16/08/2009 at 9.30am / 11.15am
2 Kings 5
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by Rod Earnshaw
We’ve just finished a sermon series on 21st C challenges – the challenge of secularism, materialism, individualism and so on. It’s no wonder social commentators are talking about ‘Broken Britain’. Atheism is on the march, Christian values are disappearing from our society, Islam is resurgent and we could be forgiven for feeling just a little bit threatened.
Our society seems to have come to the conclusion that there is no God, or if there is, He isn’t powerful enough to actually do anything for us. You might have seen the bus adds ‘There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. In this sort of environment it’s not impossible that we could begin to get the feeling that they’re right. Perhaps God isn’t there at all, or perhaps He’s there and but things are out of His control, or maybe He’s with some other religion and we’re barking up the wrong tree.
Well maybe you haven’t started to think like that yet. But if you have our passage this morning was written for you. And if you’re not there yet, this passage is a tonic to make sure we don’t give in to that sort of thinking.
We’re back in 2 Kings, chapter 5. We’re picking things up where we left off last summer and you might remember that things weren’t great for Israel. If you need a refresher on 1 Kings I recommend Dale Ralph Davies Keswick talks now available on www.clayton.tv. But to summarise, very early on in 1 Kings, Israel had begun to turn away from God and later on in the book God announced he would bring judgement against them.
In 1 Kings 19, verse 14, the prophet Elijah had spoken to God in despair – Israel has rejected you, torn down your altars and put your prophets to death. I’m the only one left and now they’re trying to kill me too. Things were obviously quite bad for the people who were faithful to God in Israel.
But God said to Elijah it’s not as bad as you think – I’ve reserved some people for myself – and I’m going to make sure it gets a whole lot worse. So he tells Elijah to appoint 3 people to bring judgement on Israel – Hazael, king of Aram; Jehu, king of Israel; and Elisha, to succeed him as prophet. God says in verse 17:
‘Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu’.That’s a terrible word of judgement on Israel. God is going to squeeze them through these men till no-one's left alive! Elijah thought it was bad – but it’s only going to get worse; Israel is going to suffer because God is against them.
That’s 1 Kings 19. We’re in 2 Kings 5. And by now Elijah has been succeeded by Elisha. And God has started to bring judgement against Israel. The surrounding nations are getting stronger as Israel is getting weaker. Hazael hasn’t taken over as King of Aram yet, but Aram is already harassing Israel from the North.
And the people of Aram might have been tempted to think that there was no God in Israel, or if there was, He wasn’t as strong as their god Rimmon – how else could they defeat Israel so easily? Meanwhile the people of Israel seemed to agree with them, at least in practice. They'd long since stopped following the Lord. They thought there was no God in Israel either – or if there was, that god was Baal, the fertility god, not Yahweh, the LORD. Sound familiar?
Well, 2 Kings 5 is an answer to that unbelief. It says to Israel and to Aram that there is a God in Israel. It says to us that God is there and he is in control, however out of control things look. We may not be able to see the signs that He’s at work in our society, but no matter what our circumstances tell us, there is a God who rules and he remains with us.
But there’s two stories in this chapter – the story of Naaman, the foreigner who's healed and comes to believe; and the story of Gehazi, the Israelite who suffers through unbelief. So let’s look at their stories in turn and then try and draw some conclusions.
So first, let’s look at Naaman’s story.
We meet Naaman in verse 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.Dale Ralph Davies sums him up – Naaman was the man who had everything: position, esteem, adulation, success, bravado – and leprosy. Notice that he belongs to the nation of Aram, the nation whose king Hazel will be appointed to destroy Israel. In verse 2 we read that Naaman has already been at work punishing Israel with military incursions:
Now bands from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman's wife.
Naaman has an Israelite servant girl because he’s been raiding Israel. Like the Vikings in our local history, we can only imagine those raids were pretty gruesome. And this poor little girl finds herself captive in a foreign land serving the wife of a military man, one of the chief raiders.
She would have had every excuse for giving up on God, but she hasn’t. She knows there's a God in Israel and she can’t help telling Naaman that God’s prophet could cure his leprosy. So, verse 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."The stage is set for Israel’s God to show himself to its arch enemy. Things progress quickly, Naaman goes to his king who writes up a letter and sends him to Israel with a Kings ransom to pay for his healing.
It’s not hard to imagine the scene when he arrived at the Kings Court in Samaria with his letter, look at what verse 6 says:
"With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy."It’s a bit like the President of USA sending one of his generals to Iraq to get healed. It can't possibly be for real. It looks like the King of Aram is trying to find excuses to start a brawl – and of course that’s how the King of Israel takes it. He knows the power of healing sickness belongs to God alone, look at verse 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!"He's the King of Israel. He knows only God can cure a man of leprosy. But we notice that he doesn’t expect Him to. Though he's the King of Israel he doesn’t know God or his power, because he worships the Baals, not Yahweh, the LORD.
So it's a good thing for him that the LORD is behind this episode. The LORD wants to show that he is still there and that he remains the LORD. His prophet Elisha steps in to show that there is a God in Israel. He sends a messenger to Israel’s unbelieving King saying, verse 8:
“Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel."Elisha's instruction highlights the central concern of this episode. The concern being whether there is a God in Israel, and God is represented by his prophet. Naaman’s leprosy and his visit to Israel is an opportunity to show that there is a God in Israel. The God of Israel hasn’t lost his power, that’s not why Aram is tearing them apart. God has brought Israel suffering from Aram because they’re under God’s judgement. Also, God has created this situation in order to reveal himself to the commander of the enemy forces.
So Naaman goes to Elisha, turning up with his horses and chariots, his entourage and all the trappings of power (and let’s not forget the treasures he’s brought). No doubt he expected to be treated with dignity and honour – he’s a powerful and important man, but Elisha doesn’t even bother coming out to meet him face to face. He sends out a messenger with an instruction telling Naaman that if he washes in the Jordan seven times, he’ll be healed.
We’re not surprised to read that Naaman went away angry. HE serves the King of Aram. Who does this prophet think he is? Besides, this healing plan sounds like a joke. Where's the magic spell? If all he had to do was wash in a river, why the Jordan River, why not the rivers back home? It’s worth noting that Samaria was some distance from the Jordan, so this ridiculous act of washing would also require a journey. And in his anger and his indignation Naaman almost misses out on the healing. Just as well for him, his servants convince him to calm down and give it a try – so he goes and washes as he was told and he’s healed.
Now for us this is the climax of the story. You can see the headline: Prophet Performs Miracle. Leper healed after washing in Jordan River. Maybe there is a God after all.
But that’s not the way the story’s told. The healing is quite matter of fact. Of course, God can do what ever he wants. If we’ve read this far in 1 and 2 Kings we’ve seen far more impressive things than this. If the prophet said he would be healed, he’d be healed, no question. No, the surprising thing in this passage is what happened after the foreigner was healed.
Look at verse 15 –19 with me:
Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, "Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. Please accept now a gift from your servant." The prophet answered, "As surely as the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing." And even though Naaman urged him, he refused. "If you will not," said Naaman, "please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the LORD. But may the LORD forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also--when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for this." "Go in peace," Elisha said.Here is Israel’s enemy turning to worship the LORD. Israel doesn’t even worship the LORD. But Naaman has come to understand the truth – he says in verse 15:
‘Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel’.Aram has their own god, the god ‘Rimmon’. No doubt Naaman had worshipped Rimmon along with the rest of his countrymen. But now he knows that Rimmon is an impostor. Rimmon is no god at all. But there is a God in Israel – a real God, an active, miracle working, saving God (and a judging God). So the central question of this chapter is answered – not only is there a God in Israel, but He is the only God, the true and living God.
So we notice that Naaman’s condescending attitude is completely changed. No longer does he scoff and look down at the prophet. Naaman may serve a King, but Elisha serves God. Before Elisha, Naaman is but a servant.
And what’s more Naaman promises that from now on he won’t worship any other gods – not even when his job requires him to. Here is a note of conviction and understanding that we just haven’t seen in 1 and 2 Kings. The Kings of Israel have mixed worship for Yahweh with worship of other gods. But Naaman understands that the LORD is to be worshiped exclusively. And the prophet tells him to ‘Go in Peace’. We are to understand that he is right with God. So God’s grace comes to a foreigner. This is a real highpoint in the books of 1 and 2 Kings.
And from this highpoint, sadly the story goes down hill rapidly, as the focus shifts from the foreigner to the local. So let’s have a quick look at the contrasting fortunes of Elisha’s servant, Gehazi.
We didn’t read it earlier so let me quickly summarise the action for you – Gehazi decides that Elisha should have accepted Naaman's money, so he goes after him and makes up a story about some visiting prophets and asks for clothes and money to provide for them. Naaman gives him more than he asks, he takes it back, hides it in the house and then pretends to Elisha that it never happened. Have a look down at verse 25:
Then he went in and stood before his master Elisha. "Where have you been, Gehazi?" Elisha asked. "Your servant didn't go anywhere," Gehazi answered. But Elisha said to him, "Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the time to take money, or to accept clothes, olive groves, vineyards, flocks, herds, or menservants and maidservants? Naaman's leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants for ever." Then Gehazi went from Elisha's presence and he was leprous, as white as snow.That sounds a little harsh doesn’t it? He accepted a gift and for that he ends up with leprosy? Well perhaps it is a little harsh. But perhaps I should also point out that Gehazi broke a number of the commandments; he lied to both Naaman and Elisha, he coveted Naaman’s wealth, stole from him and he even takes God’s name in vain. So that's four of the commandments broken.
His guilt goes deeper than that. There are two things that make Gehazi's behaviour seriously out of line.
The first is that he undermines the message of grace that Elisha was at pains to make clear. Elisha rejected payment for healing. But Gehazi insisted on it. In an honour based culture Naaman probably would have seen Gehazi’s story as a pretence so the prophet could accept payment without losing face. Naaman probably thought that Elisha, not Gehazi had made up the story about the visitors and that he was really being asked to pay for his healing. So Gehazi undermines the message of God’s grace.
The second reason Gehazi is out of line is that he shows contempt for the word of the LORD. Gehazi should have known better than anyone that Elisha wasn’t acting on his own. He was God’s prophet and when he spoke he spoke for God. It wasn't so much Elisha who let Naaman go without payment, as God who refused payment. So Gehazi acted just like the rest of Israel, he thought he knew better than God and did exactly the opposite to what God had said.
And so when Gehazi demands payment from Naaman, what he gets from the LORD is a fitting payment for his unbelief. He receives Naaman’s leprosy.
So we see a terrible symmetry between the two characters. Naaman begins far from God and suffering from leprosy, but ends close to God and clear of his leprosy. Gehazi begins close to God and clear of leprosy, but ends cursed by God and suffering from leprosy.
What do we learn from this exchange? Well Jesus seems to have summed it up in Luke chapter 4. Jesus claimed to come in fulfilment of an ancient prophecy saying Luke 4:18:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."Grace has come from God. Salvation comes with healing for the sick and release for the captives. To whom does this salvation come?
Look at verse 24:
"I tell you the truth," he continued, "no prophet is accepted in his home town. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed--only Naaman the Syrian." All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff.Jesus is saying that the miracles of Elijah and Elisha show God’s power to save, and they also announce God’s judgement on Israel . Israel rejects and rejects and rejects God. And in the end God rejects Israel and turns His attention instead to the nations who will listen to Him. Naaman represents the nations who will come to God and receive grace. Gehazi represents God’s people who hear the word but refuse to accept it.
And so hundreds of years later one greater than Elisha came. Jesus did greater miracles Elisha or Elijah, but the people still rejected him. So John says of Jesus, John 1:11:
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.How do we respond to this message of salvation and judgement? In a world like ours it’s easy to reject God. It’s easy to think that God isn’t really there at all, and if He is there He’s not worth following. But this chapter of 2 Kings reminds us again that God is really there. If we put our trust in Him He isn’t far away.
But it also warns us that if we make a pretence of following Him, if we're just here for appearances sake, if we don't actually listen to God's word, then we could be setting ourselves up for God's judgement. God isn't after half-hearted followers. He wants us to listen to Him and make His word our rule.
So how will you respond to the God of Israel, the God who revealed himself to Naaman, the God who made himself known through his son? He's the God who is there. He saves those who listen to his voice, but rejects those who reject him. So don't mess around with following God, listen to Him.
For more sermon transcripts visit http://www.church.org.uk