Saturday, January 27, 2007

Epiphany 3 - 2 Kings 5

(wma podcast download link)

So…you’ve just won the superbowl. You led the team the entire season. You called the plays on the final drive. You caught the pass with no time on the clock to gain the one point lead. And now, you’ve resigned for more money than anyone’s made in the history of football. Not to mention, your wife is beautiful. Your kids got your skills. You’re main house is huge and your summer home is gigantic. You are the envy of the entire world…or, well, you would be, if you didn’t have terminal cancer.

That’s about what it felt like to be Naaman. Naaman was almost a King in almost the most powerful nation on earth. His whims and dreams and cares were nothing. The world was his oyster. Except…he was a leper.

Now, you may not know much about leprosy, but to call it cancer is a pretty good equivalent. Contrary to popular belief, leprosy was not contagious. The only reason lepers were ostracized in Jewish culture was because of ritual purification laws, not because of any contagion. So a leper in the ancient world could live just fine, that is, until his face rotted off and he died of consumption at a very young age. Think cancer, only on the outside, and you’ve about got it. So Naaman had it all, except the he was a dead man walking.

So imagine – imagine the hope which filled his superstitious, pagan heart when he heard from a little slave girl about a prophet in Israel who could heal even leprosy because of a God who was truly alive and active. Now maybe he was a skeptic at first, but all the text says is that he sought after this man as quickly as if his life depended on it…because, well, it did.

Yet the most marvelous thing about this history from the Old Testament is not that a pagan would journey to the Israel in search of healing, nor that his King would endorse this trip with gold and silver and passports, nor that the King of Israel would consider it all an act of blatant subterfuge and aggression. The most amazing thing is that, after the prophet Elisha steps into the mix, and after Naaman comes riding into backlands Samaria with all his horses and chariots and pomp and show, and after Elisha then gives Naaman the very thing he’d been seeking – that is, the promise and Word of God assuring him of true, real, tangible healing – the amazing thing is that the first thing superstitious, pagan Naaman does is – go figure – not believe it. Ha!

He wanted smoke and mirrors. He wanted a big half-time show with guest appearances and some fireworks. And all he got was a simple Word telling him that the answer was found in plain, old, dirty river water.

How can water do such things?

“How can water do such things?” he asked in anger! “Is not the water of Syria far cleaner than this filthy Hebrew puddle?”

And that is exactly how far unbelief masquerading as faith will get you. You can seek the answers. You can look for truth. You can be dying to find that thing that deep down you know you really need. But, without faith, when what you really need – a Word from the Living God – comes to you and stares you in the face, and gives you the ultimate answers, without faith, the human being, you, can’t and won’t believe it.

And this is the incredible thing about this text, for it is easy for us to sit and scoff at Naaman, but the reality is that this story isn’t about Naaman at all. It’s about you. You don’t really want God’s answers either. Sure, you say you do, but you’re not fooling anyone, except, maybe yourself. You don’t want God’s answers. You want God to give you your answers. You don’t want eternal salvation as simple as a little water splashed on your face with a promise from the mouth of God about your being connected to his crucified Son. No. You want smoke and mirrors too. You want perfected feelings and adrenalized emotions and ardent, fervor-filled zest for life. You don’t want the Church. You want a good show. You don’t want to have to believe God’s promises. Like the prodigal son, you want see your inheritance right now, so you can spend it on your passions in this life. None of this, “believe it will be done and wait patiently,” stuff for your heart. You want to see it done now, and then, maybe, you’ll believe.

And that’s just it right there. A sinner (which is what you are) can’t believe the Word of God. It’s just not possible. Even with miracles and signs, the crowds still rejected Jesus. They demanded more. To them he replied, “You have the prophets and the Scriptures. If you will not believe them, then even a man rising from the dead will not convince you of who I am.”

And that is the predicament of the entire human race. Naaman wasn’t weird for thinking that washing in a dirty river seven times wouldn’t take away his leprosy. Naaman was normal for thinking that. And you’re not weird for doubting the power of God for regeneration in the plain water of your baptism. You’re normal for thinking that. But normal is the problem. And there we’re stuck. If it’s up to us to believe in Jesus in order to earn our salvation, we’re all done for. So it’s a darned good thing that Jesus didn’t come to demand that we believe in him. It’s a wonderfully good thing that Jesus came to give us belief.

For the greatest miracle of all is not even that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. The greatest miracle of all is that, because of the working of the Holy Spirit, you believe it. By your own reason or strength, the saving power of a dead man on a cross is foolishness. But because the Spirit of God has come to you in that testimony that Christ has not only died, but risen and will come again, because of the persistent confession of this truth other saints past and present, all saying to you, “Is this not a great Word that God has spoken,” because God has by this same Word flushed your heart and mind with the cleansing waters that hold the power of his eternal Name, - because of all of this work He has done for you - you believe, in spite of your reason and strength.

Reason and strength, once dead in unbelief are now made alive in Christ, renewed and invigorated to apprehend the Word of God. The Lord, because he is merciful, has pursued you, just as he pursued Namaan, so that, even now, he is chasing you, pulling at you, speaking to you words through his servants, guiding you in loving persistence, and gradually, promise by promise, abnormalizing you away from the narrow minded focus of the world and into a cross-eyed addiction to faith. And not just faith in anything, but faith that there truly is a God in Israel, in the catholic Church, in his Church, and that this true God not only exists, but exists in an eternal desire to love you, to want to do good to you, to rejoice in forgiving you of your sins, and to go to any length to save you from death and the power of the devil.

Unbelief is leprosy, and we’ve all got that disease. It’s worse than cancer. It eats away at you. It tears you apart. It ruins you. It turns you into a rotting mass of boredom and complacency, always looking for the better smoke and the shinier mirrors. But faith is the working of the Word of God in you as he purges you of your disease. He says it, and then he does it. And this is what he has said to you. “I wash you, with my name. You are clean.” Is this is not a great word that he has spoken? It’s way better than even winning the Superbowl.

In the Name…

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