II Kings 5:1-19a
July 4, 2010 - Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
“Wax on, wax off.” So said Mr. Miyagi to a boy who wanted to learn martial arts in the first “Karate Kid” film. Daniel came to learn the great art of karate, to gain a skill to defeat his enemies, but the simple discipline of washing and polishing a car with smooth, controlled motions was the first step. He protested, “Why do I have to do this? What’s washing a car got to do with karate?”
What’s taking seven dips in a muddy river got to do with being healed of leprosy? That was Naaman’s question in our text for today. Why should he listen to a religious shaman from a little nation that’s obviously inferior to his own? Why accept the advice of a healer who won’t even come outside to meet him? Why trust in some strange God when there are better gods—and better water—back home?
At first Naaman had no difficulty accepting advice. Verse 1 tells us he was a great commander in the army of the king of Aram, which is Syria. In fact, we’re told, the Lord gave the victory he won over Israel, presumably because of their sins. He was a great soldier, but he had leprosy, so he was desperate.
Imagine how it is. You have a debilitating, incurable medical condition and you’re willing to listen to anyone. You’ve got psoriasis or eczema. One day while getting your hair cut you mention it to your stylist. She tells you how one of her customers has a daughter, who has a best friend, who has nephew, who has a girlfriend who had skin just like yours and cleared it up by drinking a mixture of pure cranberry juice, chai tea, and Dr. Pepper. So on your way home you stop at Safeway and load up with bottles of red juice, chai tea bags, and a twelve-pack of the good doctor’s soda.
Naaman’s advice came from another country. From the same puny nation he had defeated in battle, his raiders brought back a little girl whom he enslaved as a maid to his wife. She was treated well in Naaman’s house, because she wished him well enough to offer his wife the suggestion in verse 3 that he see a prophet in her own land—Samaria is another name for the northern kingdom of Israel—who would cure him.
Like we said, Naaman was desperate, so he went to his own master, the king of Syria, and told him the story. Kings are used to doing things through diplomatic channels, so he immediately wrote a letter to the king of Israel. Namaan took the letter and a whole caravan load of stuff to pay the prophet with and went to Israel.
There in Israel, Naaman visited king Joram, the son of king Ahab. Just like Elijah was a constant annoyance and thorn in the side of Ahab, Elijah’s successor Elisha was the irritating voice of God to Joram. So when Naaman showed up wanting to be cured, the prophet didn’t even cross Joram’s mind. He thinks he’s supposed to cure the Syrian himself. It looks like some sort of diplomatic trick to him, the king of Aram trying to pick a fight.
Joram doesn’t understand the situation but he gets something right. In verse 7 he says, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life?” He’s a lousy king and a lame diplomat, but he does know that God alone is the master of life and death, of sickness and health.
With verse 8 the story turns from the bumbling king of Israel to the prophet in question. The news of the Syrian visitor came to Elisha and he sent word to Joram to get him off the hook, “Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.”
After the runaround at the royal palace, Naaman must have thought he was finally getting somewhere in verse 9 when he pulls up at Elisha’s door with all his horses and chariots and the whole bundle of gold, silver and fancy clothes he brought to buy his cure. So imagine his frustration when the prophet won’t even come to the door. Instead he sends a messenger with what must have sounded like the ninth century B.C. equivalent of quack medicine, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored…”
That was not what Naaman expected, so he left angry, says verse 11. He was looking for something a little more spectacular, some great, beautiful loud prayers, some mystical hand-waving over the leprous spot on his skin, something, anything better than seven baths in a river from which he wouldn’t let his horses drink.
Now Naaman was ready to be done with the advice he was getting. You get home with all those bottles, brew the tea, mix in the juice and the soda, and you’re just about to drink it down when the phone rings. It’s your stylist and she says she forgot part of the cure. You need to drink the mixture sitting in a bath of cold water while listening to Michael Bolton songs. You hang up, look at the cup in your hand, pour the stupid concoction down the sink and then weep with rage. It’s just too silly. That’s how Naaman felt.
The difference is that Naaman’s advice from Elisha ultimately came from God. What simple thing might God want you or I to do? A couple years ago I wanted some spiritual direction, so I sought out a fellow pastor with some training and asked him to meet with me and offer guidance. He asked good questions, listened well, and helped me find some peace. Yet when it came to the actual direction part of the experience I felt a little disappointed.
During our second or third meeting, after having listened to my current spiritual life and issues, my director handed me a photocopied list of Scripture texts to use in daily devotions between then and our next meeting. My first reaction was to be underwhelmed. I expected spiritual direction to be more dramatic, more complex than an invitation to read some Bible verses and think and pray about them. I was tempted to file the sheet and get on with life and ministry as usual.
We are conditioned to expect the important parts of life to be spectacular. Movies teach us that life is full of bells going off when you meet your true love, explosions and gunshots blowing away your problems, magic or at least awesome science transforming you and the world around you into beauty and wonder. Yet the real answers, the real work of God to make us and the world better is so much more quiet and even ordinary.
Fortunately, Naaman had other advisors. Verse 13 shows his servants coming and asking if what the prophet has asked is really so bad. They point out that he would have done some great, serious act of honor or charity if that was asked. Why not do this simple dip in the river?
The church fathers saw Naaman washing in the Jordan as an image of Christian baptism. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. The Syrian’s cleansing from a skin disease pictures how Jesus cleanses our souls. Naaman’s healing was a vivid image for the fathers because the first Christians thought about their baptism all the time. That simple act, a single or at most a triple dip in water, was a momentous occasion. It meant a break with family, with friends, and certainly with society at large. There were places everybody went, like pagan temples, where you wouldn’t go anymore. There were things everybody said, like swearing loyalty to the emperor, that you wouldn’t say anymore. There were things everybody ate, like meat offered to idols, that you wouldn’t eat anymore. There were sins everybody did, like lying and adultery, that you wouldn’t do anymore. The little, simple act of baptism led to a huge change in life.
It happened to Naaman. The immediate result was the cure of his leprosy. But the big change happens after that in verse 15. He says, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.” His belief system was totally altered. Instead of believing in all the gods he’s known all his life, he now believes there is only one. And in verse 17 he asks to load up as much dirt from Israel as two mules can carry so he can worship the one true God of Israel while kneeling down on Israelite soil. He’s had a radical change in his religion.
Let’s think about our own baptisms a little more like the early Christians did. Whether it was as an infant or as a believer, your baptism was a transforming break with ordinary life in this world. To be baptized is to be on the other side of the river from many of the values and practices everyone else takes for granted. It means to put your loyalty to Jesus Christ above all other loyalties. Just like those first believers, no matter how much you love your family, Jesus comes first. Regardless of how you love your country—and celebrate it on this 4th of July—Jesus comes first. In spite of whatever commitment you have to your work, to your employer, Jesus comes first.
We see Naaman wrestling with that kind of tension in verse 18, as he realizes he may still have to enter the temple of another god. At the arm of his master, the king of Syria, he may have to bow his head to an idol named Rimmon, but he realizes it’s wrong. He asks to be forgiven for that false devotion to a false god. He knows his heart and soul belong to the true God, but he can’t yet figure out how to live that out completely.
That’s where you and I are, I believe. We know that Jesus Christ is our only Lord, our first commitment in life, but we’re struggling with how to live it out truly and completely. And that’s why God’s simple advice is so important. Remember your baptism, claim it, and live in the light of it.
God advises other simple, small acts of devotion for living out our first loyalty. He advises daily Scripture reading and prayer, attending worship and regular giving, serving others and some fasting. Down through the ages Christians encouraged each other to do these things. Like Naaman’s dunks in the Jordan River, they don’t save us, but they open our hearts and minds to appreciate and accept the salvation that God gives us in Jesus.
When your day is unbelievably hectic and family and work and friends are all pulling you in different directions, it can feel rather pointless, even silly, to sit or kneel for a few minutes to read God’s Word and pray. It seems to make more sense to get on with what needs to be done. Yet those words of Naaman’s servants come down to us: if God asked us to do some great thing, wouldn’t we do it? How much more if He asks us to simply pray and study and worship and give?
There’s one more lesson in Naaman’s story. He was surrounded by people who advised him in ways that led him to the Lord. There was that little Israelite girl. There was his wife sharing what the girl said. His king sent him off to Israel. Even the foolish Israelite king knew only God could help. Then came Elisha. And then there were those servants who had enough courage to challenge their master’s rage and get him to follow the prophet’s advice. Naaman had a whole community of people around him who pointed him to God.
We are here together as a church to surround each other in that kind of spiritual community. God appointed us advisors and servants to each other so that, when we are struggling and wandering as everyone of us will, we can point each other back to Jesus, back to the simple practices which open us up again to the healing power of God.
We are here today for one more little act of devotion, one more bit of ritual that seems silly on the surface of it. We will eat a little bread, drink a little cup, not enough for any physical nourishment, not any sort of effective medicine or magical cure. It’s not spectacular at all. Some of us do it every week. But if you want fireworks, celebrate the 4th of July. If you want God, come celebrate Holy Communion at our Lord’s Table.
As we will say in a moment, like Naaman we all come to this Table not quite wholehearted, not because we are strong, but because we are weak, not because we are perfect but because we have wandering minds and wobbly hearts. Yet Jesus Himself advised us to eat His body and drink His blood, to remember Him, and ultimately to be changed, to be healed. Let’s accept His advice, come to His Table, and receive His grace, and like Elisha said to Naaman, the Lord will say to us, “Go in peace.”
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2010 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj