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February 13, 2000
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

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LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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"It's Not About You!"

Jesus was not very politically correct!

At least that's what the folk in his home town of Nazareth thought the day he showed up at the synagogue to give commentary on the scriptures.  It was his comment about Naaman the Syrian that brought about some anger.  "There were plenty of lepers in Israel at the time of Elisha the prophet, he told the worshipers, "But none of them were healed -- only Naaman the Syrian."

Not only was Naaman the general of a foreign kingdom, his boss King Ben-Hadad of Aram lay siege against Jerusalem.  The resulting famine was so terrible, some people cannibalized their children.  That's the thanks Israel got for Naaman's healing!

Naaman was a hot headed and arrogant fellow to boot.  At least when he initially came to Elisha the prophet he was.

But Naaman learned something critical.

The world wasn't about Naaman.  Life wasn't about Naaman.  And for sure, God was not Naaman's cosmic bellhop!

Although the story of Naaman takes place just about 2800 years ago in a distant land and foreign culture, it reaches across the ages with some very relevant lessons for our spiritual lives today.

***

Just a few notes about Naaman.  He was a top commander in the Syrian army who was very much appreciated by his boss, King Ben-Hadad.  There was a consistent struggle between the Syrian armies and those of Israel -- sometimes severe and sometimes things would quiet down a bit.  The story in our scripture takes place during one of the more quiet times in the relationship between the two countries.

Naaman was a key leader in his king's army and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle when he was not away in battle.  He drove the latest chariot and had servants to attend to his wishes. Yet -- you wouldn't envy Naaman, because he was a leper.  Though lepers were not outcasts in Syria the way they were in Israel, leprosy was still a dreaded and despised disease.

It turns out that one of the servant girls in Naaman's household is an Israelite who was captured in one of Naaman's raids on Israel.   Through her suggestion to her mistress, Naaman goes to Israel to be healed of his disease.  Then...  he would have it all!  He would be happy, healthy and wealthy.  Who could ask for more?

But -- as with every life where there is a genuine encounter with God -- things were about to change and Naaman's life would never be the same.  The central themes in his experience are instructive for every time and place.

***

God is Sovereign

Naaman, King Ben-Hadad of Syria, King Jehoram of Israel and a servant girl are all players in a drama that is superintended by the Lord.   The unseen hand behind this whole episode, is weaving together the strands of individuality into a pattern.  The name of God will be honored in the life of a foreigner and the love of God will embrace someone who would be considered a plague on Israel.   It is this sovereign action of God Jesus pointed to in his first and only sermon in Nazareth.

The sovereignty of God translates to this -- whatever the circumstances or events of our living, we are called to live in faith, honor the Lord and leave the outcomes to God.  Naaman's Israelite servant girl might very well have kept the healing ministry of Elisha to herself.  "Let him suffer," she might have said to herself, "He took me from my home -- he deserves to have this misery."   Instead, her life of faith meant that she had to honor the Lord.  What would become of Naaman was up to God, not her.

You see, it's not about Naaman.  It's about God.

God's Blessing is for all Who Will Receive it

The story of Naaman's  healing is a message about parochialism.  It absolutely punctures the "my church is better than your church" attitude some folks have.  Like those folks in Nazareth who were gathered for worship.  They didn't want to hear about God healing one of those people when their own weren't being healed.

The barriers between human need and God's blessing are more about us than they are about God.  When we live with the attitude that God's blessing is limited to those who are "like us" - we wind up cutting ourselves off from God.  Whether Naaman gets blessed has nothing to do with who you and I believe God should or should not bless.  It will have to do with Naaman's own relationship with the Lord.

Humility is the Door to the Blessing of God

Naaman begins his journey with an attitude.   First of all, he brings a tremendous gift from his King to influence the prophet to heal him.  You can't exactly blame the guy.  It wasn't as though everyone in Israel had welcome mats out for Syrian generals!

Some years ago, a man stopped in at my office and said that he had just come to drop off a check for our building fund.  We had lagged behind in our goal and he sat down to write a check for the balance we needed.   He could well afford it and the church was in need.  He sat down and wrote the check for $15,000 dollars on the spot and handed it to me.

I was impressed.  Thankful.   Smiling.  Grateful.

Then...  (Can you see this coming?)  as he was leaving, he said almost as an afterthought, "Oh, by the way.  We have friends coming to town for this weekend and their daughter has suddenly decided to get married to the fellow she has been living with.  They were going to go to a justice of the peace, but these friends would really like to have a church wedding.   Do you think we could work this out for Saturday?  I do hope that pre-marital policy you have won't stand in the way."

It was Thursday afternoon!

Don't be too hard on the fellow -- sending gifts ahead when you are hoping for a good outcome to a request is in good biblical tradition.  And how many of us have children who at sometime surprised us by doing the dishes, or cleaning their rooms before they asked to use the car or extend their curfew?

Naaman's boss, King Ben-Hadad was not fooling around.  The gift he sent on behalf of his general was just over a million dollars US in today's money!

As it turns out, it isn't money the prophet Elijah requires.  He simply wants Naaman to follow some simple directions. "Wash yourself seven times in the River Jordan."  Now Naaman thinks this is a bit humiliating.  Elisha didn't even come in person...  he sends a servant with the directions. 

Naaman is incensed.  "Why, the rivers in my home town of Damascus are way better than all the water in Israel.   Besides...  what's all this washing in the river?  Here I bring all this money and I'm thinking that the prophet will come in person and do his thing and say his prayer and cure me!"

Naaman's servant sees through his master's ranting and raving as says something like, "Excuse me sir, but if the prophet had told you to climb the highest mountain seven days in a row and say your prayers, or roll a pebble on your hands and knees all the way back to Damascus, you would probably have done it.  So why not this simple washing thing?"

Naaman laid down his pride.  Followed the directions.  And was blessed.

Naaman discovered something.  It's not about Naaman.  It's about God.

God Uses Ordinary People

And here's another wonderful fact about Naaman's story.  All the really important things happen through servants!  The good news of a healer comes through a captive servant girl.  A servant of the prophet Elisha gives the directions for healing to Naaman.  And when Naaman almost storms out of the country -- still bearing his disease -- it is a servant who brings Naaman to his senses.

Isn't it absolutely wonderful to think about who it is God uses to bring about the will and the workings of the Lord?

When Jesus was instructing his followers in what it meat to be his disciples, you recall the model he used, do you not?  Those who follow Christ are not to model kings or the magnates of the world.  If they want to be great in the eyes of God they should become -- what?

Servants!

And those who want to become the greatest of all should become the what?  "Servant of all!"

Postscript - "Be careful what you wish for"

There is a delightful postscript to our scripture reading.  Not delightful for the subject of the postscript, but an incident so revealing of human nature.  This takes place immediately after the lectionary reading for today.

Elisha would not accept anything from Naaman for the healing.

Important message here!  The blessing of God is not for sale.  God gives freely and asks that we give our worship and praise freely.  We give our lives -- not our livelihood.  It is easy to imagine that by giving our goods to God we have given what God wants.

But -- Elijah's servant sees an opportunity to skim a bit of Naaman's treasure off for himself.  "Hey -- who's to know?"   (Bad move.  Calls to mind the movie, Dumb and Dumber.) The guy should have known better than to try to pull the wool over a miracle working prophet of God!)

The servant is attempting to lift himself a bit up from his servant status.  He wants to be more like Naaman who has all this wealth.  It was too much to resist.  He chases Naaman's caravan down and comes up with a story about how Elijah needs a bit of money and clothing for a couple of prophet students who have come to the camp.  Naaman gives the servant something on the order of $21,000.

The servant heads home and tries to tell Elisha that he had been at home the whole time.  The long and short of the story is that Elisha tells the servant that since he wanted something of Naaman's, he would have Naaman's leprosy!

Be careful what you wish for!

***

The wonderful message that impacts our lives is the one that comes from the last verse in our text:

"So he {Naaman} 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."

When we lay down our pride and listen for the message of God, we discover the newness of life the the blessing God wants us to have.   We are sometimes, as the old line says, "our own worst enemy" when it comes to receiving all that God wants to give us.

When our attitudes, our pride or our most cherished opinions get in the way of our spiritual growth, we need to pray for the courage to look in the mirror and say,  "It's not about you!"

May God give us the grace to discover the lessons of the Syrian general of 2800 years ago!


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Text

The texts in 1 Kings and Mark's gospel call to mind the themes of baptism, cleansing, washing and renewal.  "You can make me clean, the leper pleads. Compare with the KJV of Titus 3:5, "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost..."  Compare also Jesus' words in John 3:5-6 about being born of water and spirit.

God listens to those who humbly reach out for help and healing.  "O Lord my God, I cried to you for help and you have healed me," the Psalmist sings.  Naaman must humble himself and the leper must cry out for help.  Naaman is made clean when he humbles himself and immerses himself in the Jordan River and the leper is made clean when Christ takes pity on him and touches him with healing.

"Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.  So James enjoins us in 4:10.  One of the most encouraging things about our faith is the certain knowledge that God is attentive to our cries for help, hope and healing.

2 Kings 5: 1-14

No matter what we do to box God into our tight little ideas of who God is and who is or is not acceptable in the eyes of God -- the box is never strong enough to hold God in!

In context, it is inconceivable that the God of Israel should care anything about a Syrian General's struggle with a horrible disease.  The Syrians were a thorn in the side of Israel for generations.  Jehoram, King of Israel thinks in a box.  Ben-Hadad, King of Syria (Aram) is simply trying to incite another skirmish, he assumes.  Elisha, on the other hand, tells him that Naaman ought to come to Israel, "...that he may learn that there is a prophet in Isreal."   The issue of the sovereignty of God in a world full of pagan gods is a part of this story.  The God of Israel is God.  Naaman will be a witness of that -- even if a silent one.

There is this key thought in the last verse of this text.   "...he immersed himself... according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored.."  Implication?  The word of the man or woman of God is as good as the word of God. There is an intimate connection between the word of God and the action of God.  Indeed, God's word is God's action.  As we are faithful to the word of God, so also the action of God is effective through the word we bear to others on behalf of God.

Mark 40:40-45

"I know that God can heal.  The question is... will God heal ME?"  Have you ever felt this way?  Of course Christ has the ability to heal -- the question is he willing to heal me?   That was the leper's quandry.  He does not follow the letter of the law in coming up to Jesus.  (Lepers were to keep their distance from others according to Lev. 13:45ff)  He depends, instead on the mercy of the Lord -- which turns out to be a good thing to depend on.

There is a key question which always arises with this passage.  Why does Jesus "sternly" warn the man not to say anything, but to go to the priests and follow the law for those who are healed of leprosy?  Isn't the whole point of the ministry of Jesus to bring "good news" and to share the good news?

The simplest answer is contained in verse 44.  The man can not contain his joy and enthusiasm and begins to tell everyone.  Jesus is forced to refrain from too much public contact because of the stir his ministry causes, but even so, the crowds find him.  Two thing: [1]  Jesus did not want to become just another wonder worker.  Misunderstanding of his ministry was already a problem.   [2] A focus on the healing ministry of Jesus apart from his teaching ministry would distort the meaning of his mission altogether.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

There are essentially two themes in this short passage from 1 Corinthians.  [1] We are to give our all to following Christ -- that is to our Christian living.  [2]  We are to live lives in which what we say is consistent with what we do.  (That is, Paul teaches sacrifice and that teaching is backed up with his actions.  Thus he is able to say to the church at Thessalonica that he has given them an example to imitate. (2Thess. 3:9)  Can you imagine saying to people, "Imitate me if you want to live the Christian life?"


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship   (Based on Psalm 30)

Leader:   Let us praise the name of the Lord,
People:  For in our God there is hope, help and healing!
Leader:   Let every faithful follower of Christ give thanks,
People:  For his love sustains us forever!
Leader:   Let us proclaim the goodness of the Lord,
People:  Because our God has filled us with joy,
              we will give thanks and praise forever and ever!  Amen!

A Prayer of Confession
Most merciful God, we confess that we have not followed your ways with all our strength, nor loved you with all of our hearts.  We are too easily distracted from your loving presence and too vulnerable to the temptations of the world.  O be merciful to us and give us grace to turn away from all that separates us from You.   Strengthen us to more nearly follow the ways of Christ and make us to delight in your holy love. For the sake of Jesus Christ, our Savior.  Amen.

 Assurance of Pardon
Rejoice all you who trust in the Lord, for the Lord is faithful to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  In Jesus Christ we are forgiven, renewed and strengthened for his service.  Amen.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving
O Lord our Redeemer, we lift up our voices in praise this day, because you have seen us through another week and have loved us beyond our right to expect it.  You place before us day by day the most wonderful opportunities for growing closer to everything you have created us to be.

We thank you for the simple gifts of life that bring joy even in the midst of troubled times.   Give us eyes to see the depth of beauty in the earth and in the lives of those you have given to us to love.

As we pause in these moments to turn our hearts fully toward the glory of your presence, we can see more clearly who we are in your eyes and who we can become through the work of your Holy Spirit within us.

Help us O God, as we bring our thanksgiving to you today, to open up every unclaimed gift you have placed within our reach -- if only we will pause long enough to do it.

Thank you Lord!  We rejoice in You!  You have filled our cup to overflowing.  You have given us the very life of your own Son.  We pour out our love and devotion before your throne today.  Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication
There is no God but you, O Lord. And there is no good thing that has not come from you.  No gift we can ever bring will ever compare with the gifts you have first given to us. And yet you honor us by taking our gifts and turning them into good news for others.  Amen.