✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
A child gets cancer. A kind person is cheated on by their spouse. A tornado rips through a small town. Someone is the victim of a violent crime. A loved one dies prematurely. A nagging ailment of body or mind won't go away. We all are aware of stories like these. And we all have had to endure our own suffering and afflictions of body and mind. These sorts of things can cause the age old question to rise again in our minds: Why are these things allowed to happen? Why do bad things happen to good people?
Of course, that question makes a false assumption, doesn’t it–namely, that there is such a thing as good people in the sight of God. In an earthly sense we can talk about certain folks being “good people” because of their decency or loyalty or hard work. But it is written in Romans 3, “There is none righteous . . . there is none who does good, no, not one.” Everything about us is tainted. So maybe the better question to ask would be the reverse, “Why do good things happen to sinners?” Why are the bad things held in check as much as they are? It’s only because of the goodness and love of God who protects and sustains even those who don’t deserve it.
Bad things happen because this world is no longer in the good state it was created in. What was originally declared by God to be “very good” has now been corrupted by the rebellion of the devil and of mankind. Our bodies and this entire world are under the curse of decay and death. The image of God is broken in us. And Satan continues to assault us in an attempt to destroy us entirely in both body and soul. Spiritually, he attacks the world with false and deceptive teaching which leads away from the saving truth of Christ. The devil seeks to bring chaos and pain and disharmony to whatever good God has established.
And this includes physical attacks. Jesus says that the devil has been a murderer from the beginning. He brings disease and bodily ailments and sickness to tear down God’s good creation. Now to the world, these things seem to be merely normal, natural afflictions with purely biological and scientific explanations. For the world knows nothing of the devil and the hurt he perpetrates in an attempt to leave people joyless and despairing. But we heard in the Old Testament reading that things like deafness and blindness are the work of the “terrible one” and the “scornful one.” Martin Luther comments on the situation in today’s Gospel reading by saying: “The fact that this poor man is so handicapped that he is unable to use his tongue and his ears like other people must be traced to the troublesome devil’s stinging blows.”
So, to answer the question: bad things happen because of the curse of sin and the power of Satan. And we should be thankful to God that we are not more severely afflicted by them, that God restrains and holds back such things as much as He does. However, the truly good news for us today is that God sent His Son Jesus to break the power of this curse and to overcome the devil. Christ is our champion who sets us free from the shackles of our enemy and restores us to wholeness and life.
That is what we are given to see a glimpse of in today’s Gospel. The people bring to Jesus a man whose ears and tongue are imprisoned, who is deaf and who therefore cannot speak rightly, either. These people had certainly heard of Jesus’ teaching and miracles before this, and believing that Jesus can do something for the deaf man, they bring him to Him. They’re good friends.
Jesus takes this man aside from the multitude. For Jesus isn’t going to do this in order to wow the crowds or use the misfortune of this man to draw attention to Himself. This is no PR stunt, as if Jesus needs good publicity to accomplish His mission. Jesus calls us out of this world, even sometimes away from family and friends, to Himself.
Jesus appropriately uses a bit of sign language. He puts His fingers into the deaf man’s ears. And then He spits and touches his tongue. Jesus is a hands-on physician. He isn’t above lowering Himself to the point of making contact with this man’s ailment. He literally touches the deaf mute’s problem as if to draw it out of him and absorb it into Himself. When Jesus touched this man, God Himself was touching him. Those were divine fingers in His ears. For Jesus is God in the flesh, who came for this very purpose of sharing in our humanity and taking into Himself all that holds us in bondage so that He might destroy it and the devil forever. Jesus wore our chains so that He might break them once and for all at Calvary. Spitting and grabbing tongues and sticking fingers in ears doesn’t sound very spiritual. But that’s the earthy, messy, ordinary way in which Jesus deals with us fallen human beings in order to save and restore us.
Jesus looks up to heaven. He is saying to the man, “The Father who sent Me is at work in Me to heal you.” Then Jesus sighs. He groans. He knows how deep our brokenness is, and what price he will have to pay to fix it. He knows the cost of this healing; He will have to grown to the point of death on the cross. Jesus knows our human suffering and sorrow. He knows our groaning and our weakness that He might redeem us from it all.
Jesus sighs and says to the deaf mute, “Ephphatha,” “Be opened, be released.” Immediately his ears are opened and the impediment of his tongue is loosed, and he speaks plainly. Jesus here is releasing and freeing this man from his bondage to Satan. He is liberating him from that prison. This is more than a medical miracle. This is a triumph over the devil. Jesus’ words shatter the chains the evil one uses to hold his victims.
You and I are in the same position as the deaf mute in today’s Gospel–not simply because some of us have or will be needing hearing aids. Sin and Satan attack our bodies in various ways: in failing vision and degenerating bones and painful disease. And even when we think we’re in perfect health, our bodies and minds are only a shadow of what they once were in paradise. But especially spiritually speaking, the Bible says that we are all deaf and mute. By nature we can’t grasp or understand God’s Word. It is written, “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them.” And if we can’t hear or understand God rightly, then neither are we going to be talk about Him or pray to Him rightly, either. For speaking flows from hearing. From birth we are spiritually deaf and mute.
All thanks and praise be to God, then, that He has sent His Son Jesus to open our ears and unloose our tongues, that we may believe in Him with our hearts and confess the faith with our mouths and be saved. Jesus is still in the business of sticking His fingers in your ears. When Christ preaches and teaches His words to you, when He speaks His words of absolution, the finger of God is being put into your ears, the Holy Spirit of Jesus is coming to you to open your ears and your hearts and your minds, that you may believe in Christ and receive His life and salvation. The Epistle says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”
And Jesus still spits and grabs your tongue, too, in the Sacraments. After all, what is baptism but water and words from the mouth of God? This divine water and words are applied to you at the font to rescue you from your bondage to the evil one and to set you free as a child of God. When you were baptized, Jesus said His “Ephphatha” to you. “Be opened, be released.” You were marked with the sign of the holy cross by which Jesus destroyed the devil’s work and broke the chains of hell for you. And now, as the freed children of God, the body and blood of Christ are placed on your tongues for the forgiveness of your sins and that you may endure in the faith to the end. How fitting, then, that both our Matins and Vespers services begin with these words from the Psalms, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”
We praise God because we know and believe that whatever ailments the devil might yet inflict us with, he can do us no real or lasting harm. For our bodies, together with our souls, have been redeemed through Jesus’ death and resurrection and our baptism into Him. Jesus is Lord over death and the devil. And so even when it seems like age or disease are getting the best of us, even as we take our last breath, we say confidently with St. Paul in Philippians 3, “Christ Jesus will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body by the power the enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.”
The crowds said, “He has done all things well.” That is what we also say in faith, even in the midst of the ups and downs of our life. Even the troubles God allows into our lives we can call good, for it is written, “the Lord disciplines those He loves.” If you're suffering discipline, the Lord loves you like a son or daughter. The Lord uses even Satan’s destructive schemes to accomplish His own righteous purposes. For it’s precisely when we realize how weak we are of ourselves that we will rely all the more completely on the Lord’s grace and strength in Christ. In that way the devil’s onslaughts are turned upside down so that they cause us to cling more tightly to the Lord’s promised salvation. No matter what the devil does, God works it for good to those who love and believe in Jesus. That’s why St. Paul actually boasts about his troubles. He says in II Corinthians 12, “I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Truly, Christ has done all things well. Even in this place He has made the deaf to hear and the mute to speak. Trust in Him to do all things well for you.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠