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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

2006-02-12 2Ki 05 01-14 Do We Make Faith Harder Than It Has to Be?

2 Kings 5:1-14

Do We Make Faith Harder Than It Has to Be?
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Sunday, February 12, 2006

1 Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram... (dot, dot, dot).

If you are God's chosen people, and someone has conquered you, taken your women as slaves and annexed your booty, you're very limited in how you can interepret current events. Because if God is all-powerful, and if you're God's favorite, and if you've been defeated -- either you were wrong about God -- or God was wrong about you. It's very simple.

Now, this is the fix that the people of Israel are in, back in, around 850BC. They were defeated, but they were faithful. They would never admit they were wrong about God. So the only alternative is that God was wrong about them. God had obviously found a new favorite -- a temp -- in an Aramean general named Naaman. General Naaman was given victory -- by God -- over the Israelites. The Arameans weren't very particular about whose God gave them victory, they were just glad to come out on top. (Sounds a little like SEC football.) The Arameans won, so God likes them better. It's very simple.

Naaman was a valiant soldier, but (dot, dot, dot) he had leprosy.

Politically and medically correct commentators are quick to point out that back in those days "leprosy" meant a wide variety of skin diseases. Could have been psoriasis or vitilligo (like Michael Jackson). Could have been acne. Could have been huge, oozing boils. We don't know. Whatever the skin disease may actually have been didn't really matter to the Israelites. The Israelites weren't very particular about skin ailments, they just lumped them all under the heading, "leprosy."

Leprosy meant more than a disease. It meant you were "unclean." If you were declared unclean by the priest, you had to be cleaned, which usually meant taking a ritual bath and bringing the priest an animal to sacrifice. But if that didn't work, you became an outcast. In the case of persistent leprosy, your tent was burned and you had to live outside the community. No friends. No means of income. No worship. God, through the priest, had tried to save you, but you just weren't savable. And since the faithful were never wrong about God, God had to be wrong about you. So, God, through the rules of civilized society, cut you off from God's kingdom. You had your chance. You messed up. It's very simple.

Now, at this point, those of us who have had acne, or poison ivy, or chicken pox, or shingles might be saying, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Something is not right." We may have felt like the disease was a curse from God, but come on. We know better. God may have chosen an unclean Aramean to doubly teach the Israelites a lesson, but just because a foreign soldier had a disease doesn't mean he's condemnable. You might be thinking, "Hey, wait a minute. It's not that simple." And you know what? You'd be right.

"Now bands from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman's wife. 3 She said to her mistress, "If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.""

At this point in the story, the second half, things really start getting all messed up. Unclean Aramean generals weren't supposed to be messengers of God. But he was. Israelite slave girls sympathetic to their foreign captors really weren't supposed to be prophetic. But she was.

So, Naaman listens to his wife (another small miracle of God), and goes to the King, and the King says, "By all means, go! Here, take some bags of silver, and some gold, and ten sets of clothing to the Israelite king, the one we humiliated last season. See if he can get you cured."

Naaman goes, with the gold and silver and ten sets of clothes. He meets with the king of Israel, whose kingdom has been radically downsized, and the king freaks out. "I'm not God! I can't cure anyone of leprosy." And the king starts tearing his own clothes in fear and frustration.

When Elisha the prophet of God hears what's happened, he sends him a letter. "Why have you torn your clothes?" (An interesting way to put it.) "Send Naaman to me, and I'll take care of him."

So the king sends Naaman to Elisha. Elisha is busy in the house, so he sends his secretary out with a message for Naaman. "Go bathe seven times in the river Jordan." At which, Naaman says, "What? That's it? He sends his secretary to tell me to go wash in his country's nasty river?" Well, yes, Naaman. That IS it. It's that simple. And again, it's not the great general or the great prophet who gets the big line. It's Naaman's servants, his slaves, who speak God's word. "Lord, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, 'Wash and be cleansed'!"

So Naaman does. And he is. It really IS that simple.

But here's the problem. None of the "It's that simple's" in the second half of the story match with the "It's so simple's" in the first. If it's so simple to determine who's in and who's out of God's kingdom, if it's so simple to see who's good and who's bad, why is it, then, that the people who look like they're outside of God's circle of friends, the people who look like the bad guys, turn out to both be the prophets and the recipients of God's grace? What seemed so simple got massively mixed up. Who's side is God on, anyway?

Boy, if this was a question two-thousand eight-hundred-and-fifty years ago, don't we know it's even more an issue today. I'm 44. We're raising two daughters. Believe me, I want to be able to say, "This is right and that is wrong. Here it is in plain black and white. These people are good, and those people are evil -- stay away from them, especially if they're boys." Is our problem the same as Naaman's -- who thought, "God's healing can't be that easy," -- is our problem the same as Naaman's? Do we make faith harder than it has to be? Can't we just agree to say, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it"?

No. No, we can't. Surely, all of us have things we can say, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it," to. But the problem is, as soon as we've settled it in our own minds, along comes somebody else who's settled it in his or her own mind. And the "It's that simple's" to us don't match with the "It's so simple's" of that other person, who also claims to be acting on the word of God.

It would really be great -- for all of us -- if these problems that have plagued humankind for 2850 years could be solved in one sermon. Unfortunately, the Bible, in the story of Naaman, doesn't give us solutions. Instead, it puts the problem right back in our laps. How DO we get along with our enemies? How DO we treat people who've humiliated us? How ARE we made clean, whole? Do we make faith harder than it has to be? Or do we make faith too simple? Too simple for a God who uses unclean Arameans as well as faithful, church-goers? It really would be so great if we could figure it all out and hand it to the next generation and say, "Here you go. All the answers of faith, tied up with a bow." But what the Bible seems more to tell us, lo, through these stories of the centuries is that each generation has to figure these things out for themselves. Each of us has to wrestle with these questions, trying, as best we can, not to make things overly complicated or overly simplistic.

There is one answer, I think, that does come from this story of kings and servants and prophets. One answer that particularly applies to us in our 21st Century United States. It doesn't take much looking around the world to see that we live like kings. We live like people on whom God has smiled. Like the King of Aram, we have the silver and gold and clothing to buy miracles. And like the King of Israel, we have the fear of being challenged beyond our means. What if, all the power in the world can't solve the world's problems? What will our power -- and our fears -- mean then? If you look closely at the Bible in this story, it does show very clearly NOT who the good guys and the bad guys are -- It shows who the guys and gals who listen to God's word are. Not the kings. Time and again, it's the servants, it's the slaves, it's the people whose lives have been torn and plopped into obedience -- who hear the word of God. Not even Elisha the great prophet speaks the great words in this story. Nor the kings. Nor the generals. Read in 21st Century USA, the story of Naaman becomes less healing, and more a cautionary tale. Go ahead, it says, and live like kings. Go ahead, it says, and argue like warriors. But look at what healing, what grace you're missing when you do.

The simple black and white of good and bad gets complicated when you add one little, almost unnoticeable ingredient. Mercy. Through the servants -- through the slaves -- through the shepherds -- through Jesus Christ, God adds mercy to the mix. And mixes everything up. Do we make faith harder than it has to be? Or do we make it impossible by making it too simple? I wish we could ask Naaman, after he arose from those healing waters. I wish we could ask him, after he gazed down at his smooth, clean hands. What do you think he would say?