Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14 W 6th Sunday after Epiphany
“Wash and You shall be Clean”
In the name of him who washes away all our uncleanness, dear friends in Christ: Naaman, who we heard about earlier, was a great and highly respected soldier. He was the commander of the army of Syria, and the Lord had blessed him with a rare combination of raw courage and good tactical sense. With his gifts he had heaped up victory upon victory for his king and his country. He defeated many threats to national security, brought back treasures and slaves from campaigns of conquest, and he subjected a number of enemy cites which were now forced to pay an annual tribute, thus prospering his country. For his faithful service, he’d been rewarded amply by his grateful king with honors and titles. He enjoyed the universal acclaim of his countrymen. And on top of it all, he’d made a pretty good living at it. It seems he had everything going for him: natural talent, nice family, wealth, fame, successful career – and he had God to thank for all of it – but he didn’t, because instead he worshipped the bloodthirsty god of Syria: an ugly stone idol named Rimmon.
So it may strike us as a bit odd that the Bible would have so many positive things to say about Naaman, because not only was he an idol worshipping pagan, he was also the bitter enemy of God’s people. Yes, he’d been very successful on the battlefield, but almost always while fighting against Israel. So from the perspective of the average Israelite, Naaman was a villain of the first order. He was responsible for the death of untold numbers of their fathers and sons. He’d ripped apart families, dragged women and children off into slavery; he had looted, pillaged, and destroyed cities, and he’d ordered crops burned so that those he left behind would starve. The Lord raised up Naaman and the armies of Syria as a scourge to afflict his own people in an effort to get them to turn from their unfaithfulness. And because God’s people weren’t getting the message, Naaman kept winning his battles…
… All his battles, except one; for as you know, Naaman had leprosy. Underneath the medals, ribbons, and plumes he’d earned for his triumphs, beneath the majestic cape of honor that graced his shoulders, behind the intricately inscribed bronze breastplate he wore, his body had begun to rot away. He was probably still in the early stages, experiencing numbness, patches of white skin, swelling, and some scattered lesions that never quite healed; but it was proof enough that he had contracted the dread disease for which there was no cure. Before long he was doomed to become a horribly disfigured outcast who would eventually suffer a lonely and miserable death.
And in this we can see in Naaman a portrait of every person who appears to be successful to the world, but who does not know the one true and living God. Inside each person is a diseased and decaying soul. And no matter how we try to dress it up with glorious achievements and outward acts of virtue, no matter how wealthy, powerful, and accomplished one becomes, it’s all just covering up and hiding a spirit inside that is wretched, sinful, and doomed to eternal death. And the world can offer no cure for the dread disease of sin.
But it happened that in Naaman’s household there was a little Israelite slave girl. She’d been captured on a raid that was no doubt ordered by Naaman himself. It’s not unlikely that she witnessed her own father and many others slain while trying to defend their village. Her mother may have suffered the same fate or one even worse. If she survived the raid, she was likely taken as a slave also. This child had seen and experienced things too horrible for most of us to imagine. In the end, she had become part of Naaman’s share of the loot taken in the raid. And probably without a thought, he’d given her to his wife as a present. Now she served in the house of the man who was responsible for taking away her family, her home, and her freedom.
So you might expect her to be hateful and bent on revenge. Instead, this precious child humbled herself under the hand of God. She’d been brought up in the faith, and she knew that even in the worst circumstances, the Lord is working for the best of those who love and trust in him. Maybe she remembered the story of Joseph in Egypt, and how the Lord had blessed him while he served as a slave in the house of Potipher. So, like him, she tried hard to please her masters. She even learned to love them. And when she heard of Naaman’s disease, she was moved with genuine compassion for him.
It’s remarkable that she told Naaman’s wife that the prophet Elisha could surely heal her husband. The only recorded healing of a case of leprosy was when Moses’ sister, Miriam, had been healed by the Lord some six hundred years earlier. Elisha had never healed anyone with leprosy. And even if he could, why would he want to do it for a pagan and the enemy of God’s people? But this girl knew that the same God who worked through Moses was now working through Elisha. So great was her faith in the Lord that that was all she needed to know. She was certain that Elisha could heal Naaman.
It’s even more remarkable though that Naaman’s wife didn’t just dismiss the suggestion as the silly prattle of an ignorant slave girl. But the Lord was working in this child. Naaman’s wife knew from experience that the girl was sincere and trustworthy; and somehow she knew it had to do with the child’s unshakable faith in the mysterious God of Israel. She marveled that someone who had lost so much could still trust in a God who would allow it to happen. And so this child’s life was a living witness to her Lord. We could all learn a lesson about being faithful Christians from this little girl. In any case, her words spoken in faith gave both Naaman and his wife something on which to hang their hopes. And really, it was the only hope they had.
However, Naaman first had to secure permission to go. Because of his position and reputation, and because of the on again/off again hostility that existed between the two countries, he couldn’t just hop in his chariot and go riding around in Israel. And here we see the spread of faith. Even the king of Syria comes to trust in the hope held out by a little slave girl. He might have thought that this was a trick to cause him to lose his best general. Instead, he’s willing to chance it for Naaman’s sake. So the king, thinking to help him, gives him a letter so that his mission will be understood to be peaceful. It provides Naaman a sort of diplomatic status.
Now, it’s important to understand that for Naaman, this is a difficult mission. It was tough for him to admit that his own god was powerless to help him. And it wasn’t easy for him to go asking for help from the God of his enemies. He felt that he needed to make amends – and he wanted to do it the only way he knew how. He was a military man, so he wanted to do it with dignity and honor. So, he didn’t hold back. In full military ceremony, with banners flying and brass polished, his delegation of chariots and mounted soldiers goes riding toward the Israelite capital of Samaria. He carries with him gold, silver, and other gifts worth a small fortune. It was a king’s ransom – more than enough to compensate Israel for the damages he’d inflicted in battle. His plan was to keep his self-respect, pay the Lord his due, and so earn the right to be healed.
And here again, it’s easy to see the spiritual application. The unbeliever comes to realize that only in the Lord God of Israel is there hope of salvation, but he’s still stuck thinking that the Lord must be worshipped like the other gods of this world. In order to get something from a god, you have to be willing to sacrifice, to give, and to serve. It’s the view that thinks we can come to God on our terms and show him what wonderful things we can do for him if only he will grant our request. But Naaman is about to learn that the Lord is unique among the “gods”.
King Joram of Israel receives Naaman with the honors due a visiting dignitary. But when he finds out why Naaman had come, he just about falls off his throne. He’s convinced this is a plot to provoke a war – a war that Joram is not prepared to fight. “The king of Syria sends me this guy for healing because he knows it can’t be done. When we fail, they’ll use it as an excuse to attack.” Of course, Naaman has no such false motives. He’s earnestly seeking help, and he has the budding faith to believe it might be found here. The real problem is King Joram’s lack of faith. It’s a strange reversal: here’s a pagan who does not even know the Lord who has more faith than the King of Israel who has known the Lord all his life.
Word of the king’s panic reaches Elisha. He’s disappointed by the king’s pathetic response. So he sends a note to the king: “Send him to me, I’ll take care of it, and then he will know there is a prophet in Israel.” It will help to know that King Joram and Elisha weren’t exactly on speaking terms. Joram’s faithless waffling had long been a source of friction between them. When Elisha said, “he will know there’s a prophet in Israel”, what he meant was, “at least he will, because you certainly don’t.” Joram, for his own part, was only too happy to pass the buck. Now he could blame Elisha for anything that went wrong.
Naaman must have been pretty disappointed when he arrived at Elisha’s house. Scattered here and there in the ancient world were a number of worship and healings centers. People would go to these therapeutic temple complexes where they would spend several months being treated by priests and doctors. They would undergo a strict regimen of rituals and prayers, hot and cold mineral baths, treatments with medicines and ointments, special diets and so on. Doubtless Naaman expected that he was heading for one of these spa-like centers. But instead of finding marble temples and flowing fountains, Naaman, with his entire entourage, find themselves in front of a very humble looking home. You can picture him, standing in his chariot in all his lavish finery, waiting to be received in appropriate style. But no one comes out. It doesn’t make sense to him. Finally he decides they must not be aware of whom it is they’re snubbing. At length he directs one of his men to knock on the door and announce to all within that Naaman, the commander of the armies of Syria is here to see the prophet.
After a long while a servant answers the door. “Who are you? What do you want? Hmm … I see …well, I’ll go tell my master”, he says, and the door closes again. Naaman is not used to this sort of reception. He is, after all, one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. He expects to be received with honors because of who he is and because he has come to pay homage to the Lord God of Israel—that ought to be worth plenty because it’s a major concession. He waits impatiently in the hot sun, his temper rising. After much too long a time to suit him, the servant returns. “The prophet says go wash yourself in the Jordan seven times, and you will be clean.” Elisha doesn’t even do him the courtesy of seeing him face to face.
To Naaman, this is an egregious insult. And the instructions sound to him a lot like, “Go take a long walk on a short pier.” He’s beside himself with fury. It’s all been a joke. A false hope. How could he have allowed himself to be so deceived? If all it took was washing in water, how much better the pristine headwaters and mountain springs of his home country, than the enemy’s tepid and brackish Jordan. He imagines the prophet, King Joram, and all the Israelites having a good laugh at his expense. So off he flies in a rage. “Better to admit defeat with pride than to suffer any more of this indignity.”
Having been in the Army, and having had to deal with angry superiors from time to time, I’ve got to admire the courage of the junior officer who suggested to Naaman that he give it a try. “Excuse me, sir, but you were prepared to do anything it took to be healed. You would have considered no task too great and no price too high. Why is it that you won’t at least try something so simple?” There’s a painfully obvious logic there that so many people miss because they want to approach the Lord with their pride intact. Naaman decides it’s worth a go. He’s come so far, he’s already been humiliated; and what’s he got to lose but his leprosy?
We next find him at the Jordan. Off come the plumed helmet, the rich flowing cape, and the shiny armor. He sets aside the all symbols of his achievements. Then he takes off his tunic. And for the first time his subordinates see his diseased skin. They see the man they respect so highly as he really is, and they can barely stand to look. We can only imagine Naaman’s disgrace. He’s totally exposed now. No longer the invincible warlord; now he’s just Naaman the leper. Feeling thoroughly shamed and dishonored, he steps into the water and immerses himself. He resurfaces. You can imagine him studying his skin searching intently for signs of improvement. There’s none. Everything is the same. He’s disappointed. He goes down again, and then for a third time. “Surely if this is going to work I should see something by now.” His men turn their backs: they can’t watch their commander’s total humiliation. Losing what little hope he had, he goes down again and again. Six immersions now, and still nothing. In his mind Naaman is already planning his revenge. “Israel is going to pay for this.” And I’m sure he’s got something very special in mind for a little slave girl back home. “How could I have been so stupid?” One more dip just to be able to say that he did what was asked. But when he comes up the seventh time, he is amazed to see the leprosy is completely gone – no, more than gone: the destroyed flesh has actually been restored. Plain, simple water and God’s word spoken by the prophet have performed a miracle.
No, two miracles: because now, for the first time, Naaman is a true believer. This is what the story is all about. Sure, Naaman’s leprosy is gone; but far more important is that God has worked in him the miracle of faith. The Lord has stripped away the pride and the arrogance that made his soul unclean and removed from him any notion that he could do something to earn God’s favor. Naaman learned instead that God gives grace to the humble. The Lord gave him faith, and that cleansed and renewed his diseased and dying soul.
And the Lord works the same way with us today. He doesn’t want our virtue and achievements. He doesn’t want our gifts. He wants us to come to him humbly, with all the merit we might claim stripped away. He wants us to see the true situation: that before him we are naked, poor, filthy, wretched, dying sinners who have nothing to offer him and who desperately need his mercy. Then he can work with us. And when he does, he comes to us through unexpectedly humble means: a word of grace, the water of Baptism, the bread and wine of his Supper. And really, he has to come to us in ways that appear foolish and powerless to the world, because if it were any more difficult than he’s made it or if it made sense to our human wisdom, we would want to give ourselves credit for doing our part of the bargain. But through these seemingly insignificant means, word, water, bread and wine, he accomplishes the miracle of faith that cleanses our filthy souls and restores us as his innocent children. He washes us and rewashes us again and again as often as we come to him by forgiving our sins for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ who died to make us clean.
When Naaman came up out of the water clean and restored he exclaimed, “Now I know there is no God in all the world except the God of Israel.” It took a miracle for him to be able to say it. And the Lord is even now doing the same miracle for you. It’s a miracle he continues to do for you to keep you in the one true saving faith. May we learn with Naaman to keep humbling ourselves before him and so live in his cleansing grace and forgiveness now and forever. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!