Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.

2 Kings 5:15

I want to do something a little different here, and offer a kind of “close read” of the story told of the healing of Naaman, in 2 Kings 5. It is a terrific Old Testament story that has much to teach us about ourselves and our God. And it is a story that reads almost like a fairy tale, complete with a great warrior struck down by a terrible illness, a young girl captured on his raids who comes to the rescue, and a mysterious healer from this young girl’s homeland. It is a story that includes kings and wicked servants, and even a river that seems to have the power to heal. Like I said, it is a story that reads almost like a fairy tale, complete with its own deep truths and morals. And I thought it would be fun to walk us through this story today, and see what it can teach us about God and ourselves. 

Naaman, the Great Warrior

Naaman is the protagonist of this story, and he is clearly a man who is used to being in control. He is a commander of the army of the king of Aram, and is described as a great man in high favor with the king, because he had gained a powerful victory for Aram. As a commander, he is accustomed to giving orders, and to having those orders met immediately. 

Naaman is a mighty warrior who has much of what this world wants: power, wealth, connections. But, as we find out in this reading, Naaman suffers from a chronic illness: he has leprosy. Despite his wealth, his fame, his political power, and his physical strength, Naaman does not have control over this dreaded disease. It has control over him. And if he wants to do something about it, he is going to have to listen to an unlikely advisor, and turn to an unlikely healer. 

A Young Captive Girl

Because now it is time for one of the unlikely heroes of this story to emerge, and that is a young captive girl from Israel. She was captured in a raid and now serves Naaman’s wife. We don’t know her name, but she is, in so many ways, the direct opposite of Naaman. Young, small, and helpless to change her fate. Captured on a raid, and taken back to Aman to serve Naaman’s wife. A poor victim, with no control over her life. Everything, it would seem, that Naaman is not. But this captive girl is a hero, not a victim. Why? First, because she doesn’t need to be in control; and second, because of her faith, her belief in the one, true God, the God of Israel. 

And because of her faith, she is not dwelling on her terrible fate. She isn’t worried about how to gain control of her life, because she trusts that God is in control of her life. And so this captive girl is able to show remarkable compassion to those who have power over her. She truly cares about Naaman; and so she approached Naaman’s wife and said to her, 

If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria (Elisha)! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 

This young girl isn’t trying to use this information to help her circumstances. She is simply showing a selfless compassion toward others, even those better off than her, despite her circumstances. She is truly a hero. 

Elisha, the Mysterious Prophet

Naaman, to his credit, listens to this young girl. Desperation, I suppose, may have had a hand. But he decides to go see this prophet, Elisha, who is the other surprising hero of this story. If you think of this story along the lines of a fairy tale, then Elisha would be kind of like the wise wizard with magical powers. 

Naaman travels to see this great prophet of Israel, bringing with him an enormous amount of money, along with a letter from the king of Israel. How could Elisha turn him down? Naaman will bribe Elisha to heal him, and threaten him if he does not. Naaman shows us just how hard it is to give up control, especially when we have some control. 

Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house with his army, a huge treasure, and a letter from his king. But Elisha doesn’t care about any of that. I like to think that Elisha had one of the psalms in mind when he saw Naaman and his army approach his house, and especially these words from Psalm 33

A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save. Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love” (Psalm 33:16-18).  

Elisha knows this to be true. But how can he help Naaman to see it? How can he help Naaman to put his trust in the Lord, not in his great strength and wealth? 

Elisha sends a messenger out to Naaman with surprising instructions: Go and wash in the Jordan River seven times, and you will be healed. The eye of the Lord cares nothing for wealth, or might, for kings or armies. The eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, and who obey his teaching. 

Naaman, of course, doesn’t understand. He is furious at what just happened. Furious because Elisha didn’t come out to see him; furious because Elisha didn’t wave his hand over the spot to magically cure him; furious because Elisha didn’t take the money – he can’t be bought; and furious because Elisha wants Naaman to go wash himself in this dirty little creek, the Jordan River, rather than one of the big, impressive rivers in his own land. 

The Jordan River? 

You and I have heard of the Jordan River, of course. We know its special place in salvation history. We know it is the river the Israelites crossed to enter the Promised Land. We know that one day after Naaman’s time, God’s own son would be baptized in this river. But to Naaman, the Jordan River is just a dirty little creek. Nowhere near as impressive as the rivers of Damascus. How could this little creek heal him? Is this water more special than other water? And the answer, of course, is no. This water is no more special, even with its history. It’s not the water that will heal Naaman.

It reminds me of what Martin Luther says about water in his teaching on baptism in the Small Catechism. He said that: “Baptism is not simply plain water. Instead it is water used according to God’s command and connected with God’s Word.” 

It doesn’t really matter where you are baptized, or by whom. It doesn’t matter which church you’re baptized in, or what water is used. What matters is that you are doing what Jesus commanded. It is about faith – that is what makes all the difference. Naaman does what Elisha instructs him to do. A little reluctantly, with some convincing from his servants. But he did what he was commanded. And he is miraculously healed. 

But then, like the grateful leper in today’s gospel reading (Luke 17:11-19), Naaman returns to Elisha to thank him. And to declare before him and all present: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” 

Naaman didn’t have to do this. He didn’t have to return to Elisha, who hadn’t even taken the time to meet Naaman. And he didn’t have to acknowledge his newfound belief that there is no other God. This acknowledgement could actually get him in trouble, back in Aman, when he returns to his king, who worships another god. But Naaman sees now who is in control. And this sets him a totally new path in life, free from fear, and free from the need to be in control. He now believes in the God that his young captive girl and the mysterious prophet Elisha introduced him to, the God whose eye is on all who fear him, and all who wait for his steadfast love. 

A Greedy Servant and Some Dirt for Home

But the story doesn’t end there. There is an epilogue to this story that was not part of today’s reading, but is worth mentioning, because it introduces another fairy tale-like character to us: the greedy servant, Gehazi. 

Gehazi is Elisha’s servant, and he hated seeing Naaman leave with all of that wealth. So he ran after him and told him that Elisha changed his mind and would like part of the wealth to be given to him. Elisha, as you might guess, learns of Gehazi’s deception, and informs him that he will now be stricken with Naaman’s skin disease. (There is a pretty obvious moral to this part of the story, which I don’t even need to state.)

But there is one final part of this story that I also want to point out. And that is Naaman’s unusual request that Elisha provide two mule loads of earth for Naaman to take back to his home country of Aram. Why? So that Naaman can now offer burnt offerings and sacrifices to the one true God, the Lord God of Israel. 

Isn’t that a wonderful ending to this story? Because it shows us that the right response to being healed, to being blessed by God, is always to worship him. That’s what Naaman wants to do. He wants to worship the God of Israel. So he is going to literally bring a little of the promised land back with him to his home country. Did he have to do that to worship God? No, obviously not. But it is his way of bringing his newfound faith and gratitude home with him. 

Now, I don’t have any dirt to give you today, but it does make me wonder what we can bring back to our homes, to our workplaces, to our respective communities, from this place of worship. We are here, and we have been blessed by God. We have been forgiven our sin. We have been made clean, you might say. And we are worshiping God. But how might we continue our worship, and our service of God, tomorrow, and throughout the week? What offerings can we make? What sacrifices? What can we learn from Naaman? What can we take away from this story? 

Closing

The story of the healing of Naaman is a simple story with profound truths. It reads like a fairy tale, and even offers a fairy tale ending: The great warrior, Naaman, humbled by his illness and made whole by his healing, bringing two mule loads of earth back to his home, and to that young captive girl. Naaman was forever changed by that young girl’s faithful witness, and by his obedience to the prophet Elisha’s instruction. May we all be changed by the faithful witness of scripture, and by our obedience to its great teaching. Amen. 

10 thoughts on “Learning from Naaman: My Sermon on 2 Kings 5

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