Monday, May 21, 2012

The Significance of the Simple (2 Kings 5:1-14): Remix

I preached the following sermon yesterday, May 20, at Central Christian Church in Kettering, OH, at the invitation of a friend and colleague, who is also a member. They are a Disciples of Christ congregation and it was my first time to worship with them. Also, this was my very first time to preach in a Sunday morning worship service of any kind. I was very blessed to get to do so, even though I had a short time to prepare. What follows is a significantly re-worked version of the message I gave several weeks ago at Holy Trinity Parish in Dayton. The text and theme are the same, but I've shaved off several pages and, I think, made the main idea more pointed. Feel free to offer your comments and/or criticisms.

The Significance of the Simple: 2 Kings 5:1-14

There’s a commercial on TV right now that I’ve seen a few times for Rosetta Stone. You’ve probably heard of it. Rosetta Stone is a language instruction software that has, according to their website, helped millions of people all over the world learn another language. The Rosetta Stone commercial that’s running right now has one particular testimony that really gets to me. A twenty-something blonde man smiles at the camera and says: “I love it when I dream in French.” Now, I have nothing against Rosetta Stone. I’m sure it’s a great program. But, I highly doubt that computer software alone, used in the privacy of your home, can so immerse you in the French language that you actually dream in French. Maybe you can—I don’t know. But, the power of that selling point for Rosetta Stone is undeniable. People know if you are dreaming in French, then you think in French. To dream in French means that the language has literally transformed your mind: you now think and dream and see the world through French.

I would argue that becoming a part of the Christian faith is similar to learning a language. There are many things that have to be learned once you become a disciple of Jesus. And, it’s not enough just to learn the stories of the Bible, the words of our worship songs, or the Lord’s Prayer. Like when you’re learning French, you actually need a total transformation of the mind. When this happens, you will see the world in light of the Gospel, think according to the Gospel, and even dream in terms of the Gospel. Unfortunately, there’s no Rosetta Stone software for “putting on the mind of Christ.” This is something that takes a lifetime for a disciple to learn. But, my message this morning is meant to use the story of Naaman the Aramean to encourage us to view the world differently. By the time I’m done, I hope that we will all feel compelled to seek a transformation of our minds so that we will see everything in light of this truth: God is revealed through simple people and simple actions.

As we encounter the story of Naaman’s healing, the first thing I want us to observe is the way God uses simple people. At first it would seem that the most important people in the story are Naaman and Elisha. Naaman is the commander of Aram’s armies and his name means “delightful or gracious,” which shows that he was highly favored. In spite of this, he has a serious skin disorder, translated “leprosy.” This “leprosy” isn’t necessarily the same leprosy that we know of today, but apparently it was bad enough for him to travel all the way to Israel for help. Elisha is God’s prophet in Israel. Elisha is the disciple of Elijah, who took his master’s place as prophet to Israel after Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind. The book of 2 Kings is filled with the stories of Elisha’s mighty works.

Naaman and Elisha are the obvious major players in the story. But, I want to call attention to the fact that the people who are truly responsible for moving the action along, the people who are key to ensuring that God’s power is revealed in this particular moment are the three nameless servants: (1) the young girl from Israel who serves Naaman’s wife, (2) the messenger of Elisha, and (3) the servants of Naaman.

First, there is the “young girl from Israel,” who appears in verse 2. Apparently, she was taken captive when a band of Aramean raiders plundered an Israelite town on the border between the nations. And, now, she serves as the personal attendant for Naaman’s wife. It’s remarkable that this young girl, violently removed from her family and forced to serve her captor’s wife, then offers counsel that will provide healing for the man responsible for her situation. And, it is also remarkable that Naaman listens to her. The word of the “young girl from Israel” is what Naaman takes to his master, the King of Aram, and it is upon her testimony that both men plan for Naaman’s trip to Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom.

So, the King of Aram sends Naaman to the King of Israel so that he may seek healing. The text says that Naaman carries with him “ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing” (v. 5) as payment for the services of Israel’s prophet. For those of you who are interested, that is the equivalent of 755 pounds of silver and 150 pounds of gold, plus ten sets of ornate, hand-made clothing. He really wants this healing!

The King of Israel responds to Naaman’s gifts and request with great distress because he thinks that the King of Aram is looking for a pretext for war. Luckily, Elisha somehow gets word of the king’s despair and sends a message with an implicit rebuke in v. 8: “Why have you torn your clothes? Send Naaman to me. I’ll show him that there is a true prophet of God in Israel.”

This is where the second simple person in the story appears: the “messenger” of Elisha, who shows up in verse 10. Naaman approaches the home of Elisha in a way you might expect from a self-important, military leader at this time: with great pomp and circumstance. I can just imagine him assembling his “horses and chariots” (v. 9), primping and pruning, awaiting the arrival of God’s prophet who will “ooooh” and “aaaaah” dutifully over him and his entourage. But that’s not what happens. Elisha sends Naaman a “messenger,” instead, most likely a young apprentice. And, he delivers the directions for Naaman’s cure: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean” (v. 10).

Naaman isn’t pleased with this turn of events. He of all people should be able to get an audience with Israel’s world-renowned prophet! But, instead, he gets a little pipsqueak, messenger boy. The text tells us that Naaman “became angry and went away,” and in stark honesty he confesses: “I thought that for me he would surely come out…” Naaman admits that he thought his level of importance demanded an in-person demonstration of the prophet’s power. But, that’s not how it works this time. Elisha doesn’t even bother showing up. He just sends a simple boy to tell the army commander to go jump in a river. And, Naaman, thoroughly convinced of his own importance, turns away in “a rage.”

This is where nameless servants appear for a third time: in v. 13. In contrast to Naaman’s sputtering pride, his servants offer humble and wise counsel: “Father [which was a term of respect for a superior], if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” The wisdom of this counsel is so convincing that Naaman responds immediately: “So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean” (v. 14). Notice that without the intervention of his servants, Naaman’s arrogance would have prevented him from receiving God’s healing.

So, what we have seen in this story is that God uses simple people to do his work: the young Israelite servant girl, the messenger of Elisha, and the servants of Naaman. Where one would expect, along with Naaman, that God’s prophet or even royalty to be the agents of change, what we have instead is the nameless servants moving the action along. It is their humble faithfulness that provides the opportunity for God’s power to be revealed.

I think a part of us knows this truth about the Gospel and the Christian life. It was a central message of Jesus, of course: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” “The greatest in the Kingdom of God is the servant of all.” Which of us is really going to deny this? But, even so, I don’t think many of us could say that this has really changed the way we view the world. With our mouths we say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but in our mind we think, “Blessed are the successful and important.” With our mouths we say, “The greatest in the Kingdom must be the servant of all,” but in our mind we think, “The greatest in the Kingdom are those that have the most, give the most, and do the most.” Our minds need a major transformation, so that we can see the people in God’s world in the same way God sees them: as persons capable of experiencing God’s Kingdom and revealing God’s ways.

The second thing I want us to observe in the story of Naaman’s healing is this: God calls us to simple actions. What Elisha’s messenger tells Naaman to do is a very simple thing. “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored” (v. 10). But, Naaman finds this instruction insulting. He responds: “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?” His point is clear: “Did I really come all this way to be told to take a bath in your piddly little river?”

Now, if you think about it, Naaman’s expectation of an awe-inspiring work of God isn’t entirely misplaced. We know that the God of Israel is capable of jaw-dropping miracles, right? Moses met God in a burning bush and parted the Red Sea. The children of Israel were fed manna and quail from heaven in the wilderness. The walls of Jericho fell to the ground with the shouts of Joshua’s armies. So, why can’t Elisha produce a fantastic, show-stopping miracle for Naaman, when he is so important and has come such a long way?

Here, Naaman learns what we all must learn at one time or another: The miraculous is not within our control. God does not answer to us. As we seek to serve God faithfully, we must accept the fact that most of the time, in most circumstances, God calls us to simple actions. While the fantastic stories of God’s power are what we remember most vividly from the Scriptures, most of God’s people throughout most of history have exercised their faith in the midst of the mundane acts of everyday life: cooking breakfast, cleaning house, gardening, a walk to the store. God is present and revealed in all of these ordinary moments.

If you think about it, even the rituals of the Christian community are rather ordinary and unremarkable. God has chosen simple things to reveal his grace in the New Covenant. They are basic elements used in basic ways: immersion in water and consuming bits of bread and wine. We wash with water regularly (or most of us do!). And, we eat food regularly. But, in the New Covenant, Jesus told us to take these simple things and use them in simple ways, trusting that in these moments God’s presence is with us in a unique way.

So, as we have seen in Naaman’s story, God uses simple people and God calls us to simple actions. But, this emphasis on the simple, the marginalized, the nameless, and the outsider is not limited to this one story in the Old Testament. In fact, the whole of Scripture is filled with the evidence that God is revealed through simple people and simple actions.

Of course, the central place where we see this is in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. This is the heart of the Christian faith and the reason why we are seeking a transformation of our minds today. When Jesus appeared on the stage of world history he proclaimed that the healing power of God’s Kingdom had now decisively broken into creation. The gospel announced that the power of God to renew the entire world was now present in Jesus by the Spirit. This liberating power was demonstrated in Jesus’ life and deeds, and explained by his words. By his death on the cross he battled the power of evil and gained the decisive victory. In his resurrection he entered as “the firstborn among many” into the resurrection life of the new creation. And, before his ascension, he commissioned his followers to continue his mission of making the Gospel known until he returned. He now reigns in power at the right hand of God over all creation and by his Spirit is making known his comprehensive rule through His people as they embody and proclaim the good news.

That’s us! We are the ones making known Christ’s rule through our bodies, our actions, and our words. We are the ones Paul spoke of in our New Testament reading for today: not many wise, not many influential, not many of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise and the weak things of this world to shame the strong. This is so that the one who boasts must boast in the Lord (1 Cor 1:26-31).

On the one hand, we can be comforted by this truth because many of us need assurance that we matter and what we do matters in the Kingdom of God. Although many people speak of life in terms of sacred things and secular things—holy things and worldly things—the Christian faith doesn’t allow for this kind of divide. The eternal wisdom of God has become incarnate in human flesh. The divine has been united with the earthly. This reality infuses all of life with the presence of God. Every good thing can now manifest God’s power. Simple people and simple things are now the places where God can be revealed and honored.

At the same time that we are comforted by this truth, we can also be confronted by it. Many of us may need rebuke for the ways that our approach to the world doesn’t match what God has said. Perhaps we despise the simple routines and humble works of daily life. Perhaps we overlook people we think are unimportant or unable to benefit us in a tangible way. We need to be reminded that because the whole world is alive with God’s presence, now everything and everyone matters. The boy who happily sacks your groceries, the woman at the dry cleaners who irons your shirts with a scowl, the teenage girl chattering on her cell phone in line behind you. These people are like Naaman’s servant girl and Elisha’s messenger boy. They are not only the recipients of God’s love but also all of them are capable of working in God’s story so that God is revealed and glorified.

Before we close, I think there is a way to vividly illustrate the kind of mental transformation that is required of us. Think with me for a few moments about the way we as American Christians tell our story. The events of September 11, 2001 changed the world, as we know it. We hear this all the time, don’t we? I don’t think there’s a person today, who wouldn’t agree with this in some way. The events of 9/11 are so powerful for our imaginations that many people now mark time as pre- and post-9/11. I don’t necessarily have a beef with this practice. Certainly, the world did change, especially for the U.S. But, as one Christian thinker has pointed out, what Christians—all Christians around the world—proclaim is that the world really changed in 33 AD—following the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we are going to mark time as Christians and frame our lives with an event, surely it must be THIS event—-Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh. Surely it is the incarnation of Christ, and not 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination or World War II or any other event in history that should be THE DEFINING STORY for our Christian minds. Just as most Americans today look back to 9/11 and say, “That’s why I see the world differently,” Christians should be looking back to 33 AD, saying: “No, THAT'S why I see the world differently.”

What does this have to do with the healing of Naaman the Aramean? If what we saw in 2 Kings is true and God is revealed through simple people and simple actions, especially in the person of Jesus Christ, then we need a radical change of mind—a transformation of our imagination—in light of this truth. Because, in the end, there really are no simple things. If God has been joined to the world in Christ and through him the Kingdom of God has come near, then what we call simple people and simple actions are really the tools of God’s work. The question is whether we have the eyes to see and ears to hear what is happening all around us. If the incarnation of Christ is the center point of our lives and the lens through which we view the world, then it will change our minds and alter our imaginations. To do this, we need to shed our prejudices and embrace the world as God says it is. Let us be a people defined by the story of God becoming human. Because, it is this story that elevates simple people like us—like Naaman’s servant and Elisha’s messenger—to participate in the Kingdom of God.

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