Sunday, July 3, 2022
2 Kings 5:1-14
Last week, Rich went to get bagels for breakfast and there was a bit of a line. He told me a woman came in and seemingly without noticing anyone around her went right to the counter. Now, you know that Rich is usually a pretty considerate, generous guy, but he has limits like everyone so he piped up, “Hey, there’s a line here!” Startled, she looked around as if for the first time and stepped in line – without an apology. Something like this probably happens to every single one of us almost on a weekly basis – we get cut off on the interstate, someone rushes to beat us to the door or cuts in line. Martin Luther’s very visual definition of sin was that it’s human nature for us to turn in on ourselves to be “naval gazers,” as he called it. Our default is to go around as if we’re constantly looking at our belly buttons. It’s easy to point out when someone crosses a line to inconvenience us; but we’ve also at least once (you can admit it) been the perpetrator, justifying how we deserve something better or first or to bend the rules for a REALLY good reason. Who doesn’t like special treatment? Sin constantly pulls our heads down to focus on our own needs and wants without paying attention to anything or anyone around us. God’s mission in Jesus Christ is to keep pulling our heads up and out to look to God and to our neighbor. Daily, we confess our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness, so that we might walk out into the world with our heads high. In our readings for today, especially our first reading from 2 Kings, we see how God pushes and challenges us to keep looking up and out. In this powerful story of Elisha healing Naaman, we see how God completely removes the lines that keep us from helping, healing, and loving one another, drawing us closer to God.
From the beginning of our story, we see Naaman is as selfish as the rest of us. The story certainly makes more of an impact when we realize that he is a commander of the Aramean army – the archenemy of Israel. He is a great man and high in favor with the king of Aram, 2 Kings tells us. Despite his greatness, he’s afflicted with a skin disease, which was probably not only painful and troublesome but also shameful and embarrassing for such a public figure. A young Israelite slave girl, a captive of war, is the unexpected person who tells Naaman’s wife about this prophet named Elisha who might be able to help Naaman out. Through the grace of God she doesn’t keep her knowledge of the possibility of healing to herself but shares it despite who Naaman is as her owner and enemy. Naaman, it appears, can’t see past the end of his nose in pursuing this option to solve his skin problem. He goes prepared with an enormous sum of money. He can buy his healing, hopefully. The king of Israel doesn’t know what to do and thinks Naaman is intimidating them into a potential conflict, but Elisha speaks up and takes charge.
When Naaman hears that he’s supposed to go wash in the Jordan seven times through a messenger, his big ego is wounded. “I thought that for me he would surely come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” He goes on to protest that he’s supposed to bathe in Israel’s water, the enemy, not the waters of Damascus in his own beloved country? Naaman expects special treatment. He wants God to cater to his own preferences. The actual healing is great and all, but what about a nice show to go along with it? He is humbled when his servants remind him it’s really a small thing to go and do, to wash in the Jordan river to be healed of his leprosy. We see that God doesn’t only heal Naaman’s skin – he is restored, delivered, saved in this small simple act of washing in the Jordan river seven times. Elisha helps Naaman to see that it is God who heals – not money, not military might or political power, not even a well-respected prophet of the Lord – the healing comes from God alone. And having had his flesh restored, God pulls Naaman’s head out of his bellybutton to look to God in faith and worship. Go ahead and read the rest of the chapter – Naaman actually brings back some dirt from Israel as a physical reminder that the God of Israel is the one true God, in whom he can place his trust and loyalty. A man who was once a self-centered, violent enemy of Israel is now a believer in God who dedicates the rest of his life to the Lord, responding to his healing with gratitude and humility.
What I love about Naaman’s story is that while we tend to look at things through our post-enlightenment 21st century attitude that miracle healings can’t really happen, the focus is not just on God healing Naaman’s skin disease. Elisha deemphasizes the miraculous aspects of the healing, at first to Naaman’s disappointment. All Naaman does is dunk in the Jordan river seven times, and his flesh is restored. Maybe all he really needed was a bath! Surprising miracles abound beyond Naaman’s skin being made clean. A selfish, egotistical Gentile army commander of all people, an enemy of Israel, is the unlikely hero who is healed in the story and willingly puts his trust in the Lord. A young captive of war – a child – of all people, is the one to share with Naaman the power of the God of Israel and help bring him to faith. The king of Israel is portrayed as pretty helpless and faithless, even afraid, but it is Elisha, the Lord’s faithful prophet who instead of condemning or rejecting this Gentile Aramean extends God’s grace and healing power to him. Naaman, too, has to cross a boundary by dipping into the Jordan rather than his own country’s rivers. It’s a rare story in 2 Kings that humanizes the enemy and reminds all of us of God’s mission to heal the nations – to reconcile enemies, to bring peace, and that individual physical and spiritual healing is just the tip of the iceberg of God’s great healing, salvation project for the world.
Jesus specifically preaches on Naaman’s story in the Nazareth synagogue in Luke chapter 4. One of Jesus’ points in that sermon is that God’s healing project extends beyond the people of Israel – Jesus has come to save the world, not just one nation, one ethnicity, or one people. If you remember, his preaching on God crossing boundaries to heal and save people beyond Israel angers the congregation so much they want to throw him off of a cliff. They want special treatment, perhaps. We all do when we have our heads down looking at our belly buttons. But Jesus continues to drive home the point when he heals a Roman centurion in Luke 7. It’s another Roman centurion who proclaims Jesus’ innocence on the cross and praises God. And in Acts 10, it’s another Roman centurion, Cornelius, who becomes the first uncircumcised Gentile to join the early church.
On this Independence Day weekend, we thank God for the blessings we enjoy in the country. Naaman’s story cautions us to allow God to pull our heads out of our belly buttons as a nation and as individual American Christians. God’s healing power is able to cross nations, languages, and work through all kinds of people – Israelite slave girls, Aramean commanders and Roman centurions. As one of the world’s most powerful and wealthiest nation, we are blessed by God to live not just for ourselves, but to join in God’s mission to point people back to God and to serving Christ in our neighbor, who includes not only our neighbor down the street but also across the ocean. It is God’s healing power that is able to create miracles still today – when people overcome cancer despite the odds, when people experience relief from depression or other mental illnesses, when people find faith in Christ AND when nations who once were enemies become friends. Certainly our nation and our world faces many challenges today. Just as we ask God to pull us out of ourselves to share the blessings we’ve been given, may we as a nation ask God to pull us out of ourselves to look to God for our help and strength rather than our own might, and look to others to share the many blessings we enjoy – liberty and justice for all; a peaceful democracy, and so many other things for which we give thanks to God today. May this weekend’s celebration of our nation renew our resolve to like Elisha join the Lord in extending his grace and healing mercy to a world in need. Amen.