, and our fears, and our injustices. In Jesus, God became one of us in order to rise from the dead and make a way for us to go through the valley of the shadow of death, and know that we are not going there alone. God became one of us, in Jesus, to show us that the world can never separate us from his love, or from his power, or from his presence and protection, even when we don’t seem protected at all.

Mark tells us that the deaf man’s tongue was “loosened”. This translates a word, in Greek, that means “to untie”. We all know what it means to be “tongue-tied”. The man’s family and neighbors thought that was what he sounded like.

But, really, it was the man was untied and set free. He was unbound. Jesus set him free, and so he could say things he had never heard before. He would understand what he had never known before. He knew that, in Jesus, the kingdom of God had come in power and, from now on, he would live in that kingdom.

The word “Ephphatha” means “be opened” and the man’s life opened up before him. His ears, his ability to speak, his heart, his mind, his soul had been opened up by God in Christ. And that is what Jesus wants to do for you and me. This is the work of his kingdom. Jesus wants to share it with us so that we can share it with others.


  1. hi pastor dennis,

    what a great story! it was appreciated and very interesting.
    all your words are always so inspirational too.
    this totally uplifted my morning.

    hope you have a great week ahead.
    always grateful for your support.

    be well,