Filed under: Sermons | Tags: healing, Jesus, lepers, miracles, power, prayer
Have you ever really wanted something from God? Something you knew was in God’s power and you were willing to do whatever God asked, just so that it would happen? You try to strike a bargain with God, praying, “Ok, God, I know you can do what I want- so if you do it, I’ll…”
Legend has it that Martin Luther tried to strike such a deal. He was caught in the middle of a thunderstorm, thought he was going to die, and promised God that he’d become a monk if only he got through the storm safely.
For many of us, the incidents that lead to our bargaining aren’t quite so theatrical. They arise as we stand by and watch loved ones go through difficult times. Sometimes we ask God on behalf on ourselves, but I bet it’s more often that we fall on our knees begging God for a miracle on behalf of someone else. Someone we wish we could trade places with. Someone for whom we would battle whatever illness or hardship or grief they have to face.
It’s hard when we have to stand by and realize we really can’t do anything. We have no power to change a difficult reality. That can be even more difficult if you’re the type of person who gets things done, who conquers problems, and who is in control.
We meet just such a person in our reading from 2 Kings this morning. Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram, modern Syria. He was a great man, a mighty warrior, and in favor with the powerful king. He had been victorious over Israel. Yet for all his power, his ability to command and control thousands of troops, he does not have complete power over his own health and body. He has been infected with a skin disease, a visible sign of imperfection.
He is not able to win over this disease. In the midst of his defeat, there is a witness to hope. A young Israelite girl is serving his household, a prize from his latest raid. She tells her mistress that a prophet in her homeland has the power to cure this disease. Naaman takes seriously this advice. For all his power, it’s amazing that he listens to the humblest people under his command.
Naaman goes through the channels of power to obtain a cure from this prophet. He tells his king, who writes to the Israelite king and sends along gifts to smooth the way for Naaman to receive favor and a cure. The prophet Elisha makes himself know to the king of Israel, and Naaman is sent on to Elisha’s home.
Up to this point, things are probably looking pretty good to Naaman. Everything is going as expected, he’s working with the important people with whom he typically associates, and he’s accompanied by signs of his power and wealth. He looks impressive, with the exception of the disease that has caused him to come to Israel, but it seems that he’s got even that situation under control and is well on his way towards conquering it.
He comes to Elisha’s door with his personal guard, his servants, and a portion of his wealth to give in exchange for a miracle of healing. He also comes with expectations of what will happen next. As a commander of the army, he’s worked on his ability to anticipate what will happen in a given situation. He’s stayed alive by commanding others to carry out his vision. Now he brings those skills to Elisha’s front door.
There they fall flat and fail him. Things do not go as Naaman envisioned. Elisha does not come out, does not honor him, does not perform as Naaman expects this religious worker to perform. Naaman’s power is not recognized and he has no control over the situation.
Elisha only sends a messenger, who tells Naaman to go take a bath in the local river. This response enrages Naaman. We who read this account must think Elisha a fool: here he is insulting a commander of the army, remaining in his house as this general stands outside with enough men to destroy it. Elisha will not play Naaman’s game. It will not be because of Naaman’s power and control that Naaman will receive healing.
Naaman is a curious character. He does not act on his insult, but once again listens to the voice of those under his control. His servants prevail upon him to try out this humble cure advised by the prophet. He goes and washes in the Jordan. He is cured. He returns to Elisha and thanks him, declaring that the God of Israel is truly the one God.
In his healing, Naaman realizes that there is one who has power even over him. He goes through a difficult journey of humility to get to experience the power of this God. He comes with his own expectations that others will serve him: an expectation well-earned through his experience, but not applicable to this new experience with God. God is the one with power for healing and life. God will not be intimidated or controlled.
Where does that leave us when we really, really need something from God? When we’re ready for whatever sacrifices or humility God demands, just so that there can be healing in our life, or in the life of the one for whom we’re ready to sacrifice? What should we do when bargaining seems like the faithful response?
It’s difficult to define the line between trying to get God to listen to us and trying to control God. One sounds better than the other. The former sounds a little more faithful. But they really aren’t so different. Both point to a lack of faith, and to a continued focus on our own power.
God does listen. God does heal. But we’d be wrong to think there was no one else besides Naaman who sought a cure from sickness, or that Jesus wasn’t aware of the prayers of the ill all around the city besides the ten lepers. We’d be misguided to try to figure out what they did differently than all the rest to receive God’s healing, and try to let that guide our own lives.
There’s no secret formula, no best bargaining chip, no power we can use over God. It doesn’t quite seem fair. In our world, we believe those who work hard, who keep trying, will eventually succeed. If there’s an answer or a goal, we’re a people willing to do what it takes to get it.
Too many of us know that it doesn’t work like that with God and our work towards getting God’s healing. We’ve lost loved ones because of senseless disease and accidents. We’ve had to stand by as others suffer. We’ve come face to face with our own powerlessness.
Maybe we’ve had expectations of what God would do for us: how God would heal, why God would heal, how we would enlist God’s help. Perhaps we’ve seen things work out as they should for someone else. Why hasn’t it worked all the time for us, too?
God is not bound by our expectations. God gives healing and life out of who God is rather than what we have done or sacrificed. We are not in control. We do not have the power to give life or healing, nor to determine who receives it. This is difficult news, but it is also good news.
God gives based on who God is: God is generous and gracious. God freely gives what we think we need to bargain for. God has given us life! At many times in our lives and the lives of our loved ones, God has given us healing. Yes, there are times when the healing we have prayed for does not come, and death separates us from those we love. But even then, God still gives life. Those who have died are not outside God’s gift of life and healing, but are on their way towards experiencing healed life in God’s presence forever.
God goes beyond our expectations. God heals and gives life outside the bounds of our expectations: to those who we would call outsiders, sinners, and unworthy of God’s gifts. Our God is the one who healed a foreign general and who healed not only 9 Jewish lepers, but also a Samaritan. God doesn’t give life and healing only to those who deserved it, or worked for it, but gives freely to all creation.
When next you pray for someone in need of God’s healing, don’t be afraid to tell God what is needed. You may even find yourself bargaining for good news. God hears your prayer and the impulse that is behind your bargaining: your love for another. God understands this love. It is God’s love for us that led the Word to become flesh in Jesus Christ, God’s love that led Jesus to die for us, and God’s love that unites us all with the risen Jesus Christ in life forever. God knows what it is to give life and healing out of love. God gives those gifts to us. Our hope is in God and not in ourselves. At the end, hope in God’s faithfulness will not be disappointed.
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