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14. Sunday After Pentecost, 09/06/2009

Sermon on Isaiah 35:4-7a; Mark 7, 24-37, by Hubert Beck


Say to those who have an anxious heart, "Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you." Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.

(English Standard Version)


Anxious hearts are pandemic in our day. Surrounded by reports of terrorist attacks, senseless murders, swine flu, dietary and illness related issues, mass movements of refugees, homelessness, hunger and thirst, a curbing of freedom to express one's religious convictions in public forums, family tensions and violence on the rise, increasing secularism, an economy that is having trouble stabilizing and righting itself after near catastrophe, a militarism that is draining our national resources, AIDS devastating entire populations . . . . . you name it, and you have cause for "anxious hearts." They are all around us today - and yours may very likely be one of them.

"Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not!" Isaiah had no idea of the anxieties that haunt our day, did he? It is easy enough for him to say "Be strong; fear not!" when he has no idea of the anguish and misery of our time, is it not? We have our hands full trying to get a handle on what all troubles us much less to deal with those troubles! Why shouldn't we fear?

Ah, yes! But while we tend to think of our day as having an extraordinary number of such "anxious hearts," they are really nothing new. Every age has produced them in one form or another. Isaiah speaks to one such an age - a time when Israel, imprisoned in Babylon, is anxious about its future, wondering what tomorrow will bring. The woman in today's Gospel account was filled with anxiety about the welfare of her daughter. Those who brought a man without hearing and barely able to express himself verbally were anxious about his welfare. So it has been, and so it is now as myriads of people today sit in hospital waiting rooms hoping for some good news about a family member; as people worry about the welfare of loved ones in Iraq or Afghanistan; as households wonder what they will do as their family income evaporates around them, etc. Anxiety haunts the ages on personal levels, national levels, and all points in-between.

On every one of those levels of every age there has been and is a holy yearning - a longing for some way to amend that which is distressing them, a longing for a new Eden where "the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped," a time and place where "the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy." If only we could find a way to convert the wilderness land of this earth into a watered wonderland filled with springs of lively water by which the desert of this earth could be transformed. Who has not - who does not, in our day - have a deep longing for a time and age like this?


Isaiah says that such a time will come. The chapter immediately before that of our text speaks of the final word that God will speak over those who have tormented Israel in the past. It is, in fact, emphasized in the words we hear today: "Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God." Those who have opposed the people now feeling such oppression will feel the iron hand of God's judgment coming down upon them in God's own time. God has the last say!

The remainder of the chapter before us, however, assures Isaiah's hearers that the days of God's deliverance lie just before them. "He will come and save you." That is the heart of Isaiah's encouraging word to those who have a holy yearning for God's intervention in their tormented lives. His saving work, in fact, will be so strong that they will travel the "Way of Holiness" (v. 8), which can mean either that God's "set apart people" (that is what "holy" means) will set their feet on the path to freedom or it can mean that this is the way that the holy God, himself, will establish for the feet of his people to travel in a newly provided freedom. Either or both of those meanings are marvelous promises - and they are very likely commingled promises - that must have brightened the heart of his hearers. Isaiah will say more of this "Way of Holiness" in the next section of the book beginning with chapter 40.

The text for today, however, focuses on the new creation that takes place where and when God is at work. It is by no means always evident - and it is, in fact, commonly quite hidden. Yet it is the promise God makes to his people who live imprisoned in the chains of the brokenness of our world. The core of the promise lies in six words, "He will come and save you." His people will experience a powerful intrusion of God's gracious saving power that will not only overcome their enemies, but open a whole new future for them in which "the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame man shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy."

Unquestionably those who heard Isaiah understood that his words were poetry of the highest order. They did not expect the blind to suddenly be given sight as they set their feet on the path back to the Holy Land. They did not think of the deaf being suddenly given hearing when they left Babylon. They knew that their "leaping like a deer" was a way of expressing unspeakable joy at God's intervention, freeing them to return to their homeland. They were quite aware that their tongues would indeed be filled with songs of joy as they felt the chains of their imprisonment fall from their bodies. Yet the words were lofty symbols of that which God would enact in their midst in the near future.

For all the poetry involved in these words, however, they suggest something very important - something that gives us a very significant insight into today's Gospel reading. These words speak of "peepholes" into the kingdom of God through which those who have eyes to see are able to catch a glimpse both of what God meant for his people from the beginning and that which is yet to be seen when the full vision is restored to us.

Blindness, deafness, lameness, stammering inability to communicate - these are not things "built into" the original creation. They are all breakdowns of that which was meant to be - all signs that the world is disordered, that it has become dislocated from its original foundation.

Not all those who are blind have their sight restored, to be sure, but when and where it happens, one catches a glimpse of what should have been just as it gives us an image of what will yet be. Not all those who are deaf have their hearing restored, but when and where it is, one discovers a "peephole" of sorts by which one sees what was meant to be and what still, by the promise of God, will be again. When the lame unexpectedly leap or the mute.person suddenly speaks, God opens a small aperture through which one can see what he purposed from the original creation and what a re-creation of that intention looks like.


Centuries after Isaiah spoke those words Jesus of Nazareth came upon the scene, bearing words like those we read from the pen of Isaiah as an integral part of his very being. Two miraculous interventions by Jesus reveal the presence of God's re-ordering of creation in today's Gospel.

The demon that held the daughter of that distraught Syrophoenician woman in its possession is thrown out by a simple word from this man through whom the kingdom of God was being brought into sight. The woman, Gentile that she was, may not have known about the words of Isaiah, but she certainly had heard of the marvelous authority Jesus had exercised over the powers of evil and she threw herself on his mercy, begging him to display that influence over the demons by freeing her daughter from the oppression she was experiencing. No argument would dissuade her from her mission of getting this man on her side. She had a holy longing for that which she was sure Jesus could do - and he did that for which she had begged so earnestly. Matthew tells us that Jesus was mightily impressed by the persistence of this woman's entreaty, saying, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done as you desire." (Matthew 15:28)

The kingdom of God had become visible through this man who exercised power over the demons that had imprisoned, not only the Syrophoenician girl, but the whole world. With a "sign," a common way for the gospel writers to speak of Jesus' miracles, Jesus opened a "peephole" into both what God originally intended and that which he would still bring to pass.

Those who surrounded the man who was deaf and who had a speech impediment, apparently a severe stammering that made it almost impossible for him to communicate with others, were likewise convinced that Jesus could do something about that. Through a sign language of sorts Jesus gave the man hope and then, with a word, opened his ears and released his tongue. He and his friends had a holy longing for that which they were sure that Jesus could do - and he did that which they so earnestly desired.

Again the kingdom of God had become visible through Jesus of Nazareth who exercised a healing presence for the world held in the bondage of physical impairment. With a "sign" Jesus had opened a "peephole" into both what God originally intended and that which he will still bring to pass.

Mark tells us "they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.'" Can we not hear in these words an echo of the sense that in Jesus they had caught a vision of what the kingdom of God looks like when it becomes present among them?

"Be strong; fear not! . . . The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy." The words of Isaiah move from poetry in his day to concrete reality in that which becomes visible through this Lord of the demons and this healing God who became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.


Hard though it is for us to recognize the full revelation of God's intention for the world in and through this man of Nazareth, we take heart in the fact that those around him had an equally difficult time - perhaps an even more difficult time - in recognizing what his life was all about and the end to which he steadfastly set his foot. John the Baptizer had boldly spoken to the people, saying, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me. I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel." (John 1:29-31) Yet even he questioned whether he had misread the "signs," for he evidently expected one more clearly representing the just wrath of God descending on the unrepentant world to which John had so vigorously and vehemently addressed himself. To John's questioning, however, Jesus replied, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me." (Matthew 11:4-6) John was to look through the knothole of divine mercy to see what God was doing in Christ rather than looking for a whipping post for sin.

The disciples themselves could see no more clearly than John even though they walked and talked with Jesus for months and years. Although he repeatedly told them that he intended to go to Jerusalem where he would suffer, die, be buried and rise again, at one point as they traveled through Samaria they felt an urgent need to protect him from harm as though they could take things into their own hands. When a Samaritan village refused to receive him they asked, "Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" (Luke 9:54) Jesus' rebuke at such a suggestion must have hurt them terribly, for it was as good as telling them that he needed no protection from them since he was under the Father's care and direction. Thinking in earthly terms of protecting their master, they just never quite got the point of what Jesus was about! Perhaps the most stinging rebuke of all came when Peter attempted to stop Jesus from following through on his insistent proposal to go to Jerusalem where he would suffer, die, be buried and rise again. "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man." (Mark 8:33) The vision of the disciples and the vision of Jesus were diametrically opposite one another. The disciples yearned for one future, but Jesus' was determined to follow another future, that of bearing in his body the yearning love of God that would set the disrupted world back on the path that was intended for it from the time of its creation.

The vision of Jesus won out, of course! He who opened the eyes of the blind, unstopped the ears of the deaf, caused the lame to leap and unloosed the ears and tongue of the mute performed a still greater miracle yet! He took upon himself the sin of the world, just as John the Baptizer had initially introduced him. The cross hardly seemed to be a "sign" of anything other than weakness, fragility, defeat and failure. The blood appeared to be only blood. It hardly appeared to be the washing that would result in a whiteness beyond snow!

Yet it was for this hour that he had come. "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified," he said at the Last Supper. (John 12:23) The cross was to be his glory? Yes! "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. . . Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." (John 12:24, 27, 28) He who saved others could not save himself lest, in saving himself, others would not be saved! What a paradox. He who opened the eyes of the blind closed his own eyes in death. He who unstopped the ears of the deaf closed his ears to the taunts and jeers under the cross, urging him to come down. He who caused the lame to leap became limp on the cross in behalf of the world. It was this very seeming absurdity that has caused the ages to say with those in today's Gospel: "He has done all things well."

Because of him we have been given eyes to see through the disruptive discordances of this world, to hear beyond the cacophony of a world in turmoil, to speak of one not seen but yet very really among us, saying, "Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you." It was the word of Isaiah to the anxious people of his time. It is the word of God to the anxious people of our time. It is the word of the Lord to anxious people of all time! It is the Word made flesh in the Jesus of whom we read in today's Gospel.


The one of whom we speak said, "Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? . . . Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? . . . But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? . . . But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble." (Matthew 6:25-33) He was echoing the words of Isaiah as he took our anxieties up into himself.

It was he who said, "The demon has left your daughter," and the woman "went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone." It was he who said, "Ephphatha, Be opened," and the man's "ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly." It is he who speaks to us today, saying, "Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you." All the threatening forces around us are under the judging powers of God, no matter how dark the shadows they throw over us. "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." (Romans 12:19) We live in the "in-between" time - the time between the word of promise and the word of final accounting, between the time of yearning and the time of clearly seeing that for which we yearn.

There will, indeed, be a time when "the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;" a time when, indeed "the lame man shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will sing for joy;" a time when "waters break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert, the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water."

We earnestly yearn for that day to come in its fullness. It is, indeed, a holy yearning.

St. Augustine put it this way in words: "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you."

Johann Sebastian Bach joined words to music to say it this way: "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."

It is for us to give life to these words by the way we live as though through us, like "peepholes into the kingdom," the blind may see the glory of the Lord, the deaf may hear the songs of the angels, the lame may give their crutches to him who becomes their new and strong legs, and the mute may be given tongues of praise to him who makes waters break forth in the wilderness and causes streams to run through the deserts of this anxious world. Because that is the promise of the future it is already as good as done. How do we know? Because the Lord has spoken, and it shall be so! So let us live even now "as though" it were coming to pass.


Lutheran Pastor, Retired Hubert Beck

E-Mail: hbeck@austin.rr.com