2 Kings 5:1-14; Luke 10:1-11, 16-24
God’s power is among us. It doesn’t take any special ordination, though that is a beautiful expression of the coming of the Spirit. It doesn’t take any special degrees, family heritage, maturity, or youth. God is simply among us, with all the power of grace and healing. There is nothing we can do about it, but occasionally recognize it.
And here’s the catch – recognizing God’s power among us takes giving up our own power, presumptions and privilege. It means downward mobility. Sometimes a little humiliation. Another time, it takes a little suffering. Jesus said it – take up your cross – but it wasn’t new to him.
One of the reasons I love to read the Old Testament is that all the stuff Jesus taught is also in there. We just aren’t as familiar with it, so it can surprise us, catch us off-guard. Today’s story is one of those.
Naaman was an army commander in the nation of Aram, modern Syria, several thousand years ago, back in the time when Syria was Israel’s powerful, dominant oppressor to the north. He was a famous warrior. I find myself wondering if he was a little like Ragnar Lothbrok, of the History Channel’s, “Vikings” series. Strong, wily, smug, irreverent to any but his own gods and family. But a man of substance who one could not ignore. For some reason, I have previously thought of Naaman as a wizened old leader, headed for retirement. Already a bit of a sage and open to the lessons of life. But there is nothing to indicate this. More likely, he was in the prime of life, fetching of the ardor of everyone, even his young slave girl. Definitely more like prime-of-life, powerful, flawed and wise Ragnar. No broken warrior headed for retirement. This was his odyssey of descent, his wake-up call to his own humanity.
Here’s the blow which struck him down: “The man, though a powerful warrior, was a leper” (2 Kings 5:1b). This Hebrew word, m’zora’, most likely does not refer to what we know as Hansen’s disease, an extremely debilitating condition. There is no record of this disease in any human records until many centuries later. More likely, It is a painful and unsightly disease of the skin that may include what we would name psoriasis or eczema, conditions that cause flaking of the skin and discoloration of the hair. Eczema and psoriasis are common among us today. We probably all know someone who lives with one of these conditions. It is annoying and uncomfortable, but not life-threatening. So what was the big deal?
In Israel, any skin disease would make a person unclean, and unfit for worship. Since the holiness code also applied to warriors, it would have removed him from eligibility as a commander. We don’t know if these same restrictions would have been true for the surrounding nations. But when I think of Naaman as Ragnar Lothbrok, there is something else. The warrior was proud. Body appearance was important. Scars, okay. But skin disease, no way! It would hide the beautiful muscles, warrior markings and tattoos, the animal ferocity. Fighting was often done bare-chested, exposed. In the Viking wars, the most confident even shed their shields as a sign of strength. Naaman’s skin disease would have been a humiliation, another humiliation.
But something moved the heart of a slave girl. Captured in a raid, and forced to attend to the general’s wife, she courageously informs her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet in Samaria! That man would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5:3). From a slave comes the path to healing. The height of his desperation is indicated by his willingness to expose his ailing body even to his vanquished enemy, Israel. And he will make the trip on the word of the slave girl! How humiliating is that!
Taking the word of a slave, and a girl. Entrusting his body to the conquered enemy. A double humiliation.
Naaman sets in motions the processes of ancient channels of diplomacy. He asks his king to write a letter of introduction to the king of Samaria, the northern kingdom of Israel, to smooth his way. Letter in hand, Naaman prepares to depart, assembling a vast caravan of silver and gold and festal garments, stacked on numerous carts, guarded by a dozen of his finest soldiers.
Whether intentional or not, the king doesn’t mention Elisha in the letter. He could make his appeal sound like a threat – heal my commander, or else! At least that is exactly how the king of Samaria received the request. The king saw this as practically a declaration of war and tore his clothes in grief and despair.
These are the early days of the work of Elisha. Elijah has only recently been taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Elisha is an unknown. Before the days of radio and television, it took a very long time for a person’s fame to spread. It does not appear that the king knows about the Elisha the servant girl knew. So Elisha contacts the king and simply says, “send him to me.”
Elisha, in this story, seems to be the opposite of the chest-thumping warrior type of Naaman and Ragnar Lothbrok. He never even shows up in person. He may have reason, as his appearance has made him a subject of ridicule since he was first anointed by Elijah. No long beautiful thick hair like Saul; rather Elisha is jeered for his baldness. It would be so fascinating to have photos of these ancients! But Elisha was clearly not an imposing, warrior-type figure. His power was solely in his presence with God. There was nothing in his appearance to recommend him. Perhaps this is why he doesn’t even show his face to Naaman.
Instead of Elisha, an unnamed messenger steps from the house and announces to Naaman and his entourage, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored and you will be clean” (2 Kings 5:10). Then he turns and heads back through the door. Naaman is enraged! “Does this so-called prophet not know who I am,” he fumes? (So like Ragnar!) He should come out with magic robes whipping in the wind, wave his arms about, calling on the name of his God, point at my skin and cure the leprosy. But the Jordan? We have just passed through that muddy creek. There are fabulous, rushing clear streams in our own land that make the Jordan look pathetic! I will not stand here and be treated like this. We are not amused! We are going home! Another humiliating step in Naaman’s new-found downward mobility was to be completely unacknowledged.
But we aren’t done yet with unlikely voices from the bottom of society. Now some of Naaman’s servants (not the soldiers) suggest to their leader that if the messenger had asked Naaman to do a great deed, like killing a dragon or pushing a boulder up a hill, he would have done it, thinking that a cure can only come through life-threatening trials. How much more should he do this simple thing, dipping his body into the Jordan? The general again lets go, listens to a servant, takes his Jordan bath, and comes out clean as a baby (2 Kings 5:13-14).
Three times in this story servants have delivered the powerful truth, the healing power. So also in the Luke story. Jesus sends out seventy two messengers to be his emissaries in the cities he will visit, to prepare the way. But they aren’t just making hotel reservations. They are doing the work Jesus brings wherever he goes. They preach and heal. Their presence IS the kingdom of God. But they remain servants, lowly, new at this.
Naaman’s story connects with me this week. It is easy to take the Naaman-warrior-Ragnar path. It is recognized and respected in this world. But the way of Jesus is the small way, the way of the servant, the way of letting go. Power and control mean nothing in the kingdom of God.
God’s power is among us. And it is all God’s. It is not our power, dressed up in religious garb. It just isn’t our power. Period. Amen. Whenever we think we have a good plan, whenever we think we have a good reputation, whenever we think we have built a strong program, it is nothing. We will never bring God’s kingdom. We will never bring God’s kingdom to Portland, to Mt. Tabor, to our congregation. We can’t do it. Like Naaman could not heal himself. And he could only receive healing when he let go of his power.
But there is grace. Naaman was healed. God’s power was made known. How? By letting go. At each step of the journey, Naaman experienced humiliation (yes, I know that is a strong word, but I think it is exactly the right word). In the eyes of his peers, he was humiliated. He had to let go of his chest-thumping strength and become obedient. Not just obedient – that is still something we can do. He had to do the foolish thing and dip himself finally in the muddy, silty, smelly water of the Jordan – be covered with muck and silt. But out of the mess came the power of God.
This is a very personal story for me. As I prepare to go on sabbatical, I have had to face my desire to keep control of what happens here while I am gone. But now is a point in my life when I must let go. The good news is that out of the surprising low places and people, out of the muck of the Jordan comes healing, newness like a newborn baby. The power of God is among us. Always has been, always will be. That is enough. So let go. It is okay. That is what this story and the Word of God tells us over and over again. We don’t need power. God doesn’t need our power. God just wants us to give us our lives. And that is enough. For God’s power is among us.
This is why we celebrate when we gather, Jesus’ death. He had to let go of all the warrior ego and get down in the muck and suffering to find life. And he leads the way for us….