The Word of the Prophet - 2 Kings 5
It's often said that life is full of surprises. And that was especially so for one young couple who celebrated their wedding last summer. As Rebecca and Justin Garnett were enjoying a happy wedding reception with their guests in the grounds of a hotel in Yorkshire, who should pop in to meet them but Bill Clinton together with twelve bodyguards. Mr Clinton was on his way to have a round of golf in the grounds of the hotel when he accidentally wandered into the party. Not surprisingly his presence caused quite a stir. 'He was just charming,' said one guest. 'He shook hands, and spoke to people and even kissed one guest.' It was reported that Mr Clinton did not have a present, but kindly signed a menu as a memento of the day.
Life is full of surprises. And when we come to 2 Kings 5 we find a story full of surprises. Miraculous cures, political intrigue, cunning servants. It's all here. But why it is here? Well over the last few weeks we have been looking at the prophet Elisha in these early chapters of 2 Kings. Elisha lived in Israel in the eighth century BC which was a land more accustomed to worshipping pagan fertility gods than the God who had rescued them from slavery and given them a land to live in. Israel was in a mess. Very few followed God, and those that did were persecuted. But God had not left his people in the lurch. He had provided prophets like Elisha who would be his spokesmen in this corrupt land. They would stand up for God's ways and tell the people God's word, and through them God would provide for his harassed people.
And the first readers of 1 and 2 Kings would have taken great encouragement from these stories. For these readers were God's people in exile in Babylon, far away from their homeland, also living in a pagan and hostile environment. And the question going through their minds would have been: 'Does God still care for us? Is God really still God? Will his promises still come true even in exile?' And these stories about Elisha give a resounding yes to that question. God is alive and well. And as we come to these stories 2500 years later as Christians, we too recognise that we are away from our homeland in heaven. Our own land seems to be one of hostility to God, whether it be cold apathy or hot persecution. And we too need to hear that God is still the same God and has not left his people in the lurch. God can still act and operate in a hostile environment and is well able to equip his people to do his work.
And that is why this story about Naaman is here. As we will see Naaman was an outsider, a non Jew, but this sick man came to see that God was the God of the whole world, not just of Israel, and that only this God could provide the rescue that Naaman needed. And that is wonderful news for us today. God is still in the business of rescuing. And he has no limits. He is the God of the whole world and the only God who can save us. Indeed that is how Jesus saw this story when he mentioned it in Luke 4. Battling with unbelief in his own town, he reminded his hearers that God rescued pagan outsiders in the OT and will continue to do so, even if his own people reject him. So this story is about a rescue, a healing which points us beyond leprosy and the River Jordan, to a much more serious sickness and a far greater rescue on a cross 2000 years ago. So come with me to this story and we'll discover four things about Naaman which will have great importance for us today. Notice:
1) How Naaman was desperately sick (V 1)
2) How Naaman was given hope (Vv 2-8)
3) How Naaman nearly missed out (Vv 9-14)
4) How Naaman was completely healed (Vv 15-19)
1) How Naaman was desperately sick (V 1)
So first then, let's see how Naaman was desperately sick. Verse 1: 'Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram (which is modern Syria). 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 in many ways, Naaman had made it to the top of the tree in the ancient world. Though he was not the King of Aram itself, yet Naaman was second in command. He had great power. He was the commander of the armies of Aram, which was no small feat. Aram had been at war with Israel from some years, and 1 Kings 22 shows how the Arameans defeated Israel and King Ahab. They were a mean, lean fighting machine. Naaman was the tough military commander who exercised great power, and the king thought very highly of him. Naaman had it all- power, courage, no doubt a hunky physique, and money to match. He was someone Syrian girls would die for. In terms of his world, he'd made it.
And yet he had one very serious problem. In a life of glory, glitz and glamour, there was a big 'but'. The Bible says: 'But Naaman had leprosy.' Now the word leprosy in the Bible is a word which covers a whole range of skin problems, anything from eczema to full blown leprosy. But here it is clear that this form was something pretty horrific. It appears no-one in Syria could cure him. No doubt he'd gone to all the doctors, he'd visited all the magicians, he'd been to the herbal remedists, but no-one could help him. He'd probably tried religion, and went to the Temple of Rhumen the storm god in Damascus. All to no avail. For all his money and power, he was helpless. His life would literally rot away, as his flesh was slowly destroyed and he would die a slow and painful death. And of course, the one place that could help him out was miles away, both geographically and spiritually. Elisha and Elijah the prophets of Israel could heal this sort of thing at the drop of a hat, or at least their God, Yahweh, could. But Naaman was a pagan, a million miles away from help. And there was no way in the world he would even dream about turning to the God of Israel for help. It would never have crossed his mind. And nor was it very likely that Elisha would lead a mini mission to Aram with his theological students! So Naaman was dying, and he was cut off from the only source of help available to him. Naaman was desperately sick.
And of course as we look at Naaman, we are naturally drawn to think of ourselves suffering from another life threatening sickness, the sickness of sin. It is the disease which is slowly eating away at our souls, leading us away from God, and the symptoms are seen in everything we do. Lives led with no reference to God or gratitude for his goodness. Lives lived with us as the No. 1. And the final consequence of that sickness is to be cut off from God's presence forever, for in his justice he cannot have anything to do with foul sick people like you and me, people set in our own ways of self centeredness. And sin is a sickness with no human cure. We cannot get ourselves back into God's good books. And no matter how good we may seem on the outside, yet we all suffer from this fatal disease. Some of us cover it well. We seem very decent on the outside. But sin, like leprosy, does not respect class, or intellect, or upbringing. It affects us all, and all of us must face God and give an account.
There is a story from Australia about a snake which slithered into a house one day and saw a bird in a cage. And the snake thought to himself: 'Ah, that looks like a tasty lunch. I can just squeeze through the bars and get it.' So the snake slithered through the cage and ate the bird. But when he turned to leave, he found that he was too fat to squeeze through the bars. His greed had ensnared him, and he was caught. And that is what sin does. Living our lives our way looks so attractive, but in the end it ensnares us, and leaves us separated from God and facing an future without him. We too like Naaman are desperately sick. So is there any hope? Well there was for Naaman.
2) How Naaman was given hope (Vv 2-8)
So let's see secondly how Naaman was given hope. And hope comes to him in a very strange way. Verse 2: '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.'' I wonder what you would have done if you were this young slave girl. One moment you are minding your business drawing water from a well in your father's village on the borders of Israel and Syria, the next you are thrown on the back of a horse and carried miles away to a foreign country, forced to serve a foreign mistress, with no hope of ever seeing your homeland or family again. If I had been her, I would have been tempted to live out my miserable existence determined to do my best to muck things up for my captors without getting myself into too much trouble. But not this girl. She had great faith. Even though she was miles from her home, yet she still believed in her God who could do the miraculous through his prophets. When she heard about Naaman's leprosy, she suggested he go to Elisha in Israel and there he would find a cure. Isn't that remarkable faith? She had no doubt that Elisha could do it. I guess she would have risked a lot to say that. What would have happened if Naaman had gone and Elisha hadn't cured him. She'd be for the chop, I'm sure. But she has complete confidence that the cure will be found with Elisha and his God. God uses the weak of this world to shame the strong, the foolish to shame the wise. Naaman has hope. He hears about the God of Israel who can cure such fatal diseases.
But there's more isn't there in verse 1. Did you notice it as we read through. Who is behind the events of history in the wars between Israel and Aram? Who is behind Naaman's success, whether Naaman understands it or not? It is God. The writer says that God had given victory to Aram. It is God who in his sovereignty controls the events of history, even of pagan nations like Syria. God is at work in the world. And it is God's guiding hand that brings this servant girl to be in Aram in the right place at the right time. And that is how Naaman will come to find healing. God himself has been working it all out through the most unlikely of sources. He's been at work through Aram's military successes, and he's brought this slave girl to Naaman's house. What God asks of her now is simply to faithful to what she knows of God. That is how God brings hope to this hopeless situation.
What a great encouragement that would have been to the struggling believers in exile in Babylon. Is God at work in the world? Yes! Can God work in a pagan country hundreds of miles from Israel? Yes! Can God use even the weakest of people to be his witnesses? Yes, he can. You see, with God hope is never lost. Naaman thought all hope was gone, but what he didn't know was that God was behind the scenes working things out for Naaman's salvation. And that is one of the central themes of this story, that God is working in the world to bring complete outsiders like you and me to know him. That has always been his plan from the beginning of time. And that is what Jesus told his hearers in Nazareth that day. The good news of God's rescue is not just for Jews. It is for all people, people like you and me. We can all benefit from God's amazing rescue plan. Hope is never lost with God. He is at work so that all people can have that fatal disease of sin dealt with, so that each one of can be free and forgiven. That's the hope we can have. And it was Naaman's too.
3) How Naaman nearly missed out (Vv 9-14)
But if help and hope was at hand for Naaman, it almost went wrong, so let's turn to our third discovery and notice how Naaman nearly missed out. Naaman takes the slave girl's advice and heads south to Israel with the good wishes of his king. He takes with him a letter of approval and a whole truck load of cash, full of confidence that he can get what he wants. But when he gets to the king of Israel in verse 7, there is trouble. The king of Israel thinks Aram is trying to pick a fight. And the king of Israel despairs. It's worth noting in passing how sad this picture is. Here is the king of God's people despairing that there is no hope in this situation. What should the king have done? He should have said that whilst he could not cure the disease yet his God can. The sad fact is, though, both the king and the people have wandered far away from away God. And when a hopeless case is put before him, then what is there to do but despair? That's what happens when God is left out of the picture, both in 8th century Israel and 21st century Hull.
But there is hope because God is at work through his prophet Elisha, and when Elisha hears of this despair in verse 8, he orders Naaman to come to his house. And so Naaman rolls up in a cloud of dust with a huge cavalcade behind him. He expects service. He's second only to the king of Aram. But what happens? Elisha's butler comes out and tells him to go and bathe in the Jordan seven times. That's how he'll be cured. But Naaman almost misses out. Why?
a) Because he wants special treatment- Verse 11: 'Naaman went away angry and said: 'I thought he would surely come 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.'' Naaman wants razzmatazz. He wants the prophet himself. He's willing to pay a lot of money for this treatment. The amount he brought weighed literally tonnes. He believed he could simply turn up and demand a healing on his terms. He was angry! But that was why he almost missed out. Because you cannot do that with God. If he is going to save us it will be on his terms. We cannot buy salvation off him. We cannot waltz up to God flash our credentials at him and say: 'Come on God, clean me. I deserve it.' What arrogance! No, Naaman would have to humble himself. He would have to obey. And I think that is why Elisha did it this way. He wanted it to be crystal clear that this was not the prophet's healing. It was God's healing on God's terms. Do you understand that? God won't give you preferential treatment. Each of us deserves his wrath for ever. It is only because of his grace and mercy that he is willing even to think about saving us from that terrible disease. There's nothing special about Christians. As Martin Luther once said: 'Christians are just beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.' God will clean you up, but on his terms.
b) Because of his pride- But Naaman also almost missed out because of his pride. Verse 12: 'Are not the Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of these waters of Israel? Couldn't I wash in them and be cleansed?' Do you see his problem? He thinks his way is better? 'Surely it would have been better to stay in Syria and wash in those rivers. After all they are cleaner and nicer. Why should I wash in the smelly, dirty Jordan?' But again he's missed the point. There is only one way. God's way. He must swallow his pride and go God's way. That is the only way he will be clean. Let me ask you. Is your pride getting in the way of you giving your life to Christ? Is pride preventing you from being cleaned up from that fatal disease sin? There is no other way. God's way is for his son to die in our place on a cross 2000 years ago, bearing the punishment we deserve for our sin. There is no other way to be saved. There is no other rescue boat. Can you imagine being lost at sea and then seeing a rescue boat coming, but ignoring the life boatmen saying: 'I'll wait for the next one.' There is no other rescue. It's this or nothing. If you are proud, you'll be separated from God forever. Swallow your pride and come to Christ. You cannot save yourself. Come and wash yourself in Jesus' blood shed for you on the cross. That's how we can be forgiven. That's how we can be washed clean. Don't make Naaman's mistake of nearly missing out.
4) How Naaman was completely healed (Vv 15-19)
But then finally we see how Naaman was completely healed. You see he did swallow his pride. And again it took a servant to tell his master what to do in verse 13. Thankfully this servant had more sense to trust the prophet than his master. And Naaman goes down into the muddy Jordan, as the man of God had told him, verse 14. And what happens? 'His flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.' Naaman was completely healed, just as Elisha had said. But there is more going on in Naaman's life than a mere physical healing. For Naaman had:
a) A new conviction in his mind- Verse 15: Naaman comes out of the river, goes to the prophet and says: 'Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.' It is an extraordinary statement isn't it? Up until recently Naaman had been worshipped idols in a temple in Damascus. Now he knows there is only one God. He has a new conviction in his mind. He knows the truth about God. There is only one God, and that God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the name to which every knee will bow. Do you believe that? Jesus claims exclusive rights to divinity.
b) A new attitude in his heart- At the end of verse 15, Naaman is willing to give all his wealth to Elisha. Elisha declines, unwilling to allow any link to be made between Naaman's giving and the cure he has received. His salvation is all by grace which cannot be earned. But Naaman's willingness to part with his money as a gift to Elisha shows a new attitude. He knows he cannot buy grace, but he is willing to show his gratitude in his use of his money. He's very different to Elisha's servant Gehazi who in the next episode chases after Naaman and gets the money off him. Gehazi takes the cash by deceit. His greed gets the better of him. If Naaman is the outsider who comes in, then Gehazi is the insider who falls out. Naaman has a new attitude in his heart.
c) A new resolve in his conscience- Verse 17: Naaman wants to take some earth back to Syria so he can build an altar to God there. He says: 'Your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but to the Lord.' Naaman is willing to stand for God in his own pagan society. It will be tough and he'll need help, but he resolves to do it. He knows it may mean compromise, but he knows too that forgiveness is available. His desire is to serve God, despite the cost.
That's how Naaman was completely healed. He came to Elisha as a pagan leper. He left as a clean worshipper of the only true God. It is a remarkable transformation. And as we close, we need to ask ourselves some serious questions. If we have made that step from sick to healed, dirty to clean by coming to Christ and his cross for cleansing, then we must ask ourselves if we too like Naaman share these three qualities. For that is what happens when you become a Christian. Is your mind being changed so that you begin to think that way God wants? Is your attitude changing so that you begin to want to give him everything in his service, money included? And are your conscience and actions changing so that you are willing to serve God in a pagan land, willing to take the consequences. Because those are marks of someone who is taking God seriously and longs to live for him.
But maybe you have not yet come to Jesus for cleansing. Maybe you are still a spiritual leper. You know you are running from God, you know you need forgiveness and cleaning up. What prevents you tonight from coming back to him? What holds you back? Is it your pride? Swallow it. There is no other way. Nothing is as important as getting right with God again. Why not get it sorted tonight? The hymn writer Augustus Toplady wrote these words: 'Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress, helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Saviour, or I die.'
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