God Turning Things Upside Down
Saint Mark 7:31–37
What would you think if someone told you that things had just turned “upside down” for them? Without any other information than “upside down,” you’d likely assume that something terrible had suddenly happened; such as it did with the residents of coastal Texas when Hurricane Harvey visited them with devastating effect. But the Lord God, through the prophet Isaiah this morning, tells us of a turning upside down that is of the greatest good. He says, “Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field?” And by “turned,” the Lord means completely turned—turned upside down.
Apart from the usefulness of the cedars of Lebanon in constructing buildings like the temple in Jerusalem, the dense forest covering most of that country back then caused the land of Lebanon to be looked upon as wilderness, and of little worth compared to the rich and fruitful cultivated lands of Israel. That will all change, God says. The day is coming when that will all be turned upside down and the wilderness forest will become the fruitful field.
Of course, God is speaking metaphorically here. He’s pointing ahead to the day that is coming—the “very little while”—when the Gentile world, which was full of unbelieving and wicked people, should, through the preaching of the Gospel, be transformed and made fruitful in grace and faith. This is, indeed, a turning upside down of things that is of the greatest good. Sadly, however, what God at the same time foretold about the fruitful field coming to be “regarded as a forest,” also happened when God’s chosen people of old rejected the Good News of salvation. For them, having things thus turned upside down was truly as bad as it can get, for with their rejection of Christ comes the certainty of death and everlasting damnation.
Now, other than this brief mention in the Isaiah reading of the fruitful field of Israel becoming like the desolate forest, the full focus of the rest of that Old Testament text and the Epistle and the Holy Gospel for today is centered upon how God in Christ has turned things upside down in the very best way—in the way of salvation and everlasting life. And I should also point out that by focussing upon this positive side, we do not disregard the terrible consequence that comes to sinners when they reject God’s grace, nor do we regard those who currently do not believe as having no hope. We pray that God the Holy Spirit would turn all unbelieving hearts upside down so that they might have the blessings that we have in Christ.
Turning again, (not upside down) but very briefly, to the Word of the Lord from Isaiah, we observe the prophet foretelling of a day in which “the deaf shall hear the words of a book,” the eyes of the blind made to see, the meek obtaining fresh joy in the Lord, the poor exulting in the Holy One of Israel; we hear of bad things that exist in this world because of sin being healed and made right; we hear of what the devil turned upside down at the beginning being turned upside down again by God so that it is where it should be—where He intended it to be when He made all things in heaven and on earth. These things foretold by Isaiah—the righting of sin’s wrong—will come to fruition in the resurrection, when sin is no more.
Saint Mark, in the seventh chapter of his Gospel account, tells us of our Lord Jesus healing a man who is both deaf and burdened with a speech impediment. In this one, relatively small instance of healing, we witness a glimpse of this future reality that Isaiah’s words direct us to think on. It’s kind of like what we are given to experience here in the Lord’s Supper—that foretaste of the feast to come, which is not just a representation of that heavenly feast, but a real participation in it. With the man that Jesus heals in the region of the Decapolis, we witness a real connection, a real participation in the life that is to come. The full reality of that is not yet accomplished with this healing, but it’s indeed present, in part, through it.
It’s important, I think, to make note of this, lest we look upon what is taking place in this Gospel event as some sort of isolated feat of divine power and might, or only another example of our Lord’s compassion. This healing is an event of cosmic proportion—part of all that our blessed Saviour did and does to get things turned upside down and back in the upright position.
Before we move on to consider in greater detail the healing that takes place in today’s Holy Gospel, there are two pieces of background information that help us better see the connection between this healing and the prophecy that we heard from Isaiah. We’re told that Jesus “returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.” Tyre and Sidon are two cities to the north of Israel in that cedar tree covered, Gentile country of Lebanon. And the Decapolis is an area to the east of the Sea of Galilee that is inhabited mostly by Gentiles. And while there are some Jews living in the Decapolis, it’s likely that the man that Jesus heals, and the crowd that brings him to Jesus and begs Him for healing, are Gentiles. Jesus is at work, we see, turning things upside down for these Gentile people, turning the wild forest that they are, into the fruitful field of God’s grace.
Taking the afflicted man aside from the people who brought him to Jesus, our Lord places His fingers into the man’s unhearing ears. He then touches the man’s tongue with fingers that He had first spat upon, and He looks up to heaven and sighs. We’re not told why Jesus, at this moment, sighs, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it is a sigh of sadness—sadness over the terrible plight of mankind because of our sin that has caused this man and all others not only bodily woes but also the more serious harm to our souls. He sighs, knowing just what it will take to reverse this harm and turn things upside down for our good—for the healing of both our bodies and our souls. Humanity’s Healer then speaks a word. “Ephphatha,” He says, which is Aramaic for “Be opened.” Saint Mark tells us that, right then, the man’s “ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”
The crowd of people who witness this miracle are all “astonished beyond measure.” They exclaim, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” Jesus charges them to “tell no one,” but their enthusiasm cannot be contained. The more He says to keep it to themselves, “the more zealously they proclaimed it.”
Now, the Gospel accounts tell us of other times when Jesus says this same thing to onlookers after performing other miracles, and the reason given for this is that it is not yet His time, suggesting that publicity about the miracles He performs might hasten His arrest and crucifixion, the time for which is in God’s hands and not man’s. But here, in this Gentile region of the Decapolis, I think the reason for Him wanting them to tell no one is different. I think He would rather they be less focussed on this great thing done among them that day, and more given to think upon what this means for all of them in a larger scope—in the context of eternity. For surely the greater miracle set before them is that to what the deaf-mute’s healing is connected—the healing of the entire world.
And so it is for you, too, dear friends, that you are given to see in this wonderful, blessed miracle of healing, your own healing, which took place for you and for all of us in the same place—in the waters of Holy Baptism. There, your Saviour turned you upside down and right side up, directing you heavenward, toward the glory of eternal life that He purchased and won for you on the cross with His innocent suffering and death—with His entire life given for you. In your baptism, Jesus effectively declares to you, “Ephphatha!” opening your ears to hear the wonderful truth of your salvation, to believe it and trust in it, and to proclaim in return, with tongue untied from sin’s bondage by faith, that “Jesus is Lord,” that you “believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,” and that in Him you are saved.
Now, I have one more thing, dear friends, to say about this whole business of being turned upside down by God, that the desolate forest of your sin and unbelief might be turned into God’s own fertile and fruitful field. In the language of faith, being turned upside down by God is another way of speaking about repentance. You see, repentance is not just being sorry that you sinned, it’s being sorry and truly desiring to turn away from that sin. It’s wanting God to turn you a full 180 degrees away from it. Without sincerely desiring this, without wanting to receive Christ’s forgiveness, and wanting to go forth in His righteous way, you are really still back in that forest, hugging the trees, refusing the Holy Spirit’s efforts to set you straight. But wanting it, desiring to be forgiven and renewed means that you have faith, and through faith, God will indeed set you straight.
I should add, however, that your faithful and true repentance does not mean that you will never return to sin of which you repent. Indeed, you all know this by experience. Because of your sinful nature, which sticks to you like sap from the cedar, you continue to be drawn away from the fruitful field of God’s grace and back again and again to the forest of sin and unbelief. This is why Jesus, through the Spirit, continually calls you to repentance, that you may receive the forgiveness that He freely offers you through His Word and Sacrament.
Listen, therefore, to our Lord Jesus saying this morning, “This do in remembrance of Me,” for these words tell you that everything that He has done for you, for your salvation, to give you life without end—including the healing of the deaf-mute—is here for you in His true Body and Blood that you are given to eat and drink. Think on that, dear friends, and rejoice! With that dear man who was given ears to hear and tongue to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, rejoice and give thanks to our Saviour Jesus Christ, through whom you have your salvation and life without end. Amen.