Reading this miracle story in Mark’s gospel this week, the first person I thought of was Sarah Churman.
Sarah Churman was born 30 years ago completely deaf. All she could hear was something that sounded like a chain saw. Hearing aids didn’t help, but she was sensitive to vibrations. If someone wanted her attention, and she couldn’t see them, they’d have to stomp on the floor. In time, she managed to learn how to read lips, and even learned how to speak.
As the years went on, Sarah fell in love, married, had children—and she lived her life in a cone of silence.
But all that changed in the summer of 2011. When she was 29, Sarah had a cochlear implant—an electronic device implanted surgically in her ear that could, if it worked, finally bring her the gift of sound.
The operation had risks. Among other things, there was no telling how Sarah might react to having her life suddenly saturated with sound. Some find the results disturbing. But she decided it was worth it, and went ahead with the operation.
Eight weeks after the surgery, she went to the doctor to have the implant turned on for the first time. Her husband thought it might be a moment to remember, so he brought along his video camera to record it. He later downloaded it onto YouTube, which is where I saw it. It’s only 90 seconds long, but what he captured is just extraordinary.
Sarah sits with a woman technician, who adjusts a device near her ear, and then turns on the implant.
“It’s beeping,” Sarah says, and she laughs.
“That means your device is on,” the technician says. “Can you tell?”
And Sarah nods. She begins to laugh nervously.
But then something happens. You realize: she can’t quite believe it. Thirty years of silence have been broken. For the first time ever, she’s hearing things, small things, little noises. A chair squeaking, papers rustling. Breathing. Laughing. The emotion is overwhelming. Her hand flies up to her mouth and she begins to cry. The technician tries to reassure her, “But it’s exciting,”she says, and Sarah nods.
The technician tells her to try and get used to the sound, and then asks Sarah what it sounds like.
There’s a long moment of silence as Sarah covers her face with her hands. She can’t stop crying, and she can’t quite put it into words.
“Do you hear yourself?,” the technician says. “Yes,” Sarah replies. And then, with an embarrassed laugh, she admits: “But I don’t want to hear myself cry.”
That moment on YouTube created a sensation. Nearly 14 million people have watched it so far, and Sarah has interviewed extensively on radio and TV. One of those who spoke with her at length was Dick Gordon on Public Radio. And she told him it was a shock. There’s an element of comfort, she said, to waking up every morning, knowing what to expect. Change, she said, is hard. Her husband took her to the Outback steakhouse afterward, she said, and the sensation of biting into a crouton in a salad, hearing it crunch, was like an earthquake.
She described the morning after, being in the kitchen, and hearing for the first time her children playing and fighting, like kids do. And she sat on the kitchen floor and just bawled. Her husband came in and asked if she was all right.
She said yes, but asked, “Have they always sounded like this?” He told her yeah, that’s pretty much what they sound like all the time. And she kept on crying and said it was the most beautiful thing in the world.
Sarah also talked about the moment she knew everything had changed, the instant she could hear.
“Before anyone spoke,” she said, “before I moved, before I breathed or swallowed, there was just complete silence and clarity.”
I imagine the deaf man in the gospel may have experienced something similar—but with one important difference.
Science didn’t give him sound, or give him speech.
It was Jesus. It was an encounter with the living God.
Because Jesus touched him, shared his humanity with him—even shared his spit with him—the man’s ears were opened and his tongue was freed.
“Here is your God,” Isaiah writes. “He comes to save you… Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared…”
Here is your God.
Here is our salvation, told in the story of one man—a story so amazing that the people who witnessed it just couldn’t keep to themselves. That deaf man’s name has been lost to history—though millions, if not billions, know his story.
Whether we realize it or not, his story is our story.
To all of us who feel isolated, cut off, living in a cone of silence…Christ reaches out.
To all of us who feel lonely or different, damaged or confused, to all of us who struggle to understand…Christ bends down and touches us.
To all of us who have closed ourselves off from love, from change, from the possibility of miracles…Christ calls out:
This miracle teaches us that an encounter with Christ brings something we all need, something Sarah Churman experienced in her first seconds in the hearing world: clarity. It brings understanding. What was muffled becomes clear. Everything suddenly make sense!
And after letting Christ into our lives, we are finally able to express something that could never quite put into words.
We are made new.
So, with this miracle on our minds, we ask ourselves: what does this gospel say about us? What kind of deafness hangs over us?
Do we tune out what God is telling us, and listen instead to the chattering and droning of the world around us?
And: how is our speech impaired? Do we muddle the gospel message? All too often, we don’t speak it plainly, or live it plainly. We compromise. We hedge. We make excuses. We sin.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
As Sarah Churman explained, change is hard. We can become comfortable in the midst of our own deafness – whether physical or spiritual.
But Christ calls out to each of us: Ephatha! Be opened!
Let the walls come down.
Let Jesus in.
Because if we do… the result may be nothing short of a miracle.