I was given the opportunity to do a meditation on the theme of repentance at one of St. Luke’s Lenten services. Here is the manuscript.
One of the cool things about this Holden service is that it has us meditate on the text first before we read it, so that by the time we actually hear the Word, we can hear some of its nuance and depth and richness. But in case you want to follow along beforehand, I’ll go ahead and tell you that the story I want us to reflect on this evening is found in 2 Kings chapter five. It’s the story of two people both who both are in the midst of confused and compromising situations. The ultimate fate of the men is quite different, however, because really it’s a story about how the two men are turning in different directions. That’s what we have been talking about during these Lenten evening services: repentance. The Greek word literally means to turn around. So both men in this story are repenting—they’re both turning around—just in different directions.
It’s also a story about baptism. In the middle of the story one of the men washes himself in Jordan River. Almost anytime there is a washing in the Old Testament, it is a symbol which prefigures baptism. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I just wanted you to see that this story anticipates the message of John the Baptizer. Remember, the gospel writers tell us that John “preached a baptism for the repentance of sins.” So too, this is a story about baptism and repentance.
The first is man is Naaman, the commander of the army of Syria. Right off the bat, that should give us pause. Right here is the Hebrew Bible we’re looking at a story about a Syrian—he’s a gentile—he’s outside of the covenant people of God. That’s what Jesus interprets this story to be all about. Remember when Jesus was rejected in Nazareth he said “a prophet is never accepted in his home town. Surely, there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” So Naaman’s is baptism in the Jordan and turning toward the God of Israel points toward the ultimate fulfillment of God’s Kingdom in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus. But even here in the Old Testament we see that there is, as Robert Schuler has said, “a wideness in God’s mercy” that reaches farther than anyone ever imagined.
This is also how we know that this is a story about us, too. Remember that in the grand narrative of scripture you and I are the sinners—Gentiles, cut off from the house of Israel. And this is good news, you know? Because, of course, the gospel is only for sinners. That’s why Luther said that a significant part of the life of faith is “learning spiritually to be sinners.” Not that we need to learn how to be sinners—we’re all pretty good at that—but that we need to learn to understand ourselves as sinners. Now don’t get me wrong. When I talk about learning to be sinners, I’m not talking about preaching hellfire and brimstone in order to scare people into accepting Christ—that’s a sort of theological abuse that we could do without. I’m not saying we should be mean or moralistic or that we need to “crack down harder on sin.” To the contrary, I’m talking about what Luther calls “the gospel’s use of the law”—learning to understand that we are the sort of people for whom Christ died. So, good news! You’re a sinner, just like Naaman.
Now Naaman is described as a great man and as a mighty man of valor. He had a good report with the king of Syria, because of his success in battle. According to conventional wisdom Naaman is and has everything one could ever want. But Naaman was also suffered from leprosy. Now, the leprosy we read about in the Bible is not necessarily the same as Hansen’s disease, what we now call leprosy. It’s more likely a blanket term for all sorts of ailments that affect the skin. It’s more of a symbolic than physical disability. Leprosy signifies separation. It cuts you off from the communal life of Israel, from the Temple courts, from God himself. It is the disease of gentile sinners, like Naaman, like us.
When the king of Syria caught wind of a prophet in Israel who had a reputation for healing diseases, he wrote a letter to Jehoram, the king of Israel, asking him to command his prophet heal Syria’s esteemed commander. When Jehoram receives the letter, he thinks Syria’s king is taunting him. “What am I, God?” he asks “that he would send me word to cure a man of leprosy.” This is an example of something we see all the time in the Bible, especially in the prophets: the wisdom and power of this world are being mocked. Naaman, though mighty in battle, is powerless to help himself. Kings and rulers send royal decrees, but to no avail. If Elisha, the prophet of God, does not step forward and consent to heal him, then Naaman remains, as Paul described us in Ephesians, “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, a stranger to the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
But Elisha does consent, and so Naaman journeys to Israel. Now obviously Naaman was expecting treatment fitting for a general of the army of Syria, because he shows up at Elisha’s doors with his horses and chariots—an entourage designed to impress the prophet. So imagine Naaman’s shock when Elisha sends one of his servants to the door. (We’ll get to know the servant a little later). And he tells Naaman “Go away, wash yourself in the Jordan and you’ll be fine.”
“Well!” says Naaman, as he stomps off, “I thought surely the prophet himself would come out, call upon the name of the LORD, wave his magic wand around, and cure my disease. What, does he think that the Jordan River is better than the ones we have back home?”
Now remember, washing is a typological symbol for baptism. So what’s on offer is not physical healing only, but forgiveness of sin and membership in the covenant family of Israel. We know that, but Naaman doesn’t. And nobody snubs the commander of the Syrian army, thank you very much! So Naaman goes away in rage. Baptism, you see, is an insult to the wisdom of the world. After all, it is just water. And there are plenty of rivers in Syria. How could washing in the Jordan River heal Naaman? How could this possibly be, as Paul says, “a washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”?
Naaman’s pride nearly excludes him from the blessing of God, but after he settles down, one of his servants helps him put things into perspective. He goes down, as the prophet had instructed, and washes in the Jordan and miraculously he is healed of his leprosy. That’s where our story starts to get interesting.
He comes back to Elisha’s house, this time humbly. He comes to offer Elisha a gift—a rather large gift, as it turns out—a token of his gratitude. Elisha refuses the reward, but Naaman takes the opportunity to ask him some theological questions. He said “I know now that there is no other god in all the earth but in Israel.” This statement marks a radical restructuring of Naaman’s theological understanding. Syrian’s, like most people in the ancient world, did not worship multiple gods—they worshiped their own local deity, Rimmon—but they believed in multiple gods. If you had asked Naaman a week earlier, “Is there a god in Israel?” he would have said “Of course there is! Who else would the Israelites worship?” The Syrians have Rimmon, the Israelites have their god, the Moabites have yet another god, and so forth. But now he says “there is no god in all the earth but in Israel.” This is the first step in Naaman’s repentance. He has come to know who the one and true God is. Now, Naaman still doesn’t have everything figured out. In fact, his theological blunders are a bit comical. He’s still thinking in terms of these local deities, so he asks for two mule-loads of dirt that he can take home and make sacrifices to Israel’s God “on his own turf,” so to speak. He had not yet been form by the Psalms. He doesn’t know that “the whole earth is the Lord’s and all the fullness thereof.” But he’s come a long way. He knows that the God of Israel is the one true God.
Our first step toward repentance, too, is coming to know the true God.
When Tom Wright was the chaplain of Kings College, Oxford, he made annual rounds to meet every first year student, introduce himself and let them know that he was available if they ever wanted to talk about anything. Each year a few students would say to him something like “Thank you for the visit, Reverend, but you probably won’t be seeing much of me. I don’t believe in God.” In fact this happened so often, that Bishop Wright developed a stock response to this. He say, “That’s interesting. Tell me, which God is it that you don’t believe in?” Without fail these undergraduates would then recapitulate one of the god’s that unfortunately many of us came to know either in Sunday school or simply from the broader culture: The Harsh Taskmaster, The Cosmic Santa Clause, The Distant-Demanding Parent. And to this also, Wright developed a stock response. He’d say “I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that God, I don’t believe in that God either I believe in the God revealed in Jesus Christ.” Our first step toward repentance is coming to know this God—the God who humbled himself taking on the form of a servant, the God who rules not with an iron fist but with a towel for washing feet, the God who’s power is in service and who’s glory is revealed on a cross. Repentance is about leaving behind our often idolatrous theologies and coming to know the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
The second thing that Naaman does—and it follows immediately from the first—is that he begin to enact a total alteration of the way he lives his life. From now on Naaman will worship only the God of Israel. That’s why he wanted the dirt. You have to understand that in the ancient world all of public life was situated around the temples of the local Gods. So this once-well-respected commander, this pillar of the community will become, like Jesus, an outcast in his hometown. He has found the Kingdom of God and it is like a pearl of great price that will cost him everything. But what else can he do? He has come to know the true and only God, and now everything has to change!
Turning toward the God revealed in Jesus Christ means also turning away from all the other gods we have worshiped: the idols of money, sex and power—away from security and comfort—away from endless pleasure and our obsession with “my rights”—away from social respectability and acceptance addiction—away from all the things we love more than the true and only God, thing which, as we worship them, mold us into their image and likeness. The second step of repentance, once we have come to know the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ, is turning toward him and forsaking all our idols.
But that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Naaman is trapped between the healing, loving God of Israel and the idols of his former life. You get the sense that he almost doesn’t bring it up, but just as he is getting ready to leave the prophet’s house he says “There’s just one more thing: My master, the king of Syria, is old and decrepit, and when he goes into the house of Rimmon to worship he has to lean on my arm, so when he bows down before I idol, I have to bow down as well.” Naaman doesn’t try to justify the action. He knows that he is compromising the worship of the one true God. He simply asks if, in this one matter, the Lord can pardon him.
Part of our Lenten introspection is coming to terms with the many and various ways in which our faith and obedience to Christ is compromised. One of my teachers, Chris Hall, always used to say that “spiritual formation is the journey from self-denial to self-awareness.” No sense pretending that we are not compromised, we are. Every day that you and I don’t do something about it, we offer our tacit approval to genocide, homelessness, and domestic violence—to our own bad attitudes and inconsideration. But it goes beyond that, almost every time you and I make a purchase, we actively participate in a global economic system which sucks money from the bottom to the top, creating crippling poverty on a massive scale, enslaving children in sweatshops and raping God’s creation. For what, a latté and a new pair of jeans? You are I are Naamans, bowing down before our idols even as we pay tribute to the one true God.
I’ll be honest with you, every Sunday when I’m directed to look into my heart and confess these sins, I just feel so overwhelmed by it all. No doubt, so did Naaman. So why should we be setting up Naaman as a role model for repentance? Shouldn’t we be less like Naaman and more like Daniel—boldly proclaiming that we will worship the one true God alone, forsaking all the pseudo-gods of this word? Well, yes, but it takes quite a while to make a Daniel. You’ve got to start somewhere. So, from the lips of the prophet comes the Word of God to compromised but penitent sinners—words of comfort and joy, good news words!—three simple but loaded words: “Go in peace.” Elisha says in effect “Yes, Naaman, you are compromised—Yes, Naamans, we all are!—but the wide mercy of God, which reaches beyond the borders of Israel to a leprous gentile sinner, reaches, also, into the depths of your compromised heart and says ‘you are pardoned! Your sins are forgiven! You, friend, are loved by God! So, go with a peace that surpasses the wisdom of the world.’”
Well, I told you this was a story about two men. So, quickly, do you remember the servant who came out the first time Naaman was at Elisha’s door and told him to go and wash in the Jordan? His name is Gehazi. And after Naaman is out of Elisha’s sight, Gehazi runs after him and makes up some cock-and-bull story about how two beggars have just come by and Elisha will take Naaman’s gift after all. (Of course, Gehazi just wanted to pocket the money). You see, Gehazi continued to see Naaman as a gentile enemy to be taken advantage of rather than a brother in God’s new covenant family. Gehazi represents a failure of the chosen people’s mission to be a light to the world. The first readers of this book were Jews exiled in a gentile land, so this story was a reminder to them of how they were to interact with the gentiles. It was possible, and often happened to people like Gehazi, that we can become so obsessed with being the people of God that they forgot actually to be the people of God. We forgot that we are predestined, not for our own privilege, but for proclamation of God’s good news to the nations. We are blessed to be a blessing. So to Gehazi, the prophet says “You are one who is really compromised. For you have seen the one true loving and generous God, and you have chosen instead to worship the God of mammon. And therefore Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and your household.” The moral of Gehazi’s story is that God judges our lusts by giving us exactly what we lust for. When we seek first the kingdoms of this world and the world’s goods, we’ll get everything we ever hoped for, and the worlds pathologies will be added to us as well.
Well, let’s conclude by thinking again about that scene in the synagogue in which Jesus refers to Naaman’s story. Remember? It’s in Luke 4, right after Jesus announces his mission by quoting from the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
“Today,” he said “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The good news for all of us Naamans and Ghhazis here, in other words, is that Jesus is inaugurating a new kind of kingdom in which our greed is irrelevant because Jews and gentiles—insiders and outsiders alike—are baptized into one sharing community, a kingdom in which our leprosy can be healed and our compromised hearts are washed in the river of God’s grace. So, remember your baptism! Repent, and believe the gospel!