2 Kings 5:1-18
The same message of salvation is taught in the Old and the New Testaments. This is why Jesus said that “Abraham rejoiced to see my day” and that “Moses wrote of me.” The difference between the testaments is chiefly this: that the Old Testament teaches us by way of pictures – illustrations of the salvation that would be revealed in Jesus Christ. It looks forward to and anticipates this reality and it is itself a shadow of that reality. In as much as the Old Testament is a series of pictures and shadows of this reality, it teaches us indirectly what the New Testament teaches us directly.
We have a wonderful illustration in the story before us of Naaman the Syrian. His cleansing from leprosy illustrates for us the way that sin spoils life and how God’s grace cleanses us from our sin. Naaman is commanded to “Wash and be clean.” Interestingly, this is the same command that Ananias gave to Paul. “Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.”
- Sin Spoils Life
The first lesson we learn is that sin is that which spoils life. Many people think that the Bible is not practical, and that they are too busy with “real life” to bother with the Bible. But the Bible is all about real life. Our life, our talents and all good things are gifts from God. That which spoils these good gifts is sin. Leprosy is a fitting illustration and symbol for sin. I am not interested to what extent the leprosy in the Bible corresponds to what we call leprosy today. It was clearly a contagious skin disease that turned one’s flesh white and scaly. It was painful. It caused one to be “unclean.” Their quarantine disrupted their relationships with family and neighbors. It also prevented them from the activities of community worship. Like sin, it spoils the relationship with God and with other people.
Naaman was a Syrian. He was a great man in that he was the general of the Syrian army. He was in high favor with the king on account of his prowess in battle. Strength, courage, valor, leadership are words that described him. Through him they had victory over their enemies, including Israel. But, he had leprosy. It spoiled the enjoyment of life. He would happily give all his wealth and position to be rid of it.
What a fitting description of sin. It spoils the enjoyment of life. It spoils our relationships. It diminishes our ability to enjoy God’s good gifts. What do you know of the biographies of great men and women? Isn’t this a constant theme of such biographies, documentaries or bio-pics? The sources of trouble come both from within the individual and externally from those around them. Think of the great king or political leader who sleeps uneasily because of those who are scheming for his downfall. Think of the ultra-successful business tycoon who is unable to purchase happiness and whose ambition has alienated family members and close friends. Think of the Hollywood actor who, at the height of their career, struggles with severe depression and dark and suicidal thoughts. Think of the brilliant artist and musician who does not enjoy success because they have succumbed to addiction that leads to their self-destruction. On and on we could go. The more you know about the great men and women in society and throughout history, the less you will envy them. In their lives we can see clearly the myriad of ways that sin spoils God’s good gifts.
Naaman’s greatness was incapable of remedying his disease. He was best buds with the king, who was also incapable of helping him. Doubtless he had spent his resources on local doctors or even faith-healers, but they couldn’t offer relief. Likewise, there is no human remedy for the sin that spoils our lives.
Secular minded people proposed that enlightenment through universal education was the answer to what spoils society. But universal education did nothing to prevent two World Wars and the greatest bloodshed in human history. Germany was one of the most advanced societies on earth, and also one of the most the wicked. We used our advancing knowledge in part to create new weapons of war: tanks, airplanes, submarines and even the atomic bomb. In the Great Depression we were told that it was inequality and poverty was that which spoiled life. In the years that followed WWII through the 1970s we saw a great and unprecedented economic expansion focused especially on expanding the middle class. By the time the Boomer generation came of age they decided that it all seemed too easy and too shallow. What’s the point of it all? They dropped out, tuned in and searched for a greater purpose in life. Some then told us what spoiled life was too much affluence and leisure!
Of course, many find their way into, or back into the church, and find their answer. But the World at large will look everywhere but in the right place for the solution. They will look to government, or to a political revolution. Wherever there is a revolution, disillusionment follows in its wake, as the new boss is the same as the old boss. They look to the educators, the economists, the scientists, the philosophers or the poets. They look to money, or success, or fame, or power, or pleasure. And they never find what they’re looking for.
In Naaman’s case, the solution was hiding in the most unlikely place. A little servant girl from Israel – a girl who was kidnapped and taken captive as part of the “spoils of war,” was now a slave that served Naaman’s wife. She had the answer, although he never would have thought to ask. They regarded her as insignificant – as nobody. We’re not even given her name. She knew of Elisha in Samaria. Naaman is desperate for a solution, but he is still looking in the wrong place. He sends a letter to the King of Israel who interprets it as a threat. It’s as if the United States send a demand to Canada to cure cancer by a certain date… or else. The king interprets it as a pretext for a war of aggression.
This little girl is part of the pattern in the Bible. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” So it was when the Pharaoh of Egypt had a premonition and none of the wise men in Egypt could interpret it, but there was Joseph in prison, in obscurity, unknown to the Pharaoh until that fateful moment. It was much the same with Daniel, a captive of war in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court. And think of Jesus. The wise men from the East somehow knew that God would reveal the Messiah to Israel. Naturally, they traveled to the royal capital of Jerusalem and spoke with the King. But the King knew nothing about it. The king asked the theologians and they told him, not in Jerusalem but in the little town of Bethlehem the Messiah would be born.
This same pattern continued in the church. Jesus didn’t choose the great scribes and scholars of the day but the most unlikely group of misfits: unschooled fisherman, a tax collector, a zealot. Yet they turned the world upside down.
2. Characteristics of God’s Grace
Our next lesson is on God’s revealed solution to Naaman’s leprosy. Here we have an illustration of some characteristics of God’s grace. One principle is that God’s grace is shared. Naaman could not have known about God’s power revealed through the prophet Elisha if the little slave girl hadn’t spoken up. She was no theologian. She was not a scholar or a public speaker. She was not skilled in argument or persuasion. Yet, she had to speak up. An angel wasn’t going to do it for her. And God used her to bring healing to the Syrian general. All she did was point the way.
That is all we do. We point fellow sinners to Jesus. We know that his grace is powerful and sufficient. My parents pointed me to Jesus at a young age, even as I have done with my own children. But my parents had fairly secular upbringings. I know that my father often reflects on that person who first planted the seed of faith. He was a little boy and there was an elderly woman that would give him candy if he memorized a Bible verse. That was the extent of his religious exposure until well into adulthood. This lady never knew, this side of heaven, the effect that she had. That seed took several decades to sprout. The next step came after my parents were already married, and college friends, who had experimented with drugs and been on their own quest for enlightenment, became new Christian converts. They pointed the way. At the same time the Holy Spirit used their simple testimony and made it effective. We cannot keep the good news to ourselves.
A second characteristic is that God’s grace is wide. Naaman is a Gentile, an outsider. He is a natural enemy of Israel. He is a soldier, a killer. Their servant girl was Israelite. He was a kidnapper! Yet God chose to reveal his grace to him as an example to us. It is a foreshadowing of the gospel being proclaimed to the entire world and all peoples placing their faith in God’s Messiah. God’s grace isn’t just for the children of Abraham. By faith we are all Abraham’s children. This is a minor theme throughout the Old Testament. But this theme becomes central in the New Testament. It begins as a trickle. The wise men from the East. The Samaritan woman by the well. A few Godfearing centurions. The Greeks during Passover week. Then, after the resurrection of Christ, it soon becomes a flood. First, Cornelius the Centurion. Then Paul and Barnabus are sent to the Gentiles. A mass movement kicks in from every nation and tribe and tongue come into God’s Kingdom.
More than that, God’s grace is wide for those who are outsiders. Jesus goes to those who are shunned by the powerful: to women, to slaves, to the handicapped and disadvantaged, to the poor, and to little children.
God’s grace is wide for those who are great sinners. Tax collectors, prostitutes, and the demon possessed were among the company he kept. To the thief dying on the cross he said “today you will be with me in paradise.” For the soldiers who nailed him to the cross he prayed “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” To Peter who betrayed him he said “feed my sheep.” To Paul, who persecuted the first Christians he said, “I have chosen you to be my witness.” God’s grace is sufficient for you also.
Another principle is that God’s grace is simple, yet effective. Naaman waited on Elisha’s doorstep. Elisha sent instructions with his servant. “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored and you shall be clean.” Naaman was offended. It was too simple. He wanted the prophet to wave his arms about and to say something dramatic. No. Just wash. No other rituals needed. God has given to us the ministry of the Word and sacraments as his means of grace. The ministry of the word isn’t made effective by human wisdom or by great skill in speaking. It’s just saying what the Bible says. And the sacraments are likewise simple. “Wash away your sins, calling on his name.” And “This is my body, do this in remembrance of me.” I appreciate that our Directory for Public Worship says that we celebrate these sacraments “without any added ritual.” There is a tendency to want to fill these out and add to what God has appointed. Should we “spit on the Devil,” incorporate “anointing oil” or dress in white garments? No. Just celebrate them in their simplicity, as they were instituted by Christ.
Naaman hopes in vain that Elisha will heal him through a mystical experience. Mysticism is a form of human-made religion that tries to find a way back to God through the contemplative life. It is a type of legalism. Through a complicated process, usually with much fasting and prayer, the worshipper traverses through the dark night of the soul and emerges in the beatific vision. The Apostle Paul addressed this in Romans 10 when he teaches us that salvation is not far off so that one does not have to journey to hell and to heaven in order to attain it. No. Instead, the word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart. For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and you believe in your heart that he is raised from the dead, you shall be saved. It’s simple.
Naaman is also offended by the muddy Jordan because the rivers of Syria are far greater. The Church of Jesus Christ can be a lot like a polluted river. There are better speakers elsewhere. There are better musicians elsewhere. There may be nicer people elsewhere. People may say, “Are not our philosophers greater than the Apostle Paul? Are not our poets greater than King David? Are not our legislators greater than Moses?” But God’s promise is in the muddy water of the Jordan. Naaman’s attendant pleaded, “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?” Naaman consents and his skin is restored like that of a young child.
A fourth principle is that Grace is free. Now that Naaman is healed he tries to offer payment for his healing. He was willing to sell his investments and property and empty his bank account in exchange for his health. We understand this. Medical care can be expensive! He tries to give Elisha 750 pounds of silver and 150 pounds of gold and ten changes of clothes. This feels to me like a game show where the contestant wins a new house, a new car and a nifty spatula. Grace is a free gift. If we can pay for it or earn it then it is no longer a free gift. This represents the legalism of activism, or a works-based salvation. Again Paul addresses this in Romans 10 which he describes as the desire to travel from one end of the earth to the other to find salvation.
The principle of justice is “an eye for an eye” and “as you sow, so shall you reap.” But grace operates on a different principle. Love interrupts the consequences of your actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world so that what we put out does not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the seeds of death that we have sown. “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” If we want to be saved from our sins, we can only come and ask God for the gift of his grace, freely given in Jesus Christ. Then we will have nothing to boast about, so that all glory can go to God.
The final characteristic of God’s grace is that it is life changing. Naaman can no longer be the same person he was before. Immediately we see that Naaman makes a profession of faith. “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” He also begins wrestling with the implications of his new found faith. What does it mean to serve Yahweh in Aram-Damascus? There are no easy answers. Naaman’s first proposal is a bit embarrassing and I think it is indicative of his newbie faith. He wants to bring home a couple loads of Israelite dirt. Lurking behind this is animistic thinking where different deities are in charge of different lands. There are gods of the mountains and the rivers, of different lands and peoples. So, in order to worship the God of Israel in Damascus, Naaman thinks, he should bring a chunk of Israel home with him and make an altar out of it. Elisha allows it; which I think is a remarkable concession to a newbie believer. Perhaps this is a lesson for us to be extra charitable towards new believers with mixed up ideas.
The second problem Naaman faces is that official duties will require him to sometimes be in the temple of Rimmon. He requests permission to continue with this practice with the understanding that his heart is not in it. “May the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.” Elisha says, “Go in peace.” Again, this is surprising for me. I might expect Elisha to say, “You know, you should really consider emigrating.” I think the problem is that Israel at this time was equally as idolatrous as Aram. I think of the similar controversy in the New Testament where gentiles had familiar and social obligations in pagan temples. Paul instructed them not to dine in pagan temples, not because an idol was anything, but for the sake of a clear testimony to the truth. In this sense God holds us to a higher standard than this gentile general. Still, I think we can find some parallels of application for us. I think it teaches us that we should not be over-concerned if, for practical reasons, a church meets in a facility with images of Jesus, which we believe violates the second commandment. A number of our churches that meet in Seventh Day buildings have wrestled with this issue. Likewise, we can gladly attend a wedding or funeral service even if it is held in a church or temple of un-like faith and practice.
Everyone who has been baptized into Jesus Christ must live a holy life. The exhortation of Romans six is a fitting conclusion to the message today. “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (R 6:2-4). Amen.