“The Cleansing of Naaman: How Can Water Do Such Great Things?” (2 Kings 5:1-14)

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 12, 2012

“The Cleansing of Naaman: How Can Water Do Such Great Things?” (2 Kings 5:1-14)

Our text is the Old Testament Reading for today, the story of the cleansing of Naaman. Short version: Naaman was a man who had leprosy. He was told, “Wash, and be clean.” And, after some objections, Naaman did wash, and he did become clean. But there’s more here than meets the eye, as we will see. For one thing, this story raises the question: How could simply washing in a river–and a pretty unimpressive river, at that–how could that cleanse a man of leprosy? And what does this story have to do with us? Most of us do not have leprosy, and we’re nowhere near the Jordan River. And so our theme this morning: “The Cleansing of Naaman: How Can Water Do Such Great Things?”

Let’s start by reviewing the story of Naaman. Our text begins: “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.” So let’s set the scene. Naaman was a great and powerful man, the top army general for the nation of Syria. That also means that he was not an Israelite. Naaman was a Gentile, someone who was not part of God’s covenant people.

“He was a mighty man of valor,” our text says, “but he was a leper.” Leprosy. A dreaded skin disease. A chronic infectious disease that causes skin sores, nerve damage, and muscle weakness. It disfigures the body, and it gets worse over time. Naaman was a mighty man, but he had no power to stop the leprosy that had begun to afflict his body.

Our text continues: “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. She said to her mistress, ‘Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’” So this little servant girl, an Israelite, even though she had been taken captive by the Syrians, now, by God’s providence, now she is going to be a blessing to the very people who had captured her. She recommends that General Naaman go and see a prophet that she knows about back in Israel. She is referring to the prophet Elisha, by the way.

Notice what is happening here. A little servant girl is going to be God’s channel of blessing for a mighty man of valor. An Israelite is going to bring blessing to a Gentile. This is a story we see over and over again in the Old Testament. Think of Joseph bringing blessing to Egypt. Think of Daniel serving in the courts of Babylon. Here it is a captured servant girl getting God’s blessing to a general of Syria. The Lord has a way of getting his people in contact with the nations of the world in order to bring blessing to them. Think of what the Lord told Abram in Genesis 12: “I will bless you, and you will be a blessing, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

The servant girl tells Mrs. Naaman, Mrs. Naaman tells her husband, and Naaman then tells the king: “Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.” And the king of Syria says, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” The wheels are in motion.

So Naaman sets out for Israel, “taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing.” Naaman figures if he brings a big payoff for the king of Israel, this will help secure him a healing.

So Naaman arrives in Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, Israel, and he presents a letter from the king of Syria to the king of Israel. It reads: “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”

Well, a big haul of money, official correspondence from one king to another, and on behalf of a mighty general. If a healing could be arranged by human means, this would surely do it. But no. “Trust not in princes,” the Bible says. The kings of this earth have no power to do what only God can do. Money can’t buy you a healing from leprosy.

And the king of Israel realizes this. He reads the letter, and, knowing he does not have the power to do what the king of Syria asks, in his distress he tears his clothes and says, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” No, no king is God, having the power to kill and make alive as only God can. What to do? The king of Israel is at a loss.

“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.’” The answer to the problem, the power to heal, will come not from a mighty king but rather from a lowly prophet, a preacher, a man of God with only the word of God at his disposal.

“So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him.” Note this. Naaman goes from a king’s palace to a prophet’s home, and then, when he gets there, it is only a messenger who meets him. But the messenger has a word from the Lord to give him.

“Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” OK, clear enough. But this is definitely not what Naaman was expecting. The whole thing seems like a major letdown to him. Naaman gets angry. He says: “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.” No, Naaman, no big display of magic. Just a word to go on, a word to go and wash in the Jordan.

Go and wash in the Jordan? That too is not very impressive, as Naaman says: “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?” You see, if you were basing the power of the healing on the impressiveness of the water used, Naaman would be right. Look, I have been to the Jordan, I’ve seen it, and it is no mighty Mississippi. More like a glorified creek.

Well, everything so far has been a letdown. So Naaman goes off in a huff. “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”?’ 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.”

“Wash, and be clean.” Naaman washes, and he is made clean. “According to the word.” So here’s the bottom line: No amount of wealth, no king’s letter, no king’s palace or power could get the job done. Only God has the power to heal leprosy, and he can’t be bought off with a pile of gold. Only a word from the Lord can do the job, and even if it’s delivered by a humble messenger, the word will do the work. And if the Lord chooses to attach his word to water as his means, and even if that water is not outwardly impressive, if it’s got the Lord’s word working through it, the result is complete and total cleansing.

Now the message to us should be clear. The first thing is, we have a problem much worse than leprosy. Worse than any skin disease is our sin disease. Sin–disobedience to God, defiance of his will–sin is the disease that infects us all, and it is a killer. Our sin disease is terminal. Death, and eternal death, is the end result. And we can’t do anything to heal ourselves of it. No amount of money can cure us of sin or deliver us from death.

Only God can do those things. And he has acted to bring about the cure. God sent his own Son into the world to pay the price needed to set us free. That price is far more costly than ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. The price paid was the blood of Christ, shed on the cross. You and I have been redeemed “not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.”

And how does that redemption, that cleansing, get delivered to us? Through means. And rather humble, ordinary-looking means. A preacher standing in a pulpit in a small-town church, preaching to maybe a couple dozen people in the pews. A pastor laying hands on a contrite sinner and saying, “Your sins are forgiven.” A piece of bread, a cup of wine, but with the words, “This is my body, this is my blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” And, like the cleansing of Naaman, just some water–and not very impressive-looking water, at that–but with a word from the Lord, “Wash, and be clean.”

You see, Holy Baptism is for us, in an even greater way, what the washing in the Jordan was for Naaman. Christian theologians have long seen a parallel between the two, Naaman’s cleansing and ours in Baptism. Back in the second century, the early church father Irenaeus wrote: “It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but this served as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes.”

And it is the word that does it. When the word of God is attached to the water, you can know for certain that God is at work, doing a mighty cleansing. As you learned in the catechism, Holy Baptism “works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.”

“How can water do such great things?” we might ask. The catechism then gives us the answer: “Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s Word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”

Dear friends, just as Naaman was cleansed of his leprosy by the washing of the water and the word, so too you and I have been cleansed of our spiritual leprosy by the washing of the water and the word. Wherever the Lord God has attached his mighty gospel word, assuring us of forgiveness and life by the blood of Christ, there God is at work to do just what his word says. Dear friends, trust in that word. Thank God for the cleansing he has given you in Holy Baptism. God’s word will never let you down. No, it will always lift you up, no matter how outwardly unimpressive it may appear. God does mighty miracles through lowly means. Just ask Naaman. It happened in his cleansing in the waters of the Jordan. It happens in our cleansing in the waters of Holy Baptism. “How can water do such great things?” Answer: By the power of God’s word.

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Published in: on February 12, 2012 at 12:52 am  Leave a Comment  
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