Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sermon for September 20th: Naaman's Servant - a Faithful Witness

This morning I want to tell you a Bible story that may be familiar to you, but I want to tell it from the point of view of a character we don’t normally think about very much. In fact, we don’t even know her name. So let’s give her a name; let’s call her ‘Rachel’, which was a common enough name in Old Testament times. The Bible doesn’t tell us very much about her, so let’s fill in the gaps a little bit and try to imagine what life might have been like for Rachel.

Rachel was born about eight hundred years before the time of Jesus, in the northern kingdom of Israel. In those days God’s people were actually divided into two kingdoms, the southern kingdom of Judah with its capital at Jerusalem, and the northern kingdom of Israel with its capital at Samaria. We can imagine Rachel growing up in a family in a small village in the northern part of Israel, doing the things that young girls did in those days, playing with her friends and helping out around the house and learning to cook and mend clothes and so on. And she would have heard the stories of Abraham and Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, and she would have joined in the family prayers and other rituals handed down to Israel from the time of Moses.

In those days Elisha the prophet was speaking his messages in the name of God all over the land of Israel, and there were many stories of the wonderful miracles that God had done through him. People told of how he had lodged in the house of a poor widow with only a flask of olive oil to her name, and how he had told her to borrow as many containers as she could from her friends and fill them up from that one flask. She had done so, and the flask hadn’t run out until she had enough oil to pay off all her debts. Another couple had helped Elisha by providing a home for him to stay in when he passed their way, and people told of how, when their son had died suddenly, Elisha’s prayers had raised him from the dead. We don’t know whether or not our Rachel had ever seen Elisha for herself, but she had certainly heard the stories about him, and she knew God could do wonderful things through him.

We don’t know how long Rachel lived in peace with her family, but we do know that one day her life was changed. In those days Israel’s traditional enemy was the kingdom of Aram to the north, with its capital in Damascus. Under its mighty general, Naaman, Aram had won great victories over Israel. But it was not only the big battles between armies that gave Israel trouble; it was the border raids as well. Parties of Aramean raiders would cross the border into Israel, attack villages and plunder them, killing the men and taking the women and children away into slavery. And that’s what happened to Rachel. We can assume that her father was killed, and that Rachel and the rest of the family were taken away as slaves. Rachel was taken into a large house in Damascus where she became a lady’s maid; her mistress was none other than the wife of the great Aramean general Naaman.

We have no idea how long it was that Rachel worked in that house before she began to notice that her master had a skin disease of some kind. In those days people used the word ‘leprosy’ for all sorts of skin diseases, some of them more deadly than others. The Bible describes Naaman’s disease as leprosy, but he doesn’t seem to have been kept in isolation from other people, so we can assume that this was not as serious as some of the skin diseases around at the time. Still, it bothered Naaman and he probably spent a lot of time consulting doctors and healers and trying to find a way to get rid of what he later referred to as ‘the spot’.

Rachel observed all this, and she began to remember the stories she had heard of the wonderful healings and miracles that God had done through the prophet Elisha. One day she said to her mistress, “I wish my master would go to see the prophet in Samaria. He would heal him of his skin disease”.

That’s all she said, but a mighty chain of events was set in motion because of her words. Naaman’s wife told Naaman, and Naaman immediately went to his master, the King of Aram, and told him about it. We can catch a glimpse here of his desperation; Israel was the traditional enemy of Aram, but now Naaman was willing to go to the enemy and ask for help, and his king thought him a valuable enough soldier that he agreed to let him do it. But the King of Aram couldn’t conceive of a prophet not being under the control of a king, so he wrote a letter to the King of Israel, saying, ‘With this letter I present to you my servant Naaman; I want you to cure him of his skin disease’. And Naaman set off for Samaria, carrying costly gifts with which to buy his healing – 750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and ten sets of clothing.

Well, they arrived in Samaria, and of course the King of Israel was dumbfounded at this letter. “Who does this man think I am?” he exclaimed; “Does he think I’m God, that I could heal his general for him? He’s just trying to pick a fight with me!”

But the prophet Elisha heard about it, and sent a message to the King of Israel. “Send him down to me”, he said; “I’ll look after him”. So Naaman went with his horses and chariots, down to the little house where Elisha lived. No doubt he thought Elisha would be impressed with the splendour of his train. But Elisha was not impressed; in fact, he wouldn’t even come out to meet Naaman. He just sent his servant out to tell him, “Go down to the river Jordan and wash in it seven times, and your skin will be restored, and you will be healed of your skin disease”.

Naaman flew into a rage at this treatment. “I thought at least he’d come out and meet me!” he cried. “I thought he’d wave his hand over the spot and call on the name of Yahweh his God and heal me! What’s so special about that muddy Jordan? There are two perfectly good rivers in Damascus, Abana and Pharpar – if all I needed was a river, why did I come all this way?” And he turned and went away in anger.

But fortunately one of his officers calmed him down. “Sir”, he said, “if the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it without question? Well then, what’s the harm in trying when all he does is ask you to wash in the Jordan and be cured?” Naaman finally agreed; he went down to the river Jordan and dipped himself in it seven times as Elisha had instructed him. and when he came up the seventh time, his skin disease was gone, and his skin was as healthy as that of a young child.

Of course Naaman now took a completely different attitude toward Elisha. He went back to his house in joy, and said to him, “Now I know that there is no god in all the world except here in Israel. Here, please accept a gift from me”. But Elisha refused; “As surely as Yahweh lives, I’ll take no gift”. Naaman urged him, but Elisha was adamant; the Lord’s healing power was not for sale. Eventually Naaman gave up, but he then said to Elisha, “I want to worship only your god Yahweh now, so could you please give me a couple of mule loads of Israelite earth so that I can take it home to me and offer sacrifices and prayers to Yahweh on his own soil”. In those days, you see, everyone accepted the idea that gods were territorial, so Naaman would need to take home a bit of Israel on which to worship the God of Israel! Elisha told him, ‘Go in peace’, and he went home, no doubt in a much happier frame of mind than when he had arrived.

The story of Naaman is a well-known Old Testament tale and I know I’ve preached about it several times over the years. But the story of Naaman’s servant girl is not often so well known. We don’t really know very much about her; her name was probably not Rachel, and we have no idea what the circumstances were in which she was taken from her home and taken into Naaman’s house. All we know about her is told in two verses from 2 Kings chapter 5:

Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my Lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5:2-3).

I want to suggest to you that this young girl was a great example of a witness – someone who points other people in God’s direction. Think about her with me for a moment.

First, even though her circumstances were not the best, she had not abandoned her faith in Israel’s God. She had not forgotten the stories she had heard about Elisha and the things God had done through him. Even far away from her home, isolated from her family and from the worship of Israel’s God, she still kept the flame of her faith burning, and she was not afraid to speak about it to the people around her.

If anyone had an excuse to abandon the God of Israel, she did! After all, he hadn’t protected her from the Aramean raiders, and he hadn’t kept her out of a life of slavery! If she had been looking for complaints against him, no doubt she could have found them, but she wasn’t looking; instead, she was looking for opportunities to spread his light and love in the place where she had been taken.

I don’t know about you, but I know of many people who use their situation as an excuse for not being able to be faithful to God and not being able to be a witness for him. “I’m the only Christian in my family”, they say, “and everyone else mocks my faith. They all complain about the fact that I want to go to church every Sunday and how that spoils all their plans. I just feel like keeping quiet”. Or again, some might say, “God hasn’t exactly come through for me, has he? He hasn’t kept me from illness or family troubles or financial difficulties or…” – well, name your particular crisis, whatever it is. “So why should I keep faith with him when he’s not been all that helpful to me?” Or again, “Everyone where I work is so anti-God; I just feel like the safest thing to do is to keep quiet about my faith and just come to church on Sundays and leave it at that”.

But this young girl didn’t do that. She had been snatched from her homeland, had probably seen relatives killed, and had been taken to a faraway place to be a servant for the rest of her life. And yet in all of this, she remained faithful to God. I find that amazing.

Not only that, eight hundred years before the time of Jesus she had already learned the gospel message of loving your enemies and praying for those who hate you! Her master may even have been part of the raiding party that took her from Israel, but she was still concerned about his welfare and wanted him to be healed of his illness. I don’t know about you, but when people attack me and criticize me and do all they can to undermine my ministry, I don’t usually find that their welfare is the first thing on my mind! Sad to say, but that’s the truth! But this young girl had no doubt that God would want to heal her master, even though he was an enemy of Israel, and so she reached across the lines of race and religion and tried to help him.

Finally, notice that the girl didn’t have to heal Naaman herself, or even pray for him to be healed; all she had to do was point him in the right direction; she knew that God and Elisha would look after the situation between them. Her role was really a very small role, but it was a vital one nonetheless. Without Elisha, Naaman could not have been healed, but without the young girl, Naaman would never have gone to Elisha to ask for healing.

Now you may feel that the task of explaining the Christian gospel to your friends is completely beyond you. You might be afraid of their hostile questions; you might be terrified of saying the wrong thing and turning them off forever. You might be unable to imagine yourself ever praying with your friends and asking God to help them or heal them.

Personally, I think those fears are a bit over the top, but let’s just take them as given for a minute. Maybe you can’t be Elisha, but can you be the servant girl? In other words, can you say to someone else, “If only you would talk to my minister, I know he’d be able to answer some of your questions?” Or, “If only you would come along with me to the bring-a-friend service we’re having at our church; I know you’d enjoy it and learn something about God there”. Or again, “If only you’d come along with me to a Christian Basics course; I know you’d find it helpful”.

Of course you can do that; we all can. We can’t all be Elisha, but we can all be the servant girl. We can be faithful to God even though our circumstances are less than ideal. We can reach across the barriers, caring not only for our friends but also for those we find it difficult to get along with and even for those who we might think of as our enemies. And we can point them in the right direction, putting them in touch with someone who can talk with them, or inviting them to a service or an outreach event of some kind. And when we do that, God can work through us, just as he worked through that servant girl, and the result might just be that someone who God loves is brought into the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.


Plessey said...

Thanks for the message.

Colin W said...

Excellent read. I really enjoyed reading this, especially the focus on the young Jewish girl. God bless!