Epiphany 6 (B)
A sermon preached by Bob Schaefer
First and Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany—February 16, 2003
Text: 2 Kings 5.1-14
10 Elisha sent a messenger to [Naaman], saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” … 14 So 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.
“You can lead a Syrian to water, but you can’t make him bathe!”
Naaman’s servants had just about had it up to here with their master, and they were griping about him behind his back. Sure, Naaman was a great general in the country of Aram, also called Syria. He was the greatest general, in fact. There was no one in Syria who was equal in power and honor to Naaman, except perhaps the king himself. Naaman was the commander of the king’s army and had won victory after victory for the king and for his country. Naaman was a great, powerful man, but enough was enough already. Someone had to say a word to him.
It was common knowledge, whispered among the men of Naaman’s army, that their general suffered from some sort of skin disease, perhaps even leprosy. Not the sort of thing that kept a man off the battlefield, or even out of the king’s throne room…still, it was a burden on the general, and he had sought cures from ever physician and quack in Syria. None of them had been able to cure him. It was in search of a cure that Naaman had now led his entourage of servants and attendants from their homeland of Syria into the remote and godforsaken country called Israel.
Naaman had heard from a slave girl, the lowest member of his household, that there was a prophet in her homeland. Someone who had the power to do miracles, someone who could cure Naaman’s disease without breaking a sweat. This man, she said, spoke on behalf of her God, the God of the Israelites, and it was from this one true God that he got his power.
How Naaman’s servants cursed the day this little Israelite slave girl first piped up about her God. At first their master had written it off as Jewish propaganda—she was, after all, a captured slave, and this was probably just one more example of her insults against Rimmon and the gods of Syria. But the girl’s words nagged on Naaman; he didn’t believe in this God of his enemies, not one whit, but he did believe in the power of holy men. Perhaps this man might, for the right price, cleanse Naaman once and for all. Loading up hundreds of pounds of gold and silver, along with ten complete sets of garments—all on his servants’ and animals’ backs—Naaman set out to find this Israelite prophet.
The servants had obeyed, of course, but the journey was long. And the doubt nagged in their minds: why would the God of Israel, if he existed, have anything to do with their master, the general who had brought so much destruction on the Jews? Could all the gold in Syria buy a favor from the God of their enemies? It seemed doubtful, but they marched along nevertheless.
And now, here they were outside the prophet’s home, cringing before their master’s hot anger and bright pride. The prophet had not met them, but only sent his servant to tell Naaman his cure: All he needed to do was wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman was outraged—had he come all the way to Israel only to be told by a lowly servant that he should take a bath? Kicking sand in every direction, the general was tying up his robes in a fit of rage and preparing to return home empty-handed.
Naaman’s servants certainly understood why their master was insulted. It was surely a snub for the prophet not to even meet their master. Still, shouldn’t he at least try bathing in the Jordan since they had come so far? “It just goes to show that you can lead a Syrian to water, but you can’t make him bathe,” they grumbled under their breath. Finally one of them spoke up: “Master, 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’?” Perhaps the God of their enemies might heal Naaman even yet.
And, of course, God did heal Naaman, as our first lesson tells us this morning. Seven times into the Jordan River and seven times back out, and Naaman was a new man; seven dips and his illness was gone. Why would God have done something like that? Here was a man who had waged war against God’s people and made slaves of them. This was a man whose armies had terrorized the Israelites and cut them down like dried grass. Even worse, this was a man who worshiped false gods and thumbed his nose at the one true God. Why on earth should that one true God do anything at all for Naaman?
I can tell you a few things that are definitely not why God healed Naaman. First of all, God was not the least bit impressed with Naaman’s power or accomplishments or status in the court of Syria. Right off the bat we’re told that God had made Naaman successful and powerful! All of the great general’s mighty deeds were actually accomplished from beginning to end by God, and were nothing for him to brag about.
It also wasn’t the money that convinced God to heal Naaman. Sure, Naaman had brought a boatload of cash to pay for his healing—all the gold and silver came to twelve talents, or about what the average worker could make in a dozen years of hard labor. All of that money could have done wonderful things in Israel, but God doesn’t take bribes. Naaman’s servants were right to think that all the gold in Syria couldn’t have bought a favor from this God.
So what on earth made God decide to cleanse Naaman the leper and heal him?
I can think of three reasons: First, God healed Naaman because Elisha, God’s prophet, asked him to. Second, God healed Naaman as a witness or sign to him. And third, God healed Naaman just because that’s how God is. Let’s look at each of these reasons to see what they tell us about God.
First of all, God healed Naaman because Elisha asked. That seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? Almost silly, really. But the fact of the matter is that when God’s people ask him for something, he listens. God answers prayers, and he’s especially pleased to hear us praying for others. Think of Job’s prayers for his children, or of Moses’ prayers for the people of Israel. Think of Stephen’s prayer for the very men who were stoning him. Think especially of Jesus’ own prayer on the cross: Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing. God is well pleased when we pray for others, and he’s most pleased when we find ourselves praying for our enemies. Because God loves us, he promises to hear and answer our prayers, as Naaman found out.
Second, God healed Naaman as a sign to him. Having just driven a few hundred miles from St. Paul to be with you this morning, I feel like I know a thing or two about signs, and let me tell you, they do only one job and they do it well: signs get our attention and let us know something important. The department of transportation puts up signs to give us little bits of information that might make our trip go smoother or might save our very lives. We ignore these signs at our peril.
It’s the same for Naaman. He barely even believes this God exists, and he has no desire to worship him! Naaman is only looking for a cure to his skin infection, not a change of religion. If God can be used, well Naaman’s willing to use him. But what Naaman never expected was that God might intend to use him, and that it would all begin with a sign given in the muddy waters of the Jordan.
Who knows what Naaman expected from the prophet Elisha? Probably some sort of hocus pocus, and maybe a potion or an incantation. Maybe an ointment that would soothe his broken skin. But when he receives a full-fledged miracle, even Naaman can see the sign. Only the one true God could do that, and Naaman decides to worship only that God without a second thought. His washing in the river became a sign to him that the God of Israel was bigger than Israel, bigger than anyone had ever thought. The God of Israel was big enough to love and cure a Syrian general, and that sign changed more than just Naaman’s skin…it changed his heart and it changed his life.
But I think that the most important reason that God healed Naaman is because that’s just the way God is. God is great and God is good. God is gracious and he forgives and heals even people who deserve nothing but punishment. God takes pleasure in healing people who would be his enemies, and Naaman is just one example.
Remember how Jesus healed the child of a Roman soldier? The Romans army had occupied Israel for years, and the countless Jewish rebels had been killed or executed trying to drive the hated Romans out of the Holy Land. And yet Jesus healed the child of this most hated enemy out of pure graciousness.
But we don’t need to scour the Bible for examples of God loving and healing his enemies: The very best example we could ever find is looking at us out of the mirror every morning. Saint Paul writes that “ while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
Think of that: Jesus Christ died for you while you were still at war with God, while you were still God’s enemy. And Paul says that for God this was at just the right time! God didn’t wait until you had things under control or until you were ready to choose him; he chose to heal your sickness while you were still his enemy because that’s the kind of God he is. He knows that loving his enemies and healing them is the best way to make them his friends and not his enemies. You’re walking proof of this, and so was Naaman.
Naaman the Syrian went home a changed man. He had come hoping to be cured of his leprosy, and he had that in spades. But God cured more than just Naaman’s sun-burnt hide; he cured Naaman’s heart as well. Carrying the twin miracles of God’s love and God’s healing within his own body, Naaman went back to Syria devoted to this strange, gracious God who had transformed him. God had washed him in the river, and he was fully clean for the first time in his life.
When you go home from church this morning, you, too, are changed people. You came in hoping for many things, and you will leave filled with the Holy Spirit, whether you know it or not. Whatever sins you’ve got on your heart, God’s got a cure for them and he’ll dowse you generously with it. From the moment you were washed in the waters of your baptism your lives have been transformed, because on that day you were made fully clean and acceptable to God. Like Naaman, you’re now a witness to God’s love and a testimony to God’s grace, to share this good news with others.
So rejoice! Naaman certainly did! May you share in Naaman’s joy this week just as you share in the gracious gift he received. Amen.