Text: Mark 7:31-37
Date: Pentecost XIII + 08/26/07
Well, here we are. It has been not quite ten months since two congregations lost their pastors at nearly the same time. They “lost” them not due to the receiving and accepting of another Call, not because of death, nor because of false doctrine, nor because of inability to perform their office. One resigned out of a theological conviction of conscience contradictory to the Lutheran Confessions. The other resigned out of a certain compassion in the face of sinful hostility. So we, you and I, were brought together through a truly strange turn of events. But God is in the business of redemption and the business of blessing even and especially in the middle of the messes we make or find ourselves in. And so it has been my privilege to serve as your Vacancy Pastor in this time to this day.
This day, however, we rejoice that the Lord of the Church has blessed you and provided for you your next under shepherd and pastor, the Rev. Larry Loree, Jr. Much preparation has gone in to providing for a holy, reverent and joyful Mass of Installation this afternoon. God has indeed been gracious, for these days it is quite unusual for a congregation to have to deal with a pastoral vacancy for less than a year! There have been many things that have had to go on hold or be endured as unusual, or maybe even frustrating because of the vacancy. My task has been to keep as many things going as normal as possible without undue change, in accordance with the Lutheran Confessions, as well as to help prepare things for the new beginning that we will begin this afternoon. The crowds of people in the area of the Decapolis in today’s Gospel said of Jesus, “He has done all things well.” It is hoped that I have not, at least, messed things up more than they were before.
For everything else, the most important thing is always the preaching and hearing, the believing and living of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Oh, how often we forget that as we let petty concerns over lesser things raise our blood pressure or cause divisions in our unity and brotherhood! Let this be a day to put all that behind us and together embrace one another in the joy and hope, the faith and love that are the Christ Jesus our Lord (2 Tim. 1:13).
“Embrace” is the right word. For the Gospel word always comes to us through physical, outward means. The Lord Jesus healed and restored many people with nothing but a word, “be healed,” “be it done to you as you believe,” “go, your faith has made you well,” “Lazarus, come out!” But sometimes he went “out of his way,” as in the case of the man in today’s Gospel who had lost his hearing and had a speech impediment. Rather than merely laying on his hands in some magical way, as the people who brought the man to Jesus expected, Jesus took him aside privately, stuck his sacred fingers into the man’s ears; then he drew the man’s attention to his tongue by spitting and then touching the man’s tongue, “and looking up to heaven, he sighed” as in prayer. Then the man saw Jesus say something. Could he read the Savior’s lips? (Mouth:) “Ephphatha.” Or was this the first word he heard as Jesus spoke it, “Ephphatha,” “Be opened”? For, suddenly the man’s ears were opened and he began to speak plainly.
This is the way the Gospel comes to us, namely, through the external means of the Word and the Sacraments. When we do not despise the external Word and Sacraments but hear the Word, trust in God’s baptismal promise and believe and receive the Sacrament of the Altar, the Holy Spirit of Christ is present to open our ears and release our tongues to praise and witness. “Everyone should take care, therefore,” wrote Martin Luther, “to be found on this path and gladly hear God’s Word. Without the Word, God does not reveal himself in your heart. To see and know him can happen only through the external Word and Sacraments…. Surely none of us would hesitate to travel a hundred miles to a certain church if we knew God himself were going to speak and preach there; everyone would then want to hear his voice. Now, instead, our Lord God says, I will arrange things closer for you, so that you don’t have to travel so far; listen to your parish pastors, your father and your mother, and you will then hear me; they are my disciples and office bearers; when you hear them, you hear me.”
The most important thing is always the preaching and hearing, the believing and living of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, because HE is the One who has done all things well. When the people of the Decapolis said that, of course, they only knew part of the story. They were impressed with the miracle of restoring hearing and speech to this man. Maybe they were even impressed with hearing a sermon or two of His. It’s easy to praise and laud someone when things are going well, when daily life with its little frustrations and concerns is the biggest obstacle to happiness. St. Mark ends the first half of His Gospel on this positive note. But beginning with the very next chapter things became more messy. It began with St. Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ” [Mark 8:29 (ESV)]. Little did he know at the time that that same joyful confession would eventually lead to his own death by martyrdom. For, so it was for our Lord. It ended in the rejection of Jesus as a criminal and death on a cross. From the looks of things at his arrest in the garden, through the fixed trials, the jeering of the crowds and the nails and spear and manifold disgrace on Calvary, apparently He had not done all things well. But appearances can be deceiving. For when a Roman centurion “who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died,” he joined in Peter’s confession, saying, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” [Mark 15:39]. The confession of faith is most powerful when it is squeezed out through lips pursed with anxiety—the anxiety of true repentance brought about by the glory of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. For our true and highest need is deliverance from sin and death. And there is only one remedy—Christ and Him crucified and risen again.
The crowds were right, even though they didn’t know yet the whole story. Jesus Christ has done all things well. For by His perfect life and compassion and His all-atoning death and mighty resurrection He alone has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. By the Holy Spirit working through the Word He makes enemies into friends, sinners into saints, raises the dead, gives sight to the blind and hope to the hopeless. Christ not only did and does all things well, He makes repentant sinners well, and more than just well, but alive, really alive forevermore.
Jesus put His fingers in the man’s ears and touched his tongue and spoke the liberating word, “Ephphatha.” When God saw our helplessness He waved no magic wands and spoke no meaningless words but caused His Word to become flesh, to get right down here in the dirt with us. That’s what the name “Emmanuel” means—God with us! The Savior’s touch healed many, turned a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish to feed thousands miraculously in the wilderness. Finally those sacred hands were nailed to a cross. So to this day Christ employs the fingers and feet, the heart and lips of pastors and parents and Christian disciples to deliver His Word and Sacraments, His gifts of healing and release from the grip of sin and death. In Christ the Word became flesh so that our flesh might be given eternal life. It is only by faith that we can say of the whole story of Christ, “He has done all things well.”
Of course, there is coming a day when every eye will see Him and every tongue compelled to confess, “He has done all things well,” for Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father. For the hour is coming, “and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Then “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” [John 5:25, 28-29].
I commend you to this Gospel, this Word, this Savior who has done and will do all things well. In closing, in this 125th anniversary year of Zion congregation, let me use as my last words the words of Zion’s third pastor, Rev. Kenneth Runge, at his retirement:
“In the years that lie ahead, I hope that this congregation is going to prosper mightily under the grace of God and be a true light of the world and a city set on a hill that cannot be hid…. I pray for this parish that it may become ever stronger even when my ministry is at an end, that it will go to greater heights, and that the influence of Zion and Christ through her will remain in this community for many years to come.”