Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 07/07/2019

One of the things I’ve been trying to do over the past couple of weeks is to point out some of the ways that those who wrote the New Testament made use of Old Testament characters and imagery. I’ll keep doing that when I can because I think the Bible as a whole makes more sense when you can see that while there are many voices represented, and while it’s important to give each of those voices their say, there are also recurring echoes among those voices. In particular, the God of the New Testament, the God revealed in and through Jesus, is the God of the Old Testament; so the story of Jesus does very much echo the Old Testament.

However, while it is important to find Jesus revealed in Old Testament texts, I don’t think it’s necessary to try and make everything in the Old Testament point to Jesus. What is important is to find gospel in the texts, to find good news about God and our relationship with God. Now as Christians, we say that it’s good news that finds its fulfillment in Jesus, but at the same time it’s good news that can stand on its own in its Old Testament context and that too has to be respected. Contrary to what some would have you believe, with the Bible there’s no one interpretation that you can say is the only interpretation.

Part of the reason I say this is as a reminder that in calling ourselves Lutherans, we are Bible people; sola scriptura, scripture alone was one of Luther’s foundational principles. To me that says that as Lutherans, a central activity is to collectively engage the Bible and wrestle with what it says and how what it says helps to reveal God.

All that as an introduction to the story of Naaman, the last of our series of lectionary readings from First and Second Kings. At this point in the narrative, Elisha has succeeded Elijah and has performed some mighty deeds, many of them similar to things that Elijah did. Both Elijah and Elisha, empowered by the Lord, display supernatural power that sets them apart from the kings whose royal history they interrupt. The placement of the Elijah and Elisha stories in the middle of that royal history is undoubtedly intended to contrast these men of God with the kings who mostly were not men of God. In the Naaman story though, Elisha is mostly offstage, a voice from the wings as it were; it’s Naaman we want to pay attention to.

He’s not a major biblical character, but he is the major character in this story, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, the Arameans being enemies of Israel. The Arameans had defeated the army of Israel, in particular defeating King Ahab. You remember King Ahab, Ahab and Jezebel, bad rulers who did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. It’s not a coincidence that Herman Melville’s protagonist in Moby Dick was named Captain Ahab; there are many parallels between King Ahab and Captain Ahab but I digress. Another reason for knowing the Bible though is not just to be a good Lutheran but in order to recognize all the biblical allusions in literature and movies, even TV sometimes.

Moving on though…the text says that through Naaman, the Lord had given victory to Aram. That’s an interesting verse: “the Lord had given victory to Aram.” It’s interesting because the Lord is the God of Israel, but here he seems to be working the other side of the street, giving victory to Aram, the enemy of Israel, with Naaman being the agent of that victory. Ponder that for a moment and when it comes to war, be careful in assuming God is on your side.

Back to Naaman though…he was a great man, a valiant warrior, someone to respected, but…he had leprosy…meaning that he was socially unacceptable. What good is military victory if you can’t celebrate and be part of the parade? Enter a little girl from the land of Israel, a little girl who had been captured during an Aramean raid and was now a servant of Naaman’s wife. Being from Israel, this nameless, inconsequential girl knows about Elisha and she tells Naaman’s wife that the prophet could cure Naaman’s leprosy.

Naaman was willing to try anything, so on hearing about this prophet he went to the king of Aram to ask for permission to give it a shot. The king seemed a little confused by the request or maybe it’s Naaman who was confused. The little girl spoke of a prophet who could heal Naaman, but what they seem to hear is a king who could heal him. So…the king of Aram writes a letter to the king of Israel and Naaman takes the letter to the king along with ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of garments as an offering or payment in exchange for the anticipated healing.

The king of Israel of course doesn’t know what’s going on; he sees it as a trap. He knows he can’t heal Naaman and he fears that the king of Aram is just setting him up and will attack him because of his failure: “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look at how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

Somehow Elisha hears about all this so he sends a messenger to the king saying, “Send him to me.” Naaman goes with all his horses and chariots, a show of power and importance. He stands at the door, but Elisha doesn’t even give him the courtesy of an appearance, much less some kind of dramatic ritual healing. Instead, he sends messengers to tell Naaman, just take a bath in the Jordan and your flesh will be restored. Not very dramatic but still good news, right? Not for Naaman.

First of all, shouldn’t this prophet grant him an audience? Doesn’t he deserve more than a messenger? And second, bathe in the Jordan? I’ve never been there so I don’t know but I understand the Jordan is more of a muddy trickle than a mighty river so Naaman was angry and insulted by all this, his pride more important than the possibility of healing.

Once again though, it’s servants, people of little consequence who save the day. The little girl, the servant of Naaman’s wife had opened the possibility of healing; now it’s Naaman’s own servants who enter with some common sense about what Elisha had said. Why not just accept his offer? Bathe and be clean. Swallowing his pride, that’s what Naaman did. And so…an Aramean soldier, an enemy of Israel, was healed by a prophet of Israel; his skin became like that of a young boy.

It’s a great story; I think so anyway; but on a lovely summer Sunday, what do we make of it? Christian tradition wants to make it about baptism. You can be pretty sure that any story that involves water is going to wind up with a baptismal connection and that’s especially true here with the cleansing power of the water when that water is joined to the power of God. It’s always good to be reminded of that, to be reminded of the gift of baptism which, as Luther says in the Small Catechism, “brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it.” It’s good to be reminded that, as he says, it’s not just about the water but that it’s “the word of God which is with and alongside the water, and faith, which trusts that this word of God is in the water.”

The baptismal connection with the Naaman story is certainly valid; it’s definitely a gospel connection. But what about the story standing on its own in its Old Testament context? As is the case with all of the Elijah/Elisha material, the genre that would seem to fit best is that of a folktale and again, to me anyway, it’s interesting to see how those who organized this part of the Bible used such folktales in conveying truth about their God, the Lord.

With that, there are a couple of directions we can go. Jesus gives us the first one. You perhaps remember that when he preached in his hometown of Nazareth, after first being amazed by him, the locals were soon ready to throw him off a cliff; the reason for that? Jesus had started to indicate that his ministry wasn’t just about the people of Israel; it included others and one of the examples he used was Naaman. “There were many lepers in Israel at the time of Elisha, and none were cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” That’s gospel: Elisha, a prophet of the Lord cured Naaman, an enemy of Israel so be careful about creating walls and boundaries because this God crosses the lines and tears down the walls; that’s good news; that’s gospel

Another direction has to do with the servants in the story. They are models of faith and trust in God as opposed to the people of power and authority who are about control and wanting to manage the situation. The servants are representative of what we might call the “little people” of the Bible. To be sure, the Bible has plenty of heroes, but those who society would deem of little consequence often have important roles to play in the telling of God’s story. They are important witnesses of faith.

That’s gospel too; that’s good news because that’s us. We’re not heroes; it’s not likely that anyone is going to write stories about us. But…embracing our baptismal identity, we too have a role to play. We’re not heroes, but we are witnesses.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
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