Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 3, 2016
2 Kings 5:1-14 Commentary
Nearly everyone needs some kind of healing. It may be from physical or mental illness. Or perhaps it’s from haunted memories or grief. Yet while God’s people know to look to God for that healing, we don’t always get to choose its method. So we may not always particularly like the way God chooses to heal us.
Namaan is the commander of the Syrian army that his boss likes a lot. He’s also highly decorated for bravery in battle. In fact, Namaan is somehow so special that God has even helped him win his country’s battles. So he’s the kind of powerful person to whom you need to pay attention if you’re going to get anywhere in his Middle East. However, mighty Namaan also has even mightier leprosy. After all, diseases don’t pay much attention to their victims’ status or character. Sickness, with a few notable exceptions, is an equal opportunity tormentor.
So people may assume Namaan is so “great” that no one can ever touch him. Now, however, no one will touch him because they consider him unclean. Israel quarantined for seven days anyone with his disease that wasn’t properly treated. So Namaan, a foreigner who leads Israel’s nemesis’s army, is about as much of an outsider to Israel as you can get.
Nearly everyone feels leprous, marginalized from at least one group they’d desperately like to be a part of. So most people we teach and preach to can probably understand why Namaan, whom disease has shoved on to society’s margins, is so desperate for healing.
It’s the kind of desperation that sometimes pushes people to searches for unconventional solutions to serious problems. It drives some people onto the black market in search of medicines our society doesn’t sanction. It’s the kind of desperation that sometimes drives lonely people to marry abusers and materially poor people to take out rash loans.
Perhaps Namaan has even visited every quack and tried every herbal remedy his country has to offer. Yet since none of it has worked, he desperately turns to one of his wife’s slaves. This Israelite is, says Barbara Lundblad, as “small as Namaan is big.” She’s as weak as he is powerful. Yet the young Israelite has connections. She insists she knows someone who can cure leprosy.
When Syria’s king gives mighty Namaan permission to chase his desperation, the stricken soldier heads straight for his wife’s slave’s home country. But he doesn’t go to the home of the prophet who the slave had insisted could heal him. Namaan travels, instead, to Israel’s king’s palace. It’s almost as if you were bleeding to death but went to city hall instead of the hospital.
Apparently Namaan can’t imagine anything but a political solution to his disease. Where, after all, do people naturally turn for solutions to our problems? Toward powerful people and things. Sick people want the best doctors, hospitals and medicine that money can buy.
Sometimes, however, money can’t buy health. Sometimes, in fact, not even the most powerful people and things can heal people. Israel’s king can’t heal Namaan. In fact, he can’t even understand why an enemy soldier would show up in his throne room with all those gifts in the first place. He assumes Namaan’s just there to somehow make trouble.
Yet just like the desperate Syrian, Israel’s king doesn’t seem to think about turning to a prophet like Elijah. Thankfully, then, Elisha somehow hears about the incident anyway. “Why’d you go and do a silly thing like tear your fancy new clothes?” he asks the stressed king in verse 8. “Send Namaan to me so that I can show him where help really comes from.”
Israel has a fairly powerful king. That, however, doesn’t really help the monarch very much, since he has about as much power over leprosy as people have over gravity. So the sick Syrian soldier needs entirely different power.
When Namaan desperately turns to Elisha, he does so with another display of his might. That, however, doesn’t impress the prophet very much. Namaan had hoped the miracle worker would actually reach out and heal him. Elisha, however, doesn’t even to the door to greet him.
Maybe Namaan hoped Elisha would wave his hand over his rotting flesh or dispense some powerful medicine. The prophet, however, merely dispenses some advice. Perhaps Namaan hoped he could ride straight back home a new man. Elisha instead, however, sends him to take a bath in the Jordan River.
Doctors are supposed to call in prescriptions or perform surgery to make us better. Prophets are supposed to say some prayers or wave their hands to heal sick people. When Elisha does none of that, Namaan is furious. He assumes the prophet is just trying to make him look silly.
Namaan wants an elaborate spectacle that’s appropriate for such a mighty military hero. The soldier doesn’t yet understand that a far different might is at work here. So while Elisha remains silent and aloof, Namaan storms off in a huff like a child whose mom has told can’t have a cookie right before supper.
Yet while the Israelite prophet remains silent, the Syrian’s aides don’t. For the third time in our text, servants, whom their bosses expected to see and not hear, speak up. “Boss,” they plead, “If that quack had told you to do something challenging, you’d have done it in a heartbeat. So why not do this easy, little thing? Who knows? It might just work!”
We don’t know what changes raging Namaan’s mind. The text merely reports that he plunges seven times into the muddy Jordan, just as the elusive prophet’s messenger had told him. And, just as Elisha’s servant had also promised, Namaan comes up sparkling clean. God makes his body look like that of a young boy who’s just taken a shower. A healed and ritually clean Namaan may even look a bit like the young slave who’d first pointed him to Elisha.
The memory of this healing would later infuriate Jesus’ contemporaries. After all, while Namaan commanded the army of one of Israel’s most persistent and brutal enemies, God chose to heal him while apparently neglecting, similarly stricken Israelites. We don’t just, after all, always get to choose how God heals. You and I also don’t even get to choose whom God heals.
We sometimes wonder why bad things happen to good people. But do we ever wonder why good things happen to bad people? Why God, for instance, let someone like Osama bin-Laden live into old age, while letting people martyr young Christian missionaries like Jim Elliot? We worship a gracious God who treats us not in the way we naturally deserve but, instead, according to God’s sometimes mysterious kindness. Whether that’s good or bad news probably depends on just how we think of ourselves.
It was hard for Namaan to do the simple thing God required for his healing. He wanted something bold and dramatic, not a bath in Jordan’s murky waters. When we break bones or disease strikes us, it’s not easy to let God just do God’s work. We want something big. When someone breaks our hearts or bruises our souls, it’s not easy just to let God do God’s work. We want something bold.
It’s not easy to wait for healing. After all, we’re used to microwaved meals, instant oatmeal and digital cameras that show us our pictures instantaneously. Sometimes God heals in equally quick, dramatic ways. Doctors surgically remove malignancies. God has even used what we sometimes call “faith-healers” to dramatically heal people.
Sometimes, perhaps often, however, God chooses to work far more quietly. God uses a medicine to slowly lift depression. God uses a prescription to heal strep throat. God uses therapy to lighten heavy burdens. Yet whether it’s splashy or subtle, sudden or gradual, it’s God who gives all healing.
All of us also love big and bold stories of spiritual healing. People who have been Christians all our known lives, in fact, sometimes envy people who can point to the exact day and time God made them Christians. Sometimes, however, God simply works slowly and quietly through godly people to draw those who struggle to the Lord. Some conversions even seem messy and gradual, more like seven dips in the Jordan than a miraculous transformation.
So 2 Kings 5’s preachers and teachers may want to invite hearers to, like Namaan’s servants, stay with those who need spiritual healing. Like the Israelite slave girl, we also look for ways to point those who need it to the living God. Only God, after all, can heal any of us.
Glenn Tinder was raised according to the standards of Christian Science. He writes about his experiences in an article entitled, “Birth of a Troubled Conscience,” in the April 26, 1999 issue of Christianity Today.
Tinder insists Christian Science is nowhere near Christianity. It’s not even centered on healing, either, or on the achievement of health. What Christian Science says is that there simply isn’t any sickness. It’s an illusion. We’re all healthy.
Christian Science goes on to deny the existence of all evil, sin and fallenness. “They retain the crucifix, but without any point to it,” says Tinder. “We have never been lost.” To the main question, “How can there be evil in a world created by a good and omnipotent God? Mary Baker Eddy ‘answered, simply, that there can’t and therefore isn’t.’”
This, writes Tinder, “takes a lot of nerve. And causes bad consequences.” It “teaches you to avert your eyes from your own sin, and from your Savior. Teaches you to avert your eyes from the ‘troubles’ borne by others. Never ask, ‘Are you feeling better?’ for this implies that someone might actually have been suffering.’” No heartfelt expressions of shared grief or even of sympathy.
“This does not mean that no attention is paid to others. It means rather that those who are ill, bereaved, depressed, or in any other way afflicted are subjected to a silent process of reconstruction. They are seen as not ill, not bereaved, not depressed. This of course means simply that they are not seen.”
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