Sunday, 3 July 2016

Wash and be clean

Sermon for Trinity 6

2 Kings 5:14 - The Healing of Naaman the Syrian Commander
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.

Humility leads us to salvation and wholeness.

Today we meet another big bible character who eventually came up against his limits, but through his limits, found God.
Last time we looked at Elijah and his big battle against the prophets of Baal, his fleeing from scary Jezebel into an exhausted, low state in which he wished to die, and couldn’t find God in the usual ways.
Until God surprised him with the still small voice.
Today we find a similar humbling in the OT reading.

We’re sadly quite used to hearing of Syria in connection with war and it seems it was no different in the times of the Kings, roughly 800 years before Christ.
Naaman was a commander in the army of the king of Aram – one of the traditional enemies of Israel.
So we note firstly that this story is not told from the point of view of one of God’s own people, but from that of a foreigner.
It’s a feature of both the Old and New testaments that God’s loving purposes are entirely inclusive: we think of Elijah and the widow of Zarapeth; the Centurion’s servant and the Syrophonecian woman’s daughter: all people who were outside the ‘in group’, ie. the group who would normally expect God to act for them, but not act for ‘the others’.
There’s a message here for us as we look around our community, and our world, and wonder how and where God is at work.
God is not bound by our group, but he graciously chooses to reveal himself to whoever is open…which can be a threatening thought sometimes…because our group is right (isn’t it?)

Back to Naaman.
He was a big, fearless, fighting figure: ‘a great man and in high favour with his master’, and used to victory: ‘by him the Lord had given victory to Aram’.
We sometimes see people like Naaman and we might well feel inferior.
Let’s imagine him as tall, and really rather good-looking.
His name means ‘pleasant’ so perhaps he was also a decent man, and popular.
He was certainly a war hero to the Syrians.
We’ve just remembered those who fell in war with the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme, and it’s natural to salute the men who felt they were doing their duty by standing up to an aggressor.
But it’s not so natural for us to focus our sympathies on the aggressor.
In this OT scenario, the Syrian army, championed by Naaman, is typically against God’s people and yet there’s apparently no biblical judgment on Naaman for this.
The story takes him entirely as one human individual with deep spiritual needs.
Can we so bold as to say that a long time before what we do, God is concerned with who we are?

In my childhood illustrated bible Naaman had enormous muscles, brown eyes and a brown beard.
He was definitely the hero of the story and you wanted things to come good for him.
Perhaps when people met Naaman the commander, the rather superior human being, they felt a bit like some have felt on meeting President Obama.
A US journalist who had one such meeting vividly describes the impression President Obama had on her (and she wasn’t a natural Democrat supporter).

She writes: ‘So there I was, happily sitting (she was waiting in the White House for a meeting)… and then behind me I heard a deep, "Hello, Everybody."
I spun around. President Obama walked past me and took a seat at the table.
First reaction: My jaw dropped. …
Then I came back to earth and remembered where I was and why. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss economic policy, rising gas prices, and the economic recovery. …Then I told myself: Hold on, you just met the President. This might not happen again in your lifetime. It's okay to be dazzled.
Obama shook all of our hands.
The man knows how to shake a hand! He gave great eye contact, with an enviable grip. Firm around the edges and soft in the middle, if that's even possible. And he doesn't appear to "shake" your hand, but it does move, in a soft sway...'
Some people are just a bit dazzling.
Naaman was one of these.
But, and here’s the big BUT, he had a fatal flaw.
And we’re not even talking about the fact that he’s led men into war and doubtless has much blood on his hands.
His fatal flaw is not even a reference to the fact that during one of the raids he led, a young Israeli girl was carried off – kidnapped - and is now the slave girl of his own wife.
Which to our ears is perhaps like hearing that Boko Haram have carried off Nigerian schoolgirls and all the horror that entailed.
So, conscious of that struggle to make sense of some very brutal things that we encounter, in the bible as in life, we start the story with Naaman’s fatal flaw.

Naaman is sick.

He is a leper.

Leprosy is described in the New Testament as covering a number of infectious skin conditions that Naaman might have suffered from.
He would have been disfigured and in pain.
In addition, leprosy brought social stigma – in fact Naaman was known as Naaman the Leper.
It was his fatal flaw.
If it hadn’t been for this particular suffering of his, life would have been pretty perfect: military honours, second in command to the King; popular, good looking, nice wife, nice home.
The problem with a perfect life though is there’s no room for God.
Why would you need God if your life were perfect?
I expect you know lots of people who essentially feel like this.
What with the nice house, the nice children, grandchildren, pension, hobbies, charities, etc. there’s really not room at all for God…
The upside down nature of the gospel though is that when we are weak then we are strong.
In other words, weakness, failure, illness, disappointment; these are all things which give people a window to God.

Naaman’s window opens up via a little girl.
An old Ladybird book I had of this story was called ‘Naaman and the Little Maid.’
She served Naaman’s wife and, crucially, she knows where healing and salvation are to be found.
She knows something the Arameans don’t.
She knows there’s a prophet in Israel who serves the most High God, and that healing and salvation are found, not in might or strength or victory in battle, but in the gracious deliverance of a God who cares for individuals.

So the females get together to sort things out.
The little maid said to Naaman’s wife: “if only my Lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy!”’
Naaman gets to hear of her plea and spectacularly gets hold of the wrong end of the stick.
He doesn’t understand ‘prophet’: he only understands ‘king’ – the language of this world, not the next.
The language of hubris, not humility.
He goes to his king, and his king also spectacularly gets hold of the wrong end of the stick, sending a letter to king of Israel asking for him to heal Naaman and sending a load of material goods along to pay for it.
This is tantamount to a cheeky, verging on dangerous, provocation – even to war.

‘When the king of Israel read the letter he tore his clothes and 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”.’
Luckily the prophet Elisha hears of the rumpus.
He tells the king to redirect Naaman to him.
‘Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.’
Interestingly, not ‘let him come to me that he might be healed’, but ‘that he might learn that there is a prophet in Israel.’
In other words, the healing is important, but what is of life changing spiritual significance, is that this is Naaman’s chance to humble himself and find God.
It’s like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:
in the test to pass safely through the whirling swords that cut off your head if you stand up straight, ‘only the penitent man will pass’.
The penitent man gets down on his knees (thus avoiding the whirling swords and continuing onwards towards the holy grail).
Only the penitent man will pass…
This is the hard, the universal lesson, that Naaman will learn.
Universal, because every human being on the earth will come up against this sooner, or later.
Only the penitent man…
Naaman learns it slowly.
He takes his riches and his worldly goods and offers them to Elisha the prophet: mistake number 1.
You cannot buy, or earn, or deserve salvation.
Elisha ignores all this of course, and sends a simple message: go and wash in the river seven times.
He could have said anything: it’s not about magic water, it’s about obedience.
The point is, can Naaman humble himself to receive God’s healing and salvation?
He cannot, at first.

Mistake number 2: he thinks he can dictate to God how his healing will be effected.
That’s the problem with us people who are used to the world going our way; who have money, resources, reputations, employees, followers.
It’s hard for us to exercise spiritual humility.
Blessed are the poor, the meek, the hungry – that wasn’t really Naaman, by habit.
But God is patient – you could even say God has a lovely gentle, patient sense of humour.
Here is Naaman (who has an anger problem as well) railing and ranting about how humiliating this whole healing thing is.
Elisha hasn’t even put in an appearance: ‘I thought at least he would come out an stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy?’
Perhaps Elisha looked out of the window and smiled ruefully and shook his head and said ‘these grand men – they’re so dramatic!’
He’s a diva, in fact.
He reckons the rivers in Syria are a better class than this grotty brown puddle.
He goes away in a rage.
He nearly, nearly misses the window, the opening of the way between the whirling swords – he so nearly misses the time of his salvation.
But thankfully, he has courageous, kind, firm and sensible friends.
‘If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said was “wash and be clean”?’
Wash and be clean.
The gospel message in a nutshell.
Wash and be clean.
The message of healing and wholeness in a nutshell.
Wash and be clean.
God’s done it all but we have to respond.
Wash and be clean.
It will cost us our pride.
That is why it is so hard for us to truly find God – but when we let go, embrace failure, bend the knee, practice penitence - salvation and wholeness will surely follow, and quickly.
Even so, come Lord Jesus.

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