Sermon - July 7, 2013 - "Unexpected Ends Through Unexpected Means" - 2 Kings 5:1-16, 19
"Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favour with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. 2Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’ 4So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 5And the king of Aram said, ‘Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.’
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 6He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’7When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.’
8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, ‘Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.’ 9So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’ 11But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, ‘I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’ He turned and went away in a rage. 13But his servants approached and said to him, ‘Father, 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”?’ 14So 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.
15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.’ 16But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!’ He urged him to accept, but he refused. 19And Elisha said to him, ‘Go in peace.’"
Blown by the Spirit… We Know Not Where
We hear the story of the holy wind at Pentecost,
Holy wind that dismantles what was,
Holy wind that evokes what is to be,
Holy wind that overrides barriers and causes communication,
Holy wind that signals your rule even among us.
We are dazzled, but then – reverting to type -
We wonder how to harness the wind,
how to manage the wind by our technology,
how to turn the wind to our usefulness,
how to make ourselves managers of the wind
Partly we do not believe such an odd tale
because we are not religious freaks;
Partly we resist such a story,
because it surges beyond our categories;
Partly we had imagined you to be more ordered and reliable than that.
So we listen, depart, and return to our ordered existence:
we depart with only a little curiosity
But not yielding;
we return to how it was before,
unconvinced but wistful,
slightly praying for wind,
craving for newness,
wishing to have it all available to us.
We pray toward the wind and wait, unconvinced but wistful.
Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People
The unexpected… it seems as though we have a deep love/hate relationship with the unexpected. In fact, that which makes the unexpected enjoyable are the very things which also lead us to try to keep anything unexpected from happening.
On the one hand, we love surprise parties. We thoroughly enjoy the wonderful announcements of upcoming joyous events. We hope for the moments when we are unexpectedly swept away by wonder and awe.
On the other hand, we hate it when things do not go as planned. We fear hearing the unpleasant news that we hoped would never be announced. We despise being shocked by events that catch us completely unprepared and off guard.
So understandably, we try to control events. We worry about what may be. We plan and plan and construct structures to contain and control anything that might happen – we make bulletins, schedules, and spreadsheets.
As theologian Walter Brueggemann wrote, “We wonder how to harness the wind, how to manage the wind by our technology, how to turn the wind to our usefulness, how to make ourselves managers of the wind” (Brueggemann). We return to our normal way of life; ordered…planned…predictable.
Yes, we have a deep love/hate relationship with the unexpected.
The story from 2 Kings 5, nestled within a collection of stories about the faith and healing presence of the prophet Elisha, is a story draped in the unexpected. It is a story that knocks the reader, the hearer, us, completely off balance.
The story leaves us wondering, could God really be working in these unexpected ways, through these unexpected messengers, speaking unexpected grace to an unexpected recipient?
Could the winds of God blow in such an unexpected manner?
This is may be the way we imagine, hope, or even desire God to work.
However, there are other voices, loud voices, who have worked hard to persuade others that God’s work in our world has been figured out, that God’s mercy is limited, that God functions only in predictable ways with predictable people.
After all, they may say, our enemies are enemies for a reason. They are on the outside looking in. They may say, the outcasts, the dirty, the unclean might soil us all and make us all undesirable if they are allowed to be a part of the covenant community. We know who should belong and who shouldn’t. We have worked hard to clearly define these boundaries, right?
We hoped it would be different. “We listen, depart, and return to our ordered existence: we depart with only a little curiosity, but not yielding; we return to how it was before, unconvinced but wistful, slightly praying for wind, craving for newness, wishing to have it all available to us. We pray toward the wind and wait, unconvinced but wistful.”
In our wistful waiting we come face to face with the unexpected God in unexpected ways. The story from 2 Kings leads us right into the heart of the matter.
This unexpected story begins with the drop of an unexpected name – Naaman. Naaman was the commander of the armies of Aram; the very armies that had been victorious over God’s chosen Israel; the very armies who had taken young and old members of the covenant community as prisoners of war to serve as slaves. Naaman, the Syrian, the outsider, the enemy. Naaman, we are told, was a highly honored general and a mighty warrior, who also ironically suffered from leprosy. Scholars suggest that this may not be the kind of leprosy that we have come to know and understand, but regardless, what Naaman suffered was a skin disorder of some kind which left his epidermis looking like death. His condition threatened to exclude him from his community. The mighty warrior, the leader of men, facing life as an outcast and a pariah even in his own society. This curse serves him right, doesn’t it? I mean with the way in which he defeated the people of God and took them into captivity. Yes, leprosy and exile seem to be a proper curse for such action, for such behavior. He's the enemy.
However, just when the reader thinks, just when we think, that the story is about the vengeance of God against the enemies of God or those we assume are outside of God’s covenant, the story takes an unexpected turn.
Just when we assume that we know and understand the boundaries of God chosen ones, God does something unexpected and reminds us that we are not the ones who get to decide the breadth, depth, and reach of the borders of the grace of God. Think of the number of ways and number of times we as a people try to limit God’s grace and gladly tell others that they are outside looking in, and then God chooses to move in yet another unexpected way.
The message of grace to Naaman, an unexpected recipient, comes from a completely unexpected source. As a result of Naaman’s victory over Israel, he brought a young girl back with him who would serve as a slave to his wife. When this young, lowly, servant girl saw that the husband of her mistress was stricken by a deathlike disease, she testified to the faithfulness of God that she knew could be found through the prophet who resided in her home country. The weak, the humble, testifying to the strength of YAHWEH, the God she knew through her covenant community. This young girl understood the limitlessness of the grace and healing of God in ways that even the most learned seldom do. She knew that there were no boundaries for this God, and she was willing to share the blessing. “This is yet another biblical instance of those to whom society attributes little intrinsic value serving as effective heralds of the power and presence of God” (Trevor Eppehimer, Feasting on the Word). Just when we think we know, unexpected grace is spoken through the voice of an unexpected witness.
Naaman seeks and receives permission from his king, his boss, to travel to Israel to see the prophet to receive his healing. Naaman did not travel light. He took with him a tremendous gift, a payment, for the healing he had expected to receive. He also came burdened by his own arrogance and overconfidence in his position of authority and his own ideas of how his situation should be handled. Sound familiar?
When he arrived, things did not unfold quite as he had planned. The prophet Elisha sent out instructions to Naaman through a servant. Again, the message of grace spilling from the lips of an unlikely source. And what were Elisha’s instructions to this “mighty warrior”, this leader among leaders?
Go, take a bath! Go, take a bath, he told him!
Naaman was enraged! Can you blame him? He had traveled a long way for the healing touch, the wave of a hand, a special incantation from the holy man, and all he received was the word from a lowly servant to go and take a bath in the Jordan! Naaman was defensive and dismissive of the prophet’s words.
Did the prophet not understand who it was that had come to visit? Did the prophet not understand the visitor’s position, authority, and might? Did the prophet not know the power of the rivers in this Syrian general’s homeland? Did this prophet not remember the humbling defeat that came at the very leprous hands of this mighty warrior?
And yet in spite of all of this, before him stood Elisha’s servant with this simple message – “go, bathe in the Jordan.” Before we are too quick to judge Naaman for his foolish pride and giant ego, let us consider the ways in which we, like Naaman, “sometimes assume that our expectations are the measure of God’s ability to work in creation. We want God to do something for us, in the particular way we want it done, on a schedule we desire…we also may make our expectations the measure of God’s work, when we assume that God is exclusively on our side regarding all sorts of relationships (or maybe it's just me who does this)…(this unexpected story) shows God as non-vindictive, including different groups of people in the divine purposes.” (Haywood Barringer Spangler, Feasting on the Word).
Just when Naaman’s pride nearly gets the best of him, another unexpected voice speaks a message of reason. Naaman’s servant says, “Father, 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’?” That sound you heard was Naaman’s pride shattering at his feet as he walked into the waters of the Jordan to be made whole. We all desire the grand, the spectacular, the special, the out of the ordinary. Yet, what we often receive are the waters of the Jordan, the waters of baptism, a plain cup, the broken bread, the simple message of grace and inclusion from an unexpected voice. God…"intends to heal outsiders, even those considered enemies…, to make clear that the grace of God is extended to those who do nothing to qualify for salvation" (Farmer, Feasting on the Word).
It is Naaman’s healing which brings him to the confession of faith in the God of Israel. He was not told to have faith first. No. He was led to the healing waters of the Jordan, and then the God who met him there became his confession.
Of this story, Walter Brueggemann writes, “…it is clear…that the God of Israel will not be safely contained as the God of Israel; nor does the prophet of Yahweh operate on a small, restricted scale” (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, 1 & 2 Kings). God, the God of our faith, does not function in our neat and tidy boxes. God is the God of unexpected grace, unexpected witnesses, and unexpected shalom – wholeness.
Perhaps today, you have been reminded that the “boundary lines of the community of faith are less clear than the insiders often suggest” (Terrence E. Fretheim, Westminster Bible Companion, First and Second Kings). Just look around you. We are all recipients of the unexpected grace of God. We are all unexpected witnesses to God’s unexpected movement. We are all unexpected participants in the unexpected community. And our lives bear witness to this unexpected story of unexpected wholeness and shalom. May our manner and our words be reflective of the breadth, depth, and reach of the unexpected activity of an unexpected God. Be at peace.