Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 7, 2019
2 Kings 5:1-14 Commentary
This story has more interesting characters than a novel by Charles Dickens—stormin’ Naaman, commander of the Syrian army, this brave little girl kidnapped from Israel and enslaved, the clueless King of Israel, the greedy Gehazi, and, of course, the unflappable prophet Elisha. It’s a seemingly straightforward story about a little girl, a muddy river, and a clean general. But it’s not that simple. In fact, it’s not just an interesting old story; it has a powerful message for us in our world today.
What does it have to do with us? Well, there are a number of possible points of contact. It is obviously a story of healing; in fact, I once used this story as the biblical center of a service of prayer for healing. Which naturally raises the question, does God still heal this way? We could use this story to bring a message of hope for our sick ones.
Or, we could preach a message of encouragement about how God uses little things to do great things. This little slave girl is an instrument in God’s hands. She calmly speaks for God, while the King of Israel is panic stricken by political possibilities. And the muddy Jordan River is used by God to wash a filthy man clean. God can work his salvation in unusual ways. So don’t despise God‘s unconventional means of salvation, like a rugged Roman cross.
Or, we could emphasize the importance of humility. Naaman almost let his personal and national pride keep him from being cleansed and converted. “I am a big man who deserves personal attention from the prophet. Why doesn’t the prophet come out and wave his hands and call on his God, and put on a show for someone like me? And why should a big deal like me wash in this muddy trickle of a river when we have much cleaner and more majestic rivers back home.” We could talk about how “pride goeth before the fall,” and how it can keep us from accepting God’s grace.
All of that would be true to the story and helpful, but it’s not really what the story is about. We get a clue to the deeper and more important message of the story in Elisha’s rebuke of Gehazi’s greed in verse 26. Gehazi has sneaked off to get a bit of the loot Naaman had offered to Elisha as a reward for the miracle, which Elisha refused. When Elisha catches Gehazi red handed, he says, “Is this the time to take money, or to accept clothes, olive groves…?”
There is something ominous in those words, “Is this the time?” What time is Elisha talking about? Well, it was a time of national decline led by wicked kings. That’s what I and II Kings are all about. These books trace the long slow descent of a nation into ruin and exile because its people are wicked and its kings are worse. In the middle of that moral and spiritual decline are these stories of Elijah and Elisha, prophets sent by God to rescue a sinking nation.
These two books were written on the other side of disaster, when Israel had been dragged into Exile. When disaster strikes, people always ask, how did this happen? Why did this happen? Who’s to blame? When those two Boeing 737 Maxx 8 planes crashed last winter, everyone was asking those questions? Was it pilot error? Was it faulty equipment? Who’s to blame? That’s why these historical books were written—to explain to Israel how the disaster of losing their homes and land and temple and national identity could have happened. Was it God’s fault? Where was God when everything collapsed in our personal and national lives?
I have lived through the reigns of over a dozen “kings” in American history, from President Truman to President Trump. I’ve seen how we whipsaw from one party to another. I hear Democrats blasting our current Republican President and I remember how Republicans blasted President Obama. Both sides say that the country is in trouble, in a long slow slide into disaster. And it’s always the other side’s fault, increasingly so. Political tension and intrigue dominate the news media and, thus, the minds of God’s people. This fascinating biblical story helps us to answer those big questions. How did this happen? How did we get here? Why are we in this trouble? Who’s to blame? And what about God?
That last question is the key one. That’s what this story is about—God in the life of a nation, indeed, in the history of all nations, and in the life of individuals, including those who are far from God. We hear that theme in the very first words of the story. We are introduced to a great man, a successful man, a pagan man who doesn’t know the true God of Israel at all. He is a Syrian, commander of an army that has harassed Israel for years. As he will say later, he was a worshipper of the Syrian god, Rimmon, which was another name for Baal, the god who competed with Yahweh for the allegiance of Israel. Finally, he has leprosy, the only disease that disqualified a person from worshipping God in his temple. He was as far from God as anyone could get. Like Israel in exile.
But, says that first verse, “through that unclean pagan the Lord had granted victory to Syria.” Wait! What? It gets more and more interesting, as God raised up a little girl prophet to point the great man to salvation. And the king of Israel hears the request for healing as nothing more than a political ploy to start a war, because to a king everything is about politics. When the mighty general pulls up to Elisha’s house with all the trappings of power, God heals the great man through the greasy green muddy Jordan River that has been central in Israel’s history. Finally, the general, whose skin is now as clean as a little boy’s skin, becomes a convert to Judaism, professing what every Jew knew. “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.” How politically incorrect! And how true to the Gospel!
That’s what the story is about—the God of Israel is in charge of even the nation that oppressed God’s people and that God can wash even the foulest sinner clean. The story begins and ends with God, and God is in every detail of the story, even when the characters don’t know it. It explains that the nation of Israel slid into disaster, in spite of the powerful ministry of Elijah and Elisha, because the people of Israel and their kings would not obey God as Naaman finally and reluctantly did. God could have delivered them; he had done it before. But all they could think about was politics and personal success. How can my side win? And which god must I serve to get ahead? No wonder Elisha asks, “Is this the time to take money or to accept clothing, or olive groves vineyards, flocks, herds, or servants?”
This story is not a rebuke to political involvement or to personal prosperity. It’s a political world and we should pay attention to power and how it is best used. And we do have to be responsible about finances and how money is best used. This is a story about trusting and obeying God in the midst of those worldly concerns, about trusting God rather than our party, about prioritizing God rather than our portfolio. It is about who is in charge and how we can be saved.
God is in charge of the destiny of all nations, and he can deliver us from any enemy no matter how desolate our condition. It’s not about Trump or Biden, Republican or Democrat, Russia or China or England or the USA. It’s about the one true God of Israel who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, and who became a Jew named Jesus.
That incarnate God can cleanse you, no matter how unclean you may have become, like Naaman, and however far from God you may have fallen, like Israel in Exile. The God who used a little girl and a muddy river and a clean general to intervene in the decline of a nation can use the blood of his Son to wash us whiter than snow.
Here are a couple of New Testament passages that put the message of this story in specifically Christ centered ways. In Ephesians 1:20-23, Paul is talking about the almighty power of God “which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realm, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”
It doesn’t look like that’s true in the world today, but there is a place where the reign of Christ is crystal clear. It’s described in the book of Revelation chapter 7. “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” The writer of Revelation asks one of the Elders standing next to the throne, “Who are these in white robes?” “These are those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Whether you are a little girl serving humbly in a hard place or a great person enjoying the trappings of power and success, whether you live by a muddy river or the majestic shores of Lake Michigan, whether you are a firm believer in the one true God or you barely know his name, whether you are dirty sinner or a spotless saint, a Republican or a Democrat, an American or a Canadian, in exile from God or as close to God as you can be, remember the message of this straightforward but not simple story. “Now I know that there is no God in all the world, except in Israel.” And Jesus Christ is his Son, my Savior and the Lord of all.
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