Last Sunday 17th February I preached at Becontree Avenue Baptist Church. I talked about the healing of Naaman a man from Syria who had leprosy.
Jesus provoked the crowd in the synagogue at Nazareth when he said that a prophet is not believed in his own town and added “And there were many in Israel with leprosyin the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
As usual I begin with the scripture:
2 Kings 5:1 -14
1 Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy. 2 Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 4 Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. 5 “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. 6 The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7 As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!” 8 When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” 11 But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. 13 Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” 14 So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
Have you ever noticed how God asks ordinary people like you and me to do extraordinary things? Sometimes impossible or improbable things?
God doesn’t see people as we do. He looks at people’s hearts rather than their physique or their resume. There is one perhaps insignificant player in this story who actually plays a significant part – a Jewish slave girl who is used by God as the story unfolds. Lets just remember that we may be insignificant in the world’s eyes but God has a part for each one of us to play in his plans.
Firstly a brief history lesson. Naaman was a general in the army of Aram, the country we now know as Syria. Aram had gained its independence from Israel during the reign of King Solomon and until its conquest by the Assyrians in 732 BC was often at war with Israel. Sometime, Judah joined in on Aram’s side and other times Judah went to Israel’s aid. And today, some 2800 years on, Israel and Syria are still enemies.
What do we know about Naaman? In our passage we read, “Naaman, the commander of the Syrian Army, was highly respected and esteemed by the king of Syria because through Naaman the Lord had given great victory to the Syrian forces. He was a great soldier, but he suffered from a dreaded skin disease.“
Obviously this man was a national hero, perhaps of the standing of Montgomery or Eisenhower. A successful and popular man, no doubt famous throughout the country. Here is Naaman, at the height of his fame and power and military prowess, with the writer of the Book of Kings even attributing his victories to God. This may seem strange, but we know that The Lord used the nations surrounding Judah and Israel to punish and discipline his people when they went astray. Given that the then king of Israel was Jehoram son of the evil King Ahab it is hardly surprising that Israel went through periods of judgement at the hands of its enemies.
So at the peak of his career, highly respected and not doubt well rewarded for his victories, he has a problem. He has leprosy. Even if you dress it up in its modern name of Hansen’s disease, it was and for some still is Bad News. It is only in recent years that a treatment has been available, and that treatment is fairly simple if the disease is caught early enough. However, in Naaman’s day there was no cure, just the gradual spread of the disease and the characteristic deformity caused as nerves died away and opportunistic infections of unnoticed or uncared for injuries take their toll.
For Naaman the outlook was disfigurement, disability and finally death. Once the secret was out, his public life, his friendship with the King of Syria, his career, his family life would end and he would be an outcast driven out of society as leprosy sufferers are today in many parts of the world. All he had worked for would come tumbling down around him. All would be lost.
You can imagine the turmoil in Naaman’s household at the news. What would happen to Naaman? How would the family manage if he had to go away? In the midst of all this, another piece of the jigsaw fits into place. Some would say it was pure chance or coincidence, but when you look at the story as a whole you can see God at work in people’s lives. In v2 we read, “In one of their raids against Israel, the Syrians had carried off a little Israelite girl who became a servant of Naaman’s wife.”
How many of us fail to see why we are in circumstances that are not to our liking? We all too often look at things from our point of view rather than God’s. Here is this little girl snatched away from her family in a Syrian raid and enslaved in a foreign land yet she is to play her part for God. Maybe she felt like a discarded bananas on a fruit stall – useless, discarded and unwanted. If we look in Genesis we would see how God was able to use a young man in similar circumstances to save not only his people but also the people of Egypt. That man was Joseph.
Would we do the same? Would we witness in difficult circumstances? In our families or our work? Sometimes if we don’t do what God asks us to do, no one else can or will do it. This unnamed girl played her part and passed on the good news that a cure was possible.
“One day she said to her mistress “I wish that my master could go to the prophet who lives in Samaria! He would cure him of his disease.””
Right from the time of Moses when God gave the law to the Jewish people there was the expectation that people could be cured from leprosy. They would have to be examined by the priests and confirmed “clean”. However apart from Naaman, there is no record in the Bible of anyone being healed of Leprosy until Jesus came – see Luke 17:11-19.
Fortunately Naaman decides to take the advice, perhaps out of desperation rather than hope or belief, but he goes. I think it is interesting that he goes by the official route, almost as if was a diplomatic visit rather than a personal pilgrimage. He has his king’s permission to go and takes with him some amazingly valuable presents and a rather ominous letter for the King of Israel, which really places the onus on the king of Israel to cure Naaman. I wonder if the king of Syria was using the situation to pressure on his neighbour? Look what the letter says: “The letter that he took said ‘This letter will introduce my officer Naaman. I want you to cure him of his disease.'”
There is an interesting parallel between Naaman bearing gifts and seeking a cure with the wise men also bearing gifts and seeking a saviour. They all went to the earthly king when they needed to seek out the heavenly ruler. Anyway Naaman arriving in Samaria the capital city of Israel must have caused quite a stir. To have the commander of a hostile neighbour’s army appear at your palace with what looks like an impossible request or demand must have caused King Jehoram great consternation. He no doubt could see the veiled threat behind the request. We read “When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes in dismay and exclaimed, “How can the king of Syria expect me to cure this man? Does he think that I am God with the power of life and death? It’s plain that he is trying to start a quarrel with me!””
At this point the second of God’s people in the story makes his appearance. He does not however come to the palace and heal Naaman. No, he sends the following message: “Why are you so upset? Send the man to me, and I’ll show him that there is a prophet in Israel!”
So Naaman and his entourage swept out of the palace and make their way to Elisha’s house which was no doubt in the poorer end of Samaria, given that prophets didn’t seem to have that good a life style. Can you imagine the way Naaman feels he is being treated; firstly being sent to the poor end of town and then insulted by Elisha not even coming to the door to see him, the great commander of the mighty Syrian army. Surely the prophet should have come out and said a prayer, or cast a spell as no doubt the magicians back home would do, or maybe tell him to do some amazing task to achieve his healing. This is what happened: “Elisha sent a servant out to tell him to go and wash himself seven times in the river Jordan, and he would be completely cured of his disease”
Poor Naaman now he has injured pride to add to his leprosy. The great man wouldn’t deign to see him. How dare he! Who does he think he is? Why should I go and jump in that muddy stinking river? There are some wonderful mountain streams and rivers back home that are far healthier. Forget it!
Can’t you just imagine his reaction? Maybe that’s how some of us would react in similar circumstances. I suspect that then, as now, there was a personality cult with preachers and healers. After all, many people go to healing services when there are going to be famous men or women there. Look at the hype when famous preachers like Maurice Cerillo or Benny Hine come over to this country. Rather than accept than God can and does heal through anyone he chooses, we tend to seek healing from the “famous healer”. For some folk around here it has to be the vicar or pastor who visits when they are sick. Apparently no one else will do! On the other side of the coin I have come across people who boast that they heal people, rather than God graciously healing through them!
Fortunately for Naaman, his servants had more sense than their master or indeed were detached enough from the situation to be able to see what was happening. “His servants went up to him and said ‘Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, you would have done it. Now why can’t you just wash yourself as he said, and be cured?” Don’t we sometimes need someone to be the voice of reason in our ears when we think that God is asking us to do something ridiculous or embarrassing?
Naaman did as Elisha had commanded him. But think about what was involved in this. As a general he rode in a chariot whilst the common soldiers walked. He had to get down from his chariot and strip off all his fine clothes before wadding into the river, not knowing with any degree of certainty if he would be cured. He is at a place where his status, represented by his fine chariot, and all his possessions and achievements, represented by his clothes and war gear have to be put to one side and he has to come to God just as he is. All this stuff does not impress God, it might impress our fellow men, but not God! It is as Isaiah said “All our righteous deeds are as filthy rags.” This is where our title comes in as Naaman finally does as God wants him to and he ducks under the water seven times to emerge healed. Praise God!
If we had read the next verse in this chapter we would have heard something amazing from someone who up to know had been a non believer and an enemy of God’s people: “He returned to Elisha with all his men and said ‘Now, I know that there is no god but the God of Israel.’” I wonder how many of us thank God when our prayers are answered, and then tell others how God has worked in our lives? Shouldn’t we testify to God’s goodness?
So what lessons are there for us in this story?
I think the major point is that there is a parallel between Naaman’s condition and that of mankind. Man is suffering from an apparently incurable disabling, disfiguring disease called sin. Where leprosy kills off the nervous system, sin deadens our conscience so that we are not aware of the damage we do to ourselves by the way we live, the choices we make.
There is a cure for sin as simple as the cure for Naaman’s leprosy. It too can restore the damage done to a person’s life. But from man’s point of view, God’s cure for sin is just as improbable, as we all want to do it our way just as Naaman wanted to do it his way. Just as there were three stages to Naaman’s healing there are three stages to our healing from sin.
Naaman was told:
- Be healed
We are told:
- Be saved
Romans 10: 9 puts it this way “If you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from death you will be saved.”
Do you need God’s cure? If so, like Naaman you need to:
- Shed your pride, you cannot save yourself because of who you are.
- Recognise that your human achievements really mean nothing to God and they must be dropped as Naaman dropped his uniform.
- Be obedient to God.
If you feel that like Naaman you have a problem that is beyond man’s help bring it to the Lord today and when he tells you what to do just obey and see the Lord work in your life.