Monday, September 10, 2012

A sermon on the occasion of a Baptism

[31] And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he came unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis.[32] And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him. [33] And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; [34] And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. [35] And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain. [36] And he charged them that they should tell no man: but the more he charged them, so much the more a great deal they published it; [37] And were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.
                              - St. Mark 7:31-37

The Gospel lesson today relates our Lord's healing of a deaf and apparently mute man. In fact, the Greek word indicates that he could speak, but only with great difficulty—hence the translation in the King James, he had an impediment in his speech. The fact that he could speak tells us that he was not deaf from birth, but rather, his loss of hearing must have been from an accident or disease. In the beginning of our lesson, our Lord ventures into a predominately Gentile region: Tyre, Sidon and Decapolis, but we cannot say for certain that the deaf man was a Gentile as there were communities of Jews living in those areas. Note the important fact, that nowhere do we have a record of the deaf man asking to be healed. In fact, it seems to be on the impetus and initiative of the those who bring the deaf man to Jesus, that our Lord heals him. In nearly every healing Jesus performed, an individual had faith. In this case, as in several others, it does not appear to be the faith of the one healed but of those who bring the afflicted person. We have here a picture of the goodwill and pity our Lord has for broken and hurting people. There is much here that is true of our own lives. None of us came to faith in isolation. At a certain time—the fulness of time—our first encounter with the Lord was probably as a result of being brought to the Lord by someone else. Perhaps a mother, or a godparent or a mentor. We must remember that even the small faith we offer to God is not our own; it is the gift of God and it has been nurtured by others. If we understood this, then there would truly be no room to cast aspersions on the apparently unbelieving or the faithless.

In this Gospel narrative we have a picture of infant baptism. Allow me to explain. The faith needed for our Lord to work, as I've noted, is probably not the faith of the deaf man but of those who bring him to Jesus. If someone asked you how to become a Christian what answer would you give them? On the day of Pentecost, Peter gave this one. After our Lord's Ascension, Peter filled with the Holy Spirit preached to the crowds of Jesus the Messiah. Just a few months earlier, a similar crowd gathered for a Jewish feast had called for the crucifixion of Jesus, and now Peter tells them that this Jesus whom they crucified is Lord and Christ. The response of the crowd is immediate: “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Peter's answer is a wonderful summation of entry into the Christian life: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 2.37-38). Repent and be baptized. Christian initiation is twofold, repentance and baptism. Repentance itself is a twofold action: a turning away from sin and self and a turning to God in faith and obedience. From Peter's words, it is evident that baptism and faith go hand in hand. If you only had one or the other, that is, baptism or faith, one would have a truncated Christianity. Well, you might ask, how does an infant have faith when baptism is administered? The faith comes from those who bring the child to baptism to be touched by the Lord, just as those men brought the deaf man to the Lord to be touched by him. I think it would be a reasonable conclusion that the deaf man believed in Jesus after his healing. In the same way, parents, godparents and the local church are to nurture faith in baptized children so that the faith becomes that of the child and not only of those who brought the child to be baptized. And just as our faith is not a static reality but something that grows or diminishes as it is fed by prayer and the Scriptures so too baptism cannot be merely a past event. Fr. Bright likes to say that baptism is the greatest gift one will ever receive, and it takes one's whole life to open this gift, this ever-flowing fountain of grace. We are always in need of returning to those two great pillars of our initiation: repentance and baptism. These are not to be simply past events, but on-going realities.

I mentioned earlier that the condition of the deaf man indicated that he had a speech impediment. In fact, the Greek word used to describe this disability is nowhere else used in the New Testament. The evangelist probably employed this somewhat unusual word in order to allude to an Old Testament passage that has strong messianic overtones. Listen to this passage from Isaiah 35 as the prophet describes the work of the Lord: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall hear; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of stammerers shall be clear.” The tongue of stammerers. Notice the close verbal parallel between the last verse of the Gospel lesson and this passage from Isaiah. For Mark, it is evident that Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy. And, of course, Jesus quite literally healed the blind, the deaf and the lame. But Isaiah's prophecy and our Lord's ministry of healing have spiritual implications as well. According to the Bible, every one is a little bit blind, a little bit deaf, a little bit stammering in their speech. For this reason, our Lord says repeatedly, he who has ears to hear, let him hear. There are of course many reasons for this spiritual condition. One reason is out of sheer laziness in that we can and do live unexamined lives. Think of the person raised in one place who has no love for the geography of that place; in nearly all cases, he will have to leave home before he can see and appreciate the beauty that has always surrounded him.  Another cause of spiritual blindness is the fact of our creaturely limitations. We are born into certain epochs and ages, a certain society and culture. It is difficult to think about what is already assumed in one's culture. How many white Americans who lived at the formation of our nation and who were otherwise moral human beings did not recognize the immorality of owning another human being? It is very difficult to be objective about one's received culture and even family background. A third cause of our spiritual blindness is, of course, sin. Life, true life, is meant to be dynamic and growing, but sin is deadening and ossifies all that it comes into contact with. We easily fall into the cycle of transgression, guilt & shame, superficial repentance, and finally sin again. Before long, our senses are numbed to God and to the world around us. We cannot bear to hear the message of God's love; we cannot see the beautiful world he has given to us. I am convinced that the more we empirically examine the world around us the more we will see these conditions of being deaf, blind, lame and of stammering speech. Our Lord's ministry of healing evidences his pity for such as these.

Allow me now to read the sentences following in the passage from Isaiah: Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall hear; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of stammerers shall be clear, because water has broken forth in the wilderness and a gully in a thirsty land; the dry place shall turn into marshlands, and in the thirsty land there shall be a spring of water (NET LXX Isaiah 35:5-7). The message and promise of baptism is that water has broken forth in the wilderness. Our physical, emotional and spiritual infirmities are like a wilderness in which there seems to be no life sustaining water, and there is not as long as we are focused on my trial, my difficulty, my adversity. Our baptism is like a fountain that will never cease to flow. It is a fountain of grace in the wilderness of blindness and sin. Whether we are facing trials from outside or our own inner demons, we can always say—like Martin Luther when he was assailed by guilt—I am baptized. I am baptized. May we ever find our baptism to be a solace in trial and a well of grace. 

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