"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul to the persecuted at Philippi (2:5-11)

16 February 2009

Another sermon (moved)

Here we meet Namaan, who is a great man but has leprosy… he has an encounter with the Prophet Elisha, he gets healed, and then goes riding off into the sunset. Or at least that is how you will read it if you stop at the lectionary. And don’t expect the lectionary to tell you next week what happens to Namaan, it’s not a tune in next time for part two of the story kind of deal. Nope, all you get is here’s Namaan, he’s healed… yup, great, end of story… except, that’s not the end of the story.
So hang with me, we’re going to dig a little deeper and read a little further… If you have a Bible with you, take the time and turn to 2 Kings chapter 5. (Fancy that, Anglicans who bring their Bibles to church! There’s a revolutionary idea!!)
So Namaan was the commander of the king’s army. He was a good field general, a strong fighter. This is the kind of man you want on your side, and the king Ben-Hadad II, knew all about him. Here is one of the king’s favorites, a great warrior. The only problem with him is that he’s the enemy. Namaan is an Aramean. The time is about 850 BC, and the land of the Jews is split between a northern kingdom (Israel) and the southern kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom of Israel almost never gets a godly king, and things are already beginning to get a little frayed around the edges for them. The Arameans are continually making raids on the Israel and taking any kind of treasure, crops or captives they can carry off. The raids are systematic and troubling, and not too long after the events we just read about, the raids will escalate into all out war.
So here is Namaan, he’s a well respected man, in King Ben-Hadad’s inner circle. He’s got it all, except that he has some sort of chronic skin disease. He seems a little desperate; he’d have to be, to listen to the slave girl he’d taken from Israel on one of his raids. She tells Namaan’s wife and presumably the wife passes the word on to her husband and Namaan decides he’ll go see what this Israelite prophet and that Hebrew god have to offer. Of course, it’s a time of war, so he goes to his king to secure a letter of introduction and significant gifts for the Israelite king to provide him with safe passage. After all, Namaan is to Israel what Osama Bin Laden would be us; imagine Osama deciding to come to Pittsburgh to be treated in one of our world-class hospitals!
Namaan does what makes sense, politically, he goes to the king and presents the letter, which says "with this letter I am sending my servant Namaan to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy." And the king does what makes sense, too! He doesn’t believe Namaan is up to any good, assumes that this is all an elaborate trick, an excuse to attack Israel again, and he knows there is no way on earth that he has the power to cure anyone of anything, and so the king of Israel, Jehoram, freaks out! He tears his clothes, goes into mourning, laments his powerlessness to help Namaan, and assumes that the whole thing is just a trick to get a full-blown war started! "Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life?" Why is he sending me this man? He just wants to pick a fight with me! Oh woe is me!
Now Namaan is an interesting fellow. He clearly knows his own importance in his own kingdom, and he’s just seen the king of Israel reduced to utter quivering fear in his presence, he knows his own power at home and abroad. He’s probably not surprised at all when the prophet Elisha sends for him, but what does astonish him is that, having sent for him, Elisha doesn’t even bother to come out and greet him. He sends a servant! Bah, what kind of a greeting is that for such a great man as the general of the great king of Aram, for the leader of the army that is clearly stronger than your people! In fact, this lack of respect for Namaan is seen as an insult. And the prophet’s instructions seem utterly worthless. Go take a bath. Bah! Namaan asks "are not our rivers at home better than these? What’s so special about this Jordan? If your rivers are so great and can heal you then how come our people are clearly stronger than yours?" Namaan doesn’t believe the prophet, instead he’s insulted and sulks off towards home.
But we just read all this, and we know, one of Namaan’s servants convinces him that he’s got nothing to lose so why not give it a try. There’s no real belief coming from Namaan when he goes down to the Jordan, just a sense of, well while I’m at it, I may as well. Namaan expected grand instructions befitting his understanding of himself as a man of grand status, but in fact it was something simple, take a bath in the Jordan, and in fact he was cured.
So what happens next? The lectionary leaves you there, but don’t miss the real ending!! Namaan goes back to Elisha and stood before the prophet and made an incredible declaration of faith! "Now I know that there is no god in all the world except in Israel." Namaan just threw away his entire world view. He had believed in many gods, and he had believed that his gods had to be more powerful than Israel’s because otherwise how could Israel be raided repeatedly? But his gods had not been able to heal his leprosy. The God of Israel, the one who king Jehoram knew as the one who could kill and bring back to life, could do what none of the gods of Aram could do. Because our God really does have the power to create, he can resurrect the dead (a radical thought when you consider this is coming from before the time of Christ!) and for a God who can do that, healing a skin disease, no matter how devastating it was for Namaan, is a piece of cake! Namaan gets it! He suddenly realizes that all the gods of his nation are nothing, no matter how strong the nation seemed, the gods were weak and worthless. But the god of this weak nation had real power.
Namaan goes on to offer gifts to Elisha, but like we read of Paul last week, the prophet has no desire for gain, he just wants Namaan to know that there is a prophet in Israel, that there is one who has the power to do the works of a real and awesome God. Namaan can’t convince Elisha to accept gifts so he asks one thing… and this is utterly remarkable: he asks for two donkey-loads of dirt to be taken back to Aram. He knows that he will at times have to escort King Ben-Hadad into pagan temples, please, he begs, forgive me for the times when, in escorting the king, my body is required to assist him to bow and therefore to make a bowing motion myself, please forgive me and know that I am not bowing to these false gods. Instead give me the soil of Israel, so that when I do bow down, even back in Aram, I can really be placing my knees on the soil of the true God of Israel.
In other words, Namaan returns to Aram ready to commit theological treason! He’s turned his back on all the false gods, he’s totally the subject of the God of Israel. We later see Namaan is no longer arrogant, prideful. He’s humble and generous, a totally changed man. He who had been a total enemy, an arrogant pagan, became a believer in God.
There are two things at work here. The first is to see how totally a person can be transformed. No one is beyond the power of God’s grace to capture and transform. Namaan who had taken captives and made slaves out of them has been made a captive to God and puts himself in God’s service. It is a total change.
But there is a second thing at work here. Remember Israel is weak, constantly being raided. The countries around them are thinking their God must be pretty weak to allow this to happen over and over again. Namaan learns the truth, though. He learns that the God of Israel is in control, even though the people seem weak, their God is powerful.
Sometimes we all feel weak, like we have become the prey for the hunters of the world, whether it is persecution from another person, illness, the poor economy, or some other circumstance beyond our control. We become like the people of Israel, nothing good seems to be coming our way. It is in those times that I think the story of Namaan is most powerful, for we need to know that God is in control. Ours is the God who uses all things for the good of those who love him.
Paul writes about such things in his letter to the Romans. He speaks of a church being persecuted, a time when nothing can possibly seem to go right. To them he says: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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