Sermon delivered on Trinity 3C, Sunday, July 3, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.
Lectionary texts: 2 Kings 5.1-14; Psalm 30; Galatians 6.1-16; St. Luke 10.1-11, 16-20.
In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning, we’re going to focus on our Old Testament lesson from 2 Kings 5:1-14 about Naaman, a man who is afflicted with leprosy.
This story is not exactly one of the “greatest hits” of the Old Testament. It’s not David and Goliath or Daniel in the Lion’s Den. I had Noah’s Ark wallpaper in my childhood bedroom, but I’m going to guess there aren’t many parents who opt for a Naaman the Leper themed nursery. As someone who grew up in the church, I didn’t hear many Sunday School lessons, sermons, or Bible studies about Naaman. In fact, I’m not sure that I even know this passage was in the Bible until I was an adult. But I think this text really ought to get more play than it does. You see, in Naaman’s story, we get glimpses of the gospel: We see both the reality of our sin-sickness and the remedy for this malady—God’s gracious promise to heal us through the cleansing work of Christ.
First, we’ll see that Naaman’s account shows the reality of our sin-sickness (v. 1)
In the opening verse of this passage, there is a clear contrast between Naaman’s status and Naaman’s sickness. In v. 1, we’re told Naaman is “a great man.” He has a very impressive resume. He’s in a position of authority and is probably well known. Naaman was “commander of the army of… Aram,” another name for Syria. Now, this was not some rag-tag band of volunteer soldiers; Naaman led one of the most powerful military forces on the planet. At that time, along with Assyria, Syria was a major world power intent on building an empire, and Naaman was quite successful in this enterprise. We’re told that “by him, the Lord had given victory to Aram.” Because he of his military prowess, Naaman was well-regarded; he was held “in high favor” by his boss, the King of Syria.
But for all his prestige, power, and accomplishments, Naaman had a problem: he was sick. After this list of all Naaman’s credentials and achievements, the other shoe drops at the end of v. 1: “But he was a leper.” In the Bible, “leprosy” was an umbrella term for several skin diseases, some that were temporary and minor—like a rash or an infection—and some that were chronic (even life-long), painful, and debilitating. Based on the lengths that Naaman goes through to seek healing, it’s likely we’re not talking about a touch of eczema or a mild case of psoriasis. Whatever the exact nature of his condition was, it’s clear that it seriously impacted his day-to-day life.
Being afflicted by such a disease would have been a source of great suffering. Not only could leprosy be painful and irritating, but it also isolated the one who had it from anyone who didn’t have it. According to Mosaic Law, a leper was considered “unclean as long as he has the disease… He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:46). Because some leprous skin diseases were contagious, in Israel, lepers had to live apart from their loved ones until their condition cleared up (if it ever did). Lepers were required to remain distant from others and shout, ‘Unclean, unclean!” when approaching another person (Leviticus 13:45). To make matters worse, lepers—and those who came in contact with them—were considered ritually unclean; they were not allowed to enter the temple for worship (2 Chronicles 26:21). For these reasons, lepers were considered outcasts. They were avoided and despised.
While Naaman was not an Israelite and was not subject to the rules and regulations of Jewish Law, it’s likely that his condition dealt some sort of a blow to his relationships and his status in Syrian society. The bottom line is that leprosy in biblical times led to all sorts of suffering—physical, social, and spiritual. It caused painful skin lesions and separated those infected by it from their family and from the public worship of God.
For this reason, leprosy provides a fitting image for the sin-sickness that afflicts all of humanity. Scripture tells us that sin is like a genetic illness—we inherited it from our ancestors Adam and Eve (Romans 5:12). We all have within us a sin nature that inclines us toward evil rather than good. Left untreated, sin grows and spreads within us like a cancer, corrupting our actions, our thoughts, and our motives. Like leprosy, our sin impacts our relationships with others. It can cause heartache, suffering, and harm to those who are in our orbit. Our sin also separates us from a perfectly holy God. As Romans 3:23 tells us, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Ultimately, our sin-sickness is terminal. Romans 6:23 tells us that “the wages of sin”—its prognosis, it’s outcome—“is death.,” and not just physical death, but eternal death—separation from God forever.
This is a grim diagnosis. But thanks be to God that in Jesus, the Great Physician, there is a remedy for our sin-sickness, as Naaman’s story illustrates for us (vv. 2-14).
Naaman learns of the possibility of healing through an Israelite, a little girl who “worked in the service of Naaman’s wife” (v. 2). She tells her mistress about Elisha, a prophet in Israel who, by the power of the one true God, could cure Naaman of His leprosy (v. 3). But even though the little girl has given very clear advice about where to go to seek healing, notice that Naaman takes matters into his own hands, turning to the tools and methods he probably always employed to get what he wanted—his connections, his wealth, and his power.
Instead of seeking a lowly prophet, Naaman goes straight to the person he thought was really in charge—the King of Israel; he brings a letter from the King of Syria demanding Naaman’s healing (vv. 4-6). But this plan backfires: the king of Israel recognizes that he is powerless to heal Naaman, and he fears that this is some sort of sneaky plot by Syria to reignite tensions with Israel and start a war (v. 7). Naaman’s riches also do no good. He makes a ridiculous display of his wealth, bringing about 750 lbs. of silver and 145 lbs. of gold (v. 5a), not realizing that neither God nor His prophet can be bribed or bought. Naaman’s attempts to wield his might likewise fail. When he finally goes looking for Elisha, he brings his horses and chariots (v. 9), sending the threatening message that he is important powerful. But Elisha is unmoved by this spectacle. Instead of speaking with Naaman face to face, he sends a message through a servant (v. 10).
Try as he might, Naaman could do nothing to earn or secure his healing. I love the way The Jesus Storybook Bible explains this: “[Naaman thought,] ‘I should do something important so God will heal me’ . . . Of course, you and I both know, that’s not how God does things. All Naaman need was nothing. It was the one thing Naaman didn’t have.” Elisha tells him to simply “go and wash in the Jordan seven times . . . and you shall be clean” (v. 10). Of course, a mere bath was not enough to cure Naaman’s leprosy; if it was, he would have already tried it! Naaman was called to simply have faith—to believe that God’s promise of healing announced through the prophet was true. After some hesitation (vv. 11-13), this is exactly what takes place: “He went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God . . . and he was clean” (v. 14).
And this is precisely how we can be cured of our sin-sickness: by trusting in God’s promise to heal us through the cleansing work of Christ. When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, He told them, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8). These words anticipated His sacrificial death on the cross; as St. John says, “The blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
Like Naaman, to receive this cure, all we must do is simply believe God’s promise that Christ has done everything needed to cleanse us of our sin and restore us into right relationship with Him and one another. This truth is beautifully visible in baptism. Cleansing is something that we passively receive; it’s not something we do, but something God does for us: As Titus 3:5 says, God saves “us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”
This is the scandal of grace: cleansing from sin is not earned or deserved. This is probably not a revelation to you. If you’re an orthodox Christian, you readily affirm with St. Paul, “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8-9). This is foundational Christian doctrine. But when push comes to shove, do we really believe this? Naaman’s mindset easily creeps in as we consider our standing before God.
I’ve been reflecting on something a friend recently said during our home group: we have a natural human tendency to try to turn the gospel into law. On one level, I know that Christ has done everything necessary to heal my sin-sickness and reconcile me to God, and yet there are times in my life when I’ve thought, “If I am just more consistent with Scripture reading, if I just commit to pray more, then I’ll really be right with God.” Of course, these are important ways that we abide in Christ, means by which we can receive the grace Christ has already secured for us. But they are not ways we earn God’s favor. If we’re not careful, we make these precious gifts a burdensome duty.
Today, as we come to the Lord’s Table and partake of Christ’s body and blood, let us remember Christ’s words from Calvary: “It is finished” (John 19:30). This is the good news of the gospel. May we find comfort and rest in the completed work of Christ, knowing that our standing before God is secure in Him.
As I conclude, let’s very briefly return to an important but easily overlooked character in this story: the little girl who was a servant of Naaman’ wife. In v. 2, we learn that this girl was an Israelite and that “the Syrians on one of their raids had carried [her] off from the land of Israel.” At a very young age, she had been torn from her family, abducted to a foreign land, and made a slave, the property of another person. But in spite of the way she was treated by her oppressors, the girl had compassion on Naaman. She tells him the good news that a prophet in Israel could cure him. If it weren’t for her message, Naaman would not have been healed. He would not have come to know the one true God.
As we come to the Lord’s Table, we are reminded that although our sin once separated us from God and alienated us from one another, we who were once far off—outcasts!—have been brought near to God and to one another by the cleansing blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:12-13). Our liturgy ends with a call for us to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” As we depart, wherever God takes us, may we, like the servant girl, bring the message of the gospel with us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, may we proclaim to others in both word and deed the love of God and the promise of healing from sin in Christ.
In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.