2 Kgs 5:1-15
For anyone facing a serious illness for which no treatment seemed possible, it would be a difficult burden to bear. The future would seem to hold nothing more than the continuing challenge of living with the condition. Perhaps the illness even threatened death as it continued its course over time.
Yet, what if we learned that a treatment existed that offered the possibility of complete healing? Certainly, we would be extremely motivated to seek it out. No doubt, we would be willing to go wherever we needed in order to receive the treatment. We would be willing to go to a specialized hospital like the Mayo Clinic because the treatment offered the hope of healing and relief.
In our Old Testament lesson, we hear about a man who was in just such a situation. Our text begins by saying, “Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, 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 he was a leper.”
Our text describes events in the ninth century B.C. The nation of Israel had divided into the southern kingdom of Judah, and the northern kingdom which continued to be called Israel. During this time, the northern kingdom of Israel was regularly attacked by the nation of Syria. Syria had a powerful military force, and Naaman was a very successful commander. He must have been extremely talented, because he had gained this position in spite of the fact that he was a leper.
We learn that in one of the raids carried about by the Syrians into Israel, a little girl had been taken as a slave and now worked in the service of Naaman’s wife. The girl showed faith in God’s work through his prophet and a very caring heart because she said to Naaman’s wife, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
When Naaman learned about this he reported it to the king of Syria. The king wanted to help his valued leader, and so he sent Naaman with gifts of gold and silver to the king of Israel, along with a letter which said: “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
Now the king of Syria was operating on the basis of assumptions about how things worked. Normally, a man who had the reputation of being a healer was a servant and subject of the king. The king was the king, and he could order the man to do what the king wanted.
However, things were not this way in Israel. In this case, the “healer” was the prophet Elisha. In the Old Testament, one of the prophets’ main jobs was to tell the king that Yahweh was the true king. This was all the more challenging for the prophets in the northern kingdom because the kings there did not believe in Yahweh, and instead promoted the worship of false gods.
When the king of Israel received the letter, he was aghast and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” To the king of Israel, the case of Namaan was simply the king of Syria looking for an excuse to attack.
When Elisha heard about the king’s reaction, he sent this message: “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” The king of Israel may not believe in Yahweh. But Elisha would show Naaman that he was the prophet of the true God.
So Naaman traveled to Elisha. As a man of great power and importance, he showed up with quite an entourage of horses and chariots. However, Elisha didn’t even come out to meet Naaman. Instead, he sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”
Naaman wasn’t used to be treated this way. He was angry because Elisha had not done the kinds of things he expected. He said, “Behold, 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.” Instead, Elisha had told Naaman to go and wash in the Jordan River seven times. Now while the Jordan River holds a special place in our minds because of the role it has had in God’s actions, the river itself is nothing impressive. Elisha’s instructions seemed like an insult to Naaman and we learn that he went away in a rage.
Naaman reacted because Elisha, God’s prophet, didn’t do what he expected – what he wanted. It’s not hard to find our own experiences reflected here. We know what it is like when God doesn’t do what we want. We see it when we or family and friends experience illness and health problems. We see it when the situation in our family, or at our job, or at school is not going as we want. We see it when some other congregation extends a call and seeks to take our pastor away from us.
Our reaction to such circumstances is often run by the old Adam. We get frustrated with God. We may begin to doubt God. Perhaps, we get angry with God. These may seem to us to be justified and natural. But they are instead a failure to trust in God. They are all reactions that are run by sin.
Naaman was powerful man who was not used to being treated this way. But his servants sought to be the voice of reason. They came near and said to him, "My father, 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’?”
Convinced by his servants Naaman, went and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, just as Elisha had directed. We learn that when he had done this “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” The end of our text reports how Naaman returned to Elisha. The experience of God’s healing work had demonstrated the truth to Naaman, and he told Elisha, “from now on your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but Yahweh.”
After Moses, Elijah and his successor Elisha stand out in the Old Testament as the greatest of the prophets in the miracles they performed. But if their miracles were remarkable, what is narrated about them cannot even begin to compare to what Jesus Christ did during his ministry. As Matthew tells us about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.”
Jesus proclaimed the Gospel of the kingdom. He announced that the saving reign of God was present in him. During Epiphany we are seeing how Christ’s saving glory was revealed in his ministry. We see this in our Gospel lesson where, like Naaman, a leper comes to Jesus seeking healing. Jesus does the unthinkable. He touches the leper. To do so brought ritual uncleanness according to the Law given to Moses. But in Jesus something new had arrived that surpassed, and at the same time, fulfilled the Law. Rather than bringing uncleanness to Jesus, the touch of the Son of God brought healing to the leper.
In Deuteronomy chapter 18, Moses had promised, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers--it is to him you shall listen.” Jesus was that prophet like Moses. But he was far more than a prophet. As we saw during Christmas, he is the Son of God in the flesh. Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, Jesus is true God and true man.
The prophets performed miracles for God. But they also suffered as they spoke God’s word to kings. Jesus performed mightier miracles than any of the prophets as he revealed his glory. And his suffering carried a significance beyond that of any of them.
The Son of God entered into our world to bring God’s reign that defeats Satan, sin, and death. Yet just as Naaman was offended by the idea of washing in the Jordan, the way in which Jesus did this did not look glorious. Jesus came to win forgiveness by suffering and dying on the cross. He offered himself as the ransom in our place. Receiving the judgment we deserve Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But the greatest miracle – the most glorious action was yet to come. On the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead. This was not merely a return to life as Elijah had done for the son of the widow at Zarapheth, or as Elisha had done for the son of the Shunammite woman. It was not even like when Jesus raised the son of the widow at Nain. All of these individuals would one day die again.
Instead, Jesus’ resurrection was the beginning of the resurrection of the Last Day. His resurrection was the vindication of the crucified Christ. It showed that God had been working through Jesus’ death to give us salvation. And his resurrection was the defeat of death. Jesus rose with a body that can never die again. He ascended into heaven, and when he returns in glory on the Last Day he will raise and transform our bodies to be immortal like his own.
Our Lord gives us forgiveness and the assurance of resurrection. In fact, he has done so in a way that calls to mind Naaman’s washing in the Jordan by which he was cleansed. In the water of Holy Baptism, your sins were washed away. Though it was done just once, God has attached is promise to that washing. It remains, always ready to be grasped in faith. For when you believe God’s promise that your sins have been forgiven through baptism … they are. This is true not only of the sins you committed before your baptism, but of every sin, because Jesus Christ died and rose again to give you forgiveness for every sin.
And let us not forget that in baptism it was water that was poured on your body. Jesus Christ died and rose again to bring salvation to your whole person – body and soul. St. Paul tells us about baptism: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Your baptism is the guarantee that you will share in Christ’s resurrection on the Last Day.
Naaman was ready to leave angry because Elisha had not done what he expected. When we feel like this about the way God is doing things, we need to confess our failure to trust in God. Instead, we need to look at what God has done in the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. For in the cross God has revealed the depths of his love for us as he worked to give us salvation. And in the resurrection of Jesus Christ he has given us the hope of what awaits us – the day when all will be very good once again and we will never again know frustration, doubt, or anger.
In our baptism, we have forgiveness for our every failure to trust in God. We have assurance that our body will receive the resurrection that Jesus Christ has already begun. And as the source of the work of the Spirit in our life, we have the means by which God assists us to trust him each day as we look for Christ’ return on the Last Day.