2 Kings 5:1-14 CEB
Naaman, a general for the king of Aram, was a great man and highly regarded by his master, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. This man was a mighty warrior, but he had a skin disease. Now Aramean raiding parties had gone out and captured a young girl from the land of Israel. She served Naaman’s wife.
She said to her mistress, “I wish that my master could come before the prophet who lives in Samaria. He would cure him of his skin disease.” So Naaman went and told his master what the young girl from the land of Israel had said.
Then Aram’s king said, “Go ahead. I will send a letter to Israel’s king.”
So Naaman left. He took along ten kikkars of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. He brought the letter to Israel’s king. It read, “Along with this letter I’m sending you my servant Naaman so you can cure him of his skin disease.”
When the king of Israel read the letter, he ripped his clothes. He said, “What? Am I God to hand out death and life? But this king writes me, asking me to cure someone of his skin disease! You must realize that he wants to start a fight with me.”
When Elisha the man of God heard that Israel’s king had ripped his clothes, he sent word to the king: “Why did you rip your clothes? Let the man come to me. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”
Naaman arrived with his horses and chariots. He stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent out a messenger who said, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored and become clean.”
But Naaman went away in anger. He said, “I thought for sure that he’d come out, stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the bad spot, and cure the skin disease. Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger.
Naaman’s servants came up to him and spoke to him: “Our father, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, ‘Wash and become clean.’” So Naaman went down and bathed in the Jordan seven times, just as the man of God had said. His skin was restored like that of a young boy, and he became clean
Do you know the best way to make a Christian sweat? Ask them to do something that sounds simple. Tell them to bathe in a river, feed the hungry, care for the poor, or clothe the naked, and I guarantee a strange phenomenon will happen. These Christians will suddenly turn into philosophers and lawyers, for they will begin to ask things like, “What is hunger?” and “Who are the poor?” and to what extent must I clothe the naked to satisfy Christ?” Make things sound too simple and easy, and people will push back. The scripture highlight in today’s service reflects this marvelously as when the servants asked Naaman, “if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?” While Naaman had a skin disease, this was not his sole affliction, and certainly not the one that held him back from receiving God’s healing. Naaman also suffers from the disease we call pride, and it means that he expected God to do things in a manner and to the extent that he deemed appropriate. While idolatry is often pointed out as the chief sin described in the Bible, pride is hot on its heels. We all have our fair share of pride. Arrogance and pride complicate the simplest asks of God and keep us from letting God work in our lives and the lives of others to bring about good things in this world.
If anyone had cause for pride, it is Naaman, an Aramean general hailing from what is today Syria, who is made powerful and wealthy through his many conquests. Now, he has been struck low with a skin disease, probably psoriasis, that not only gave him rashes but pain and stiffness in his joints. While a great man, he can do nothing to solve his own illness, and it is a lowly Israelite slave girl who tells her master’s wife that a prophet in Samaria can heal Naaman. When he goes to Israel, he assumes that this prophet must be the king, for only someone so powerful could deal with the Almighty. He brings along his wealth and all the trappings of his power. Instead of a king, he is sent to go see Elisha. Again he shows his power by surrounding himself with his forces to impress and perhaps awe this Israelite prophet. Before he can even get into Elisha’s house to see the prophet though, a servant is sent out with instructions for Naaman to bathe in the Jordan seven times and he will be healed.
Now, Naaman is furious! His pride has suffered blow after blow, nothing has gone as he expected, culminating in Elisha’s refusal to see him. Naaman is a great man! Naaman has attacked and conquered parts of Israel, and this prophet of Israel’s God cannot be bothered to come out, summon God, and heal his ailment! This prophet has instead told him to dunk himself in the muddy waters of the Jordan rather than the rivers of his own home country. Nothing has gone as he expected it to! Now, his servants, who must care for him deeply, as they address him not as lord or master but as Father, implore him to do this simple thing and be healed. He listens, going down into the water a great man, but coming up from the water, with the skin of a young boy. His pride and arrogant expectations would not allow him at first to bow to the simple command of God, to humble himself and be healed.
While we may not be generals, we all struggle with the simple commands of God. Like Naaman, it is not diseases of the body that hold us back from following, but the disease of the spirit known as pride. Pride is what caused Adam and Eve to think that they could be like God. Pride caused Moses to strike the stone in the desert to give water to the Hebrews instead of speaking to it as God commanded. Pride and arrogance caused the Hebrew people to ignore the commands of God to care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien in their land. Pride comes about when we expect God to do what we want, in the way we want it, and with the timing that fits our schedules. I have even heard a prayer group brag before, “Our group gets results,” so I had to wonder, whose results? Was their success measured by how often God answered the prayers in the way they expected or in by the times God bent everything toward his good purposes for all peoples and all of creation in the answering?
To be healed by God, Naaman had to do something simple, this healing cost nothing but would only require his trusting obedience. He went down into the water that day so long ago, a great man, strong and independent. He was used to others following his orders, and now he must obey. He goes into the water as a man, but notice the change in description when he comes out of the water, “His skin was restored like that of a young boy.” Naaman was not just healed, but through his obedience and baptism, he becomes child-like in trusting obedience. In the very next verse, the one not in our lectionary reading today, Naaman goes so far as to declare there is only one God, and that God is in Israel.
With Naaman, with the prayer group, and with many of us today, pride stands in the way of us trusting in God. Strangely enough, those of us who find it hard to give up control are the keenest on speaking about a controlling God. We end up with a God who reflects our own hearts. We desire a God who will control and direct every aspect of our lives, and one who will even protect and preserve us through every difficulty in life. Often though, this becomes an excuse for why we must have our own way because it is God’s will after all. Look to Naaman, he seeks healing but he has a vision in his mind of how that will happen even going far as to say, “‘I thought for sure that he’d come out, stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the bad spot, and cure the skin disease.’” Naaman confronts the reality that God will not act in the way he expects but in the way God chooses.
Look around at the many who have fallen away from God. What caused it? Was it sin, those mistakes and false desires, that caused them to tumble, or was it that suddenly their lives went off the rails. They had believed that God was in charge of every uncontrolled contingency until disappointment after disappointment eroded their certainty. Every prayer that went unanswered. Every disease that ravaged unchecked in the bodies and minds of loved ones. Every disaster that ripped into their fragile lives tore their faith apart. They desired control, and so they imagined a God who was in control and who would answer every crisis and every challenge in their favor. When that did not happen, they lost faith, much like Naaman turning away in anger. Pride meant that God had to answer their demands rather than them trusting in God’s grace and God’s abundant love both in their lives and the lives around them.
God does guide and preserve and cooperate with creation, shepherding everything to a day where all will be made right and all will be good. In fact, I am reminded of a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. this morning where he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Pride is where we try to bend it in the short term toward our justice and our own good. Pride is where we try to say that we are like God or at least we know as much if not more than God. This morning’s scripture speaks to us of something different. It reminds us of the humble act of baptism. During this morning’s service, we will also be sharing communion. Both are moments, sacraments, where we must set aside our way, and like Naaman humble ourselves before the everpresent Spirit of God. We will come out changed by our encounter with the living God in these sacraments to be more trusting of our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sustainer.
On one hand, we as people love quick fixes and easy solutions, but on the other, we quickly like to complicate and reject things that seem too easy. We seem to have every answer in the book for why good can not be done, but do we have an answer for why we should not trust God? Would God ask us to feed the hungry, care for the poor, heal the brokenhearted, seek justice, answer illness, and be made whole through bathing in the Jordan if it could not be done? Perhaps, rather than letting our pride and desire for control complicate things, we need to trust and do the hardest thing of all, trust in God without reservation, believe in the simple commands of God as this same God works in us and through us for the good of all, of all people and all of creation. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman