Here’s my confession: I had planned to tell you all about Augustine today. About his life in the fourth and fifth centuries. About how his theology led to many of the church’s doctrines, both good and bad, that we believe today. I was going to tell you about how his first religion was Manichaeism, a very intellectual belief system, but how God found him and showed him how much Augustine needed him to pull him out of immorality and into life in Christ.
I was going to tell you about his Confessions. His book in which he outlined every sin he could remember committing. I was going to tell about his mistress, the birth of their son, and why he chose to be a priest instead of marrying her.
But, as I read the scripture this week, it captured my imagination and Elisha and Naaman came alive and showed how God is desperate to heal the world, desperate to heal our lives if we will let him.
In the story that you’re about to hear, Naaman is a warrior, full of himself and full of power. But God is going to turn his life upside down, going to show him how much he needs God to pull him out of immorality and into life in God. Read the Word of God.
2 Kings 5
This is an interesting story for us because the main character for this section of the Second Book of Kings is supposed to be Elisha. He is the prophet of Israel who has taken over for Elijah. Elisha/Elijah. Their names are really similar and, actually, their personalities are pretty similar also. They’re cranky old men. Their names couldn’t be more confusing verbally, but this story should be very straightforward as to who the main character is, but Elisha barely shows up. This becomes Naaman’s story and he breaks in with the entitlement found in powerful and privileged man.
If we have read all of 2 Kings, we can know immediately that cranky Elisha is not going to like the way Naaman breaks in and expects a certain kind of treatment. We can know that he will hate is entitlement. We know this because of what we just heard happened back in 2 Kings, chapter 2. We may have heard this story before and thought that the preacher was joking, thought that a story like this couldn’t be happening in our Bible.
It’s the story of when a group of children saw Elisha walking around and said to him, “Get out of here, baldy!” Or, as other versions say, “Go away, you old baldhead!” Elisha has only moments earlier lost his mentor and best friend, Elijah, who God had taken into heaven on a chariot of fire – So, upset, Elisha hears, “Go away, you old baldhead!” and is having none of it.
He turns around, stares at the kids, and curses them. And, at that moment, two bears come out of the wilderness and attack the kids, killing 42 of them.
I always had to worry about this story growing up, because I would mercilessly annoy my dad for being bald. He’d be napping in his easy chair, watching the television through his eyelids, and I would sneak up behind him and poke him in the bald spot.
But his curse for me was not that I would be attacked by bears; his curse was that I would be bald like him. Unlike the immediate arrival of the bears in our story today, we’re still waiting for the curse of baldness to hit. We’re still waiting.
This story of the bears serves as a proof of power. We know from 1 Kings that Elijah was powerful because of his deeds. We know that God saw him as powerful and important because he took him from the earth, without dying, at the beginning of 2 Kings. But, until this story of, frankly, overreacting – it’s a story of overreacting to hurt feelings – we don’t know that Elisha is powerful as well. We just know that he was a disciple. Because of this story of the bears, we now know about his God-given power.
But, not everyone knows about Elisha yet. We find Naaman of Aram-Damascus, a powerful warrior, who is afflicted by illness. He suffered with leprosy. Scholars will be the first to tell you that it is hard to nail down exactly what the Bible means when it uses the word leprosy.
It could mean a lot of things: Sometimes it means something as simple as extreme dandruff or eczema. Other times it means something as serious as the disease we now call Hansen’s disease. We know about that one from the horror stories in which people who suffer from it can have pieces of skin or even full limbs fall off.
That version of the disease is why there were leper colonies and exile. But Naaman was not in a colony – he was fighting alongside everyone else. For Naaman, we’re not sure what it means. It could be that his condition was a bit worse than dandruff but not as bad as Hansen’s disease.
But Naaman doesn’t know a few things too. He doesn’t about YHWH and he doesn’t know about Elisha. It takes a little girl to tell him about it. She, this young one, has been stolen from her home. This was probably from a previous battle between Israel and Aram-Damascus. She was the spoils of war and now she was a slave. One day she’s musing about Naaman’s condition, saying, “If only my master could meet the man in Samaria, the prophet. If he could, he would be healed.”
Maybe she had heard the stories of his power. Maybe she had heard how just a small, unfortunately, placed curse by him, had killed 42 kids. Maybe she had known those boys. But, whatever her reason for knowing, she knew that power, true power, was to be found with the servant of God.
So often we look for power in all the wrong places. Sam Walton, the billionaire owner of Walmart, was known for driving a red-and-white, 1979 Ford F-150 pickup, even though he was one of the nation’s richest and most influential men. If someone were to visit the corporate headquarters, he was more likely to be mistaken for the custodian than he was to be mistaken for the CEO.
That’s almost exactly what happens when Naaman goes to Israel. He comes in like a BMOC – big man on campus. He’s got an entourage. He’s got money. He’s got a letter of commendation from his king. And he goes straight to… the king. Wait… why? Why would he go to the king?
Supposedly, he’s listening to the young girl, his slave, about the one who can heal him. But he hasn’t listened well. He goes, not to Elisha, the one with the power to heal him, he goes to the king with a letter, which reads, “With this letter, I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
The king is afraid as he reads this letter. Remember, these from Aram-Damascus have fought them before, taking away their daughters as the spoils of war. If the king can’t heal Naaman, do they come back and destroy Israel?
Neither king nor Naaman can imagine that someone like Elisha could solve the problem; they can’t imagine that Elisha, being given power from God could heal. He doesn’t look like one with power. He doesn’t have an entourage. He doesn’t have money. He doesn’t have the influence of a king. He’s just an old baldhead that wanders around and children taunt.
But Elisha hears about Naaman’s visit and sends for him. But, when Naaman arrives, he is treated in a way that he is not used to. Naaman is a big deal. He expects Elisha to bow down to him and to show him respect and Elisha doesn’t even leave his house to greet him. He sends his assistant to tell Naaman to go and wash in the Jordan seven times and he will be healed.
Naaman hates everything about this. Is Elisha making fun of him? First, the prophet (who is so obviously beneath Naaman) won’t even come out of his home. I wonder if Naaman is used to some of this treatment because people are afraid that they might get his disease. Many times lepers have been ostracised. So, Naaman may be a bit sensitive. Second, he hates that a servant has been sent to speak to a master. How rude! That’s just not done. Third, is the prophet making fun of Naaman’s hometown and its waters? Is the Jordan clean, but his home is not?
He’s so angry that he turns away and refuses to wash as the prophet told him to. This powerful man is making a stupid mistake. His pride stands in the way of his healing. Naaman may be powerful, but he also has a powerful chip on his shoulder which makes it impossible to receive what God has for him.
Then a servant speaks. Naaman’s servant asks his master, “Would you have not done so much more than this if he had come out and told you to? Just try it.” It’s like he’s saying, “No promises, it may or may not work, but at least, after traveling miles and miles to see him, at least try what he says. Just try.”
Who’s been there before? There’s good advice in front of you, but your pride just keeps you from doing it.
Good advice falls on deaf ears when we aren’t open to hearing it, but thank God that Naaman listened to his servant, washed in the Jordan river, all seven times, and was healed.
The biggest irony of this story is that is never the powerful ones who are powerful. It’s never the wise ones who are wise.
The kings – neither one can heal. Naaman, the military leader, can do nothing for himself and makes bad decisions based on pride.
Over and over, it’s the servants who are powerful and wise, because God gave them inspiration and they listened.
But the small slave girl listened to God, and knew power when she saw it, and so she was wise. She shared that knowledge and that made her powerful. Elisha’s servant was given power over the situation and shared the news that if Naaman was obedient, and washed in the Jordan, then he would be healed, then he would see God’s power. Naaman’s servant was wise and gave good counsel, saying, “Just try it.”
When we listen to God, and share his message, we are wise and we share in God’s power.
Overwhelmingly God chooses people like these servants. God chooses an unmarried teenager from Israel to carry the salvation of the world in her womb. God chooses her illegitimate son to be the salvation of the world. God chooses us, in our weakness, and in our foolishness, to share the news that if we are obedient, then we will be healed.
When we listen to God and we share his message, we are wise and we are truly powerful. Not in the ways of Naaman or the governments or kingdoms of the world, we are wise and powerful in the way of our Lord, Christ Jesus.
And so, may we stop looking to kings and kingdoms for wisdom or power. May we stop looking for armies to be our power. May we, instead, look for that child to show us the way of true wisdom and true power, that is found only in him. And may we hear the still small voice of God calling us, in those same words of Naaman’s servant, “Just try it.” Just try to live in me and you will see true life.
Lord, God, may we see you working in the world and see the salvation that only you bring, through Christ our Lord. Amen.