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Jesus Sighed

San Williams

September 9, 2012
Mark 7:31-37

09-09-2012 Sermon Today’s scripture tells of yet another healing episode in the life of Jesus. In this instance, Jesus opened the ears and released the tongue of a man who was both deaf and mute.  While the incident is certainly miraculous, it’s hardly surprising to readers of Mark’s gospel.  After all, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus came to proclaim God’s coming Kingdom, and in God’s kingdom, health is restored, the lame can walk, the deaf hear, and mourners shout for joy.  So we’re not surprised when we hear, as we did this morning, another story of Jesus restoring someone to health and wholeness.  Neither are Jesus’ instructions to the crowd to “tell no one” unexpected, since one of Mark’s themes is that the healings by Jesus can only be fully understood in light of the cross and resurrection.  Yet one short phrase in today’s reading did catch me by surprise. It’s the phase “Jesus sighed.” We know Jesus healed and taught, but why did he sigh?  Let’s shine a laser on those surprising and unexpected words.

We know from our own experience that a sigh can signal a number of conditions.  There is a sigh of relief as when the doctor tells us the tumor is benign—“thank God.”  There’s a sigh of dismay, “Why did this happen to me?”  Other times a sigh can signal fatigue, or anguish.  Whatever the reason, a sigh communicates a depth of feeling that is beyond words.

Of course, sighs and groans are common to every age. In fact, there are numerous sighs in the Bible. Job, whose life was turned upside down, from health and well-being to unrelenting suffering, uttered, “My sighing comes like my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water…”   Similarly, the Psalmist laments the misery of old age, failing health, constant pain, “My life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.”  The prophet Jeremiah is sometimes called the weeping prophet, because of the many trials he endured in his prophetic ministry.  “I am weary with my groaning,” Jeremiah declared, “and I find no rest.”  And in his letter to the Romans, Paul declared that the whole creation has been groaning, as with labor pains. It’s clear, then, that praise and thanksgiving are not the only sounds heard in scripture.  Listen carefully, and you will hear a sustained sigh emanating from the pages of the Bible.

But my question is, Why did Jesus sigh right before he healed the man who could neither hear nor speak?  The context of today’s episode leads us to suspect that in this case, his sigh was one of weariness, overwork, the assault of humanity’s unrelenting need.  Mark implies that Jesus went to the region of Tyre for respite, writing that, “He did not want anyone to know he was there.” Then Mark adds, “but he could not escape notice.” In the episode immediately preceding the one we read this morning, Jesus is met by a Syrophoenician woman who begs for Jesus to heal her daughter.  Not only does Jesus refuse, initially, but he is uncharacteristically impatient, even rude to the woman.  As one commentator wrote, this is the one instance in the Gospels when Jesus is caught with his compassion down. No matter where he goes, he can’t escape the unending needs of his fellow man.

In today’s reading, Jesus no sooner leaves the region of Tyre headed for the Sea of Galilee—perhaps another attempt to get away—than he is confronted with a man who can neither hear nor speak. Jesus does heal the man, but not before lifting his eyes to heaven and uttering a deep sigh.  Was it a sigh of weariness, of fatigue?  Perhaps.

Yet consider the suggestion that fatigue does not fully explain why Jesus sighed. I believe that at a deeper level his sigh emanates from the anguished heart of God.  That is,    Jesus’ sigh is the sound of God’s compassion for the broken, hurting world. In the epicenter of that sigh is a love that defies expression, is beyond telling, and too deep for words.

Jesus’ sigh in today’s story is similar to the sigh Jesus made as he neared Jerusalem and the cross. When Jesus looked out over Jerusalem, the City of Peace, and saw how lacking in peace the city was, his sigh erupted into tears. It was the sound of God’s heart aching for people who are hurt and who hurt one another, people who suffer, people who stubbornly refuse to love one another, people who for one reason or another remain closed to the abundant, peaceable life God yearns to give us. One of the anthems our choir sometimes sings is based on the writings of Albert Schweitzer and includes Schweitzer’s words:  “God prays for us with sighs too deep for words.” Hear, then, the sigh of Jesus not merely as an expression of fatigue, but as a groan that originates in the anguished heart of God; a love too deep for words.

And after Jesus sighed he said, “Be opened.”  In the Gospel story, the man experienced the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ.  His ears were opened and his tongue released.  But is there good news in this story for us today? We may not be physically deaf and mute, but maybe we’re tongue-tied when it comes to proclaiming our faith.  And don’t we sometimes turn a deaf ear to the cries of our neighbors, shut out the very person who needs us, barricade ourselves from people who are different or who disagree with us, and refuse to speak when we could have raised our voice for justice and truth?  These are the very times Jesus sighs and says to us “be opened.”

Friends, that’s God’s word for us this morning.  We who have heard the sound of God’s love in the sigh of Jesus are now freed to respond to the command that follows: Be opened!

Lord, open our ears to hear the cries of our neighbors.

Open our eyes to see not only the hurt of the world but also the love that will eventually heal the world.

Open our lips to speak plainly and joyfully about the One who does all things well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.

Such a miracle is possible for us today, because Jesus is in our midst still sighing but still healing.