Monday, November 5, 2018

Living Faithfully in the Promise: Finding Healing

Naaman, a general for the king of Aram, was a great man and highly regarded by his master, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. This man was a mighty warrior, but he had a skin disease. Now Aramean raiding parties had gone out and captured a young girl from the land of Israel. She served Naaman’s wife.

She said to her mistress, “I wish that my master could come before the prophet who lives in Samaria. He would cure him of his skin disease.” So Naaman went and told his master what the young girl from the land of Israel had said.

Then Aram’s king said, “Go ahead. I will send a letter to Israel’s king.”

So Naaman left. He took along ten kikkars of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. He brought the letter to Israel’s king. It read, “Along with this letter I’m sending you my servant Naaman so you can cure him of his skin disease.”

When the king of Israel read the letter, he ripped his clothes. He said, “What? Am I God to hand out death and life? But this king writes me, asking me to cure someone of his skin disease! You must realize that he wants to start a fight with me.”

When Elisha the man of God heard that Israel’s king had ripped his clothes, he sent word to the king: “Why did you rip your clothes? Let the man come to me. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”

Naaman arrived with his horses and chariots. He stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent out a messenger who said, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored and become clean.”

But Naaman went away in anger. He said, “I thought for sure that he’d come out, stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the bad spot, and cure the skin disease. Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger.

Naaman’s servants came up to him and spoke to him: “Our father, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, ‘Wash and become clean.’” So Naaman went down and bathed in the Jordan seven times, just as the man of God had said. His skin was restored like that of a young boy, and he became clean.

He returned to the man of God with all his attendants. He came and stood before Elisha, saying, “Now I know for certain that there’s no God anywhere on earth except in Israel.  2 Kings 5:1-15a (CEB)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This week, as in previous weeks, we have once again jumped many years in our narrative. By the time of today’s text, the period of monarchy in Israel has ended. This was a period in which we saw a unified Israel under the kingdoms of David and, last week, Solomon.

At this point in the overarching story of Israel, the kingdom has split in two. A split that, this time, will be permanent. The southern kingdom is now known as Judah. The northern kingdom is Israel. It’s a period of a lot of conflict. Not only is there conflict between Judah and Israel, but, there’s also conflict between Israel and its neighbor to the northeast - Aram. Which we know as present-day Syria.

A few weeks ago, in our story about David, we were introduced to the prophet Naaman. Naaman was the one who confronted David with his sin. Today, we are introduced to a new prophet, Elisha. Don’t confuse Elisha with Elijah. Although, they were contemporaries and colleagues, Elijah was older than Elisha.

By the time we reach our story today, Elijah has been taken up into heaven. And the younger prophet - Elisha - is becoming known in the northern kingdom. In the chapters preceding today’s lesson, Elisha has performed several miracles - acts that have led to an growing recognition of his powers as one of God’s prophets. This is where our story begins. 

There are several characters in our story today. As we work through it, we will take a close look at each of them.

The first person we hear of is Naaman. Now this Naaman is not the same as the prophet Naaman. This Naaman is an important man in Aram - that enemy of Israel to the northeast. He is a general for the king of Aram. Our story says Naaman was a “great man and highly regarded by his master.” It was through his conquests that the Lord had given victory to the Arameans. Naaman was a mighty warrior. But, he had one problem. Our translation tells us that he had a skin disease. In other translations, it is called leprosy. We know that, in ancient times, leprosy was a very dreaded disease. It often resulted in its victims being shunned by society.

The next character in our story is a girl. She is an Israelite who has been captured by the Aramites in one of their raids into Israel. She is a slave in Naaman’s household. She is young. She is female. And she is unnamed. Now, this girl would seemingly be of no consequence. She might be easily ignored by us. And, yet, in a bold and courageous act - an act that might have resulted in her punishment or even death - this young unnamed slave girl goes to Naaman’s wife, her mistress, and makes a suggestion. “I wish that my master could come before the prophet who lives in Samaria. He would cure him of his skin disease.”

We can safely assume that this suggestion made its way quickly from Naaman’s wife to Naaman. Because in the very next sentence, we hear that Naaman has gone to the king. To ask for his permission. For permission to go into Israel - enemy territory - to find this prophet mentioned by the slave girl so that he can be healed. 

Do you notice that Naaman doesn’t follow the slave girl’s suggestion? She tells him to go to the prophet. But, Naaman, well, he knows better. After all, he is a general and he’s used to calling the shots. So, he has his own idea of how this should be handled. Instead of going directly to the prophet Elisha, he goes to his king to get permission and a letter from the king of Aram to the king of Israel. Naaman takes the letter, then gets money - you know that with enough money you can buy whatever it is you need - and then, with ten changes of clothing, he goes into enemy territory to Israel’s king. 

And this is where the trouble begins. Because Naaman, arrogant and self-important, thinks he knows how best to accomplish his own healing. As though he knows how this God of Israel operates. Yet, it is his egotistical act that nearly creates a crisis. When he takes the letter to the king of Israel, the king recognizes that he is not able to cure Naaman. And so, he rips his clothing, thinking that Naaman is deliberately provoking a fight, which in this case would be an international incident that could even lead to war between the two nations.

Word of this situation reaches Elisha, the young prophet - our next character. When Elisha hears that the king has torn his clothing, Elisha sends word to him. “Send him to me. Then he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.”

The king does. And soon, Naaman arrives in grand style. With his horses. With his chariots. With all of his cash and changes of clothing. He stops at Elisha’s front door, expecting to be received for the important man that he is. (Or that he thinks himself to be.) And what happens? Well, Elisha doesn’t even come to the door. Instead, he sends a messenger out to tell Naaman to go and to wash in the Jordan River seven times. And that, if he does this, he will be healed.

Now, it’s important that you understand something about the Jordan River. It is not a river like the Mississippi. Or the Ohio. Or likely not even the size of Harrods Creek. It is a muddy, small stream that might, after a rain, grow a bit in size. But, it is no great river. So, when Elisha directs Naaman to the Jordan, he is insulted. And he is even more upset that Elisha has not even greeted him, as important a man that he is. Naaman gets angry. And just as he is about to turn back in anger to return to his country, we see more characters enter the story.

They, like the young slave girl at the beginning of our story, are also unnamed. And slaves. They come to Naaman and boldly challenge him. “Master, if he had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? And, yet, all he said was ‘Wash and become clean.’” 

Finally, Naaman listens. And, then, swallows his pride and goes to wash in the muddy Jordan River, just as Elisha has first instructed him. And he is healed. Not only physically healed. But spiritually healed. It is at the Jordan River where he comes to a different understanding - a true understanding - about how God works.  “Now I know for certain,” he says to Elisha on his return, “Now I know for certain that there is no God anywhere on earth except in Israel.”

On this day, on this All Saints Sunday, what so often comes to mind are those “hosts arrayed in white.” The glorious saints who have preceded us in faith. Yet, sometimes, it takes a story like the one we have today to remind us about the surprising saints. The ones who haven’t held any status or important position in life. Like the unnamed slave girl in our story, who loves her enemy by pointing her own captor toward healing. Or the other unnamed slaves who bravely convince Naaman to go to the Jordan and wash. Or the saints who were worshipping last Saturday morning at Tree of Life Synagogue or grocery shopping one day at Kroger - who were all killed simply because of who they were. Jewish. African-American. All surprising saints. The ones who quietly loved God and their neighbors. 

Who are the surprising saints in your life? You know them. The ones through whom the Spirit of God worked to make them unexpected instruments of healing for the other. Or for you. The saints, not known by their status or position, but by their work in the world and the nature of God that they showed in their acts of love. To us. And to others. The ones who are imitators of Christ in the best way. The ones who have lived faithfully in God’s promise and who have touched and healed us along the way.

We give thanks for them today. For these surprising saints. And we remember them. May we continue to carry on their legacy - Christ’s legacy. A legacy of humility. And faithfulness. And healing. And love. Amen.

Preached November 4, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
All Saints Sunday
Readings: Matthew 8:2-3, 2 Kings 5:1-15a

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