HOW MUCH MORE, WHEN ALL HE SAID . . . .
A sermon preached by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. February 16, 2003. 2 Kings 5:1-14.
But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
You know, there are times when I really like to read and preach from the Old Testament – largely because it is full of good stories. A great many of the Bible stories I learned as a child were stories from the Old Testament. Let us name some of the Bible stories that we know which come from the Old Testament, rather than the New. . . . . (Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s ark, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Jacob’s ladder, Jacob’s struggle with the divine being, Joseph in Egypt, Moses, Elijah, David and Goliath, Amos . . . .) Quite a few of them, aren’t there?
And this morning, we read the story of Naaman the Syrian or Aramean. Now what do we know about Naaman? Well, basically that he was a very successful and popular military leader and secondly that he had leprosy. Yes, according to the first verse of this reading, Naaman was “commander of the army” of the King of Aram – or Syria. And he was “a great man and in high favor with his master” – the King. And why was that? Because “by him the Lord had given victory” to the King’s army. What king wouldn’t hold such a commander in high favor? But, we are told that although Naaman was a mighty warrior, he suffered from leprosy.
Now there were different kinds of leprosy – some were simply like eczema, but others were very systemic diseases that racked the bodies of those who had it. If Naaman had had the very serious type of leprosy, he would not have been a military warrior, and later he simply refers to it as a “spot.” But nonetheless, there was a stigma that went with leprosy, so that whatever kind of leprosy he had was a concern to him. He wanted some way to be rid of it. Perhaps it was something like a teenager with acne – it doesn’t really hurt but it interferes with your life, and you want to be rid of it. All of us probably have such things. They may not be medical ailments – perhaps just spots on our skin, but just the same they are something that is a nuisance that we would like to be rid of.
So that is the background for the story of Naaman. And what happens next? What happens next gives us an insight into the ways of God. For who was it was that gave Naaman the information that would help him? Was it one of the King’s physicians? . . . . No. Was it some spiritual healer? . . . . No. So who was it? It was a servant girl from Israel who had been captured in a raid and who served Naaman’s wife. And what does she do? . . . . She says, “If only my Lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him from his leprosy.” And so Naaman speaks to the King, and the King says, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”
And so Naaman arrives at the royal palace in Samaria – the capital city – with quite an entourage, with a pile of money, and a gift of ten sets of royal garments. And there he presented the letter to the King of Israel, which said,
When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.
Now this is an curious thing. The servant girl had said that the prophet would cure him, but his king made it an affair of state. He sends him to the King there, for him to respond to the royal request.
And what did the King of Israel do? What he did was to tear his clothes – which is something that people in that time and place did when they were in distress. And he said that the King of Syria is trying to pick a fight with him. He said,
Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.
But the man of God – the prophet Elisha, the one that the servant girl knew about – he heard of this, and he said, “Why get upset? Send him to me.”
So Naaman with his horses and chariots comes to Elisha’s house, and now what happens? . . . . Does Elisha go out to greet him? No. Is there a big fuss? No. So what happens? What happens is that Elisha sends out a messenger – another servant, and all he does is tell Naaman the Syrian to go wash in the Jordan River seven times, and his flesh will be restored.
Now Naaman is not used to being treated this way. Even his own King shows him respect. And here, he comes to Israel to be healed by this man of God, and what does he do? He doesn’t even come out to him. Naaman said, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” Listen carefully to the emphasis here: I thought for me he would do more than just send out a messenger, as if I were a nobody.
And furthermore, he asks me to go wash in the dirty Jordan River. “Are not . . . . the [beautiful] rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” And then “he turned and went away in a rage.”
Now, let’s stop and reflect a bit on where we have come. Is this a story about healing? . . . . Well, yes, it is. But it is also about something else. It is about people getting caught up in their own importance, isn’t it? What was it that Naaman said? “I thought for me he would” do thus and so. Elisha had not treated him with the deference to which he was accustomed. And so Naaman became angry and stomped off.
And now who intervenes? . . . . I find it interesting that once again, it is Naaman’s servants who are instrumental in getting him on the track. “Father,” they said, “if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” And we read that “he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”
What we have here, then, is not only a story about the healing of a medical condition, but also a story about another and deeper kind of healing, namely how we open ourselves to God. We surely know how easy it is to get caught up in our own self-importance, just as Naaman did. How easy it is for us to have our own expectations about how God should work, instead of being open to the ways that God does work in our lives. All too easy to say, “Well I thought for me he would . . . .,” and then go off in a huff. Whenever we do that, we too need to hear what Naaman’s servants said:
If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?
Like Naaman, what you and I may most need to be healed from and rid of is our sense of how important we are. When we let go of that, then God can work in us and through us.
You see, the reason God may not require something big of us is because it strokes our ego. It adds to our feeling of self-importance. We want to be successful at something big, so everyone else will see, and say, “My, my.” And whenever we get caught up in that temptation, then God has a way of saying to us something similar to “Oh, just go out here in this pool of dirty water and wash yourself in it.” But if we can get beyond our own pride, God will have a surprise for us. We will be restored, and renewed, and healed in the ways that really matter.
Let us, then, not be all caught up in our own self-importance. Let us not say – or even think, “Well! I thought for me he would have done this or that.” Rather let us listen to discern what God is really saying to us, and what God is trying to do in us – and what God is really calling us to do. And then let us not go off in a huff, with our nose out of joint. Rather, let us just do it. Let us heed God’s word to us and follow God’s direction for us – and be grateful for those times when it isn’t so demanding. And then let’s see what surprises God has in store for us.