based on 2 Kings 5:1-15
I have a love hate relationship with History. Though I love the idea of history, the philosophical trajectories of it, the intrigues and the turnings. But I have always had difficulty with dates and names and places. I tend to get bogged down in the minor details like: who WAS the president during the War of 1812 and what leaders were connected with both the Spanish American War and World War I? I suppose these facts are somehow important to know, but I often struggle to see how these details relate to my life today.
Don’t you sometimes feel that way about the Bible? Especially certain books in Hebrew Scripture? Especially The ones with unpronounceable names like Tilgleth Pileasar, Azariah, Amaziah, Jeroboam, Jehoaiachim, Siccoth-Benton, Nibhaz and the ever popular Adrammekech and Anammelech.
And those dates: in the third year of King Hoshea, son of Elah of Israel, Hezekiah son of King Ahaz of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign; he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. Ummm yeah. When was that again?
These impossible to remember facts are truly “ancient history” which, for many of us is the same thing as saying they are irrelevant. Because the history that is told in Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Kings, and Chronicles is so far-removed from our way of life, we have to be diligent. We have to do some extra interpretive work to sort it all out. History is like that. We have to strip away the facts – the numbers, names and places – in order to get to the heart of the matter.
We have to ask questions like: What does this history have to do with me? How am I part of it? These are actually the questions true historians ask. But more than that, as people of faith, we need to dig even deeper and ask: How does this or that moment in history inform my faith? How has my faith been impacted by the past? And most important of all: Where was the gospel in that moment?
As Christians, that word gospel has an immediate impact. We think of Christ’s saving work on the cross. We think of the stories of salvation and healing found in the four gospels. We think of Paul’s teaching about the good news. But even here, in this history book – the 2nd book of Kings, we have a gospel message that speaks an important word of truth to us in this moment of our history together.
Naaman is an unexpected protagonist. As far as the Bible is concerned, he had a lot of strikes against him:
- He’s a man of war – a man of blood. He has chosen violence as his way of life. By all rights, his being smitten with leprosy should come as no surprise. It seems just punishment for someone who chose the opposite of peace.
- He is a mighty man – not just in war, but apparently in politics. He has all the power he needs as he stands at the right hand of the king. What prompted God to step outside what we know as a serious preference for the lowly and humble?
- He is an Aramean. This is more than just saying he is a foreigner. Naaman is connected to one of the most menacing threats to the kingdom of Israel. How could it be that God had such concern for the enemy of God’s own people – as much concern, in fact, as God has showed for Israel?
- He is a desperate, opportunistic man who has come face to face with the reality that this disease threatens his career, his status and even his life and that no matter what, he must seek whatever cure he can find. Isn’t it interesting that this cure would come to him in such an unexpected way?
In order to restore the broken pieces of his disintegrating life, Naaman is asked to behave illogically. What he is asked to do was considered absurd by those around him. Yet, in his desperation for healing, in his suffering, in his fear, he takes some faltering, faithful steps toward an enemy king and a weird prophet.
It might be easy to understand the unexpected craziness of Naaman’s behavior, but I think Elisha’s actions are even more bizarre – by everyday human standards. Why in the world would he want to even see Naaman – let alone offer grace? It doesn’t make sense for Elisha to extend God’s healing to the very person who has led the destructive attacks on God’s people. Why would Elisha put himself and his entire community at risk to save a general who might return home only to return with a far superior army and wipe them all out?
It seems to me that Elisha might rather be off in a room somewhere consulting with Israel’s generals and urging them to pray Psalm 59:
Deliver us from our enemies, O God
Protect us from those who rise up against us.
Deliver us from those who work evil;
From the bloodthirsty, save us.
Even now they lie in wait for our lives;
The mighty stir up strife against us.
For no transgression or sin of ours O Lord
For no fault of ours, they run and make ready.
Rouse yourself, come to our help and see!
You, Lord God of hosts, are God of Israel.
Awake to punish all the nations;
Spare none of those who treacherously plot evil.
That seems to me to be a much more satisfying approach.
Thanks be to our unexpected God that Elisha committed himself to this wildly unpredictable move. Thanks be to God that Elisha was willing to be the servant of God’s desire for this unexpected healing. Because if the story had played out according to human standard operating procedures, Elisha would have turned his back on an enemy and that act would have resulted in the unleashing of the full, unabated wrath of the Aramean king. Thanks be to God that healing came to Naaman in spite of who he was and what he had done. Because of that unexpected grace, he came to recognize the God of Israel as HIS God – as Lord of all. And the trajectory of Israel’s history changed in that moment.
All this talk of unpredictability, this word about God’s unexpected nature makes us pretty uncomfortable. A Mennonite pastor framed it this way: Christians in the United States like a tame God – a God we can easily and comfortably believe in, worship and explain. We like a God we can hold warmly to our bosoms when we feel the need – a teddy bear of a God who can be cuddled when the night seems too dark, but who can be, most of the rest of the time, properly ignored. We like a predictable God – a God who will act like WE think God should act. We like a God who can be squeezed into a bottle and like a genie, congenially emerge to act upon our every wish.
How unnerving are Pastor King’s words! And oh how true. What we see in this story of Naaman and Elisha is something quite different from the God we would like to have under our control. We see a God who shatters the genie bottle – a God who acts in unexpected ways with the most unexpected people. We see a God who doesn’t wait for everything to be just so before acting – a God who doesn’t wait for the right words to be said or even for the best intentions to be expressed. And that is the unexpected and the quite possibly uncomfortable good news for us.
It is good news because each one of us here today needs to be healed – because our world is desperately in need of healing. It is good news because in spite of the truth that none of us will ever have the right attitudes, the right politics, the right belief, or the right behavior, God’s healing Spirit is on the move. It is good news because although we are always and forever human and perhaps not always to be trusted, God can be counted on to do the wildly gracious thing. Thanks be to God that God pays no attention to the boundaries we would set on grace – that none of the ways we see God’s Spirit in Christ Jesus act are safe or logical or predictable. Because it is in the abundant, illogical grace coming to us in unexpected ways that we will see the living and wildly gracious God in moving with amazing healing through this chaotic world!
And our call is simply to be ready. Because in the next days, weeks and months to come, God’s wild and unexpected Spirit will expect us to be part of bringing unexpected and powerful healing here at Palo Cristi and beyond. It will be hard work. It will be risky. But it is what God expected of Naaman, of Jesus and of us. Thanks be to our unexpected and gracious God. Amen.