Telling tales - Mark 7:31-37

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 29th October 2000.

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The advert in the national newspaper ran as follows: ‘He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in still another village, where he worked in a carpenter’s shop till he was thirty. Then for three years he was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a home. He didn’t go to college. He never visited a big city. He never travelled two hundred miles from the place he was born. He did none of the things one usually associates with greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He was 33 years old when the tide of public opinion turned against him. He was turned over to his enemies and went through a mock trial. He was nailed to a cross with two thieves. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead, they laid him in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race. All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one solitary figure.'

Tell me: How do you account for that? Well, that is what Mark is hoping to achieve in his book, to explain this amazing phenomenon called Jesus of Nazareth. You see, what he is doing in the first half of his Gospel is provoking his readers to ask the question : ‘Who is this man?’ And the various encounters he records are littered with clues which lead the open minded inquirer to the conclusion Mark begins with at the outset, viz., that Jesus is none other than the Son of God -1: 1. But that raises another question: what sort of Son of God is he? Is he a mere wonder worker, a kind of spiritual superman? That is certainly what some were expecting then and some are wanting now - Jesus the Genie. Is he the sort of Son of God who strides on to the human scene demanding worship and performing impressive tricks to secure it? Well, in the passage we are looking at today which is unique to Mark’s Gospel, we discover that Jesus is none of these things. What we see is someone far more impressive - a humble Son of God, one who is movingly sensitive and tender, who while not demanding our allegiance nonetheless deserves it.

The first thing we notice in this remarkable story is the commitment of Jesus. Now the setting Mark outlines for us here in v 31 is very important. For you see, this is Gentile country Jesus is in. In fact it is the same region as the Gadarene demoniac whom Jesus encountered in chapter 5 - pig country, not the most pleasant environment for any self - respecting Jew. And do your remember what happened then? How once Jesus had exorcised the evil spirits from the Gaderene demoniac and sent them into the pigs which in turn went hurtling down the cliff - the people in the area begged Jesus to go away. Now as any preacher or evangelist will tell you, ingratitude and outright hostility is not that easy to bear. And yet here we have Jesus willing to run the risk of rejection yet again. And we might well wonder: Why bother? Why not stick to your own type Jesus, go to a more spiritually responsive place, surely there you would meet with more chances of success, why put yourself out for this pagan rabble, Gentle dogs as they were often referred to? Well, Jesus does so because he is committed to his heavenly Father’s work. He has come to be the Saviour of the world, not just the Jews, the respectable, the religious. They need to hear the Gospel of God’s saving love too. That is why he puts himself out in this way.

And we might well ask ourselves the question: at this point are we following in the footsteps of the Master? Are there people of whom we say ‘They will never be bothered about God, so why should we bother about them? They are too way out, uncouth, uninterested.' And this can apply to all types, the well heeled as well as the unpolished. A Vicar friend of mine was out door to door visiting in what was part of the ‘gin and jag’ belt. And as he made his way up one of the long drives with its well manicured lawn, he wondered what sort of response he was going to be met with. On ringing the door bell a neatly dressed and well spoken man answered and was rather bemused to see this middle-aged man clad in clerical collar. Immediately he said, ‘I am sorry, I am not interested in God.' And quick as a flash my friend replied, ‘Well, that doesn’t matter, because I want to tell you that God is very interested in you.' Too true he is.

But then did you notice the sensitivity of Jesus - v 32 - 33 (read). He takes him away from the crowd. This isn't going to be some freak show, a glossy performance to stun gawking thrill seekers and so maybe gaining some cheap publicity at the personal expense of this poor soul. No, Jesus gently steers him away from the glare of the public gaze and instead of acting like the power crazed faith healer of Steve Martin's character in the movie ‘Leap of Faith, ’ a character interestingly enough, based on the American faith healer, Benny Hinn. Jesus is more like a GP who attends the patient in the quiet privacy of his surgery. Do you see how caring Jesus is? He wants the stammering man to feel at ease and also to be able to concentrate on the significant things Jesus was about to do. Remember, the poor man is deaf. So how is Jesus going to communicate with him? Well, by actions. Tenderly he puts his fingers in the man’s ears indicating that something needs doing with them and he is the one to do it. He spat, probably on his own finger, and with the wet finger touched the man’s tongue - that too is going to be restored and it is Jesus who will do it. And when he spoke, it was the Aramaic word ‘Ephphatha’ he used - be opened. Why? Well, it is a word which requires distinct articulation with the lips. This would then make for unambiguous lip - reading and the man’s faith would rise even more when he realised what Jesus was saying.

Don’t you find all of this thoughtful care so moving? Presumably, Jesus could have healed him with a single word, at a distance if needs be. But no. This is not magic, this is a miracle Jesus is about to perform. Jesus does not ride rough shod over the man treating him as a thing, but as a human being, made in God’s image, treating him as intelligent. deserving the dignity of an explanation, leading him gently one step at a time.

This is one of the most wonderful and impressive things about Jesus, he deals with us as individuals. No two people are exactly alike - even twins. And God knows that. And we see that reflected here with Jesus. He takes the time to treat us as individuals, with our own fears and frailties, our own expectations and hopes. And if this is the way Jesus behaved, can we do any less? No one is too impressed with the doctor who more or less begins writing out the prescription before you have even sat down. And yet, as Christians we can all too easily fall prey to that same routine automatic response with people. Sure, there is only one Gospel, and we need to take care to explain that to people, but different people have different starting points and how important it is to first listen before we talk, to understand them, not to presume upon them. Neither are we to see people as pew fodder, or another scalp for the belt of the eager Christian evangelist, but men and women made in God’s image, loved by him. You know one of the most effective and yet to many offbeat evangelists there has ever been was the later Dr. Francis Schaeffer. He ran a little Christian community in Switzerland. And young people, drop outs, druggies, those wrestling with intellectual problems whom the churches couldn't cope with would visit this man. The first thing he would do was listen and listen and listen and listen sometimes through the night. And only then would he open his Bible and talk about the Saviour. But he would not only listen, often he would cry with these people. And what was unmistakable about Schaeffer was that when you looked into his eyes, you could see he cared. He had that remarkable capacity for treating you as if you were the only person in the world. In fact treating you - Jesus would. If only we could have more of that same spirit, I know that is something I pray for.

Which brings us to the miracle of Jesus which is shot through with significance - v34 - 35 (read). Not only do we have the opening of the man’s ears and the setting free of his tongue, we have the release of the whole person to God’s Kingly rule in Jesus.

Now, Mark uses a very rare word in v 32 to describe the man's speech impediment - mogilalos - which the NIV renders 'Could hardly talk.' It is in fact a word taken directly from the Greek translation of Is 35: 6 which looks forward to the breaking in of God's reign when everything will be different: so we read 'Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue (mogilalos) shout for joy.' Well, you don't have to have be a rocket scientist to work out that it is in Jesus that prophecy is being fulfilled. What is more striking is the response of this non - Jewish pagan crowd when the man goes back to them jabbering away like a car salesman on speed: 'He has done everything well.' they say to each other in utter astonishment. You bet! What they didn't realise was that they were claiming far more than they knew, for this is the Greek translation of Genesis 1: 31 'God saw all that he had made and it was very good.' It is no accident that allusions to the Greek OT Scriptures are found, for Greek was the Gentile tongue, the universal language of the day. In other words, God in Christ has come not only to rescue Jews but has come rescue everybody. The Bible is not only the book for believers, it contains the saving truth needed for unbelievers. And that it is the good news Mark is wanting to get across; that the very same God who made the world and pronounced it good is the same God who in Jesus is redeeming the world and that too is good. The one who was promised in Isaiah and longed for by the Jews is the very same one who is performing Messianic miracles in the middle of this Gentile crowd.

But as with the other miracles recorded in Mark, there is a spiritual counterpart to what is happening, for by nature, we too are like this man - spiritually deaf. And however we might understand the necessity for a human response, unless we hear that Word of God which is brought home into our hearts by the Spirit of God, ‘ Be opened’, then we too will never know the release that God brings. Sometimes this will happen suddenly, more often than not it is a gradual process.

Take the case of William Wilberforce for example. As a young man in parliament he was concerned only with himself. Certainly he had heard the claims of Christ many times before and yet remained deaf to its demands. But it was a holiday with his old school master from Hull Isaac Milner which was to change his life, just as this man’s life was changed. As the carriage in which he and Wilberforce were travelling ran over the rutted roads of the Swiss Alps, the two men began to talk about religion. Milner had become involved with the Methodists and this became the butt of Wilberforce’s taunts. Milner simply growled at Wilberforce’s wit and said ‘ I am no match for you. . but if you really want to discuss these subjects seriously I will gladly enter on them with you.' Provoked by the older man’s remarks, Wilberforce agreed to read the Bible daily. That is when the change began to take place, with the Spirit of God whispering ‘Ephphatha’ into Wilberforce’s ear. Just listen to some of these extracts taken from Wilberforce’s diary at the time: ‘ 27th Nov. I must awake to my dangerous state, and never be at rest till I have made my peace with God. My heart is so hard, my blindness so great, that I cannot get a due hatred of sin, though I see I am corrupt, and blinded to all spiritual things.. 28th Nov. Lord, I am wretched, and miserable, and blind and naked. What infinite love, that Christ should die to save such a sinner, and how necessary is it that He should save us all together, that we may appear before God with nothing of our own!.. 29th Nov. Pride is my greatest stumbling block.. 30th Nov. Was very fervent in prayer this morning, and thought these warm impressions would never go off. Yet in vain did I endeavour in the evening to rouse myself.. What can so strongly show the stony heart? O God give me a heart of flesh! ’ But it wasn’t until December that the spiritual breakthrough came when he met the minister John Newton, author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ that Wilberforce came to the point where he could profess Jesus Christ as his own personal Lord and Saviour. And he too, like this man couldn’t help but speak, first to tell others of what Christ had done and then in the name of Christ to seek the release of other captives, those bound by the slave trade. And Jesus works the same miracle today. And there is no greater miracle than this, the miracle of restoration and release in coming to know the Lord Jesus. And he will do the same with you too, if you come to him.

But finally, we come to the command of Jesus v36 - 37 (read). Now over the last few weeks we have seen why Jesus gave this command. He didn’t want people to misunderstand his mission or his person. He didn’t want people simply to be fascinated with him - ‘amazed’ a reaction which always has a negative connotation in Mark, rather, he is looking for people to have faith in him. And faith is always obedient faith, a loyalty to Jesus going on through thick and thin, good times and bad times. And that is exactly what the Lord Jesus is looking for today. These accounts are not meant just to draw wonderment from us, so at the end of the service we think, ‘Isn’t Jesus marvellous’ and off we go to our Sunday lunches largely unaffected. These portraits of our Saviour are meant to stir within us wholehearted commitment to him and his cause, so nothing is too much for him to ask of us, so that he becomes our life and our love, so we walk by faith and not by sight. And that is the real test of our faith and loyalty isn’t it? When things don’t seem to be happening as we would like, but we plough on regardless anyway So we have Cotton Matther, the great Christian leader in the early American colonies who prayed for revival several hours each day for twenty years; and the Great Awakening under Whitefield and Wesley began the year he died. Or we may think of the sober fact that the British Empire finally abolished slavery as William Wilberforce lay on his death bed, after 50 years of lobbying. There were very few converts during Hudson Taylor’s lifelong mission in the Orient. Today there are millions of Chinese who embrace the Christian faith he so patiently planted and tended. Is your faith an obedient faith? A loyal faith, a sacrificial faith or is it a superficial faith? As far as Jesus is concerned there is only one faith which counts, the faith which acts and which lasts.


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