Sermons That Work

How Far Are You Willing To Go?, Epiphany 6 (B) – 2012

February 12, 2012

What would you be willing to do if your life depended on it?

How far would you be willing to go to save yourself?

We can never know what we would do when faced with those sorts of life-or-death choices until the moment comes for us to make such a weighty decision. Yet, there are ways in which small, seemingly easy requests can contain more than meets the eye.

In our reading from Second Kings, the commander of the Aramaean army is afflicted with leprosy. Just before our reading, Naaman learns from an Israeli servant girl that he might find healing through a prophet in her home country. The girl knows of Elisha, the great miracle-working man of God, and she holds out the hope of healing if Naaman will travel to the Israel to find this prophet.

Aram is modern-day Syria. The first wrinkle in this plan is that in Naaman’s day, as today, Syria and Israel were not on the best of terms. Far from being even Facebook friends, much less genuine allies, the two nations had in recent memory fought a pitched battle at Ramoth-Gilead in which Naaman led the Syrian troops to victory. War was the norm at this point in Israel’s history. Elisha’s time in Israel was characterized with only brief periods of peace in the midst of ongoing fights with neighboring countries, including Aram. Beyond those larger battles, Aram was conducting continual raids into Israel, which is how Namaan’s wife came to have an Israeli girl working for her.

Yet despite this, Naaman decided to heed the words of his servant, which shows how desperate he was to find healing. He still had to convince two kings to go along with the plan. The king of Aram dispatches a diplomat to go with Naaman to their enemy, bearing gifts for the king of Israel. This is seen as inciting war, which could well have been the motive for the Aramaean king. Either way, God has another plan. Elisha reaches out to his king with a solution: send the leper to me. Once Naaman arrives at the prophet’s house, Elisha sends a messenger and asks him to wash himself and be made clean.

That is all. One simple thing: wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River and you will be cleansed. For Naaman, who has negotiated with kings and traveled a great distance in search of healing, this might seem easy enough. Yet, the prophet’s prescription is problematic. The servant doesn’t quite grasp that Namaan has been asked to do something very difficult.

If Elisha is right, then this Syrian military commander, who has led his troops into both pitched battles and smaller raids against Israel, will have to acknowledge that his healing could come in Israel, but not in Aram. While he was willing to allow that Israel might have a prophet connected to God like no other, admitting that Israel was uniquely blessed by God was a lot to ask.

At the same time, if Elisha is wrong, then this military leader will be publicly embarrassed by abasing himself in a ritual anyone could have known would never work. Already, Elisha has dishonored him by sending a messenger rather than coming out to meet the great man face to face. Then he was told to wash in the river. Everyone knows that river water cannot wash away leprosy. If it could, Naaman would not have traveled to see the man of God. Elisha’s simple request requires great risk. Naaman could have traveled all this distance to be made a fool.

In facing one easily understood request that is decidedly difficult to fulfill, Naaman is far from alone in scripture. In fact, God has a knack for asking the one simple thing that costs so much.

Adam and Eve could eat of any tree in the Garden of Eden, save one. As far as we can tell from Genesis, the only food they ever ate was forbidden fruit.

The prophet Jonah was given a message from God to cry out repentance. The only problem was he was to call on Israel’s great enemy Assyria to repent. For Jonah, this was too much, as it risked the salvation of the enemy. Jonah preferred traveling to the ends of the earth and even being thrown into the sea in the midst of a storm to doing the one simple thing God asked.

Jesus told the rich man that all he had to do was sell everything, give it to the poor, and he could follow. Then he asked the man who only wanted to bury his father to leave that task to others.

Throughout scripture, God asks us to let go of the one thing holding us back. For Naaman, he was asked to let go of nationalistic pride and bathe in the Jordan. For each person, the simple thing God asks is the hardest to accept. We are taught to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Whatever it is that holds us back from this is what we are asked to offer to God.

Jesus called us to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. These twin commands contain all that is expected of us. They are stunningly simple requests that are very difficult to follow. For at some point, there will come the rub. Actually living into that love will demand something we don’t quite want to give.

We may have to forgive someone who has hurt us deeply. We might have to trust God with our finances by actually giving back from all we have been given through our first fruits rather than what’s left. We might have to stand on the side of justice when it could cost our standing in the community or our job.

To practice the faith that is in us, there will come points where even a simple request will seem like too much. At each of those points along the way, we have to decide whether to be faithful even when it costs. The path deeper and deeper into the heart of God means stepping out to do the simple things God asks that cost more than we are first willing to give. This is the way of healing and wholeness.

How far are you willing to go?

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Christopher Sikkema


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