2 Kings 5:1-15
Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy. Now bands from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.” As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!” When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God . He stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.
What do you do when everything you’ve done hasn’t worked? That’s Naaman’s predicament. He’s a great and powerful man, but he has a problem – it’s more than a problem – it is leprosy. Disease is a respecter of no man – great and small, rich and poor – he couldn’t buy his way out of it. He had consulted every Damascus doctor in the yellow pages, but his body continued to deteriorate around him.
Now, it just so happens – have you noticed that in the Bible nothing ever “just so happens” – things always happen for a reason. We may not see or understand the reason, but Naaman’s story is here for a reason. So let’s say it like it is – God put a young Hebrew girl at the wrong place at the right time for a reason – she was captured by a raiding party from Syria and ended up as a slave in Naaman’s household.
It reminds me of another young Hebrew girl, named Esther, at the wrong place at the right time, whose uncle told her, when she alone had the opportunity to save her people, “Who knows but that you were put here for such a time as this?” Or of a young Hebrew man, named Joseph, who was at the wrong place at the right time, who told his brothers, “God sent me ahead of you …You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
So, we meet this young Hebrew girl, who is a slave in Naaman’s house. She is sympathetic to what Naaman is going through and makes a suggestion – “If you would go down to my hometown and see the prophet who is there, he would cure you.” When you’re desperate you’ll try anything. He goes through the correct diplomatic channels – he gets permission from his king who sends a letter of introduction to the king of Israel.
Naaman goes first to the king of Israel, who just about freaks out, and says, “Do I look like a miracle worker? You’re just trying to pick a fight.” Now, Elisha (the prophet the young girl was talking about) hears about the dilemma and tells the king to send Naaman to him. So Naaman loads up his entourage of horses and chariots and soldiers and servants and reward money (don’t forget the reward money) and heads for Elisha’s house.
Imagine a parade of limousines and armored cars parking in front of your house and dignitaries and Secret Service men jumping out and surrounding your house, and then someone who is obviously very important steps out and comes to your door and rings the doorbell. What would you do? I’ll tell you what Elisha did – he didn’t even go to the door himself, he sent a servant with a message – “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan river and your flesh will be restored and you will be clean.”
Don’t forget, Naaman’s at the door – this very, very important person, hat in hand, begging for a favor. Very, very important people don’t like to beg – they like even less talking with a messenger boy – and like least of all being told to do something as ridiculous and irrational as what Elisha just told him. So Naaman’s response isn’t too surprising – Naaman gets angry and stomps off in a rage. And we get to listen in on what he is thinking – “I thought he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?”
Naaman was expecting something great – the royal treatment – a spectacular miracle. If Elisha had told him to go on some great journey, climb Mt. Everest, bring back the head of a tiger he had killed with his bare hands – that would be a task worthy of a great man – but go dip seven times in a muddy river? We’ve got bigger and better rivers back home. I’m outta here.
Everyone else is standing there in utter amazement as Naaman storms off and heads for home. Two of his servants have the presence of mind to rush after him and appeal to him – “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!”
Then, just for a moment, Naaman’s pride takes a back seat to his desperation. They take a right turn and head for the Jordan, and as Naaman comes up from that muddy water for the seventh time, he is clean again – the leprosy is gone – his flesh is restored. No one is more surprised or delighted than Naaman, who rushes back to Elisha’s house to thank him and reward him. And you know what Elisha said? “You can’t buy God’s grace.” That’s really what he was saying. (In the next few verses we find out Elisha’s servant Gehazi needs a lesson on grace also, but that’s another story.)
I’d love to make this a sermon about baptism, but it’s not about baptism, it’s about grace [Picture – gift] – nothing more, nothing less.
It reminded me a lot of the conversation Jesus had with a rich young ruler about eternal life – Oh, yes; he had obeyed all of the commandments since his youth. But Jesus saw that he lacked one thing – it wasn’t another commandment to obey – it was his pride that kept him from the kingdom – it was his pride that sent him away sorrowful. He wanted it on his terms, but we never enter the kingdom on our terms. It is always on God’s terms, and God’s terms are always grace. That’s what Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile, a Syrian or a Samaritan, a black man or a white woman – you come to God’s throne as a beggar, asking for mercy. There is no privilege or exemption, nor will your goodness or righteousness buy you any stock with God.
And isn’t that why Naaman had such a hard time? He was used to being catered to. He was important, and importance buys privilege. He wasn’t above being told to do some great task to earn this healing – and he had brought money (lots of it) to pay for what he received. But what Elisha asked was demeaning, humiliating – it was beneath him. But just as he does today, God has always done – he makes us equal at the foot of the cross. And the only way to see the face of Jesus on the cross is from our knees.
Was it the magical waters of the Jordan River that healed Naaman? Maybe there was some kind of formula invoked by the number seven as he dipped into the water. Is there a contract arrangement we’re missing here? If Naaman does his part, God will do his part. We could make this a sermon on obedience – it would make a great lesson on obedience. But the truth is, whatever Naaman is asked to do, his healing is still a gift from God – it is grace – nothing more, nothing less.
That’s why when we come to the NT, we struggle with the terms of salvation. We look for our list of things to do – a contract that God has written up – some commandment to obey, some great task to perform – and then we’re squared up with God. We do our part, he does his part. We get what we’ve earned. But salvation is just like Naaman’s healing – it is by grace – nothing more, nothing less.
We come to God for healing – spiritual healing – from a life scarred by sin. Our soul is in danger, our options have run out. And God sends us to the Jordan.
What is our dipping in the muddy Jordan? It begins with belief – just like Naaman – believing that God, not he was in control. In Jesus’ call to follow him, we find the ultimate irrational, illogical demand – Dip in the muddy Jordan? – Die to self in order to live? But if we are to be healed, we must believe that Jesus is who he claimed to be – the very Son of God.
Naaman’s pride had to be broken before he could bring himself to do what Elisha said. When he was brought face to face with his own pride, and how only in changing his heart would his disease be defeated, could he change the course of his life. We’ve got a disease – more devastating than leprosy. And not until our pride is broken, and our hearts are changed can God deal with our sin. It is sin that separates us from God, it is sin that sent Jesus to the cross, it is sin that keeps us from experiencing the spiritual healing God wants so badly to give us. And the way God deals with sin is repentance. Repentance is the broken pride, the changed heart, the changed course of our lives. Repentance means, not only are we sorry for our sin, but that we have turned our back on it – instead of Syria, we’re headed to that old muddy Jordan.
I’m amazed – for a Syrian general, Naaman catches on pretty quick. As soon as he is healed he rushes back to Elisha’s house – did you catch his words the first time? “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.” It’s a pretty powerful confession for a guy who, just hours earlier, had been saying, “you must be joking.” How do you respond to the work of God in your life? Here’s how Paul said it, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” When an Ethiopian eunuch found himself face to face with the truth, here was his response, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” It’s not a magical incantation that forces God’s hand – it is the expression of a life that has been touched by God’s grace.
I said Naaman’s story is not about baptism, and it isn’t – but isn’t the parallel fascinating. Naaman’s pride needed to be broken and Elisha sends him to the Jordan, Naaman’s heart needs to be tested and Elisha tells him to dip seven times. Naaman goes under the water a leper and comes up the seventh time, cleansed and restored.
Isn’t that what baptism is about? Our pride stands in our way, and God sends us to our death – and Paul writes in Rom. 6:3 that we are baptized into the death of Jesus – it is a death to self, to sin, to pride – “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death.” When we go into the water, our sin is a hideous, ugly disease that is wasting away our soul. When we come up out of the waters of baptism, Paul writes in Rom. 6:4, “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
If Naaman had pridefully headed home to Syria without the Jordan, he would have arrived in Damascus still a leper. Was it the dip in the Jordan that cured him? No, it was the grace of God – nothing more, nothing less.
We can pridefully head for home this morning – thinking “I can come to God on my terms” – I’m a good person and I can get a better deal somewhere else – down the road they say just believe and pray Jesus into your heart. Belief and repentance, confession and baptism – isn’t that all a bit much? I don’t see why God has to be so picky and demanding.
Or you may listen to this and think, “Great! A list I can check off and I’ll have done my part and God will owe me.” Is it your obedience to the commands that earns your salvation? No, it is the grace of God – nothing more, nothing less.
When you come to the throne, you come as a beggar. When you obey his commands, it is the only logical response one can make to the one in whom we have entrusted our lives. When we come up out of the waters of baptism a new creation, it is God’s promise fulfilled – it is God’s grace in demonstration – nothing more, nothing less.
And the promise of God is that when we come to him on his terms – when we follow his directions – to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; to repent of the sin in our lives; to confess to the world with our words and with our lives that Jesus is Lord; and to be buried in baptism with his Son Jesus in his death, burial and resurrection – we become Christians – nothing more, nothing less.