2 Kings 19:1-14
I was reminded of something this week. It was my senior year here at UNC. Presbyterian Campus Ministry was getting ready for student Sunday and I was on deck to preach. The bulletin must have just come off the printer because Bob Dunham poked his head around the corner and said “Hey – can I talk to you in my office.”
I’d never been in that office before – I know it well now, but it seemed like a big deal to be going back in to the office. We sat down and he said “So I just saw the bulletin. It turns out that the text you’re preaching on this Sunday is the very same one I chose for the week after.”
My heart rate tripled – I thought the man was going to ask me to change my Scripture with only a few days to go. Perhaps sensing my discomfort he quickly added “I think that’s fine. I wanted to ask your permission if I could preach on the same text the next week. I think it can be a good way to show the congregation that there are multiple ways to interpret the same text, but I didn’t want it to feel like I was coming in after to correct you.”
I probably muttered something like “Sure, Bob no problem….that’s not intimidating at all.”
I want to do something similar today and next Sunday. Two weeks – one text. It’s an interesting story nestled in the book of 2 Kings. The main character in the story is an Aramaean general named Naaman. The essential background here is that the Kingdom of Aram had recently conquered Israel, doubtlessly leaving no small amount of tension between the two. Listen to what God may be whispering to us through the twists and turns of this tale.
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. 2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only 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 just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 5 And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 6 He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 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?” He turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
The first Church Meg and I served was Village Presbyterian in Prairie Village, Kansas. As a suburb of Kansas City, that put us just 40 miles east of Lawrence and The University of Kansas. Suffice it to say, we were surrounded by Jayhawks.
We moved there in 2006. Roy Williams had just left Kansas a few years prior – and as you know he almost instantly won a national title with the Heels, a distinction that eluded him many a time at Kansas. It would be an understatement to say that there were some sore feelings about that. We’d be out in public and run in to some Church members. They’d introduce us to their friends: “This is Meg and Jarrett, they’re pastors at our Church. They’re Tarheels, but we like them anyway.”
We accepted our lot, living in our Midwestern exile – strangers in a strange land – with time it all settled out. But then the 2008 tournament happened. Carolina made an impressive run that year. So did Kansas. We met in the Final Four. Yeah, you know where this is going.
That Saturday evening, it would be safe to say that the Jayhawks absolutely annihilated the Tarheels. They were up as much as 28 points at one point. Now – if that was a painful game for some of you …just imagine watching that game, not only in an ocean of Kansas Crimson and Blue but also – as fate would have it – with YOUR SEMINARY PRESIDENT SITTING RIGHT NEXT TO YOU THE WHOLE TIME!
That’s right – Dr. Brian Blount who preached at our Installation – he was a visiting scholar at the church that weekend. He was cheering for the heels, but still….there were so many words I wanted to say that night but couldn’t…and not just “Daggum” either.
Well, we sheepishly reported to worship the next day. Meg was first up to begin the service and had prepared some gracious words – something along the lines of “Well, I’m sad today, but this is still the day the Lord has made so let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Well wouldn’t you know, she didn’t get any further than “Well, I’m sad today…” before the whole congregation burst forth in cheers.
CHEERS! At our expense!
It’s not easy being the vanquished one.
This Story about Naaman takes place along that fault line between the conquered and the conqueror.
Naaman is identified as the commander of Aram’s military. He was responsible for defeating Israel not too many years earlier. What’s more is that King Ahab of Israel was killed in battle at the hand of Naaman’s soldiers.
The “King” mentioned in this story – the one who panics when Naaman shows up with a letter requesting that he cure the man of his leprosy – he would most likely be Ahab’s son, King Jotham, which means he is standing face to face with the man responsible for his Father’s death.
I won’t suggest any direct, one-to-one allegory here, but I do wonder if this text has something to say to the tension between the United States and Iran right now. To be clear, I do not believe that the Bible offers direct advice on this or any specific situation in life – we cannot simply ask Scripture to give us answers for any and every question. And yet Scripture is an essential resource if we are to seek the will and way of God in a complex world.
Next week I want to examine the real world in which we live out our faith and the compromises we must make at times. But today I want us to marinate in the raw, unadulterated claim that God places on our lives – the kind of call that highlights the great distance between God’s ways and our own ways.
This week has yielded no small amount of debate about the President authorizing a drone attack that claimed the life of General Quasem Soleimani. Was it lawful? Yes. Was it advisable? Therein lies the debate.
Some will say it was a necessary measure based on actionable intelligence – a prudent deterrent to prevent future attacks and save lives.
Others claim it was a reckless provocation that will radicalize more terrorists than it could ever eliminate; that the use of force is an absolute last resort and we were not at that threshold in this instance.
Wherever you stand on that matter, I am less interested in adjudicating who is right and wrong and more interested in examining how this text presents a terribly challenging alternative to that human tendency to reach for reprisal.
What I find impressive about this text is not the powerful figures.
It’s not Elisha and his formidable prophetic powers that can bring healing. It’s not Naaman with his horses and chariots, his silver and gold, his evident sense of entitlement.
It’s not the King of Israel who almost comically shows how insignificant he is when he complains about the King of Aram picking a fight with him.
None of the “powerful” people in this story are all that impressive. The truly striking figure is that young, Israelite slave girl serving in the house of Naaman.
Old Testament scholar Walter Bruegemann says that we should assume the worst about how she has been treated. When a young girl is abducted and carried off to be a slave – chances are high that her family was killed and she has been subjected to the very worst kinds of abuse. This girl should have plenty of reason to feel a certain satisfaction when Naaman contracts leprosy – it’s poetic justice for this devastator of nations. That’s how she should react, but she doesn’t.
Instead, she says “If only my lord were with the prophet in Samaria he would be cured of his disease.” Simply by uttering that phrase, she sets this whole sequence of events in motion that ends with Naaman fully restored to health.
By story’s end, the Hebrew linguistically links the two characters together. The word for ‘young girl’ in this passage is na’arah qetanna. After Naaman washes in the Jordan river seven times, it says his skin became like that of a na’ar qaton, a ‘young boy.’ The waters of the Jordan wash away more than his leprosy.
It washes away his entitlement and the uneven power dynamics – leaving in its place a deep connection between the conquered and the conqueror. It’s encouraging to know that the story ends in such a positive place, but there’s a big question that remains.
What in the world would make a captive, perhaps chronically abused, slave girl speak new possibilities of healing to the very same man who brought so much hurt in to her young life? It would be more than understandable if she kept her lips zipped and let the disease lay waste to Naaman’s body. Seriously, what gives?
It’s possible that this young girl could have been drawing on a very old practice from her faith tradition. In the 26th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy – you can find it on page 180 of your pew Bible if you like –there is a description of a ritual the Israelites observed when offering the first fruits of the harvest.
Families were commanded to bring the most-choice produce to the Priest and the offering ritual is quite prescriptive – when you hand your offering to the Priest, you are to recite the story of the Israelites.
In many ways it functions much like the Apostle’s Creed or any other confession of faith in that it invites the speaker to remember who you are.
The speech looks back to their days as slaves in Egypt and how the Lord delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh and brought them in to a land all their own. But the recited story goes back even further than that to Abraham and Sarah – the patriarch and matriarch of all Israel.
That confession of faith in Deuteronomy 25 begins with the words
“A wandering Aramaean was my ancestor…”
Abraham…an Aramaean – just like Naaman himself.
I can almost see her – that young slave girl’s bitter memories stuck on repeat, replaying every horror she endured. And then the news of Naaman’s affliction spreads through the house in hushed whispers – “Naaman has leprosy.” Barely able to contain her satisfaction, a thin smile tugs at the corner of her mouth: “Take that you…Aramaean” she mutters.
And then, suddenly, Abraham is there – occupying her mind and her heart – and the words the Lord her God said to the Patriarch of her people: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing….and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
The young girl takes a deep breath. She remembers who she is – a daughter of Abraham, entrusted with the sacred calling to bless all the families of the earth, and then the words come tumbling out: “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria. He would cure him of his leprosy.”
To bless, not curse, but to bless even those who would or have done you harm. That is a challenging alternative, is it not?
Next week we’ll look at the compromises we must make but today let’s just sit with the discomfort and ask ‘In these complex days, what does it mean for us to remember who we are?’
Because, like it or not, a wandering Aramaen was our ancestor, too. Amen.