2 Kings 5
This is the story of a soldier who met God. This is one of those biblical stories that at first glance may seem rather remote from life in the 21st-century, but in the end proves the old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same. From this slice of military life, we learn a great deal about the inner barriers that keep us from facing our problems and finding a way to get better. It all begins when a powerful Syrian general contracts an incurable disease – v. 1 - 3. 4 things we need to know about this man –
A. He was the military leader of the armies of Syria Aram - ancient name for Syria. He wasn't just a general, he was the Supreme Commander.
B. He was a very powerful man He had power, influence and the great wealth that came with his position.
C. He was successful in battle Even though he was a pagan and Syria was pagan, the Lord had given him victory on the battlefield.
D. He had leprosy This is the fact that more than balances everything else. It is hard for us today to understand how the ancients felt about leprosy. In many ways it was the AIDS of the OT. It was so feared that in Israel those diagnosed with leprosy were separated from the rest of society and made to live with other lepers. If they came near the uninfected, someone would go before them shouting, "Unclean! Unclean!" to warn others that a leper was approaching. Leprosy in the OT was a broad term that covered a variety of loathsome skin diseases. Basically all the various versions of leprosy were incurable and led to disfigurement and death. Naaman's leprosy apparently was either in the early stages or was a relatively mild form of the disease. In any case it had drastically changed his life and left him with a very dismal future.
Even the most powerful people are ultimately powerless. There are some things that money can't buy and some things that earthly power cannot obtain. Although he was one of the most powerful men in Syria, and although he had access to the king himself, and although he could have anything he wanted, Naaman could do nothing to cure himself. Wealth and power and influence will only take you so far. Naaman could defeat any enemy in battle but he was powerless against the disease that was taking his life.
One day the Syrian army captured a young Israelite girl who became a servant to Naaman's wife. She must have liked her master because she mentioned to Mrs. Naaman that she knew of a prophet in Samaria (Elisha) who could cure leprosy. Mrs. Naaman told her husband who reacted as any man of the world would. He decided to use his influence with the king to get the help he needed. When the king heard the news, he reacted the way men of the world always react in situations like this. He decided to write a letter to the king of Israel. Men of power like doing things like that. They write letters, make phone calls, send e-mails - make connections because they know powerful people. It would help his friend Naaman and it would also demonstrate that the king was a man who could get things done.
"Send Naaman to Me"
So he wrote to the king of Israel asking for his help. The king of Israel (Jehoram) was not a godly man. He was a wicked king who had followed after idols and was leading his country down the path of moral and spiritual ruin. He was a weak, paranoid man who reacted in fear when he received the letter from the king of Syria – v. 7. He sees leprosy as so hopeless that the king of Syria might as well have sent him a corpse and asked him to revive it. As far as he is concerned, this was just an excuse for the Syrians to attack Israel.
When Elisha hears about the letter, he sends word to the king to send Naaman to him - v. 8. Now Naaman and his cavalcade of horses, camels, soldiers, servants, flag bearers and other personal attendants make their way to the humble home of the prophet of God. Naaman is in for a big surprise. He fully expects the prophet to come out to greet him and to personally take charge of his healing. Nothing of the sort happens. Elisha doesn't even come to the door. Instead he sends his servant to meet Naaman with some very strange instructions: v. 10.
Nothing is going right for the proud, afflicted Syrian general. He is in enemy territory, desperately trying to find a cure for his leprosy. The king can't help him and the prophet won't even meet him personally. The treatment is ridiculous. Go and wash 7 times in the Jordan. Absurd! Why would anyone think that washing in the muddy Jordan could cure leprosy? Obviously this "prophet" is either a fool or a con artist. Perhaps the Israelites are playing him for a fool. In any case Naaman is extremely angry by now. 2 key words – v. 11 - “I thought." Naaman had come to the prophet with his own ideas of how the healing should take place. Evidently Naaman envisioned some sort of public spectacle where the prophet would go through his routine and then perform some sort of dramatic healing ceremony. Behind it all is an enormous personal arrogance. "I thought." Well, who told him to think anything? If you've got leprosy, you don't need to be thinking about anything else but getting healed. Naaman is in no position to have his own theories about how it should happen. We're all like that. We pray, "Lord, your will be done. And if you don't mind, here is how I'd like it to happen." We're all pretty quick to give the Lord advice on how to do his work.
“I’m Not Just Joe Soap”
Naaman's problem is very simple. He thinks he's somebody. He's the commanding general of the armies of Syria. That's got to count for something, right? He lifts his hand and the battle begins. He lowers his hand and the army leaves the field. He has but to say a word and his commands will be obeyed. He travelled to Israel with this large cavalcade of soldiers, attendants, horses, camels and so on. That's got to mean he's not some ordinary Joe. He's somebody. Somebody told him he was somebody and he believed it. Now he's being treated as if he's nobody special. It just burns him up.
But there's more. Naaman objects to the absurd notion of dipping 7 times in the Jordan River. It was 40 kms from Samaria to the Jordan. That's a long day's journey with his retinue. Plus, the command means that he has to "strip and dip" in the river. Not that he had to strip naked, but it did mean he had to lay aside all the outward trappings of his worldly power. If he had a sword, he had to put it down. If he had a spear, he had to give it to someone else. If he was wearing the robes of a commanding general, he had to take them off. If he wore any special medals, they had to go too. If he wanted to be healed, he had to become just like everyone else. That's a hard step for a proud man to take.
If he has to dip 7 times, he vastly prefers the rivers of Syria – v. 12. Do I detect a bit of ethnic prejudice at work here? As a loyal Syrian, he considered the rivers of Syria far better than the Jordan. He had a good point. The Abana River was called by the Greeks and Romans the "river of God" and the "golden river." It was a beautiful river with clear, cool water, the perfect place for a swim or for dipping yourself 7 times. Far better than the muddy Jordan.
God Doesn't Make Deals
It doesn't matter what Naaman thinks. God doesn't negotiate with sinners-or with lepers. He doesn't offer his will to us and then say, "What do you think? Do you like it? I can come up with another plan if you'd rather do something else." God doesn't prepare a Plan B in case we don't like Plan A. He doesn't make deals. In this case, there are 2 choices: Wash 7 times in the Jordan or die of leprosy. Forget about those rivers in Syria. That's not happening.
So Naaman goes off in a rage. He's ready to take his people and return to Syria. Pride can make smart people do some very stupid things. It's Naaman's pride that's the problem here, not his leprosy. His pride won't let him do what Elisha has told him to do. So he's going to leave just as diseased as when he came - and all because he couldn't swallow his pride. The simple things are often the hardest things to do. That's the point being made by one of his servants – v. 13. In this case the servant is right on the money. If Elisha had asked for a million rand in gold and silver, Naaman would gladly have given it to him. If he had told him to cut himself and offer his own blood on the altar, Naaman would have said, "Give me a knife and tell me where to cut." If he had told him to crawl across a field of broken glass, Naaman would have immediately dropped down on his hands and knees and started to do it. Sinners always want to feel like they've had a part in their own salvation. We want to "do" something so we can feel like we had a part in our own deliverance. It's very humbling to be told there is nothing we can do. Naaman wanted something "significant" so he could say he had a part in his own healing. But God's grace doesn't work that way. You receive what he offers as a gift, or you never receive it at all.
Seven Dips and a Mighty Miracle
The servant's argument convinces Naaman - so off they go to the Jordan. As we think about the scene, remember that the healing does not come gradually, it comes all at once. So Naaman strips off all the evidence of his greatness and goes down into the muddy water. He dips once and comes up. Still covered with leprosy. Dips a 2nd time. Sores everywhere. Dips a 3rd time. Skin still disfigured. Dips a 4th time. Nothing has changed. Dips a 5th time. Scabs and sores still cover his body. Dips a 6th time. Still a leper. I wonder if he thought to himself, "This is stupid! I'm being taken for a fool." If so, the servant must have said, "Master, you've gone this far. Dip one more time and see what happens." So he does. Down into the water he goes. As he comes up, there is an audible gasp from his people gathered on the shore. The leprosy is gone. Scabs gone. Sores gone. Scars gone. Welts gone. Bumps gone. The disease has vanished. His skin is as pure and smooth as the skin of a little baby. It is a mighty miracle, an instantaneous working of the supernatural power of God. The incurable disease has been cured by the hand of the Lord. After the celebration dies down, Naaman returns to the prophet – v. 15, 16 - He does 2 things –
A. He declares that there is no God but the God of Israel. This is a hugely significant statement coming from a non-Jew like Naaman. It means that he has not only been healed outwardly, he has been healed inwardly as well. He is now a true believer and a worshiper of the God of Israel.
B. He offers Elisha money as a gift. The prophet refuses to take anything. After all, the healing didn't come from him, it came from the Lord. He doesn't want Naaman to change his mind later and be able to say that he somehow paid for his own healing. It's better this way because it means that Naaman was healed as an act of pure grace. He got his miracle and it didn't cost him anything.
Come Down To Where We Should Be
Exactly what Naaman had to do. He had to get down off his high horse and join the human race if he wanted to get rid of his leprosy. Naaman was like all of us. He had an inflated opinion of his own importance, and as long as he held onto it, he could never get better. He had to "come down where he ought to be," which meant giving up his prejudice, laying aside his pride and dipping himself 7 times in the muddy Jordan. Until then, he could never get better.
No one likes being told what to do. We all would rather be in charge of our own affairs, and that's why the whole notion of surrendering our ego and our pride to the Lord sounds strange at first. But there is no other way to get better. There is no other way to be healed. There is no other way to be forgiven. There is no other way to find a new life. We can fight the Lord or we can surrender everything to his control. When we fight, we lose. When we surrender in faith, we win.
There is Only One God, You are Not Him
The tragedy is that it takes us so long to learn this. One of the pieces of really good news in this story is that while our first thoughts about God are often wrong, it's never too late to change your mind. While there is life and breath, there is always an open door for repentance and change. But you must take the first step. You aren't God, you never were, and you never will be. The sooner we all realize that fact, the better off we'll be.
Question: What would you give to be free of cancer? What would you give to see your son or daughter cured? Answer: Name the price and you'll gladly pay it. What's money next to the life of a child? What's fame or wealth or connections or influence next to the life of your husband or wife? It doesn't mean a thing.
The tragedy is that it takes a tragedy for us to figure that out. We cling to the things of the world as if they really mattered. We came into the world naked and we leave naked. In between, anything we have is on loan from God. God's favour can't be purchased because it's not for sale. Your money is useless when it comes to the things that matter most. At this point the gospel becomes truly Good News, the best news you've ever heard. God's grace is free to those who receive it with the empty hands of faith. Amen.