Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany – Series B
So God loves everybody. That is easy enough to say, but it does get rather harder when one comes to actual application, doesn’t it? I can easily enough say that I love all the folks in China, but when we come to people I actually know, it gets tougher to swallow. And when we start to talk about certain kinds of people, say my neighbor whose unfinished trash-heap of a house is driving down my home’s value, then we have an even greater problem. God loves that guy? I am supposed to as well? It gets even harder when we talk about the people who have really put the hurt on us: the cheating spouse, the thief, the man who sues us, etc.
But this is the Epiphanytide and Jesus is revealed to us to be the Son of God, in whom God is well pleased and to whom we should listen. We recognize in him that strange and scandalous love of God. This is the God that put up with the grumbling Israelites throughout the years of wandering the wilderness and last week promised them another prophet after Moses left. Can you imagine sending anyone you liked to do that job? Jesus is revealed to be the Son of the God who sent the children of Israel into the exile, not strictly as a punishment, but also that he might purify and lead his precious people back home, to re-establish the relationship they had broken through their adulterous behaviors. This is the God who sent Jonah to the Ninevites, the enemies of Israel, scandalously loving the hated persecutors of his people.
Today we will see Jesus reach out his hand to a pair of lepers. In modern times with organizations like Doctors without Borders and the oath that your physician and mine have taken, this perhaps does not seem odd to us. But this was a leper, a man with a terminal, contagious disease. This is a doctor coming on the scene of an accident and treating the AIDS victim even though he doesn’t have the latex gloves to shield him from the HIV virus. Jesus is breaking every social taboo here. You don’t talk to lepers, much less touch them. But the compassion of Christ simply does not let that stop him. Here was one of his precious creatures suffering, and not only suffering from a disease but also from the stigma attached to the disease. This man had not been touched even by his own family since his diagnosis. So Jesus touches him.
Coupling that story with Naaman seems like a natural, but it will demonstrate another scandalous bit of God’s love. I have extended the text a little for this, but it is necessary. You see, Naaman comes back to Elisha and asks if it is OK that when he goes back to Nineveh, he will have to participate in the pagan worship of the Ninevite king. And Elisha speaks to him the words we say to our own congregations every week, “Go in peace.”
We love to make the boundaries beyond which God’s love cannot go, and he delights in smashing them for us. I have no promise of salvation for anyone outside the faith of Jesus Christ. I cannot preach that someone outside that fellowship goes to heaven, but God’s love is not constrained by my preaching limits. Today we have the delicate job of saying that God loves everyone, every scandalous wretch whom we have learned to hate with every fiber of our being, all of them.
This sounds easy, as I said, until you start to think about it, and start to think about the stinkers you do know and realize he means them too. You might just think you have it until you start to think about the pariahs of our community, and realize, he means them too, or until you start to think about the enemy, even the one who worships another god, who means you harm, who has even sought your life, and realize, he means them too.
Luther would call this “danach” theology. Literally that means that God loves us despite who we are. He would contrast that with “ergo” theology which finds that God loves us because of who we are.
Collect of the Day
O Lord, graciously hear the prayers of Your people that we who justly suffer the consequences of our sin may be mercifully delivered by Your goodness to the glory of Your name; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“God listen to us” we seem to pray here. That in itself is an important statement. We need God to hear us, and that hearing needs to be a “gracious” hearing. We don’t have the answers to these problems, we don’t know the way out, we don’t possess that sort of power. This is not just an appeal for “a little help here!” but an admission of our fundamental helplessness. We need a gracious hearing, an undeserved, loving hearing.
We suffer the just consequences of our sin. The fix we are in is our own doing. Oh, I may not have consumed the forbidden fruit of Eden, but that makes me no less culpable for the mess I find myself in. I have run this human race, it is my sin too. I am bearing its consequences. My knee hurts when I walk up the steps today. My glasses were lost this morning and I could not get out the door on time. More than that, I watch the news like the rest of us. I have watched as hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs. I have watched a cruise shipped named “Concordia” crash on the shoals of an island in the Mediterranean and hope that it not an eerie, prophetic metaphor for the Concordia which I serve. That is a lot of people out of work, that is a lot of houses and cars and dreams being repossessed. That could be a lot of hungry people. I speak with a student whose husband has left her with small children to care for, I prayed this morning with a friend who went into the hospital to have a cancer removed from his body. None of this is random, none of this is accident, and none of this falls on our heads unjustly. If Al Gore is right and climate change is going to kill millions, can we really complain to the Almighty about it?
Like I said above, we really need God to listen to us. We need his gracious hearing and his merciful deliverance. Grace is undeserved love. Mercy is what you give to the guilty. Our appeal is to the mercy of God, that simply because he is good we might be delivered from what we have brought down on our own heads. I know a doctor who came to the conclusion that he did not really like patients. What he really struggled with was that they kept doing destructive things and asked him to fix it, to make it like it was before after they had taken such poor care of themselves.
He became a radiologist finally, MRI’s and X-Ray slides simply presented problems, not the problematic human being behind the screen.
God’s mercy means he does not take such an attitude with us. His goodness means that he has mercy for us, not what we deserve. And as a result his name is glorified. But nowhere is it more glorified than in the transformation which the prayer presupposes. You see, if I really am graciously being heard, justly suffering, and mercifully being helped just because God is good, then I have to see things rather differently. The love which has done that for me cannot be limited to those whom I deem appropriate. God’s name is glorified in the love which now flows through me by his definition.
We frequently struggle to see ourselves as humbly standing before God. We want to say that there is something about us that makes us somehow loveable to God. That shows up in a haughty attitude toward the folks outside. It shows up in the way we conduct our ministry. It shows up in a congregation that is so inwardly focused that it has nothing for those outside. Just look at our budget decisions. Whose report is first at our council meetings? Is it always the treasurer or is it the evangelism and human care boards? It shows up in the way we talk about people and ourselves, a double standard which clucks its tongue at the sins of others but overlooks our own.
It also shows up at our pious, righteous anger at the left-leaning political agenda, the homosexuals, the abortionists, the others whom we are angry at. That anger is born of a sense that we are right, for if we would call down God’s wrath upon such sinners, we should be prepared for it to fall on our heads too, for we are also such sinners.
This prayer and these readings offer a strong judgment for the church today. Why is it that the young people in my classrooms know little about Christianity except that they hate homosexuals? It is hard to love the man who blew up his house with his two little boys inside. He seems like such a monster to us. Can God love even him? He butchered his wife and then to escape the consequences he murdered his own sons with a hatchet. What does God say about that? Perhaps the first reading will help.
II Kings 5:1-14 I have extended the reading to include the incident I reference in my initial essay.
1 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper. 2 Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 4 So Naaman went in and told his lord, “Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.” 5 And the king of Syria said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.”
So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. 6 And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7 And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.”
8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and he came and stood before him. And he said, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel; so accept now a present from your servant.” 16 But he said, “As the LORD lives, before whom I stand, I will receive none.” And he urged him to take it, but he refused. 17 Then Naaman said, “If not, please let there be given to your servant two mule loads of earth, for from now on your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the LORD. 18 In this matter may the LORD pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the LORD pardon your servant in this matter.” 19 He said to him, “Go in peace.”
Most of us probably remember this story from Sunday School where it was a favorite. The fact that it was a little girl who sends the captain of the army to the prophet was especially important to a lot of those lessons I remember.
It would not be until I was an adult that I really started to hit on what I think are the real messages of this text from Kings. A couple of weeks ago we read part of the Jonah story and picked up on the antagonism between the Israelites and the Syrians whose capital was then in Nineveh. Jonah did not want God to forgive them. He wanted them to go to hell.
This story seems to come from a time roughly contemporary to Jonah, although we are not sure. The Syrians are waging a constant war with the Israelites. Sometimes the Israelites win, sometimes the Syrians do. This parity will last until the Assyrians come in from the north and east and absorb both of these smaller countries. At that time, the Syrians and Israelites will ally themselves with one another and invite Judah to join them in resisting the Assyrians. Judah will decline which in turn will precipitate an invasion from Israel and Syria at the time of Ahaz and Isaiah. They will attempt to force Judah to join their resistance to Assyria, or at least promise not to sell them out to the Assyrians. It is while king Ahaz is inspecting the wall that we get the famous scene in which Isaiah points to the virgin who will conceive. Eventually Judah does exactly what Israel and Syria fear, Judah pays Assyria a great sum to invade their lands and since the Assyrians were planning on doing this anyway, they gladly cash the check and relieve Judah.
At the time of Elisha, however, this alliance is all in the distant future. Syria is the mortal enemy. Not only do their soldiers conduct raids on the outlying villages of Israel, they capture little girls and enslave them. Did you notice that no one frees the little girl from slavery? She probably died a slave, unless Naaman freed her in gratitude, but the text doesn’t even seem to think about that. It never mentions her fate.
Of course, in the eyes of the text, the real problem with the Syrians is that they are worshipers of other gods. Naaman is. As the general of the army, he is expected to participate in a number of official worship functions with the king, it sounds like from the text. For the Deuteronomist who is editing this story years later, the idolatry of Israel is the primary cause of their exile. It was because they were soft on the sin of idolatry that God eventually sent the Babylonians to destroy the temple and Jerusalem. Yet, here we see that the love of God transcends those bounds. He loves the idolaters as well as the Israelites.
To top it all off, it appears that Naaman is a bit arrogant. Like many in power, he expected to be treated as such. Surely the prophet should come down and at least greet him, wave his hand, so something. But the prophet sent his servant, probably lest he become unclean speaking to this gentile. Naaman is given a command to bathe in the Jordan river, which he considers ridiculous.
So Naaman has at least four strikes against him.
1. He is a Syrian general, a man who has perpetrated many victories against the people of God.
2. He is an enslaver of Israelite children
3. He is an Idolater – worshiping other gods
4. He is arrogant and proud.
And yet, how many lepers in Israel were not healed? God’s strange love reaches out to this man and he becomes a witness to the gracious and merciful love which God has for all people. This goes so far as to seemingly violate one of the most basic of commandments. Naaman is given a
dispensation to participate in the worship of the Syrian gods as a function of his duties. There is no demand that he stop being a general, there is no requirement that he cease the idolatrous practices of the Syrians. There is no demand that the Israelite slave girl be released from her slavery. He is no rebuked for his arrogance. He is healed. This little story raises some troubling issues, doesn’t it.
What does it tell us about the love of God for people? What does it tell us about our own worthiness or unworthiness? Is anyone worthy? Does it matter? Do we act like it matters when it doesn’t?
Perhaps the way to contextualize this would be to portray Naaman today as a gang leader. God might be using him and the violence which he perpetrates to drive the community together and do some much better and healthy things than if he was not doing what he was doing. Often we see these communities as their best in the face of this sort of thing.
But what we cannot lose sight of is that God loves the gangster as well. He not only uses Naaman as a tool, but he also loves him, heals him of his disease.
This text liberates us in some way. I may find some people who have abandoned their Christianity in my own family or my circle of friends. They may have elected to follow the dictates of the Buddha at this point and often we feel that our love is somehow contingent on them returning or somehow we might need to fix this before they can really be the objects of our love. But the truth is that belongs to God. Elisha can say to Naaman, “Go in Peace.” And mean it. He did his part, he offered the love which healed Naaman and he trusted God to deal with the rest of this. He did not need to run Naaman’s life. I see that God loves with God’s unconditional love. The love which God has flows through his servant on this day, finding the object which God has in mind, not necessarily the leper I would have chosen to heal.
A great sermon can be preached on the effectiveness and role of a servant. The little girl starts this process, the servants then are the ones who really get Naaman to wash in the river. It is the servant of Elisha who brings the command of Elisha to the leper. There is a great deal in here to commend the role of a servant. This sermon would likely contrast the role of Naaman, notice now often at the end of the text he refers to himself as a servant when he is talking to Elisha in the extension I printed. You might want to compare the old, proud, arrogant Naaman with the new Naaman created by the gracious healing of God, in water no less. If you cannot make a baptismal connection out of that you really need to hang up the preaching shoes.
Sermon title: Out with the old in with the New!
In this idea the servants are not professionals. All the heavy lifting seems to be done by regular ordinary people using simple words. They are not the prophets nor do they seem to have some holy office. They are just telling their own story, their own message. We are all servants. Our congregants tend to have an idea that only the trained theologian, pastor, deacon can actually share the good news. Do we foster that ourselves? Probably. But here a little girl does better than most of us professional types.
1 I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up and have not let my foes rejoice over me. 2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. 3 O LORD, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.
4 Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name. 5 For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
6 As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” 7 By your favor, O LORD, you made my mountain stand strong; you hid your face; I was dismayed.
8 To you, O LORD, I cry, and to the Lord I plead for mercy: 9 “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? 10 Hear, O LORD, and be merciful to me! O LORD, be my helper!”
11 You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, 12 that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
I Corinthians 10:(19 – 30) 31-11:1
14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there
is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 18Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. 25 Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 26 For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— 29 I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?
31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.
1 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
Again, though we are reading the Epistle lessons in a series not in a deliberate conjunction with the Gospel lesson, the readings correspond much as they did last week. Paul speaks of food offered to idols, it is a demonic practice, those are not gods they worship but demonic forces. I teach a course on Concordia’s campus called “Religion and Literature: Sci-Fi.” We are read C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and one of the primary themes in the books, especially the third one, is that there really are non-corporeal entities out there, powerful and beyond our comprehension. He would have us realize that dabbling in some sort of a nameless spirituality which is not addressed to the triune God often ends up becoming demonic. It is a little like mail. If you don’t have the exact address on the letter, it might end up in the wrong hands. The same thing applies to all our spiritual activity. It is not a matter of indifference where we are directing this. The vague spirituality of the nature worshipers may not be heading upward or to some noble ear quite like they intend.
And that is a problem, Paul says. We cannot be both a worshiper of God and his enemy. We cannot be Christians and Pagans. This is one of the reasons that the LCMS has always had a very strong position against membership in a Masonic Order with their vague prayers addressed to the “architect of the universe,” but they refuse to name him. Such prayers are genuinely worship.
But Naaman is told – Go in peace.
Paul then seems to offer up a “don’t ask, don’t tell” sort of policy here. The critical criterion seems to be the conscience of the other person and the eater himself. If you knowingly eat what is offered to idols and do not have a care for what the person who sees you do it, then you may have a problem here. But the truth is that the whole world belongs to God and everything in it. So if you go to the meat market and buy a roast, eat it with a clear conscience. But if someone tells you as you are buying it, “it was sacrificed to Zeus.” then you will have to leave it there, because it obviously means something to the one who told you. The same is true if you are invited to dinner. Eat what they put in front of you, but not if they make it part of an idolatrous worship.
In eating or drinking we are to give glory to God. But how do we reconcile this last part of the text with the first part. If there really are demons and they really are the ones who are worshiped in the pagan rites, how can Paul then offer up this “don’t ask, don’t tell” sort of policy. Isn’t that detracting from the view of reality which he wrote in the first paragraph?
The key to this seems to be the quotation in verse 26 which can be found in Psalm 24:1, and other spots in the OT in which God claims to own the whole world. (Exodus 9:29; Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 10:14; Job 41:11; Psalm 50:12) The point Paul seems to be making here is that the Devil’s claim to ownership, even of the sacrifices that are given to him by humans is abrogated by God’s superior claim as creator and then as redeemer. Hence, the Christian does not have to be worried about the passive participation in some sacrifice to an idol through the consumption of a T-bone from a cow which was sacrificed to Aphrodite or some other pagan deity. Despite what the Devil claims, it all belongs to God.
But, if the person who is giving it to you doesn’t see it that way and if they see you eating it and knowing what it is, then they may be led to think that there is no difference between the true God and these demons. Then, Paul says, refrain from eating. The love of a brother moves us to that gift.
40 And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” 42 And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, 44 and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” 45 But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.
And a leper came to him, imploring him,… notice the emphasis on the will of Jesus here, this is about what God wants. Moved by pity, Jesus does the unthinkable and touches this man; this
man whom the whole society said was unclean and untouchable. He touches him and makes him clean.
Jesus commands him to say nothing, but he goes out and tells everyone and the news spread. Soon Jesus can no longer enter the villages, but must go out to desolate places and the multitudes throng out to him there. I use this story as Matthew tells it (much the same) and I had several students really express outrage at the leper. One of them actually suggested that Jesus should have given him the leprosy back or struck him dead or something. I gave him points for taking the commandment seriously, but I think he ultimately missed the text.
When I see this text in its context, it seems like this is a discussion of authority and the relative values of authority. It seems that Mark/s audience is being somehow persecuted, persecution with a goal of their silence. But the kingdom of God cannot be silenced, not even when Jesus himself commands a leper to be silent. He obeys the higher command which Jesus himself is following that he has come to preach the kingdom to all the villages of Galilee and beyond. The leper is not censured for this. He is doing the right thing, in a sense, even though it is disobeying the authority of Christ himself. Mark’s audience are also confronted with an authority which tells them to be quiet. They too must ignore that authoritative demand. The kingdom of God simply will come out.
A second thing needs to be said about the goal of that kingdom. We have erred when we would restrict this kingdom to the right sort of folks. I think all these texts point us to the disturbing reality that the people who are on the up escalator at the end of time cannot point to anything in themselves that makes them different from the folks on the down escalator which ends in the large warm room in the basement. That grates against our human sensibilities. Much of the reformation divisions would revolve around why are some saved and not others? The Calvinists located the whole thing in the will of God. He simply and mysteriously wants some men to be saved and others to be damned. That would strike many as incongruent with the God they knew and it would have some problems in those verses in which God himself says that he does not delight in the death of the sinner (e.g. Ez 33:11) or that he wants all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (I Tim 2:4.)But it does actually have some resonance with the passage before us. Jesus is willing to save the man, that is the key point. But is he willing to save all?
Others (many Wesleyans) would say that God took into some sort of an account what we would do with the salvation once we had it. This position is usually called “postlapsarian” in other words after the fall. God realized that some folks would use this salvation in fruitful ways and others would not, so knowing who would and who would not, he moved the good guys to come to faith. But this again flies in the face of “the blood of Jesus atones for the sins of the whole world.”
Even today, I have heard a lot of Lutherans explain the difference between the saved and the not saved as “faith.” In other words, I have faith, they don’t, so I get to go to heaven. It is true that the subjective reality of faith is the difference, but as they go on to talk about faith, I wonder if
they don’t rather understands that faith is something that I have done. That is just another form of works righteousness when you get right down to it. I go to heaven because I have ginned up the necessary faith.
These texts confront us with the disturbing reality that my presence in the kingdom of God is not due to anything that has a scrap to do with me. My status as a saved person has nothing to do with who I am or what I have done. The difference between me and the guy who is damned cannot be found, except that God has established a relationship called faith in which he takes all my sins and lays them on Jesus, and he gives me the cleansing and the purity and the perfection which I simply was helpless to achieve. There is no natural or native thing inside me which distinguishes me from the eternally condemned. Only God’s gift, mysteriously, mercifully, graciously given. I have it. I don’t know why I do, I cannot explain it. I cannot point even to the fact that unlike the other guy I haven’t said no, at least not yet. Even my no, my mealy-mouthed yes, is a gift from God.
This has profound implications for how I see the neighbor, even the neighbor whom I loathe and have good reason to loathe. God’s love doesn’t work like my love. Praise Him! I must start off by being glad he doesn’t love the deserving, that would exclude me. But did he really have to love all the blighters?
The human being rebels at this idea, this scandalous grace of God.
1. Life can be pretty hellish on this side of the grave and it might not be getting better on the other side. People contract terrible diseases like leprosy, I can catch them too. My doctor wears rubber gloves when I see him, just in case. What is he afraid of? What am I afraid of? The world seems profoundly broken, if not evil.
2. But the three dimensions in which I can see, act, and live are only the beginning. There are nasty and real spiritual entities who do not have my best interest in mind. They would suck my soul dry and leave me a withered shell of a human being. They would imprison me forever. This is a reality against which I have virtually no defense and yet my actions often have spiritual implications, even when I don’t know what I am doing.
3. This leaves me in a precarious position, made even more so by my complete lack of awareness. I am saved, yahoo! But my enemy, in order to jeopardize that, simply has to get me to start trusting anything other than God for my salvation. He won’t get me into open idolatry, he won’t get me to renounce my faith, so why not get me to trust my faith instead of God. It might not be his preferred solution to my salvation, it keeps me going to church which is dangerous from his perspective, but it might just put me on that down escalator at the end of time.
4. This suits my human nature rather well, to think that I am somehow even just a little bit special, a little bit better than the other guy. I have faith, they don’t. See what a good boy I am? God surely does, at least I think he ought to.
5. And so this manifests in my life when I would set up any boundary for the love of God. This person is beneath his love – God surely would not accept such a person into my church, would he?
6. My enemy smiles to hear such sentiment. He wins whenever I trust anyone other than God, even if in doing so I call myself a Christian.
1. Jesus knows just how hellish life, death, and what comes next can really be. Remember he died a death far more painful than anyone else. He really died, knows the cold darkness of a tomb which encased his flesh. He even knows hell. Remember, we confess that every time we say the creed. He knows it, and he has done something about it. His gift of self was given to the whole world which has always belonged to him by right, but which now belongs to him by love.
2. That victory is not only a victory over my physical woes and the sufferings of this life, but also over the devil whose pointy little tail twitched with glee when Jesus died. My baptism is Jesus’ hand reaching out to touch me, calling me by name, rendering me clean, marking me with his mark, keeping my evil foe away.
3. And so today he demonstrates his great love by loving the unloveables in the world. That is good news for every sinner who comes to church today and feels the weight of his or her sin. But is also a word of loving and gentle censure to the secure saint who settles in that familiar pew, confident that they are in and the other guys are out. Jesus reminds us today that we are all lepers, vain, arrogant, idolatrous by our very nature, and he loves us despite us.
4. He will not leave us trusting out faith or our own goodness. He storms into these readings with his scandalous love, and looks lovingly on his people and says, “See what I have done for you!”
5. And in saying this to me and about me he empowers me to be the lover of the man or woman I may meet as soon as I walk out these doors and into this world into which God has called me. I know very little for certain, but this is sure, Jesus loves that guy too.
6. And thus he makes us into the witnesses who cannot be quiet about the good news and Christ’s enemy and our enemy howls in rage. Jesus saves us, and he is really good at it. He saves us from our enemy, he saves us from this broken world, and even saves us from ourselves.
1. That Dirty, Rotten Scoundrel…God bless him! (OT and Gospel – That the hearer would believe that Jesus’ scandalous love has been given to him/her – not because but despite what we are.)
Naaman was a stinker, there is no getting around it. He was a Syrian first of all, and the Syrians waged constant war against the people of God. But he wasn’t just a Syrian, he was a Syrian general. He ran the war, and when they brought back some little Israelite girl as a captive, probably an orphan, traumatized and alone, he gave the child to his wife like you and I might bring home a piece of jewelry for our spouse or some new kitchen gadget for her birthday. He had leprosy and our modern sensibility might be to say that he had it coming. He did have it coming, but that little slave girl in his house would give him something else. She would send him to the prophet for a cure. You would think that no one deserved it less, and you might be right, except that if we are honest about it, we can lay no more claim to it than he did. Naaman will storm off from Elisha’s house demanding some respect, but his servants will speak wisdom to him. I am here to speak wisdom to you. God does not love you for who you are, and the sooner you realize that the better off you will be. God does not love you because you do good things or refrain from bad things. Naaman was a soldier for an army that fought against God’s people. He was a slave maker and owner. God loved him anyway. God does not love you because you are here today. He loves that you are here, but that is not why he loves you. Naaman will return to Damascus and he will bow before the gods of the Syrians and God will still love him. Elisha says “peace be with you.” and sends Naaman back to those gods. No, God does not love you because you are here. God does not even love you because you have faith. You cannot point that and say you got that much right. In truth, you are here today and you have faith because he loved you and loves you still, despite you. For faith itself is another gift from God, lovingly given and undeservedly received by us. God does not love you because you have faith. God just loves you. It was that love which opened the lips of that little girl in a terrible situation. It was that love which cleansed the scoundrel named Naaman. It is that love which has strangely and undeservedly come to you too.
But the story of Naaman and Jesus and the Leper have another side to them as well. As comfortable as it would be to sink in the plush comfort of our pews and bask in the love of God, the edge of all this is that God also loves the other guy, the one whom we will meet today and tomorrow and the next day. The reality of God’s beautiful and gracious love to me is a reality for them too. The Christian who has been thus loved cannot deny that without denying God’s love for himself/herself. Could the leper really have been silent about this?
Christ is still revealed today in the gentle words of his people, the loving deeds of his beloved people, the kindness shown graciously and undeservedly to all.
2. “A word in edgewise” (OT, Epistle, and Gospel – That the hearer would be changed by God’s sharp and two-edged word into a wielder of that life-giving word for all the people around them.)
Today we hear about lots of people who tell, a little girl in Naaman’s house, a servant who brings news from a prophet, more servants who wisely exhort a master, and finally, in the Gospel, a leper who disobeys Christ and tells the world what Jesus has done for him. Today we want to equip you with a simple, even child like message “go and see” which cannot be shut down, for it obeys a much higher imperative, even higher than the command of God, it obeys nothing less than the love of God. The love of God transcends even the rules.
My grandfather used to use the phrase “get a word in edgewise.” He needed to do that once in a while. My grandmother could really talk. The picture is that of a narrow edge of something, perhaps even a knife blade, forcing its way into something with the edge, making a narrow little opening for something else. Today we see God’s love for people who are tough to love (see the development of the sermon idea above). But God finds a way to love them, he sticks a word in “edgewise” with the bleeding edge of slavery and servitude. But in both instances it is the love of God which gives occasion for people to speak. The little girl had been enslaved and given as a helper to a woman. She was utterly powerless and the victim of a terrible circumstance. Who knows if her parents were even alive, but she kept her wits and more importantly her love about her. When she saw her master’s need, she had a simple message, “go and see.” Jesus reveals himself through the words of people like this today too. He gets a word in edgewise this way.
We have often made Evangelism into a frighten thing for people. But evangelism is not a scary thing, it is just one person pointing another to the place where they were helped. As one man said, it is one bum telling another bum where he can get a hot meal. It is a little word stuck in edgewise, into a person’s life. Not much of a thing, but God can do a lot with a little thing like that. But there is another speaker in these texts and he brings another important reality to this sermon, these wise words from your servant today. Jesus commanded the Leper to tell no one, but he just could not stop. How disappointed do you think Jesus really was at that? It appears to have made the ministry a little tougher for Jesus, it is true. But today he has taken that injunction off of us, and we are strangely silent. I would unleash your words today, the little edgewise words like the little girl and the leper. For Christ has also reached out his hand and touched you in the waters of your baptism. You did not deserve it, but you got it. And now it is yours, purposefully yours, that you might bubble over with his love to neighbor and friend. You might look for someone who simply needs, and send them to the same place in which you have found healing and wholeness. “Go and see, and if that is too hard, I will come with you. I like it there.”
3. Out with the Old, In with the New (OT lesson – that the Spirit of God would equip the hearer to be a servant.)
This sermon will play with the idea of servants in the Old Testament reading, noticing that Naaman becomes the servant by the service of his servants. He is transformed into something completely different because his servant girl serves his wife and through his wife serves him. It is servants who do all the heavy lifting in this story, carrying the talents of silver which never get given, but also speaking the words to a proud and haughty man and convincing him to simply take a bath in the Jordan river and be healed.
Our culture does not value the servant. We think they are beneath us. We think that to be a servant is a poor thing. But Jesus has come to serve. Our kingdom, our Lord, our King is a servant king, a servant Lord, a servant kingdom, a kingdom of servants. Too often we imagine that only the professional Christian can speak the word of God. We think that without the training of a pastor or a deacon we are not allowed to speak of Jesus.
But the good news of the kingdom can come from the lips of a little slave girl. Her status as a slave girl, kidnapped from her home and family and sold like a piece of property did not mean she was not also a servant of the most High God, a noble and effective instrument for his grace to come even to her captors. The leper in the Gospel reading is hardly your first pick for a great evangelist. He doesn’t even obey the rules Jesus lays down, but he is apparently pretty effective. He tells his story, his encounter with Jesus, and that is a potent story.
The servants of God have a story to tell, not someone else’s story, but their own. The little girl could tell Naaman to go and tell. The messenger of the prophet had a message to deliver. The servants of Naaman had wisdom which their arrogant master could not see.
Our baptism has made us a servant. It made Naaman a servant, just listen to his own words! He came back and tried to buy this gift from God, but Elisha would have none of it. it can only be had a gift, and it renders Naaman into a servant. He uses the word four or five times to describe himself.