SERMON –For St. Mary’s Anglican, July 3,2022
TEXTS: II Kings 5:1-15a, Psalm 30, Galatians 6: 7-16 & Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Opening prayer: Let the words of my mouth…
Intro: At a time when the news headlines tells us about the horrors of the war in Ukraine, the death of a group of 50 or so Mexican people trying to enter the USA in a large truck, the terror of mass shootings, the suffering of those caught in the internal conflict in Sudan and other parts of Africa and the difficulties faced by families in Canada who are struggling with inflationary prices or with family who have overdosed on opiods – at such a time as this, you might ask yourself as I have “where is God?” “Is there a God in this world who still heals the broken hearted, rescues the desperate, brings forth justice or executes righteous?”
There were those in Northern Israel at the time of Elijah and Elisha that appeared to have no answer to that question either: they didn’t seem to know that there was a God in Israel and that He was the God above all other gods.During this period in Israel’s history, spirituality was at a low point and faithfulness to the God of heaven had dropped off sharply. You might remember in the Old Testament Lesson a few weeks back that Elijah was in despair about the nation and wondered if there were any that still worshipped the true God.
Our text from II Kings this morning that Andrew read for us earlier, gives an answer to that question. Today’s OT lesson reveals the truth about God’s presence and power but ironically, this answer does not come from the King of Israel or even a leading official in the King’s court. It comes through a couple of unlikely sources. So let’s dive into the story as it is told in II Kings 5.
The story we have begins in Aram, an unlikely location to hear about a God in Israel as it is a neighbouring country adjacent and to the North of Northern Israel or Samaria, as it is often called in II Kings. The time of this story is approximately 150 years after King David ruled all of Israel and 850 years before Jesus was born. The main character in the story is Naaman who serves the King of Aram and is obviously not an Israelite. He does not worship the God of Israel and in fact at the beginning of this story doesn’t even know about that God. So what is he doing in this story and what is his story?
Well, here it is: Naaman was a prominent army commander. The text makes it clear that he was in a high position and even calls him great; it says thathe had high favor with his King (the King of Aram) and even states that God has used him to give the King victory. This phrase is a little unusual as God isprimarily spoken of, in the Old Testament, as being with the people and the nation of Israel – He gives them victory or he doesn’t, He works His will through the Kings of Israel and Judah or He doesn’t and He reveals Himself to his people through the prophets within their society. But the storyteller already lets us knowthat God is interested in this foreigner, this man Naaman; that something important needs to be revealed through him: i.e. that God in fact is involved in what goes on in Aram even when He is not recognized. That Naaman, or Aram would be the focus of this story is the first of several ironic or unexpected details in this story.
Despite being an army commander and a highly favored one by his own King and despite having such a position of power and access to wealth, Naaman has a problem that even he cannot solve. Naaman has leprosy, a skin disease which at that time was thought to be virtually incurable. This is the second of the unlikely or ironic details in this story: a strong, virulent, army commander in a foreign country is helpless because of a physical ailment.
The irony continues because a suggestion as to healing for Naaman comes from the lowliest of figures, the servant girl of Naaman’s wife who in fact is a captive from the nation of Israel, perhaps captured in one of the very raids conducted by Naaman as a commander in the Aramean army. She is probably a young girl or young woman, a foreigner and a slave who works in Naaman’s home as his wife’s servant.
The story has placed her in contrast to Naaman and placed her decidedly lower on the social ladder and lower in power – she has no power to even control her own life. And yet, she has both the knowledge and the courage to make this astounding statement: “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” Clearly this young girl, or young woman, has compassion for her foreign master and clearly she knows (a) that there is a prophet in Israel/Samaria and (b) that this prophet is able to help in situations that are otherwise considered helpless such as leprosy. She knows this – keep that in mind because later we run into someone who should know this but doesn’t.
Well, it is one thing to have a servant girl speak up and make a suggestion as to her master’s situation – it is another thing for the master, in this case an army commander, to listen. Perhaps he is at a complete loss and totally discouraged and therefore is ready to listen to anything that offers even a small measure of hope or perhaps he is actually a fairly sensitive man and not so full of himself as to ignore a suggestion, even when it comes from an unlikely source. Whatever the reason, Naaman goes to his own master, the king of Aram and relays the servant girl’s message and his King urges him to go and find help for his condition.
I don’t know if it is for comic relief but at this point the story includes what I would call some bureaucratic bumbling: The King of Aram sends a letter to the King of Israel asking him to cure his commander Naaman. This is NOT the person that the servant girl suggested would help her master – she had said the “prophet” in Samaria but the Kind of Aram or his bureaucratic officials got it wrong and obviously so did Naaman because he takes his expensive gifts, his letter from his King and leads his entourage to the King of Israel.
But then it gets really interesting because when the King of Israel reads the letter he tears his clothes – they seem to do that a lot in the Bible when they are really upset over something, it goes along with putting on sack cloths and throwing ashes on your head. It is a sign of sorrow, grief and in this case perhaps frustration. The king says, “Am I God, to give life or death to cure this man of his leprosy?” He has that part right – he is not God and God is in fact the one who has the power of life and death. But, and this is very interesting, what he does NOT know, which the servant girl back in Aram knows, is that there is a prophet in his country who deals with exactly these kinds of things. In fact you wonder if he even believes that the Lord God is anywhere in Israel. Instead of a reasoned and humble approach we find him somewhat paranoid and helpless: it’s a plot he thinks, a provocation by the King of Aram, maybe a trap.
Fortunately for both the King of Israel and for Naaman, Elisha, the prophet the young servant girl had in mind back in Aram, hears the story and chides his own king for tearing his clothes – “let Naaman come to me”, Elisha says and then adds this particularly poignant phrase, “so that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” And by ‘he’ he means Naaman, so that Naaman may learn that there is a prophet in Israel but what is implied, I think, is that this is also something the King of Israel himself needs to learn – he doesn’t know what the servant girl knows, despite being the King of Israel and having the stories of God’s power and presence as part of his nation’s history; he is just as much in the dark as the king of Aram and his bureaucrats.
And now that we have the man with leprosy, Naaman, heading off to the person who can help him. We might expect the story to be straightforward from this point on and that we would have a clear demonstration of the fact that there is a God in Israel. Naaman thinks so too – he thinks the prophet will come out, pay him the respect he feels he is due as an army commander and heal him with his power. But no such direct demonstration of God’s presence and power follows. Much to Naaman’s chagrin, Elisha simply sends his servant out to Naaman with this instruction: “Go wash 7 times in the river Jordan and your flesh will be restored!”
Yeah right thinks Naaman – are you kidding me? And soon he moves from being incredulous to being furious. “Here you are”, Naaman thinks, “a simpleliving ‘holy man’ who is touted to be one who can cure people of leprosy and I, an army commander have now come to you and you don’t even come out to greet me and pay me respect? All you do is send out a servant to go and tell me to wash in a dirty old river? There are nicer rivers in my home country!” And off he goes in a huff, well actually the text say he goes away ‘in a rage’, he is furious.
Well we might think the story ends here and so it would if not for another set of people who are generally not in places of power. I am talking about Naaman’sservants. They speak up at this point and remind their master that it might just be worth a try. “After all”, they say, “if the prophet had asked you to dosomething really hard, you probably would have done it so why not try this simple thing – it can’t hurt.”
Once again we are surprised at Naaman, he listens to his servants, rethinks his position and in humility, accepts their suggestion and with even greaterhumility, goes down to the River of Jordan and washes himself 7 times. I can imagine him thinking how foolish he must look and how, if this does not work out, he will never be able to tell anyone about the huge joke that was played on him and the way he was humiliated in Israel. This is so stupid.
And so he went down to the river – apparently Jordan is not known to be the cleanest of Rivers – and he washed himself once – no change, then twice, still no change. And after each washing he looked at his skin and still saw the tell-tale marks of leprosy. But then the miracle happened, after he washed for the 7th time –he looked and with astonishment saw that his leprosy was gone and his skin renewed. Naaman had experienced God work in his own life and on his own skin. God had shown up on the banks of the Jordan River, to an army commander from a foreign nation. This foreigner had gone at the prompting of his wife’s servant. And in the most unlikely of methods, he had been healed.
In other words, the answer to the question “where is God?” had come through this unlikely way and through a series of unlikely people. And listen to what Naaman says when he is healed: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel…” It was something that the king of Aram did not know and it was something that even the King of Israel did not know! But the servant girl knew, and Elisha knew and now Naaman, the great army commander knows as well!
This week I listened to an episode of Tapestry, a CBC Radio broadcast hosted by Mary Hynes in which she talks to Ivan Rusyn, the President of the Evangelical Seminary in Kiev, Ukraine. Earlier in the war the Seminary building was hit by a shell from Russia’s army. It blew out most of the windows and badly damaged part of the building. It also changed Rev. Rusyn’s focus and the nature of the Seminary because they started to do much more practical theology: the students and faculty began to distribute food to those who were hiding, they visited others who were frightened and very much alone, they talked to people who were very afraid, wounded and who had lost loved ones. They also went to Bucha where they saw the results of the war in what we would call the atrocities of war which are being investigated as war crimes or crimes against humanity.
If there is a location and a real life human experience where one might legitimately ask “where is God?” this is one of them. If there is a person who you would think could not answer this question, it might well be Ivan Rusyn who has seen the horrors of war and the suffering of his fellow Ukrainians.
But instead, from this most unlikely individual I heard words of hope, of belief in God’s presence and a conviction that God is there in the suffering and the pain. I heard him say that he senses God’s presence in what seems like silence. I heard him say that he cannot give definitive answers as to all the suffering, or proclaim easy forgiveness of the enemies or the correct response to war but he can and he did say that God is very much present there with him and his students as they live out the gospel to the suffering all around them. What he was saying through his words and his actions is this: there is a God, even in Ukraine.
So we might well be asking ourselves, is there a God in this world? And I would suggest to you that the answer is “Yes” but that He is just as likely to show up in unlikely places and in unlikely people: we would do well to pay attention. Amen