Timothy C. Ahrens
The First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
February 13, 2000
II Kings 5:1-14; Mark 1:40-45
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Belief is more powerful than reality. I have encountered the power of belief many times in my ministry, but perhaps none more powerfully than these two illustrations- each dealing with belief about living and dying.
Years ago, while serving my first church in Cleveland, one woman in my congregation believed that she didn't have long to live. Although only in her early-40's and in seemingly good health, she told me that after her mother had died five years before, she had lost the will to live. She was single and living at home with her father and I encouraged her to hold fast to faith and life. Within a short time she contracted a cancer through which 98% of those diagnosed survived the treatments. She was one of the 2% who died. She told me before dying, "Rev. Ahrens, I told you I believed I would die." And she did.
Years later and here in Columbus, I received a call that one of my members was in Grant Hospital. Soon I was by her bedside. What followed was a four-month journey from ill health, to the edge of death, and back to health again. At points on this journey, I was convinced that this woman would most certainly die. As she lay in a coma for several weeks, there were times when I would simply sit by her bedside reading poetry, the Bible, Chicken Soup for the Soul, anything I felt would inspire her in her comatose state.
Early one morning, I was invited to a family consult with the chief physician for Grant's ICU. As I entered the hospital, I was sure that the doctor would tell everyone of the family gathered that their beloved wife and mother were about to die. Quite the opposite. The doctor proclaimed of his comatose patient, "I am planning for a full and complete recovery." His faith and his confidence in both her and his medicine were mystifying and amazing. Yet in the weeks and months that followed, his plan worked and his patient healed and returned to full health.
In his book Changing Belief Systems Through NLP, Robert Dilts writes of belief:
When you have a belief, even environmental and behavioral evidence won't change it because a belief isn't about reality. You have a belief in place of knowledge about reality. Beliefs are about things that nobody can know in reality. If somebody has a terminal illness he doesn't know if he is going to get well. There is no present reality as to whether he is going to get well or not. He has to believe he is going to get well precisely because nobody knows what the reality is. (Dilts, p. 9).
The truth is. Belief often overwhelms reality. I believe God can do amazing and miraculous things! I believe in the healing power of God as essential for our individual lives and also our life in this faith community. In fact, it is your belief and my belief in the power of God to mend tears in the fabric of faith, to heal the broken hearted, and to bring freedom when the powers of this world seek to destroy life - that overcomes our unbelief. God's power to heal can change persons and systems in unexplainable and remarkable ways. When you have belief, especially belief in God, all things are possible!
In II Kings 5:1-14, Naaman was a great and mighty warrior who led the Aramean army to victory over Israel. Nevertheless, he was ill with leprosy and sought help for healing. It is an Israelite slave girl who tells Naaman there is one in her homeland who can heal him. With a letter from his King, Naaman goes to Israel to seek the Healer. In King Jehoram he finds no one but a fool and a coward. He declares himself unable to heal Naaman and tears his clothes off for fear of the reprisal that may follow. But Elisha the prophet hears of this and summons Naaman to his house. Without even looking at Naaman, Elisha sends a messenger to tell Naaman how to wash and cleanse himself of the leprosy in the River Jordan. Naaman is enraged by Elisha's disrespect at not seeing him and lack of substantiative action in offering the healing. Naaman expects the prophet to at least wave his hands over him. On the verge of Naaman's missing his opportunity for healing, his servant chimes in, "Hey boss, this idea is so simple and you have come so far, why don't you at least give it a shot." And once again, the warrior takes heed to the words of a lowly servant. There at the banks of the river Jordan, Naaman dips himself into the river seven times and in the end comes out with his flesh restored and clean like that of a young boy.
As the passage continues, we discover that out of this simple act of obedience, and following his restoration, Naaman becomes a believer and confesses his faith in the God of Israel! For Naaman and for many, healing comes through simple acts of obedience and often by taking heed to simple words offered by those on the periphery of life and society. How often has this happened in your life? How often have you followed simple instructions and as a result, chosen healthy ways of facing illness in body, mind, soul or a relationship? And how often did the words, which guided you to restoration come from unexpected sources?
Restoration of health often comes from obedience to words offered for no less than our SALVATION. That's right - our salvation. The Greek word for salvation is "soteria." Soteria means much more than salvation in the usual religious sense. It includes salvation from poor health and all kinds of dangers and threats. It is a word of rescue that includes very positive meanings of being saved for something not just from something.
In essence, we are saved for wholeness and health lived in the heart of God. To be saved for something is a reality with which Psychiatrist Victor Frankl was personally familiar. In his classic, Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl shared insights garnered from years in Nazi Concentration Camps. He wrote of the wholeness of the human condition combining three dimensions: the psychic and somatic, and the noetic. The somatic (bodily) and the psychic (the mental) could not exist without the noetic (the spiritual). In fact, he regarded the noetic as the area most characteristic of the human being. Health is not the absence of sickness but a positive and dynamic striving for wholeness. (Quoted from Robert Leslie's Health, Healing and Holiness, Nashville, Graded Press, 1971, pp.16-17).
No one in the time of Jesus was seemingly further from wholeness and salvation then the leper. Like Naaman, the leper of Mark's Gospel (1:40-45) is a desperate man. He is desperate for healing and for restoration into community. The laws on Leprosy in First Century Palestine were clear. Lepers were to have no contact with the general population. They were ritually and religiously unclean. They were socially ostracized -- separated from family, friends, and all public life. Lepers were to have no social or economic contact rendering them all as beggars or worse. The leper was a corpse haunting the edges of the community he could no longer enter.
This leper crosses the great divide herein described. Believing the power of Jesus to cleanse him, he ignores the reality of Judaic law and kneels before Jesus. Jesus, moved with compassion, not only speaks to the man, but touches him. To Jesus he is not "unclean," but simply a human soul in desperate need. To Jesus, compassion directs right action!
By touching the man and healing him, Jesus crosses the great divide himself. You see. This is more than a correction in skin texture! In this action of healing, Jesus redirects the social, religious, and economic spheres!
In this healing Jesus touches the leper, putting himself at risk of having to join the leper colony himself. This is important in understanding the ministry of Jesus and our call to ministry. "Jesus did not minister long distance, safe from all that plagued the lives of those he would help. His work of forgiving brought him in contact with sinners; his work of lifting placed him among the fallen; his words of encouragement were given among the hopeless; his healing put him with the diseased; his giving new life took him to the tomb." (Quoted in Fred Craddock's NT Commentary, Preaching Through the Christian Year, p. 103).
All the way to the cross Jesus continues to turn people's heads around! For those who think, "Where the Messiah is, there is no Misery" Jesus flips such thinking upside down and demonstrates through his acts of compassion and power, "Where there is Misery, there is the Messiah!"
He also demonstrates in one healing story after another that when healing happens, the ones who are healed are not healed alone. Too often sickness becomes isolation. Whether the sicknesses are leprosy, cancer, AIDS, or other forms of serious illness, there is a tendency to isolate. Whether sickness breaks down cell walls or human relationships, it can pull us in and push others away and ultimately keep us from those who seek to touch us and care for us. Jesus knew this. That is why he stepped into the misery and carried others back into community. He saves, heals and transforms sickness in ways that sometimes dis-ease us. In the power of Christ, belief overcomes reality. In the power of Christ, Life overcomes Death. In the power of Christ salvation is both personal and political. Yes, there is a balm in Gilead that heals the sin sick soul. There is a balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole! Amen.
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