Mark 7:31-37

Sept. 6, 2015


A mother and her three-year-old son were playing in the front yard. There were squeals and giggles galore. Dad came to the door and asked them to play a bit more quietly so he could get his work done.

The three-year-old put his hands on his hips and said indignantly, “Daddy, I don’t do quiet!” That is true of a lot of three-year-olds. They don’t do quiet.

A cartoon shows a large van. On the side are the warnings, “Danger! Explosives!” Inside are two men. The driver of the van turns to his buddy and says with a sigh, “I used to drive a school bus, but I had to give it up because of my nerves!”

Many of you parents and grandparents will understand.

A man was getting a haircut. He asked the barber when would be the best time to bring in his two-year-old son.

Without hesitation, the barber answered, “When he’s four.”

Children are a challenge.

One of the things you notice immediately about children is that they have a deep-seated need to be the center of attention. Toddlers love to “perform” for parents and grandparents. One of their favorite phrases is, “Mommy, Daddy look at me! Look at me!” One mark of emotional maturity is the ability to not be the center of attention. To empathize with others. To both give and receive.

It’s a sign of Jesus’ self-assurance and spiritual depth that he didn’t like to draw attention to himself. Until the last week of his life, Jesus generally kept out of the spotlight. Whenever he felt that his miracles were attracting too much attention, he moved on. In Mark 7, we read, “Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis.”

Before this time, Jesus had been traveling through many well populated areas, performing many miracles. And each time, he tried to keep these events quiet. It never worked, but still he tried. Then in today’s lesson, Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples left the city of Tyre and went into the region of the Decapolis. The key thing to understand here is that this was about an eight-month journey. For eight months, Mark does not record Jesus doing any public ministry. For eight months, he traveled through large and small towns, without drawing any attention to himself.

But then he comes to a town where the people want something from him. Mark doesn’t say whether Jesus was planning on doing any works of healing in the region of the Decapolis or not. He may have still wished to remain out of the spotlight. But his reputation had spread even to that distant place. When he arrived there, people were waiting for him and they brought to him a man who could not hear and could hardly talk. They begged him to place his hand on the man.

For people with disabilities, attention is a two-edged sword. We tend to respond to those who are different by either ignoring them or paying too much attention to them. Every disabled person can tell tales of being overlooked by others. They can also tell tales of being teased, ridiculed, harassed, pitied and fussed over. Did the deaf man want to speak to Jesus? Or was the crowd making him the unwilling center of attention?

A few years ago, Cathie Gandel and her husband moved to Japan for a business assignment. As a very tall, white woman, Cathie attracted a lot of negative attention. She tried very hard to learn the language and cultural traditions of her new country. But she was the frequent target of stares, giggles, and rude comments. In a culture as homogeneous as Japan’s, it is no surprise to learn that the Japanese word for “different” is the same as the Japanese word for “wrong.”

People who are different from the norm, whether through their ideas, appearance, or abilities, are often made to feel as if they are wrong.

Note Jesus’ compassion in this passage. He could have scored big points with the crowd if he had performed a spectacular miracle right here. Get the crowd excited! Get some more buzz going on! But that’s not what Jesus did. Verse 33 tells us that Jesus took the man aside, away from the crowd. It’s as if Jesus is saying to the man, “I know all this attention is embarrassing to you. Don’t worry, I’m not going to use you for some public spectacle. This is just between you, me, and my Heavenly Father.”

I wish some modern day faith healers where as compassionate–those who parade hurting people before the television cameras.

We read, “After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ (Which means, ‘Be opened!’) At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.”

Mark goes on to tell us, “Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. ‘He has done everything well,’ they said. ‘He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’”

We love miracles, don’t we? Particularly miracles in which people are healed. There are some of you who have experienced such a miracle and it brings joy to your heart every time you recall it. The doctors told you you had six months to live, but five years later you’re still going strong. What could build your faith more than that?

And yet, I have to tell you that miracles present all kinds of problems to theologians. Theologian Marjorie Riley Maguire wrestled with the question of miracles after the tragic tsunami that struck Southeast Asia the day after Christmas 2004. 150,000 innocent people died in that devastating event.

There was a widely televised story following the tsunami concerning a certain Rev. Sanders. Rev. Sanders operated an orphanage in Sri Lanka. There were 26 children in that orphanage. Rev. Sanders rescued all 26 in a motorboat. According to reports, Sanders headed straight toward the advancing wave of the tsunami, stood up in his boat and said, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to stand still.” Sanders says the wave stood still for a few seconds, long enough for the boat to get over the wave and out to sea, before the wave crashed down on the orphanage and demolished it.

If this is really what happened, and we have no evidence to the contrary, that certainly qualifies as a miracle. Theologian Dr. Maguire asks, “Was it because he was a Christian, rather than a Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim that this prayer was heard?” Then she answers her own question, “I think not. God is not a banker who needs the right sectarian religious combination before opening the safe of divine goodness. I believe the wave probably did stand still for a few seconds,” she writes, “because God has given us human beings much more power over creation than we know … I believe faith and prayer is one of the ways to tap those energies … It was not God’s caprice that made the wave stopped for a few seconds, but rather the same God-given natural laws that caused the earthquake and tsunami in the first place …”

Did the wave stand still? I wasn’t there. I can’t tell you whether it did or it didn’t. But I do know there have been events in the lives of many good people that they will say were miraculous. People were healed. People were spared under amazing circumstances. It seems to defy the idea of a lawful universe, but miraculous things do happen in this world. Having said that, however, we need to say something else:

Our faith shouldn’t rely on miracles. We’ve already noted over the past few weeks that Jesus warned against basing faith on signs and miracles and many conscientious Christians wrestle with the issue of miracles. Not because they question God’s power. No one questions God’s ability to perform miracles. God created everything that is. God can do anything God chooses. But, if I give you a glowing testimony of how God cured me of cancer, what does it say to the person who is just as deserving, who prays with just as much urgency, but is not physically healed as I was healed? That’s the hard side of miracles. What about the 150,000 desperate souls in Southeast Asia for whom the tsunami wave did not stand still? There is no answer to that troubling question this side of heaven.

And it might sober us a little to recognize that all miracles are temporary. Jesus brought his friend Lazarus back from the dead, but eventually Lazarus died again we know that because otherwise he would still be with us. Can you imagine how excited the news media would get over a 2000 year old man who was still alive? Very, very wrinkled, but still alive.

If we had our way, none of us would die or ever face real hardship. But that’s not how life works out. Even if we do experience a miracle, it is only temporary. The mortality rate in this world is still 100%. Our faith will eventually fail us if it is built on signs and miracles.

Authentic faith is based on God’s love and God’s promises. Our faith is not based on God’s ability to perform miracles. Our faith is based upon God’s love poured out for us on Golgotha’s tree.

You can see how torn Jesus was all through this. In Jesus’ ministry. He tried desperately to downplay his ability to perform miracles. Time and time again he told people to keep their healing a secret. He knew that healing was not his primary mission. He was sent to preach the coming kingdom of God. However, he simply could not bypass suffering people. If confronted with human need, he responded. And that’s the real message of the stories. We see in Christ, God’s love, God’s compassion.

God loves you regardless of your circumstances. A person in a wheelchair is no less loved than a well-coordinated athlete. The cancer victim is no less loved than the cancer survivor. We cannot explain the great disparities that people experience in this life, but we know these disparities are not a reflection of how much God loves us.

I began this morning talking about children. Tamara White runs in inner-city ministry in Denver, Colorado, called Prodigal Ministries. She lives and works in a neighborhood that is ruled by gangs and crime. In her work, she has seen heartbreaking instances of abuse and neglect in the lives of the kids she works with. Many of them have no positive adult role models in their lives. This has a devastating effect on their self-esteem.

Tamara took in one nine-year-old boy who was living on the streets. She planned to adopt him, so she wanted to teach him all about her faith. She started by asking the child, “Do you know what God says about children?”

The child lowered his eyes in shame and replied sadly, “I know.” Then he added, “They are evil.” Someone had poisoned this child’s mind and his self-image by teaching him that God thought children were evil. He carried a load of shame with them because he thought that not even God could love him. He desperately needed to hear the good news of a God who valued and loved children as the prize of His creation.

God loves all of us. Here is God’s will for us: that we take our circumstances, whatever they may be, and use them to God’s glory. Often the real miracle comes when people take their difficult circumstances and use them as a steppingstone for a more fulfilling life.

Heather Whitestone did that. When Heather was a child, Daphne, her mother, was advised to send Heather to a school for the deaf and not to expect her to receive more than a third-grade education. But her mother had greater ambitions for Heather.

With her mother’s encouragement Heather has been able to turn a hearing disability into an asset. Many of you will recognize Heather Whitestone’s name as Miss America 1995. In Heather’s hometown there is a poster featuring a photo of Heather, taped on a storefront. The poster reads like this: “They said she would only be able to get a third-grade education. Fortunately, she wasn’t listening!”

That is the message for today: don’t listen to your circumstances, no matter how difficult those circumstances may be. Listen to a loving God who says to you, “You are my beloved child. I haven’t forgotten you. I am with you. I will never forsake you. Miracles are but momentary phenomena. My love for you is eternal.” If you experience a physical miracle, that’s wonderful! Rejoice in it. But that is not the basis of faith. The basis of faith is God’s love and God’s promises.