This Baptismal Meditation was delivered by Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, July 8, 2001, Pentecost 5, dedicated to Michael Francis Knox on his baptismal day and always to the glory of God!
II Kings 5:1-14; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
When I say the names of George Patton, Dwight David Eisenhower, or Norman Schwartzkoff most of you know who I am talking about You know these men as great generals and men of war. You know that two of them were the Chief Commanders of our Armed Services at times of war during the century now past.
If however, I say the name of another great commander, General Namaan the Syrian, most of you simply scratch your heads wondering to whom I am referring. Mentioned twice in the Bible - once in II Kings and again as a sermon illustration by Jesus in Luke 4:27 - Namaan (whose name means "Pleasant" - an uncommon name for a warrior) was a great commander of his King's army. The Aramites (or Syrians) were the enemies of Israel who brought down King Ahab in the 9th Century before Christ.
Namaan was called a great man, not only by his people, but also by the enemy Israel whom he defeated several times in war. Namaan did well for himself with the booty of war and he lived well into his great name. Some might have said, "He's as famous and as good looking as General Eisenhower - with one difference. Namaan did not photograph well because he had leprosy. Now as a Syrian, he would not have been as severely cast out for leprosy, but having leprosy ate away at him nonetheless.
He was an international hero for goodness sake! He had a room with a view. He hung out with all the winning leaders of the middle east. So it was awkward and embarrassing for Namaan to receive surprised stares every time he walked into a meeting. With scabby, scaly hands, he had learned to bow and not to offer people his strong hand in greeting. He could see the looks on people's faces as they wondered whether they would catch what he had. They must have thought, "Why doesn't he just stay home and spare us all the grief of whatever it is he has!" But their questions were nothing compared to his. He had been told God favored him. If so, why did God afflict him with leprosy? And why couldn't anyone in Aram make him well? (Paraphrased from Barbara Brown Taylor, in Home By Another Way).
Without ever asking, Namaan's receives help from an unexpected source. As part of the spoils of war, he has in his household a young slave girl from the land of Israel. The Hebrew slave girl tells her mistress, Namaan's wife, that there is a prophet of Israel who can cure Namaan. Image that! What a crazy idea coming from such a diminutive slave. Is Namaan to believe that some faith healer in Israel is going to take care of him when none of the physicians of the king can do it? This must seem insane! But, really how crazy is it? We all know of people who, faced with bad news and no source of healing from respectable doctors, will go to some far off place where a native healer from a mountain tribe (or some other unexpected source) has found a cure for what ails them.
The situations may not be identical, but you know what I mean! And in our times, such information is often garnered on-line at a site named something like - www.strangecures.com. No matter how you get there, the truth is - if you really want to get well - you will leave no stone unturned. In Namaan's case that stone turns out to be Elisha, a holy man of Israel!
So the stone begins rolling! With the slave girl's information, the wife goes to her husband and he in turn speaks to the king of Aram who writes to the king of Israel asking for help! Israel's new King Jehoam tears off his clothes when he gets the letter because he feels torn! If he fails to grant the request he faces certain attack from a stronger foe. If he contacts Elisha, the prophet and the prophet fails to cure Namaan, Aram may retaliate. He only sees the downside as he wails, "Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!" In the midst of this major existential crisis, in walks Elisha. Elisha handles the request. He sends word for Namaan to come ahead!
And so the leper of Aram comes. He comes with all his horses and chariots. He comes with all the money he can get together. After all, he doesn't have a clue what the cost of curing leprosy is! So he loads 750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and ten sets of fine clothes on his former vehicles for battle and sets off to Israel and his hoped for cure.
Namaan arrives in Israel and makes his way to the prophet's house. But, the prophet doesn't come out to greet him. Instead he sends word out to Namaan with a messenger. "Hello, sir! The messenger says on Elisha's behalf, `Go wash in the Jordan River seven times and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean." Simple enough! But apparently, the prophet doesn't know with whom he is dealing! This is the greatest General of his times! He is powerful! He is esteemed! He wants a personal audience with the Prophet! And if it is all about washing in some river he would just as soon return to Aram and wash in some real rivers - not this mud hole known as the Jordan! With 900 pounds of gold and silver and ten new garments in his chariots - he deserves at least a glance, a bow, a moment with the healer! So he leaves enraged!
Once again, lowly servants save the day. This is a theme in this story! Servants as saviors - sound familiar? Anyway, they say, quite simply, "Master, if the prophet had asked you to do something really difficult, wouldn't you have tried it? But, all he said was `wash and be clean.' Don't you think it's worth a shot?" Without so much as an acknowledgment, Namaan heads to the Jordan and goes in. He washes seven times, according to Elisha's word. His flesh is restored and he is cleansed.
There in the dirty river, Namaan discovers something about himself. He discovers that his victories in battle have gotten him nowhere. His royal connections to rich and powerful rulers have gotten him nowhere. His great reputation has gotten him nowhere. His silver and gold have gotten him nowhere. He hasn't even been able to scare the prophet into an audience with him. Only listening to his servants has brought an opportunity for healing. Now, naked and doing some strange ritualistic act seven times in a river that is more green than blue, with fish more dead than alive, he is healed. He is smooth. He is clean. He is whole.
From the Jordan, Namaan returns to Elisha to say "thank you" and to praise the God of Israel. Although he offers Elisha gifts, the prophet accepts nothing. And with that, the story runs off on another tangent until it's conclusion at the end of chapter 5.
There is so much to love about this story. There is so much to learn from it. First, we take away the fact that it is a third party who asks for help. A slave girl gets the ball rolling, and throughout the story everyone speaks on his behalf, but Namaan never actually asks for help!
Isn't that the way it happens sometimes? We speak on behalf of others, but they never fully give voice to their own needs! Nevertheless (and God is always in the `nevertheless'!), God acts! I can't tell you how many times, I have offered prayers for someone or some family or some situation in which no one had ever asked for my help, or the help of any spiritual source! People say they want to get better, but they don't ask for help, for prayers. Rather, a third party, perhaps one of you, asks for them. Without an exchange of words, God acts for the ones in need. Although it is Elisha who looms as the healer, it is God who truly is the healer. Elisha knows this truth! And this as true today, as it was in Elisha's time.
Also, in this story, we see that healing can happen "outside the box." In a book entitled, The Web That Has No Weaver, the author tells of the difference between Chinese medicine and western medicine. We often believe that healing needs to begin (and perhaps end) in the doctor's office. Not true. Many doctors will tell you that healing begins in the family, in time of prayer, in a place where health can be nurtured. Healing begins in your mind and spirit, often long before the body catches up. In Namaan's case, his healing came from outside the box - in another land, through the power of faith, in another realm of seeing and understanding God. Healing may find you through prayer. It may find you through faith. Healing may find you through the power to open yourself to people and to God in newfound ways - which often come from outside the box!
Also, Namaan reached the place in his life's story where pride was overcome by his desire for wellness. He was able to get well, when he humbled himself before God. How about you? Is there something in your life that is unhealed? Perhaps a relationship with someone you wish you could reach out to - but can't. Perhaps your pride is standing in the way of your desire for wholeness and wellness. I invite you to humble yourself before God and allow God to mend your way to a healthy future in your wounded relationships - and in all your wounds created by pride and vanity.
In the end, this remarkable story which begins and ends in the fifth chapter of II Kings, will not be lost. I could retell this story until I pulverize it. But, rather than that, I invite you to hear Jesus' words about Namaan in Luke 4:27, "There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Namaan, the Syrian." His money did not heal him. His power did not heal him. His accomplishments did not heal him. What healed him was his desire for being well, his risk in reaching out, his foolishness in stretching beyond his own ability to get the job done, and most clearly, God healed him. Yes, whether you believe it or not, it was the power of God to heal that washed and cleansed Namaan. Jesus knew this and named it. He recognized a provocative story and he wouldn't let the people of Nazareth, nor anyone of us forget it either.
Quite simply, in the end, it is faith that brings people to God. And it is God who brings hope and healing to people. Not money. Not wealth. Not power. Not connections. Not intelligence. Just God. Amen.
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