A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church,Winston-Salem, Nc., on February 12, 2012.
2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; Mark 1:40-45
To this day very few Americans, including President Obama, know which Navy Seal ended the life of Osama bin Ladin in a daring raid last year. To their credit, the Seals opted to remain focused on their team rather than any one individual.
But imagine we did know the identity of the soldier responsible for bin Ladin’s death. That soldier would be an instant military hero, revered and celebrated wherever he went in America. He would hold a status similar to a military commander named Naaman who served in modern-day Syria many centuries ago.
Naaman, whose name (ironically) means “pleasant”, or “lovely in appearance”, was commander of the army of the king of Aram…a great man in high favor with his master because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram over all manner of enemies, including Israel. Naaman received the red-carpet treatment wherever he went. You didn’t mess around with Naaman.
Naaman did have one chink in his armor, however. He suffered from leprosy. Scholars debate whether Naaman actually had what today we call Hansen’s disease, or if his was another kind of skin malady. Whatever Naaman had, it was not the kind of leprosy that forced him to remain quarantined with other lepers, since he moved about freely. Still, it was a serious disease that disfigured his appearance, humiliated his ego, and quite possibly threatened his life.
For all his fame and fortune, Naaman could find no cure for his leprosy. Meanwhile, a young, Jewish slave girl captured during a raid of Israel casually remarked to her mistress, Naaman’s wife, that she knew a prophet back home who could cure her master’s illness if only her master would pay him a visit. Normally, Naaman would pay no attention to what a slave girl said. Like most powerful men of his day, he related primarily to other powerful men.
But Naaman was desperate to be healed. So he approached his king and asked for permission to travel to Israel. The king of Aram not only granted Naaman his leave, but wrote a letter of introduction to the king of Israel, and donated from his own treasury a considerable sum of money and gifts—perhaps worth 4.5 million in modern American dollars—to finance the needed therapy for Naaman’s cure.
Naaman traveled with his impressive entourage of servants and gifts roughly 100 miles to the court of the king of Israel. This was no small journey. Naaman was traveling well out of his comfort zone into unknown territory where he was not well-known, and more importantly, not in control. When Naaman arrived at the king’s palace and the king read the letter asking him to heal Naaman, he had a panic attack. The king of Israel knew he couldn’t heal Naaman or anybody else, and he concluded that the king of Aram was trying to provoke a war.
Notice that neither king is even named in this story, and for good reason. They were both clueless. The king of Aram addressed his letter to the wrong person, and it never occurred to the king of Israel to call upon the man who was famous in Israel for performing miraculous healings, namely the prophet Elisha.
Elisha heard about his fearful king’s reaction. Irritated, Elisha sent word to the king to chill out and send Naaman to him, so “he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”
So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance to Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying “Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”
That’s simple enough. You’d think a man who suffered with leprosy for years would dance for joy and dive into the Jordan.
Not so, not even close.
Naaman became angry and went away saying, ‘I thought that for me (Elisha) 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 (emphasis mine)!” Naaman’s rant continued. He wasn’t about to lower himself into in the muddy Jordan River when he could have bathed in the beautiful clear rivers back home.
Yes, Naaman wanted to be healed, but on his terms, according to his preconceived plans and protocols and preferences.
But Elisha would have none of it. Elisha refused to even meet Naaman, much less take his money. And Naaman and his wounded ego would have returned home still infected with leprosy had his lowly servants not intervened. “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
Something about that comment pierced Naaman’s pride. Notice the precise wording that describes what happened next.
So (Naaman) went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
Amazing! The progression of leprosy was not only stopped by this “immersion therapy.” Naaman’s skin was instantly restored so that it was as smooth as a baby’s. And…he was clean inside and out. All because this high and mighty man was willing “to go down”…in more ways than one.
All three of our scripture passages today deal with healing. Naaman is healed of his leprosy. The Psalmist (probably King David) is healed of a life-threatening disease. And another leper, this one unnamed, is healed of his leprosy. All three scriptures make it clear that ours is a God who can heal, and wants to heal us physically and otherwise.
But as I reflected on all three passages this week, I saw something else that has not always been so clear, at least to me—our healing depends upon our humility.
Naaman had an ego that wouldn’t quit. And his haughty ego almost cost him his healing. And imagine the pride of King David, generally regarded as the greatest king ever to lead Israel. By his own admission, David assumed before his illness that he was “too big to fail.”
As for me, I said in my prosperity,
“I shall never be moved.”
David learned through his illness that he was not immune to misfortune, and he could be taken down like everybody else. So with one foot in the grave this proud king got down on his knees and prayed with desperation,
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!
O Lord, be my helper!
God in his mercy restored David to newness of life. And turned his mourning into dancing.
Apparently, the unnamed leper mentioned in Mark 1 never suffered from such delusions of grandeur. Evidently he contracted the kind of leprosy that demanded you stay away from other people because leprosy was so contagious. The disease ravaged his flesh, and the social isolation ravaged his soul.
Noticed how this man approached Jesus—begging and kneeling. Breaking all the rules of protocol, this desperate, unclean man approached the only truly clean man ever to live and said, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus (also breaking all the rules of protocol) stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
Compared to Naaman and David, this man was a nobody. But he was humble in heart, and healed by a Jesus who was deeply moved by his humility of spirit.
Friends, we serve a God who can heal us in body and spirit. But we may need to venture out of your comfort zone to be healed. More than likely our healing will not come on our terms or timetable. We can’t buy it with money, or control it with our will. We can humbly ask for it from a God whose prerogative it is to touch and heal us not because we deserve it, but because he loves us.
The same is true of our church. As we attempt to discern what God wants for our future, we are called to give up all our delusions of grandeur, our prideful attempts to fix ourselves out of our own storehouse of wisdom. We need to be humble enough to say,
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to us!
O Lord, be our helper!
And in his own time, in his own way, he will.