But, he was a leper.
Sermon preached at St. Luke’s Enmore, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, 3rd July 2016
2 Kings 5. 1-17
I’ve always loved this rather surprising story. It’s surprising because it is it is full of the unexpected. The narrative begins by introducing the main character, Naaman, commander of the King of Aram’s army; Aram being modern day Syria. Naaman is described as “a great man and in high favour with his master”. Then comes the first surprise, he is highly esteemed because “by him the Lord had given victory to Aram”. The Lord gave victory to Aram? Where did that come from? This story is set in the 9th Century B.C. The once proud nation of Israel has divided into two separate kingdoms, the larger, northern kingdom with its capital in Samaria and the smaller southern kingdom with its capital in Jerusalem. In both kingdoms there has been spiritual decline and the worship of YHWH has been severely compromised by the introduction of the worship of Canaanite deities. It appears that unbeknown to most of the Israelites, God is no longer on their side and is now favouring their chief enemy Aram. (It’s always dangerous for any nation to think they have God on their side).
The NRSV continues its description of Naaman in this way, “The man, though a mighty Warrior, suffered from leprosy.” The original text puts it even more bluntly, ‘but he was a leper.’ ‘But’ is a little word but it can have profound consequences. The Bible has some very significant ‘buts’. Take the first ‘but’ we find in the Scriptures in Genesis Chapter 3. Adam and Eve have just eaten the fruit of the tree that they were commanded not to eat and feeling guilty, they try to hide from God in the garden. They are not successful because we read, “But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” Another significant ‘but’ comes in Luke’s account of the women going to the tomb on the resurrection morning. They find the tomb opened and they meet two men in dazzling clothes who ask them: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
The ‘but’ in Naaman’s life was huge. On the surface, he was a very successful soldier, who had acquired power, prestige and considerable personal wealth. But having leprosy meant that his position in society was under threat. In the Bible the term, ‘leprosy’ covers a variety of skin diseases, including what we now call Hansen’s disease. We have no way of knowing the exact nature of his ailment but we know it was serious because Naaman was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to find a cure. He was even prepared to take notice of some words from his wife’s Israelite slave girl who had told her mistress that there was a prophet in Samaria who could heal Naaman of his leprosy.
At various times in our life we all experience those ‘buts’ just as Naaman did. On the surface we may look okay but underneath we are wrestling with a problem – an illness or diagnosis, a broken relationship, unemployment, unpaid bills, or a loneliness we can’t fill. God is interested in the ‘buts’ we encounter in our lives. These are the things we should bring to God in prayer, believing that in Paul’s words, ‘our God is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine. (Eph. 3.20)
Naaman, of course, didn’t know this- he knew nothing about the God of Israel. He believed that there were different gods for different countries: the Canaanite gods were local and territorial. But he was willing to try anything, even the word of a captured girl from Israel. That young girl is one of the many unsung heroes of the Bible. All we know about her is that she had been captured in one of the many raids that Aram soldiers made into Israelite territory and had ended up working as a servant for Naaman’s wife. In her position she could have been filled with bitterness and hatred but instead she saw the distress that Naaman and his wife were in and she offered the only help she could provide- saying ‘there is a prophet, a Man of God, in Samaria who I believe can cure leprosy.’ She acted as an evangelist.
Naaman is a man used to giving orders but he too has a master, his master is the King of Aram. Naaman goes to the King to seek permission to travel to Samaria and see if he can find a cure there. The King of Aram agrees and gives his general a letter to the King of Israel. Naaman is rich and powerful and like many of the rich and powerful is of the view that money can fix most things. He expects that healing will be expensive so he takes with him a fabulous amount of money and fine clothing. He also brings with him a large entourage of servants and soldiers. You can understand the consternation of the King of Israel when Naaman and his party arrive in Samaria. Is this the prelude to an invasion? Things get worse when the King reads the letter and discovers that he is being asked to heal this foreign general of his leprosy! What madness is this? To put it in modern day terms, imagine what would happen if President Putin were to send his highest ranking general to Washington with a letter asking President Obama to cure him of stage three lung cancer! It would create a diplomatic incident. The king assumes it is a ploy to pick a quarrel with him. He tears his clothes as a sign of his distress and confesses his impotence to heal a man with leprosy. He may be a king but he acknowledges that only God has power over life and death.
Fortunately for the King and Naaman, Elisha gets to hear of the commotion in the capital, so he sends word that the foreign visitor is to be sent to him. There is something rather comical in the scene of Naaaman with his great entourage of horses and chariots and servants, arriving at Elisha’s humble abode. Prophets in Samaria were not on the A list. Naaman naturally expects that the prophet will come out to him and show proper respect. After all, he has travelled a long way and so far has not had a warm reception. Instead Elisha sends a messenger saying that Naaman is to go down to the river Jordan and bathe in it seven times. If he does this then he will be healed. Naaman is incensed. He hasn’t travelled all this way just to be dealt with by a servant. He hasn’t even met the prophet in person and if bathing in the river can heal him, why can’t he wash in one of the nicer rivers back home? He rides away in anger. Fortunately for him, his servants come to his rescue. They point out that if the prophet had asked him to do something difficult than he would have done it, so why not do the simple thing he has been asked? Why not go and wash as demanded. Naaman swallows his pride and goes to the Jordan. What was the point of the instruction to go and wash? A few years ago, Rosemary and I were driving our then, 3 year old granddaughter to the beach for a swim. When I told Maeve that we were nearly there she suddenly announced, ‘Swim, take clothes off’. You don’t go and bathe wearing all your clothes, you remove most of them. Naaman had to remove all the garments proclaiming his status and importance as a decorated general. He had to humble himself and become simply, Naaman the man in need of healing and wholeness. Several centuries later another prophet would wade into the Jordan and tell people that if they wanted to repent of their sins and turn their lives around, they were to come into the water and be washed.
Naaman did as he was asked and in the words of the text, “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy and he was clean.” Naaman came out of the water a different man. His outward appearance had changed, the skin which he had been hiding was now clear but something had changed inside as well. For Naaman washing in the river was a kind of baptism, leaving his old way of life and embracing a new one. He returns to Elisha to say thank you and to offer suitable payment for the cure. This is how Naaman believes the world works. You only get what you pay for and there is no such thing as a free lunch. Our world is no different, the ‘user pays’ philosophy dominates our thinking. Thankfully that is not God’s economy. God’s gifts of salvation, healing and wholeness are offered freely to all who come in repentance and faith. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, the Gospel is free but it is not cheap. On the cross Jesus carried the sins, sorrows and sicknesses of our broken world. He died so that we could have life. He died so that like Naaman, so long ago, we could be made clean. And the wonder is that Jesus did this because of his love for us. In the words of St. Paul ‘the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me.’
Elisha refused to take any payment, he knew that you can’t buy healing and salvation and he wanted Naaman to know that as well. But he did grant Naaman’s final request. Through his healing Naaman had been converted to faith in Israel’s God. But he knew that he was about to return to his own world where other gods were worshipped. He wanted to take home with him a reminder of Israel’s God so that he could continue to worship that one true God. So Elisha allowed him to fill his saddle bags with some of Israel’s soil. Every time he stood on that soil he was reminded that only the God of Israel could give healing and wholeness.
God has given us signs and symbols which remind us of his inclusive love and mercy. We have the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Week by week we feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving and receive strength to continue our journey of faith, believing that nothing is impossible for God.
Prayer: Merciful God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as pass our understanding, pour into our hearts such love toward you that we, loving you in all things and above all things may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen