…Big Things One Day Come.
Self-plagiarism alert: Most of this blog post is adapted from a sermon that I preached at The Community Church of Little Neck in February of 2003.
In so many ways, we have been trained to seek our salvation in big dramatic gestures. But what if God doesn’t work that way? What if the real power is in the things that seem small?
2 Kings 5:1-15a
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor 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.”8But 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.
15Then 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.”
Naaman the Syrian is BIG man –important, powerful, vain. But in our story for this week, he finds his salvation in something small.
As the Narrative Lectionary continues through the history of Israel, we encounter a new figure this week: the prophet. In this stage of Israel’s history, prophets were oracles of God; truth-tellers who often confronted and called out the injustice of Israel’s rulers. The books of Kings include a lot of stories about the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Sometimes they deal with Israel’s own rules. Other times—as in this story—they deal with people beyond the borders of Israel.
Naaman is commander of the armies of Syria, the biggest and baddest army in the land. Syria was a fierce enemy of Israel, and Syria’s mighty military routed little Israel more times than Naaman could count. This guy is clearly, an Alpha male, a high achiever, a doer of great deeds, successful and self-made.
But the big man has a big problem: Leprosy. Leprosy was some of the worst news a person could get in those days. It was a disease of the skin, a disease that marred and disfigured and made ugly. Since the disease was thought to be highly contagious, lepers were shunned and excluded and banned from polite society. It had no cure. One did not get over leprosy; one learned to live with it, learned to live as an ugly and lonely and outcast person.
Naaman will not settle for that. Being an important person and a man of action, Naaman goes looking for a big solution. In one of his military adventures, he had captured an Israelite girl and brought her home as a slave. She made mention of a healer, a prophet in Israel who might be able to do something about Naaman’s leprosy. For so many reasons this is a terrible idea. Who takes medical advice from people they have captured and enslaved? Who goes to a foreign nation—an enemy nation—to get help in a time of need? But Naaman had to do something. He was desperate. So he seized on this idea like a drowning person grasping at a life preserver.
Naaman assembles a big fortune—sells his house, cashes in his stock options, empties his life savings. He puts together a big caravan of limousines, complete with police escort. He pulls up in front of the palace of the king of Israel, and marches in there with a huge entourage of bodyguards and personal assistants.
For Naaman, the general, the man of action, here at last was an opportunity to make a full frontal assault on the disease that was wrecking his life.
But Naaman’s full frontal assault…fails. The king of Israel is baffled and more than a little afraid. Just imagine the poor guy: here is the general of a big, scary, hostile neighboring army saying, “Could you please cure me of my incurable leprosy?” Of course, he can’t.
Disappointed, defeated, Naaman turns toward home, shouldering a big failure on his big, drooping shoulders. But just as the caravan is about to pull out, a messenger taps on the window of his limo. “I have a message for you from the prophet Elisha. He says that he might be able to help you.” So the caravan tears out of there and pulls up in front of the prophet Elisha’s place.
Naaman approaches the house, maybe wondering what prophets look like or if they have some sort of uniform or badge or something. He may have had time to wonder what sort of bizarre or disturbing ritual the prophet would perform to heal him. But he never even makes it to the front porch. A servant came out of the house and said, “Naaman? Elisha says go wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River. That should clear it right up.”
At that precise moment, Naaman the Syrian throws the mother of all temper tantrums. It is a big, ugly blow up. His ears turned red. The vein on his forehead throbbed. There is smoke in his nostrils and awful, awful cursing on his lips. “Bathe in the Jordan? Bathe in the Jordan!? I came hundreds of miles and assembled all this fortune to take a dip in your stinky, nasty, dirty little river?” The Hebrew word order at verse 11 suggests that Naaman’s big super-size was sorely bruised: “Surely, for me, he would have come out and wave his hands and maybe dance around and put on a big show. So make with the razzle dazzle! I mean, I’m Naaman the Syrian! Doing something as mundane, as pedestrian, as humdrum as bathing in the Jordan River is beneath my dignity. Give me something dramatic, something that will make tomorrow’s front page. Give me something…big.”
For Naaman the Syrian, only the big will do. Insulted, disgusted, he turns around to leave. He opens the door of his limo and almost goes home to live out the rest of his days—and to die—as a leper.
But just as Naaman is about to make a tragic mistake, some unnamed servants become the voice of reason. With great daring, they ask him to reconsider. They say, “Sir, maybe it’s not our place to say, but if the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, something challenging, something big, you would have done it. Why not try this small thing?”
Sensible folk, those servants. It’s hard to argue with that. So Naaman went down to that dirty little river. Holding his nose, feeling disgusted and stupid, he wades into the water and dunks his head. He comes back up. Nothing has changed. The leprosy still clings to his skin. He shoots his servants an “I told you so” look. They remind him that the prophet said seven times, not one. So he goes under again, and again, and again. The seventh time, he comes up out of the filthy plain old Jordan River a new man. His flesh is clean. His leprosy is gone. His body is healed. Maybe his spirit as well. Naaman the Syrian is whole.
It wasn’t a big thing. It wasn’t a very big thing at all. But it did the job just fine.
There is power in small things. I will have more to say about that on Sunday.
See you in church!