A sermon preached by
Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-14
The story of Naaman is one of my favorites from the Hebrew scriptures. It is a splendid melodrama in three acts and several scenes. You have heard me unpack it before, so I won’t repeat that today. But it did strike me when we read it in Bible study on Tuesday that it is a tale of great expectations. It is a story of great expectations held and great expectations disappointed, ultimately in the service of a greater good. It may be that we find great expectations and the turning of tables so clear in the tale of Naaman because we are dealing with important figures on an international stage.
From the beginning we are told that Naaman is a great man – war hero, commander of the army, successful in battle and the favorite of the king. Think Colin Powell or maybe Dwight Eisenhower, someone with military credentials and more. Perhaps you might even imagine Lord Grantham, if you’re a fan of “Downton Abbey.” Here is a general with a broad view of humanity and a touch of compassion, a gentleman soldier, a man of breadth and depth along with power and position. At least, this is how I see him by the story’s end. In the beginning, he may have been reading too much of his own press. He surely shows an inflated sense of himself and it almost costs him his healing along with the opportunity to be changed for the better.
His skin disease must be terrifying along with the shame it brings. Daniel Clendenin reminds us that “Naaman had a skin disease (often wrongly translated as "leprosy"). This disease…might have caused Naaman some medical problems, but his real complications were social, religious, and moral, for people with such ‘impurities’ were stigmatized as ritually unclean and therefore excluded from God's community” (Daniel Clendenin, “A Little Girl Heals a Great Man: Exclusion and Embrace,” 2-6-2012, journeywithjesus.net.) We don’t know if Naaman is a self-made man, rising from the ranks, or if he was born to wealth and power, but we do know that is his status when we meet him. He has fulfilled the great expectations of his king and country and is held in high esteem. Now leprosy threatens all that. One wonders how long the king can keep him in favor if he cannot be cured of his disease. One wonders also if he hasn’t already tried every cure known in Aram, gone to the finest physicians, tried all the latest miracle drugs and ointments, consulted priests and healers of every stripe. No stone has been unturned, no expense has been spared, no treatment untried. His great expectations of being healed have been dashed at every turn, because, of course, those expectations have led him to all the wrong places.
When we meet Naaman he is a desperate man. I think this is why he is willing to entertain the word that comes to him through his wife from a little serving girl, an Israelite slave. Ordinarily, he would never turn to such a one with any expectation at all, but he has tried everything. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” Desperation leads to taking risks one would never take in the normal course of events. So we see a momentary shift in Naaman’s great expectations. However, his new perspective, his new hope is soon sullied by the recurrence his – and his culture’s – sense of the way things should be.
Naaman and the king of Aram collude in seeking help from their recently defeated enemy. Naaman sets off with new expectations that he might be able to purchase his healing in Israel. Not unlike the Magi who appear first in Herod’s court, Naaman makes straight for the king, carrying his huge collection of gold, silver and designer wardrobe. This will all be settled as an affair of state. The healing will be accomplished with great ceremony and a grand pay off. Surely, the healing will be presided over by the king of Israel. Only the poor king is clueless. “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” He becomes convinced that the Aramean king is trying to pick a fight with him so he can utterly control Israel. When Naaman is finally directed toward Elisha, he still maintains great expectations of meeting a mighty man of God who will heal with a grand flourish that is fitting for the commander of the Aramean army.
This is the point at which great expectations come tumbling down for good. Steed Davidson writes that “The text provides no indication on what determines the contents of Naaman's luggage. However, when it points to the fact that Naaman arrives at Elisha's house with a retinue of horses and chariots (verse 9), it subtly juxtaposes Naaman's expectations, his customary bearing, and the way his wealth constructs him with the simplicity of Elisha” (Steed Davidson, “Commentary on the First Reading, 2 Kings 5:1-14,” Epiphany 6, 2012, workingpreacher.org.) There is nothing grand about Elisha’s place of residence. Furthermore, the prophet doesn’t even come out to meet him. He sends his servant with concise instruction, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” No ceremony, no incantations, no grand gestures, just go dip yourself in the river. Of course, the mighty man is totally deflated. He has come with great expectations and now believes he has suffered humiliation at the hands of some foreign soothsayer. Salt has been rubbed into his wounds and he is about to storm off when his own servants convince him that, since he has come all this way, it wouldn’t really hurt to try this cure, which, of course, becomes THE cure.
Naaman’s great expectations in this story do not serve him well and almost do him in. I wonder how often that happens to us. We start out with great expectations. We know protocol, institutional structure, the way things are supposed to work, our place in the social order. The world is supposed to conform to our great expectations. And how often are we disappointed? How often have we lost out on healing or failed to grasp an opportunity to grow or missed a life-changing relationship because something or someone in the situation did not meet our expectations?
Expectations, especially great ones, are dangerous things. We too often stake our lives on them, thinking they hold the truth, believing that their fulfillment will provide the way, trusting they will save our very lives. But God’s way, God’s truth, God’s life, rarely follow our great expectations. The trouble with our expectations is that we put our faith in them rather than in the One who made us and calls us into a fullness of being that is quite different from what we expected.
It’s a little serving girl, a slave, who shows compassion toward her conquering master. Shouldn’t we expect bitterness here, a desire to see her master suffer and die? And again, at the crucial juncture of the drama, it’s Naaman’s servants who stand by him, convincing him to give the cure a chance. Without being overly romantic, I wonder if these servants don’t see something of his humanity beyond all the trappings of wealth and power, in the same way the king he serves has come to appreciate Naaman’s value as a human being. I also think that Naaman would never have set out on this crazy journey if there was not a modicum of faith mixed in with his desperation.
One other thread that runs through this story that might be overlooked is that God is active in Naaman’s life from the beginning of the tale. Remember that Naaman is held in high favor for his success in battle, a victory the text says was given to him by God. We don’t know why this is so. Maybe the whole story is to let its original hearers, and us, know that God works in ways and through people we would never expect. I don’t want to get into the whole Old Testament system of rewards and punishments, but I do want to lift up the possibility that God, then and now, works in mysterious ways great wonders to perform, wonders that often undermine and overturn our greatest expectations.
Mary Luti writes, “Naaman craves respect almost more than he wants health. He is so sure he knows what he needs, he almost refuses what God wants to give” (J. Mary Luti, “Muddling Through,” Christian Century, September 23-30, 1998, p. 859.) Is that ever our story? Do we find ourselves wanting something so much we value it over that which God desires for us? Are we ever so sure that we already know what we need that we leave no room for what God has in store for us? That’s why this business of discernment is so important, learning to quiet ourselves, to humble ourselves and listen for God speaking in our lives and in the life of our community. Here we may find answers and direction we never imagined.
Luti goes on to write beautifully of God’s patience with God’s children. She says of Naaman that “When he doesn’t get the attention he thinks is his due, God waits, letting him vent and strut. No lightning bolt consumes him in mid-rant, no disapproving angel descends. God waits until Naaman acquits himself of the odd human propensity to work against one’s own good. And when, after stalking off, he relents, we see in him what God has seen all along - a man of faith.” How often have we stormed off from God’s presence because we were disappointed that our great expectations were not met? Have we ever thrown a temper tantrum because God did not give us what we wanted and were convinced we needed? At the same time, have we ever repented of our self-assured arrogance and turned back to God in humility and faith?
Luti continues, writing of Naaman, “Grace has established a pulse in him - irregular, perhaps, but not arrested by his unchecked rage. When he finally gives up, let’s go, obeys his servants and washes in the water, there isn’t a lot more healing for the river to do. All that remains is for Naaman to meet, knee-deep, the One who engineers his victories and presides over his life. Awash in the revelation, Naaman, ‘a great man’ from the start, becomes Yahweh’s man for good.”
In the same way grace reaches out to us from beyond our great expectations, beyond our belief that we have things figured out and know the way to go, beyond our limitations and our woundedness with a promise of healing and wholeness. Grace goes with us, God walks alongside, as we make our way, however haltingly to the healing waters. With infinite patience God gives us the latitude to find our way, sometimes striding, sometimes stumbling, toward the One in whom we ultimately live and move and have our being. When we finally let go of our great expectations, we may be amazed by grace and find that we are held eternally by everlasting arms. All our great expectations fade away in a reality that is beyond our wildest dreams and we are blessed indeed. Amen.