If you were here last week, you may remember that the sermon was based on the reading from Paul. If you are here next week you will find that the sermon is from the Gospel. (I have inside knowledge!) So this week, I thought I’d speak about the OT reading for a change.
And then I thought . . . This is what we often do in church—and in some ways it’s OK jumping round like that. It exposes us to different parts of the Bible. But the downside is that it encourages us to just pick a story here or there, and look for a moral. It’s as if the Bible stories are like a bag of beads: Look, here’s a pretty one. Oooh, David and Goliath. Wonderful story. And what does it teach us? Never go out without your slingshot and a few smooth stones. Or perhaps more importantly, If you’re brave and trust God, even big giants can be defeated by little boys. There’s another pretty bead called Noah’s Ark: boon to toy manufacturers and writers of children’s songs. So what’s the moral of this story: don’t wait till the rain starts to build your ark. (Perhaps it’s a lesson about life insurance.) You get the idea. We’re looking for stories with a moral that will make us better people.
And we could treat today’s OT reading like that. Actually, the lectionary (which tells us which passages to read each week) says we can stop at v 14, which makes it a nice story with a straightforward moral: “Don’t be too proud to do a simple thing, because it can be a blessing.” But if you read on—as in fact we did—the most important part is what follows verse 14! You’ll see why in a minute.
There is a better way of thinking about the Bible than a collection of single solitary beads. They are more like beads on a string: each one is connected to the others, and together they make a whole which means something rather different. If you take them one by one, they are not really doing what they were made for.
So with this story, it really only makes sense when you put it alongside some of the other stories. Just one example: it’s a story that happened hundreds of years earlier, when God said to Abraham, “Through you and your descendants I’m going to bless the whole world.” Human beings have messed up God’s beautiful world, and God says, “I’m not going to give up. I going to put things to rights, and I’m going to do that through any human being who is willing to work with me. It’ll take a long time, and I will have to suffer before it’s done, but I am determined to do it.”
And a lot of the stories in the OT are about God shaping the people of Israel, like a potter shapes a pot (that’s another story), to do be the kind of people he can work through to bring blessing to the world.
So when we come to the story of Naaman, it’s not just a moral story about the importance of humility. The whole point is that Naaman is not an Israelite—he is what we would call today a Syrian (did you notice the reference to Damascus in v12?)—but God blesses him anyway, through two of those people willing to work with God. One is the little slave girl, who knows that even though Naaman belongs to the wrong race, God loves him and might well heal him. And the other, of course, is the prophet. The prophet Elisha in fact becomes the channel through which God’s love comes to someone of a different nation—just as God promised to Abraham. This is why Elisha won’t accept a thank you gift: he knows he hasn’t done anything. He’s just been a channel for the love of God.
And once he’s healed, Naaman knows what all this means: he gets it. He knows that this God, the God of the Israelites, is the real deal. This is why he makes this strange request for two bucket loads of Israelite earth. There was a belief that each god was the god of a particular territory. So you couldn’t worship god A if you were standing on the land of god B, and vice versa.
Naaman knows that, from now on, he’s going to have to worship the God of Israel—well, it’s not so much that he has to, as that he wants to, because this God has done such an amazing thing—he’s healed him, and even better he loves him! But as he understands it, he can’t worship the God of Israel if he’s kneeling on Syrian soil. He needs two bucket loads of the land of Israel, just enough to put down in his back yard, so can set up an altar, and go and pray there. It’s a little bit of Israel in the middle of Syria.
So what’s this story about, if it’s not teaching us a moral? I think there are two themes, and they are closely connected. One is that in this story God is keeping his promise to bless all the nations of the world through the descendants of Abraham: the general from Syria is blessed by the prophet from Israel. That’s the kind of thing God had in mind.
The other theme is that God doesn’t do his work of redeeming the whole world in an obvious way. There are lots of surprising things in this story: (1) the person who tells Naaman what to do isn’t a hifalutin world expert in the treatment of leprosy: it’s a young slave girl who trusts God and is not afraid to speak up; (2) when Naaman’s king sends him to Israel, where does he send him? To the king. Why? He assumes that the prophet will be hanging out in the court of the King of Israel—but he’s not: he’s just living in an ordinary house; (3) Naaman assumes that Elisha will come out and treat him with the respect he’s used to: but Elisha just sends a messenger to him; (4) He has to go and wash in the Jordan—not one of the important rivers at home; (5) when he is healed, what happens to the skin of this great general? It becomes not the skin of a great general but the skin of a child; (6) and then, when he tries to repay Elisha for what he’s done—which is the normal thing to do, right?—Elisha refuses the gift. Is there a theme here? Yes: God doesn’t work in obvious ways, and in particular God is not impressed with generals and kings and the things the world thinks are important.
Why is this? I suppose it’s because, if God did work through powerful, rich, influential, educated people, everyone would just shrug their shoulders: well, it’s not surprising that happened, because they’re rich and powerful—right? But what if God’s work goes forward through a little girl, and a dirty river, and a curmudgeonly old prophet? Then people are more likely to say, What on earth is going on here? How on earth did that happen? Could it be . . . God is involved here?
Now, there’s not always a connection between the different readings on a Sunday, but today there is what I think is a helpful one. The Gospel reading is about the seventy disciples being sent out by Jesus to talk about the kingdom and do the works of the kingdom.
How does this connect to Naaman? Well, the same two themes are there: (a) God continues to reach out to all nations and invite them to become part of what he’s doing in the world; and (b) God works through ordinary, insignificant people. How do I know that? Think about it: how many of these seventy people’s names do we know? Maybe the twelve were part of the seventy; but even if they were, there are still fifty-eight names we don’t know! And it is highly unlikely that any of them were rich or powerful or highly educated. And even if they were, frankly, that really didn’t help them when they went into the first village and stood up to talk about Jesus, and even more when the first sick person came to them and asked to be healed! You can bet your bottom dollar that every one of them was scared spitless—they were just very ordinary people who prayed like crazy that the Holy Spirit would come through for them. . . .
In a few minutes, we’ll be coming to Communion. In some ways it seems like a change of direction, doesn’t it?—here’s the sermon, here’s the communion—but it’s really not. Because in Communion we remember the cross. And there are two things about the cross which are the same themes as in the story of Naaman. One: you can think of the cross as the arms of God reaching out to embrace the whole world in love—the fulfilment of that promise to Abraham! And (secondly) what is the cross if not the greatest proof that God works through things that the world thinks are weak and foolish—a Jewish carpenter being executed by the soldiers of the greatest army the world had ever seen. The story of General Naaman is actually fulfilled in the story of the cross.
But Communion is also about you and me doing what disciples have always done—receiving the bread and wine to strengthen us to reach out to the world in the name of Jesus—even if we feel weak and insignificant, and not very smart, and physically limited. That’s OK because—remember the necklace?—at the heart of all God’s stories, and all of our stories—is actually the cross—reminding us that God’s power is always at its best in our weakness. May that cross—and this meal—strengthen us and encourage us and inspire us this day, this week, and always.
St John the Evangelist, Hamilton ON, July 7 2013