For those of you who are visiting, or maybe those who have forgotten, we have been speaking a lot the last month of what it means to claim that Jesus is King. It is, perhaps, a bit ironic subject on the day before we as a nation celebrate our own independence from a king. But we are talking about THE King and His absolute claim on the entirety of our lives. If you turn in your Order of Worship to the Old Testament reading, you will get the simplest reminder of why The King is so different from a king. And sometimes, I think, it is helpful to remind ourselves of the foundational blocks of our faith. More importantly, I think, as ambassadors of our King, I think it is helpful for us to remind ourselves of the message, the Gospel, with which we have been entrusted and commanded to share in our life witness.
Although we have moved ahead in the story of 1 and 2 Kings, not much has changed. Well, they have. The people of Israel have continued their downward spiral of unfaithfulness to God. Things are crazy in our passage. First, we are introduced to a man named Naaman, pleasant of face, who has been lifted up by the Lord and granted a victory over the people of Israel. Those of us who have studied the covenant notice right away that something is amiss. God promised Israel that if they were faithful, He would give them victory over all their foes. Now, a general of Aram has defeated them. Do you hear the theological commentary? Israel has been unfaithful to God, and God has rewarded them with defeat.
Things are a bit worse than defeats, though. The prophet Elisha, he the inheritor of a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, is living where? That’s right, Samaria. Where is God’s prophet supposed to be? Most of us can put two and two together and realize that the kings have not been listening well to the prophets. Those of us in church last month heard of the wonderful relationship that existed between Ahab and Elijah, right? Ahab and Jezebel wanted to kill the man who spoke for God. Things have gone even further astray in that the prophet no longer lives in the land of God’s people. Talk about a messed up situation. I wish there was some way I could get us to understand how screwed up this really is. We would have to live in a country where we felt things were more godly in the past. We would have to live in a country where the old rulers or politicians were deemed to be ruling for the common good, rather than lining their own pockets. We would have to live in a country where our leaders were to be admired for their wisdom, their trustworthiness, their honesty, and their humility. Why are you all laughing so hard? I know, I know. The author of Ecclesiastes is correct. As bad as things seem, there really is nothing new under the sun.
So, here we are. Israel is not listening to God. The king of Israel is not listening to God. And God is granting victory to the enemies of Israel.
Those enemies, of course, have a problem. Well, the leader of the enemies has a problem. He who has a pleasant face and has been lifted up by God has leprosy. I know leprosy is called Hansen’s Disease now. It is entirely possible that the general of Aram had Hansen’s Disease, but it is also possible that the general had flaky skin characterized by psoriasis, allergies, or any other disease of which you medical experts can conceive. It mattered not to most cultures in the ANE which disease one had. They were all called leprosy. Leprosy was a huge problem. In Israel, a diagnosis of leprosy meant one was effectively ex-communicated. To come in contact with a leper was to come in contact with uncleanliness. One had to spend money and time being purified for worship, if one came into contact with the unclean. That is part of the reason why lepers tended to be forced to live in isolated communities with other lepers.
So here is Naaman, a commander in Aram’s armies, pleasant of face but a leper. He has what you and I would call a pastoral problem. He has won a great victory for his king and his people against his enemies, but there is a limit to the embrace of his people because he has a terrible disease. We can easily imagine the discussion around the house. Maybe Mrs. Naaman expected a raise, a new house, invitation to the great events in Aram. They would likely not be happening because who wants to socialize with a leper?
At some point, the slave girl captured in one of the raids hear’s their complaint. She tells the wife and general “If only you knew Elisha, the prophet of God. He could cure you.” Think of the preposterousness of her claim in that culture. Remember the adages “As above, so below; as below, so above.” In the ANE cosmology, what has happened to Yahweh? That’s right, the God of Aram has kicked his butt. What goes on in the heavens is reflected on earth, and what happens on earth is reflected in the heavens. Since Israel has lost to Aram, the gods of Aram have conquered the God of Israel. Now this slave girl proposes this defeated God can cure Naaman?
Of course, when one is desperate, one will try anything. Many of you are doctors and nurses and researchers in the medical fields. No doubt you know all kinds of charlatan cures for which your patients fell, likely at great financial cost to themselves and, perhaps, even a hastening of their deaths. What does Naaman have to lose but a journey and time? What does he and his wife have to gain, if he is cured?
Like a good soldier, Naaman heads to his king to get permission to go to Samaria. The king of Aram is glad to help! After all, Naaman just gave him a resounding victory over Israel. So the king of Aram offers to write a letter of introduction to the king of Israel and sends Naaman on his way. Naaman, of course, has been busy gathering his bribe. He expects to pay for the cure. He brings a veritable fortune with his caravan to offset the cost of his healing.
Upon presenting himself at Israel’s court, Naaman throws the king of Israel and his retainers into fits. We can understand why, right? Israel just lost a war to Aram. Now the king of Aram wants his general cured of leprosy. The threat is clear. If the king of Israel cannot get God to cure the general, it is an affront to the king of Aram. Another war is likely. Let’s face it, another defeat is likely. So the king of Israel tears his clothes and laments his position, confessing that he is not God and that only God has such power.
Amazingly enough, Elisha hears of the king of Israel’s problem in Samaria. There’s no phone, no e-mail, no texting. Still, Elisha hears. He tells the king of Israel not to worry, that he will handle the problem for the king. Just send Naaman to Samaria. The king of Israel does as he is instructed by the prophet (for a change) and sends the military parade on its way to Samaria.
Upon his arrival at the hut of the prophet Elisha, Naaman offers to present himself. No doubt he expects the man of God to be impressed with him. After all, he is good looking and a commander of armies of an enemy that just defeated Israel. Likely, Naaman expected the prophet to grovel a bit. Elisha, in what can best be described as nonchalant manner, does not even bother to come see the general. He tells the servant to tell Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan to be cleansed of his leprosy.
Naaman is enraged, we are told. “What kind of nonsense is this? Don’t we have better rivers in Aram? Does the prophet not know who I am, how far I have travelled, or what I have brought to pay him?” And he storms off with his retinue. Curiously, just as a slave girl beneath the notice of society caused this journey to begin, another servant beneath the notice of society will spur it to its completion. The servant asks Naaman what he was willing to do to be cured. We know Naaman was willing to make a long journey, to make a huge payment. Likely, if the prophet had said “build a big temple to God”, Naaman would have done that. Likely, if the prophet would have said build a bridge over the Jordan or climb a steep mountain, the general would have done what was asked. So the servant asks Naaman “why not try washing in the dirty Jordan?” Naaman goes down to the river, washes seven times, and, according to the word of God spoken through Elisha, has his flesh restored, as the flesh of a young boy.”
It is a great story, a miraculous story, and certainly there are many lessons in the text that we could mine for modern application. As I said in the beginning, though, I felt compelled to speak of our own foundational responsibilities as disciples of our Lord Jesus. The story of Naaman is similar to our own, and it is a story that is every bit as miraculous!
You and I, before we bent the knee, bowed the head, and accepted Christ as King in our lives were once His enemies. You and I were determined to do things our way. We were captains of our own ships, masters of our own domains, and we were, to use the language of Paul, at enmity with God. As a result you and I suffered the terrible consequences of our sins. Perhaps we were liars and thieves and people could not trust us. Perhaps we were selfish or narcissistic and people did not want to be around us. Perhaps we were disfigured by the sins of others. Maybe we were abused by those to whom we were entrusted. Maybe we are exhausted by the system, the institutions, in which we find ourselves living. Likely as not, we were victims both of our own sins and the sins of others. In many ways, no matter the outward strength we project, no matter the handsome or beautiful life we like to claim on the outside, each of us recognized our need, our impotence to care and save ourselves, let alone others, our own unlovableness that we know results from our “secret” sins. We may have looked great on the outside, but if people knew what was in here, our hearts, they would never want to spend time with us, let alone truly love us.
Then we heard the Gospel. We heard that crazy claim that God had become man, died for our sins, and offered us forgiveness of those sins, as well as promised us redemption from the consequences of those sins! I say crazy because how similar is our cure to that of Naaman? All we do is wash ourselves in the blood of Christ, and we are cleansed and healed. He did the heavy work of suffering, of being humiliated, and of dying. For His incredible work, you and I are declared righteous simply by asking Him to forgive us and to come into our hearts. How nuts is that? About as crazy as being told to wash in the Jordan seven times to be cured of one’s leprosy. We bring nothing to our salvation but a willingness to accept Christ’s offer. He, God, provides the rest. And then, when things seemed the most ridiculous, He entrusted that message of hope, of love, of redemption, and of salvation to you and to me. And then He commanded us to share it with others. And, as if things could not get any more wild, He reminded us that He does not care about our station, our jobs, our preparation, our background, our wealth, or even our sins which used to separate us from Him. He has promised to use us, wherever we find ourselves planted, to play a role in the redemption of the world, the conversion of His enemies, and the enlargement of His kingdom. Whether we are slaves or CEO’s, of Gentile birth, of amazing intellect or more suited to vocational labor, wealthy or poor, sick or health, weak or strong, clergy or laity, He will use our faith, our trust, and our story to reach the next man or woman or boy or girl!