Looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to him,
“Ephphatha”, that is, “Be opened.”
This morning Elin will be baptised. We believe she will be spiritually washed, she will be gifted with the Spirit, she will become a member of Christ – a part of the Church, and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is very exalted language that describes a change in her very being.
And Jesus says this step is necessary for each us: Unless you are born of water and the Spirit, you cannot see… you cannot enter… the Kingdom of heaven. [John 3:3-5] Baptism is necessary for this ascent and for this vision – but that vision is not immediate.
Jesus also spoke of the need of each of us to be sanctified, made pure, over our lifetime, and that this is a preparation for us to see God face to face! He says, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God![Matthew 5:8] Paul picks this up when he says, Now we see in part, as through a dull mirror, but then we shall see [God] face to face! [1 Cor 13:12]
People have speculated through the ages on what it means to see God. How can this be if God is without body, parts or passions (Article 1 of the 39 Articles of Religion in the Book of Common Prayer) – could our eyes really see the unseeable? Are Jesus and Paul referring to a spiritual seeing? Is it when our souls see the Truth?
The Bible speaks about the desire to see God, but also repeatedly speaks of people being afraid to see God. If I see God I will die! [e.g. Gen 32:30; Exodus 33:20; Judges 13:22] Even the manifestations of God’s angelic creatures normally elicits terror – be not afraid, they must first say when they appear.
In the Old Covenant, the people pleaded with Moses that he would go and have the encounter with God and then tell them what he heard. And so Moses acted as a mediator, a middle person, to bring the news to them, the Law of God, written on tablets.
Notice that the people of Israel moved a step away from seeing God, to hearing God’s voice. And they have also stepped away from hearing God directly, to having someone else, Moses, hear and share what he has heard. Somehow that was easier to bear, they were less afraid of that, as long as it was through Moses. Even to hear God’s voice might bring death [Deut 5:24].
Here’s two examples that show it is less scary to hear a voice than to suddenly see:
e.g. Daniëlle and I are getting used to living with another person since we married last January. If I walk into a room quietly I can cause her to be startled – or she can do the same to me. We’ve taken to the habit of speaking first before being seen – Hey Love, I’m here…
e.g. When we were hiking in the mountains in Canada this past summer we were told that it is best, especially when you’re coming around a corner on a trail, to sing or make a sound, so that you don’t suddenly frighten a bear and cause it to attack. If the bear hears you beforehand, he will more likely move away. (They never give you full assurances!) But the bear is somehow more ready by nature to hear a voice than to be startled and frightened with a sudden sight of a living person.
An encounter with the living God seems to be something like this for us – for various reasons we can be a terrified about a close encounter with God. But as Christians, we are being made ready to see God face to face.
St Paul says this morning [2 Corinthians 3:4-9], that the possibility for closeness to God under the New Covenant, is so much greater than under the Old Covenant.
Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?
The story is that when Moses encountered God and it made the skin of his face shine, so that he had to cover his face with a cloth so that the people were not frightened. But you may know the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the holy Mountain, when he revealed His glory to Peter, James and John. The light shone through his clothing, nothing could contain that glory and the disciples fell down on their faces. The first Covenant is a more outward glory pressing on Moses from without, more on the surface, but the second Covenant in Jesus Christ is a more inward glory from within, shining from our hearts.
In the Old Covenant, people heard a Word through Moses about what God said and it was a help, the Law of love, in the moral life to know what love is. But in new Covenant, God’s Spirit dwells within us, transforming us, we partake of God’s nature and so are filled with His glory. In time we will see God in one way by seeing our own souls as they are made perfectly into God’s image and likeness.
But one step before seeing God, is to hear his Voice within us – maybe that is less scary for us, and is a preparation that leads us to seeing God.
In the Gospel this morning [St Mark 7:31-37], they brought to Jesus a man who was deaf and who could not speak. This man is a figure, a type, of every one of us, whose spiritual ears are dull to hearing the voice of God and who are not so able or courageous to speak with others about our faith in Jesus.
And taking him aside from the crowd privately, Jesus put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha”, that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly…and they were astonished beyond measure!
The New Covenant in Jesus Christ comes with astonishing promises. No longer will it be someone else who goes to speak with God – a mediator like Moses – who comes back to us to share what he has heard from God, but each one of us are to hear the voice of God directly. [e.g. Jer 31:33-34; Joel 2:28]
What does it mean to hear the voice of God?
The words in the Bible we believe to be the Voice of God. Many people read these words and it has no effect – or sometimes it is without effect for us. But with the gift of the Spirit in our hearts, these words on the page in Bible can strike our hearts in new and powerful ways – that is one way our ears are opened to God’s Voice.
But even more astonishingly, we are promised in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ that we will receive the voice of God personally and within our own souls – the Spirit to guide us by giving us wisdom, insight, even dreams or visions – very specific to each one of us and also to help those around us, the gift of prophecy [e.g. Jer 31:33-34; Joel 2:28; John 15; Romans 5:5]. St Paul says, following the promises through the prophets, and his own experience and the experience of others around him, that we should very much expect this, and desire it [1 Corinthians 14:1-5].
Last year we offered courses on the gift of Prophecy, that is, to hear God’s Voice within us. And there is another training course in Hearing God’s Voice on 12 October at All Saints in Amersfoort. Speak to Danielle Los or to me if you are interested in attending.
In Summary, we are promised that in time we will see God face to face. But as that may be too frightening for us still, our souls unready, we could begin at least with having the expectation and desire of hearing God’s voice. Elin will need help as she grows up to expect to hear God’s voice and to be able distinguish the voice of God from the other voices clambering for attention in her soul.
Let us prepare ourselves now through repentance and faith for an encounter with the living God. As we come forward, and are washed in the Blood of Jesus and strengthened spiritually with His Body, let us ask Jesus to open our ears to His voice and our tongues in praise.
Ephphatha, be opened!