Text: 1 Kings 5:1-15a
Epiphany 3 – January 23, 2022
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Naaman was a mighty man of valor. That is, he won many battles as the leader of the Syrian army. It’s no small detail, by the way, that the author of 2 Kings points out that Naaman was given victory over Syria’s enemies by God. Syria, of course, was a pagan nation. They did not worship the one, true God. They worshiped multiple false gods. Yet God is the one who grants Syria victory. We have a tenancy to speak weakly when it comes to the control that God has over that which happens in this world. We like to say that God “allows” things to happen that seem to contradict his will, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. As Job says, “the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Evil nations and regimes win sometimes. We’ve seen this throughout history. God is the one who grants them victory even if they are evil. Why? That is not for us to know. Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets tell us why. God uses foreign nations who worship false gods to punish his own people for their own disobedience. Here, the Syrian army is carrying out raids on God’s own people of the northern kingdom of Israel. And these raids are successful. Ultimately, in fact, the nation that succeeds the Syrians will completely destroy the northern kingdom of Israel. All of this as tools that God uses to discipline his own people. Even in the New Testament, Jesus speaks of the coming of the destruction of Jerusalem at the hand of the Roman Empire for their continued rejection of the Word of God and ultimately the Word made flesh himself, Jesus. God still today grants victory to our enemies, even evil, Pagan ones. Why? While we can’t pinpoint the exact reason (because there isn’t a prophet here to tell us), we know from reading the scriptures that the proper response to such events is repentance. Job tried for quite some time (with “help” from his friends) to figure out what he had done to deserve the misfortune that had come upon him. Finally, the answer comes not from the fruitless discussions that Job has with “friends,” but from Job listening to what God has to say and answering him in chapter 42:
“I know that you can do all things,Job 42:1-6
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job repents. That is what we ought to do when we see evil in the world. We examine ourselves, see where our faults lie, and repent. We repent, confidently knowing that all sins are covered in Jesus. We repent knowing that God is showing love to us in disciplining us just as a loving father disciplines his own children.
The three main teachings I want to show you in this healing of Naaman today are this, though:
1. God’s gifts are not for sale.
2. God works for our good not directly, but through means.
3. Faith is passive in the receiving of God’s gifts.
Naaman was, as I said earlier, a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper. What a turn that sentence takes! Leprosy can describe any number of skin conditions, most of which we either have medication to deal with today or simply don’t exist anymore. In the ancient world, though, there was no known effective treatment for leprosy. Once contracted, you lived with it. And you usually lived alone. You lived alone and isolated because the last thing that anyone wanted to have happen was for someone else to contract leprosy from you. So Naaman, a highly honored mighty man of valor, was not only looking forward to life filled with pain and discomfort, but a life of isolation from his family and community.
A glimmer of hope presents itself, though. Naaman had carried out several successful raids on Israel. On one of these raids, Naaman brought back a little Israelite girl to Syria where she ends up serving his very own wife in their house. This little girl had faith. Yes, Israel was largely a faithless nation at this point in time, but there were always some who remained faithful to the true God. This little girl trusts in the promises that God makes and trusts the Words spoken by the prophets. So she tells the woman she is in service to, Naaman’s wife, about the man of God in Israel. She tells him that this man of God could potentially heal Naaman of his leprosy. She’s talking about the great prophet Elisha. By this point in time, Elisha had developed a reputation as one who could do miracles. Just a chapter before this, he raised the son of the Shunnamite woman with whom he had been lodging. Naaman’s wife tells Naaman, and he gets permission from the king to travel to Israel to seek healing.
Look how and where he travels, though. He travels with a huge amount of expensive goods – 750 pounds of silver, 1,500 pounds of sliver, and ten changes of clothing. We may chuckle at the ten changes of clothing, but there were plenty valuable. You couldn’t exactly swing into the local Walmart and buy a cheap t-shirt and pair of pants in those days, after. Why all the stuff? He’s bringing it as payment for his healing. That’s how it works, right? You pay the man and he heals you. You buy his favor. He’ll be so impressed with what you have to offer that he’ll give you what you want right there on the spot. He is sent with a letter from his own king to the king of Israel asking that he heal him of his leprosy.
There are two problems with Naaman’s trip so far. First of all, he comes ready to pay for his healing. This is not how the gifts of God work. God does not sell his gifts; he gives his gifts freely. Naaman will soon learn this. Secondly, Naaman is sent to the wrong person. The king of Israel can’t do anything for him. At the same time, the king of Israel’s reaction shows his own lack of faith in God. Had he faith in God and in his Word delivered by Elisha, he would have simply sent Naaman to Elisha straightway, but instead he tears his clothes in distress thinking that the king of Syria was trying to pick a fight with him. It is true that the Syrian king was his enemy, but this was not the reason, as we know, that Naaman is sent to him. It is only after Elisha sends word to the king that Naaman is finally sent to the right place to get the healing he desires.
When Naaman finally gets to Elisha, things don’t go as he had planned. Naaman wanted to actually see the man of God, but all he gets is a messenger sent to the door who tells him to go and dip himself in the Jordan seven times with the promise that if he does, his flesh will be restored and he will be clean. It’s a simple enough thing, obviously, but Naaman isn’t impressed. He wanted a direct encounter with Elisha. He traveled all this way ready for Elisha to come out and say some magic words and wave his hands over him and all he got was an ordinary messenger with an ordinary-sounding message.
We can relate to Naaman. After all, don’t we all want to hear the voice of God directly? Don’t we want him to come and whisper directly into our ear? We, like Naaman, are what the reformers called “enthusiasts.” We want God to appear directly to us and speak directly to us.
This is not, however, what God promises in his Word. This is what it says at the very beginning of the book of Hebrews: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” The time for direct revelation is up. That’s because all the prophets had to tell us was about the coming Messiah. We have the Messiah now, so there is no need for direct revelation. We have the full message of God contained for us in God’s Holy Word. We don’t need anything else. Martin Luther further expresses this in the Smalcald Articles, one of the documents in the Book of Concord that we subscribe to as a congregation and that I subscribe to as a pastor in the Lutheran Church:
“In a word, enthusiasm dwells in Adam and his children from the beginning to the end of the world. It’s venom has been implanted and infused into them by the old serpent. It is the origin, power, and strength of all heresy, especially that of the papacy and Mohammed. Therefore, we must constantly maintain this point: God does not want to deal with us in any way other than through the spoken Word and Sacraments.”SA 3, VIII:9-10
Those words may sound shocking and limiting to us, but it’s true. The way that God speaks to us and deals with us is through means. And this is a good thing. You’re not left constantly wondering if God is speaking to you if the thing that you’re hearing is in the Bible. You’re not left wondering if your sins are forgiven because God tells you objectively that they are. The Word and Sacraments of God bring you the forgiveness of sins. They deliver the fruits of the cross—forgiveness, life and salvation—and you know that they do because the Word of God promises. All three Sacraments contain these promises. Naaman was told that dipping in the water of the Jordan would heal his leprosy. You are told that Baptism will forgive your sins? How can water do such great things? It’s not just the water. It’s the Word of God in and with the water. The Word of Absolution is just as valid and certain, even in heaven as if Jesus were standing right here in front of you telling you the same thing. You know this because Jesus gives the power of the keys to his church and, by extension, to pastors. Jesus also says, “whoever hears you hears me” to his apostles. In the Lord’s Supper, how is it that bodily eating and drinking forgive sins? It is not just eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus, but it is faith in the Words given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. See what certain comfort God has for you in his Word and Sacraments! There is no doubt at all that forgiveness is delivered to us through these gifts.
Ultimately, the only way that Naaman finally does make it to the Jordan River is at the insistence of his servants who tell him that he might as well give it a try. What does he have to lose? Behold, Naaman actually does what Elisha told him to do and it works. His flesh becomes like that of a child. So why did it work? Did it work because of Naaman’s faith? Certainly not. Naaman didn’t think it was going to work anyway. What this shows us is that the power of God’s Word and promises don’t depend on man’s faithfulness. God’s Word does what it says it will do because it’s God’s Word. Elisha speaks for God and Elisha’s messenger speaks for Elisha. The water of the Jordan heals Naaman not because of Naaman’s faith, but because God promised that it would. Naaman’s faith is passive here. It is not active. It simply receives the promise given by God.
The same is true of the sacraments for us. Baptism doesn’t benefit us because of our great faith. Absolution isn’t effective because we feel forgiven. The Lord’s Supper doesn’t deliver forgiveness because we eat and drink it in just the right way. No these things all do what they say they do because God’s Word is certain and true. You can count on them. Our faith is passive in the receiving of God’s gifts. The time for active faith shows itself in the Love that we have for our neighbor.
So let us firmly trust the Word and promises of God knowing that he will do what he promises to do.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.