Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
A reading from the Gospel according to Frank Sinatra:
For what is a man? What has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels,
And not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way
Thus sangeth the Chairman of the Board.
Sinatra sang these words, of course, many centuries after the time of Naaman, commander of the Syrian army, and Elisha, the prophet of God. The evidence suggests, however, that Naaman was a man who followed a similar philosophy.
Naaman, we are told, “was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the Lord had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor.” But Naaman didn’t get everything his way. He was afflicted with the painful, inconvenient, and unsightly disease of leprosy. Even so, he was a man of action, so when he heard through his wife’s servant girl that there might be hope for him to be cured, Naaman jumped on the opportunity just as he had so often made bold, effective decisions on the battlefield—decisions that had brought success to him, his army, and his king and country.
Naaman took his information about the prophet in Samaria to his king, who was all too happy to support his favored general. Whether something was lost in communication, or that it was simply assumed that prophets in Israel were beholden to the king there, the Syrian king agreed to help Naaman seek a cure by sending a letter of introduction along with him.
Off went Naaman, bearing his king’s letter, accompanied by an entourage equipped with horses and chariots, and supplied with a large gift with which to seek the favor of the king of Israel. Upon his arrival in Israel, though, the letter didn’t go over well, to put it mildly. It seemed as though the king of Syria was putting the king of Israel into an impossible situation, possibly as a pretext for picking a fight between their two countries. The letter was asking that Naaman be cured of leprosy, and the burden of this request was being dropped in the lap of the king of Israel.
Imagine his consternation at such a request. Picture yourself confronted with a request from someone with whom you don’t have the best of relationships, asking that you do something seemingly impossible. A request that you fix the national debt, for example. A request that you solve the drought situation in Central Texas. A request that eliminate traffic jams on Interstate 35.
It’s no wonder, then, that the king of Israel tore his clothes as a sign of his anger and woe. He knew he didn’t have the capability of healing Naaman. He was being put in a “no win” situation. He even acknowledges, in his own words, that such a task could only be accomplished by God, the Lord and Master of life itself.
Word of the matter reached Elisha, who is described in the text as a ‘man of God.’ He doesn’t quite laugh out loud at the king’s predicament, but his message to the king carries a heavy dose of nonchalance. “What’s the big deal?” Elisha seems to imply. “This isn’t anything to get upset about. Send this Syrian general to me, and he’ll learn that God is with us here in Israel.” If it weren’t for the fact that we know from prior biblical accounts that God has done great things through Elisha, the prophet’s words would sound arrogant. But they aren’t words of pride; they are words of faith and confidence.
Happy to be let off the hook, the king sends Naaman to Elisha’s house, where he and his group are left waiting outside. Elisha doesn’t even come to the door to greet Naaman, a high-level dignitary, or to offer his directions for a cure. He sends a messenger instead, with instructions for Naaman to wash in the Jordan River seven times to be healed of his leprosy, to have his flesh restored, and to be made clean.
Now, I’ve read some Bible commentaries about this episode, and many of their authors spend a lot of time explaining how Elisha didn’t want to come to the door himself because he didn’t want to be exposed to the leper and be made ceremonially unclean under the Law of Moses. I can understand and respect their reasoning for Elisha remaining inside, and it makes perfect, practical sense to me. But I think there’s another, more theological explanation, which I’ll get to in just a bit.
Regardless of the reason, though, Naaman takes notice of Elisha’s behavior, and also takes great offense at what has happened and what he has been told. He storms off, full of anger and frustration.
The deeper issue for Naaman here is not that he hasn’t gotten the cure for his leprosy that he so desperately wanted and hoped for. Rather, it’s that his position and accomplishments haven’t been acknowledged and respected. His expectations haven’t been met. His desires haven’t been catered to. In other words, Naaman didn’t get it “My Way.”
At the risk of using another Sinatra allusion: In other words, God’s solution wasn’t what Naaman was looking for. “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?”
Naaman wanted Elisha to do what Naaman wanted, and to do it where, and how, and with the words Naaman wanted. He had his expectations so firmly fixed that he even complained about what river he was to wash in. My, my… how very much we can be like Naaman when it comes to the actions of God toward us. But more on that later. Let’s get back to the issue of Elisha not coming out of the house to meet Naaman.
As I said, those scholars who say that Elisha didn’t come out because he didn’t want to become unclean by being in the presence of Naaman the leper have valid arguments. According to the Law, any Israelite who had been with a leper had to go through a strict regimen of cleansing rituals in order to be restored to the fellowship of the community.
But let’s look for a Gospel reason, not a Law reason. Perhaps Elisha sent a messenger to Naaman not out of concern for himself, but out of concern for Naaman. If Elisha had done what Naaman expected, with a dramatic wave of his hands and shouts to the Lord, Naaman might have been cleansed, but he also might have wrongly concluded that there was something in the actions of Elisha that had accomplished his healing.
But the way Elisha conveyed the cure to Naaman wasn’t dramatic at all. He was merely to trust in the words God had conveyed to him through His spokesman, the prophet. That is, Naaman had to have faith that what was promised to him would indeed take place: “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” Naaman stomped off at first, rejecting Elisha’s message because it wasn’t dramatic enough for him; it didn’t cater to his sensibilities; it didn’t make him the center of attention in the climax of his healing.
Fortunately for Naaman, his servants didn’t throw in the towel and stomp off with him, back to Syria. Instead, they prevailed upon him to consider that Elisha’s words—strange and unexpected as they may have been—could be powerful and effective. “It is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
That is, “Maybe you should consider that these simple words and the actions the prophet recommends are nevertheless powerful, because they come from a man of God. What have you got to lose, dear general? You’re already doomed to live out your life with leprosy, anyway. You might as well give this simple solution a chance.” In the end, Naaman finally bowed to trust and try the Word of God, “according to the word of the man of God,” the text says, and he was healed of his disease.
So, why should you, sophisticated and accomplished as you are here in the 21st century, care about the story of a Syrian general who lived 29 centuries ago? What possible connections could you have? What relevance is there to your life? Well, probably more than you realize, and far more than you’d be willing to admit. Read through the text with an open mind and with honest reflection on yourself, and you just might find your inner Naaman.
Though you might not command an army, I suspect that there are many times you are considered a great man or woman with your master, and in high favor. That’s because—more often than not—your master is your own ego. We are all given to think way too highly of ourselves far too much of the time.
We also not apt to realize or acknowledge that all our successes and blessings in life, whether they be Naaman’s victories as a commander or our little accomplishments and conquests day-by-day, are given to us by God. Nothing happens apart from His will, and while we might use our talents and our intellect and our energy toward achieving these things, these abilities all originate in God’s gracious providence, what we consider His First Article gifts of creation.
Failing that realization and that acknowledgement, however, like Naaman, we fall into the habit of questioning and even rejecting what God has revealed to us through His prophets. We want Him to do things our way; we want to experience the spectacular, the dramatic, the impressive. We aren’t satisfied with the simple yet profound mysteries by which He has chosen to show Himself to us.
Most of all, though, we are little Naamans because we suffer our whole lives with a debilitating disease. It might not be as outwardly visible and as patently offensive to others as what his leprosy might have been, but it is far more harmful, more dangerous, and more deadly. Your body and mind and soul are rotted through and through with the disease of sin, and its foul, detestable stench might not be noticed by other mortals, but it has reached the nostrils of your God, and it is not an aroma that is pleasing to the Lord.
What’s worse, no matter how flowery and eloquent the letters you might bear from earthly authorities that tout your accomplishments and ask for action on your behalf, they will carry no weight before the King of heaven and earth. You can bring your talents of silver and your shekels of gold, but if they are given in order to secure favor or with the intent to buy what you want from the recipient, they will be worthless.
You can stand outside the prophet’s house for as long as you want, hoping for a change in your circumstances, too, but in the end only hearing the prophet’s words and trusting in God’s promises will avail you of relief.
You finally have to ask yourself, “What is it about the gracious words and promises of God that make me resist it so? Why do I think they are too simple, too easy, too unspectacular? Why do I convince myself, over and over, that I don’t really need His help, His comfort, His assurance day after day, week after week?” The answer of course, is that our doubts have been brought on by the same attributes and factors that have led to our diseased predicament: We are sinful, through and through; we’d rather fall victim to the temptations of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh; we’d rather attempt to be proud and mighty men and women of valor and notoriety than to humble ourselves and surrender ourselves to God’s simple solutions.
But know this: No matter how many enemies you’ve slain, how many battles you’ve won, how high you’ve climbed in the hierarchy of your organization, who thinks highly of you, and no matter how many treasures you’ve accumulated, you can’t cure yourself on account of your accomplishments. You can rage at the Lord and be angry with His prophets; you can complain all you want about wanting a different solution or having a better, more logical answer yourself. It doesn’t really matter.
The prophet has spoken to you a great word, and you should listen. Will you not do it? Will you not accept what the Lord has revealed to you? It’s a simple matter, really. Wash not seven times in the Jordan, but one time in the font, for the words of Jesus are just that powerful. Repent of your sins—all of them, not just the ones you wish you could rid of while keeping those you enjoy—and be forgiven. Take the simple answer in the simple meal: Bread and wine; body and blood. Given for you; shed for your sins.
The Lord has not stayed safely in the house and sent word only through His messenger, though. God has come down from a heavenly throne that is infinitely more powerful than that of Syria or Israel. He has set aside His honor and favor to humble Himself and be counted among sinners. He is the mighty man of valor who has taken the rotten stench of your leprosy of sin into His very own flesh, and nailed it to His cross.
In His death, you have found favor with the higher King. In His life and resurrection, you are joined to him by the death of your sinful flesh in baptism. Arise, then, from your love of the Abana and the Pharpar; leave the Damascus of death, and flee from the Syria of sin.
Come instead to the Jordan, where your Savior has sanctified the waters for all time. Enter the new and heavenly Jerusalem, where there is no darkness or disease, for Christ has made all things light and new. Join with all who have been baptized into the people of the new Israel, where God’s prophets proclaim to you the forgiveness of your sins and the healing of your spirit. You have been made clean through the blood of Jesus, and not only has your flesh been restored, but your soul as well. It is a great word the prophet has spoken to you, indeed!
In the holy name of Jesus, Amen.