Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Getting Down and Dirty

I preached this sermon on Sunday. It was the first sermon I preached for my congregation.

I usually fill my sermon with stories, but this story is so powerful that you won't find many outside stories in it. It can speak for itself.

He had it all: power, prestige, position. He had the leader of his nation on speed dial. He won numerous battles. He had medals on his chest. He had wealth. And he had a problem.

In second Kings 5, we encounter this man. Naaman was his name. He was the commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man and had the favor of his king because Naaman had won many battles. But the writer of second Kings puts one startling fact at the end of this list of greatness—Naaman has leprosy. If not for the leprosy, Naaman would have been a perfect man to the Jews who heard this story. Naaman’s leprosy would have negated all his greatness.

As a right-hand man to the king, Naaman could no doubt afford the best medical care. He probably tried all the creams and ointments that he could find. Maybe he even tried non-conventional treatment. Drinking spring water from a silver basin in the light of a full moon? I don’t know. Anyway, nothing worked.

But what was this that Naaman heard? There was hope for his full recovery?

In Naaman’s house, there was a girl. We don’t know her name. She was taken captive in one of the raids that the Aramaens had made. We don’t know her name. She was taken from Israel. We don’t know her name. But we do have her words. The young girl spoke to Naaman’s wife. Perhaps she was speaking her thoughts aloud one day. Perhaps she casually mentioned something. Perhaps she knew exactly what Naaman had to do to be cured. In verse three, we have the young girl’s testimony, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

Word got to Naaman. Maybe Naaman’s wife was on the lookout for the miraculous cure that would make him whole and shared the news eagerly with her husband. Miraculous indeed! Someone who could cure! A prophet! It was worth a try.

Since Naaman had the ear of the king, he had a way to get to Israel. The king of Aram even paved the way. But what irony! Think about it: the girl had been abducted from Israel during one of the Aramean raids, yet here came an envoy from the Aramean king. No doubt the king of Israel thought it was a trick. When he read the letter, he was sure it was a trick. The Arameans were trying to cause a war! After all, they were the greatest military threat to Israel during this time. Here was a letter along with an offering to the King of Israel of 750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and ten large rolls of the finest cloth with the request that Naaman be cured of his leprosy. The king of Israel was in a dilemma for sure. There is a reason the king of Israel tore his clothes. Naaman had already appeared at his doorstep with presents on the condition that a cure for leprosy be offered to Naaman. If Naaman came back and still had the disease of leprosy, someone in a high and powerful place would be angry. Someone might see it as an insult and declare war. How do you respond to a request like the one that came to the King of Israel when you know that you are “not God, to give life or death”?

Fortunately, for Naaman (and the king of Israel), Elisha heard this story from his house in Samaria. Elisha sends word to the king of Israel wondering why he has torn his clothes and why the king did not send Naaman to Elisha. Finally, an answer for Naaman—an action he can take! So Naaman hurries to Samaria believing that Elisha will touch him and cure him. Maybe he will have the right words to cure him like a magic spell. Maybe he has just the right combination of ointments and creams to heal Naaman of leprosy. Maybe it will be a grand public display of a wonderful miracle. Maybe everyone will see Naaman cured.

Maybe Elisha won’t even see him? Naaman didn’t see that one coming. When Naaman gets to Elisha’s house with all his horses and chariots, Elisha doesn’t extend hospitality and invite Naaman into his house. Elisha will not even step outside to see Naaman. Elisha doesn’t even holler through the window. Elisha sends a servant to relay a message to Naaman. A servant—a person with the same station as the one who first told Naaman that there was a cure in Samaria. A servant—someone that Naaman would generally ignore because he was so much better than a servant or a slave.

But the message that the servant brings insults Naaman more.

Naaman is told to go to the Jordan River and dip seven times into its waters. Naaman is promised that if he follows the command, he will be cured. But the command makes Naaman angry. He wanted a public display to accompany the miracle, not a private ritual. He didn’t particularly think that the muddy waters of the Jordan were superior to the waters of his own hometown. Maybe he should try dipping in those hometown waters first—at least the waters were less polluted and fresher (coming from the mountains of Syria). The Jordan just flowed from one tiny sea surrounded by mountains into a dead sea, a salt sea that gave no nourishment. Naaman, in all his power and pride, turns and goes away from Elisha’s house—and he was angry. Naaman felt that he had wasted his time.

Then the third servant speaks. It is one of Naaman’s own servants. No doubt this servant was with Naaman as he started out from his home, anxious to find a cure in Israel. Then the servant was with Naaman as he heard that Elisha was his miracle man, and Naaman went to Samaria happy to have tracked down his deliverer at last. And now, the servant, seeing Naaman in a rage and ready to go home in despair, speaks. “What could it hurt to try the thing that Elisha’s servant has said for you to do?” After all, Naaman had tried everything. If Elisha had told Naaman to do a dangerous thing like wrestle a lion, or to go without food for 40 days, or go rock climbing without benefit of ropes, Naaman, in his bravery as a warrior, would have believed in the cure and done it at once. Instead Elisha told Naaman to take a bath.

What a bath it was! Seven times Naaman immersed himself into the Jordan. One time—the leprosy was still there. Two times—it is still there. Three. Four. Five. No change. Six. Still the leprosy was as worse as it had ever been. What did Naaman think? That from dip six to dip seven something would change? Well, it did. Seven was the number; and as Naaman came up out of the river, his flesh had been restored like the flesh of a young boy. Not only Naaman’s flesh was changed, however; he was also changed in spirit. It was a baptism of sorts for Naaman.

Dr. Wayne Stacy (who happened to be my preaching professor) tells a story of a baptism he once conducted. Stacy says:

I still recall the shocked look of disbelief and betrayal on her face. “I have to be what?” Julie was a rather sophisticated, urbane Episcopalian who had been attending our Baptist church for about two years when she finally decided to “take the plunge,” shall we say, and convert to the Baptists. But when I told her that she would have to be immersed, she balked. “You mean, I have to be dunked in a tank of water in full view of the whole church with my hair streaming down my face and my makeup running and without benefit of so much as a shower cap or anything…you mean, before God and everybody?...But it’s so…so…inelegant!”[i]

Naaman’s cure was inelegant, too. If you are someone like me who was brought up in a Baptist church and have been dunked, maybe you know a bit about how it feels to be a mess in front of everyone. I remember my own baptism that happened when I was 8 years old. I was scared. I could not swim, and I did not like to put my head underwater. The pastor that baptized me could tell I was nervous, and it made him nervous. He was going to say my whole name just before he dunked me, but he forgot my middle name. He was so apologetic about it later, but the name did not matter to me as much as what the baptism symbolized.

Really there is nothing that changes one through baptism—baptism is a symbol of the change that has taken place in one’s heart. Naaman’s change came when he decided to follow Elisha’s advice. The cure Naaman received only enforced his choice to follow the command. Indeed, after Naaman is cured, he proclaimed that the God of Elisha and of Israel is the true God, and Naaman is converted.

The irony of the seventh dip in the Jordan being the one that cured, the irony that it was servants who led the high and mighty Naaman to his cure are both in this story. But the greatest irony is in the conversion itself. The history as recorded in second Kings was written down when the Jews were far from their homeland. They had been carried into captivity in Babylon. An oral tradition of memorizing the Torah and histories was in danger of being lost as the young people naturally gravitated to the pagan temptations of their captive land. So the stories and histories were written down. And as the Jews read this story of Naaman, they could not help but identify with the young girl taken into captivity. She represented them. The girl knew the truth about the prophet and about God who delivers. The girl could have remained quiet and let her master suffer. She did not have to share the words about the prophet. Whether it was a conscious choice on her part or whether it was something that the girl just had to share, we do not know. But we do know that because of this young girl’s testimony, a Gentile was converted. Gentiles were not “the chosen people,” and that is the great irony for those Jews reading this story. It is a powerful testimony to God’s power, a power that is not bound by conventional thinking.

In Luke 4:27, Naaman the Syrian almost gets Jesus killed. No, it is not a ghost who comes across the centuries to haunt Jesus. It is the story of Naaman and the commentary that Jesus provides about the story that is so dangerous. When Jesus goes to his hometown and enters the synagogue on the Sabbath, he is asked to preach. After all, they knew Jesus. He was the hometown boy. Of course he wouldn’t preach anything controversial. After the reading of a passage from Isaiah, Jesus rolls up the scroll to begin his interpretation. One of the things, among others, that Jesus says is that there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Naaman, but Naaman the Syrian (a Gentile) was the only one that God cured. Jesus tells the people of Nazarath that he is the fulfillment of the Isaiah scripture. And then he says that he has come to help the Gentiles, too. Instead of Jesus coming to the chosen people, the Jews, according to Luke’s gospel, Jesus came for all the world. And the leaders in Nazareth almost push Jesus off a cliff for saying what he did. That is Luke’s gospel for you.

Where do we stand in this world with the message of second Kings 5 and with the message of Luke 4:27? It all depends on where we are in this journey of life.

The story of Naaman applies to our life. We have all been prideful at some point. We have ignored simple instructions that would saved us time in favor of some grandiose scheme. Some of us may be like Naaman at the beginning of this story. We may have a pride in our life that keeps us from believing that there is a simple thing called grace. Grace that is offered to us freely by God. Grace that saves us if we choose to accept it. Surely it isn’t that easy to be saved? Maybe we are supposed to wrestle a lion, or fast for 40 days, or go rock climbing without a rope. No, grace is that simple; it is just that our pride sometimes gets in the way.

Jesus said that unless we become like children, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Children accept gifts. Watch them at a birthday party or at Christmas. A child will not say, “I’ve been too bad to accept a gift.” No, they go ahead and rip the paper off and pull the gift from the box and play with the toy (or end up playing with the box if they happen to find it more interesting). Many times, when God’s grace is offered to someone, they tend to think that it can’t be that easy. There is too much sin in their life for God to just give grace to them. I assure you, it is all too simple—that’s why it is revolutionary. That’s why it is Jesus called it the kingdom of God. Our way of thinking has to change. You have to be humble. You have to get down and dirty and acknowledge the way you are, but the rewards are great.

Or maybe you are at a different place. Like Naaman, you want that symbol of a new life. Baptism as Baptists practice it is inelegant. But it is powerful. We believe it is an outward sign of the change that has taken place in us because of our conversion. There is power in the being buried with Jesus through baptism and being raised with Christ from the dead so that we can walk in the newness of life. It is our adoption into a community of faith, a community of fellow believers. So maybe it is time for some of you to get down and dirty, without the benefit of a shower cap, and take the plunge.

But the message that speaks the most to me, is the last one—the one that comes up again in Luke’s gospel. Jesus came to save all the world, not just the chosen ones. Where are our words and actions when we see a world that needs to know how to be cleansed of sin? The young servant girl could have chosen not to speak to her foreign mistress. Elisha’s servant could have told Naaman to go away and leave the prophet alone. Naaman’s own servant could have held his tongue and let Naaman go away in a rage. They chose to speak, not knowing the outcome, maybe not even completely understanding their greater purpose in this story. We do not know their names. God does. And God knows your name. God knows when you are witnessing and telling your neighbors how to discover the kingdom of God.

If you are a Christian, God has chosen you; but that isn’t the end of the story. You have to share the good news, in word, in deed, in action. You may have to get down and dirty—to explain what God has done for you—but it is our command. Jesus did not say, “Maybe you could tell someone about me if you become a preacher or missionary.” Jesus simply said, “Go.” It may not be far that you have to go: across the street, to the telephone, across an office; but our command is clear, “go.”

Let us pray.

God, help us to see the simple message we must share. Help us to accept your free gift of grace. When we are prideful, let us remember that you want our obedience; and let us humble ourselves to do your work on this earth. Let us know the significance of the words “your kingdom come.” Help us to know how revolutionary our lives should be. In the name of Jesus I pray. Amen.

[i] p. 153 in Stacy, R. Wayne. “Baptism” in A Baptist’s Theology. Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 1999.