Naaman is one of those characters in the Bible whose story is familiar to almost everyone who has been to Sunday School for any length of time. Every time I read or hear the story myself, images of the fuzzy felt storyboard from my own Sunday School in the early ‘70s and ‘80s come flooding back.
And like so many of the biblical characters we encounter through Sunday School, Naaman gets a bit of a rough deal. He comes across as something of an anti-hero: he is the enemy general who has vanquished God’s people in battle, killed their king, kidnapped a poor Israelite girl as a slave, who shows no faith in the promise God makes through His prophet, and who is saved only after his servants persuade him to listen to the prophet. However, even a brief moment of self-scrutiny should make us realise that this is hardly fair on Naaman: he is certainly no worse than us. At every turn his reactions are just what you would expect from any normal, rational person. This passage is not a story about Naaman’s foolishness—it is a story about God’s foolishness, about how God saves us through wonderfully foolish means.
Naaman was angry. He turned away in a rage. And to be fair to him, he had good reason to be angry. After all, he was a great man: commander-in-chief of the victorious army of the king of Syria, a great man with his master a mighty man of valour—and a very rich man, too. Now when this mighty man, laden with vast riches, arrived at Elisha’s house, the prophet didn’t even bother to meet him but sent a messenger to deal with him. We know that Elisha was not an easy man to get along with, but this sort of rudeness is quite shocking even by his standards. When we contrast the generosity of the reward Naaman was prepared to offer for a cure—a third of a tonne of silver, 150 lb of gold and ten changes of finest clothing—with the cure offered in return, a bath in the Jordan, it’s not hard to see why Naaman was incensed. How would you react if your GP treated you like this? How would your react if you went with a fat wad of cash to Harley Street and got treated like Naaman?
However, Naaman was about to learn about a God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa 55:8–11). The Lord, the God of Israel, is a God who conceals His greatness in humble things, who exercises His power by His word and not by spectacles. And there is a great wisdom in this. God doesn’t want us to get attached to the things through which He works but wants us to see them for what they are: His means, His instruments—so that we give glory to Him and cling to Him alone.
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Naaman, that great man of valour, suffered from leprosy. In those days, leprosy was a debilitating disease in a way that went far beyond the physical discomfort it caused. It led to permanent disfigurement and was incurable. Thought to be infectious, leprosy was seen as a defiling and shameful disease, causing sufferers to become isolated and even ostracised from society. We can have full sympathy with Naaman’s preoccupation with his own health and the lengths he was prepared to go to in order to be healed. Likewise, it’s fully understandable that others, from the little servant girl to the king shared his concern. It seems that to Naaman, being healed from his leprosy was the most precious thing, judging by the stupendous reward he was willing to offer for his health: 750 lb, or a third of a tonne, of silver, 150 lb gold and ten changes of finest clothing.
Naaman’s was expecting healing, or at least hoping for it. Like the leper in today’s Gospel reading, he was already showing great faith in God’s ability to work miracles through a man. But what Naaman was about to learn was that although he thought he was asking much, God had something far greater still in store for him.
The key to this whole episode is found in the words spoken by Elisha to the king of Israel, “Let him come now to me, that he may know there is a prophet in Israel” (v. 8).
“… that he many know there there is a prophet in Israel.” If there is a prophet, a man of God, in in Israel, it therefore follows that God is at work, speaking and acting, in Israel through that prophet. So Elisha is saying, “Let him come now to me, that he may know that God is speaking and working in Israel.” Naaman’s encounter with Elisha was an encounter with Yahweh, the God of Israel. He was about to witness a display of God’s glory.
Whatever God does, He will do it for His glory, not simply to give us what we want. Indeed, He does not always even give us what we need for this mortal life. Because there is far more to life than that. Jesus performed some great miracles of healing and feeding—but as a proportion of the sick and hungry of Israel, His miraculous works hardly scratched the surface. Because they were not performed for their own sakes, but to reveal Him to the world to be the Son of God in the man Jesus, the word of God made flesh.. Naaman, the people of first-century Palestine, and we today, are being sent to the bearers of God’s word. Let him, let them, let us come now to him that we may know that there is a prophet in Israel”, that God is at work where His word is heard. For we must never forget what God’s glory is. God’s glory is found not only His splendour and His sovereign power. It’s not even found primarily in those things. Rather, God’s glory is found especially in His grace and His mercy. As John tells us in his Gospel, God’s glory is displayed most fully in Jesus Christ, who is full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14)—and it is displayed most fully on the Cross, when the Son of God gave up His life for us, to speak the truth about the gravity of sin and to have mercy on us sinners by taking our place.
Thus it was with Naaman, too. He travelled to Israel to be healed of his leprosy. While he was healed, his healing was only God’s instrument for something far greater. Let me remind you what happens in the verses following our OT selection.
And he said, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel; so accept now a present from your servant.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, before whom I stand, I will receive none.” And he urged him to take it, but he refused. Then Naaman said, “If not, please let there be given to your servant two mules’ load of earth, for from now on your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the Lord. (2 Kgs 5:14–18)
Naaman returned to Syria a healthy man—but something far more important had changed as well: “from now on your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the Lord”! God chose to heal Naaman in order to bring him to saving faith. The time would come when Naaman’s health would fail him again, and eventually his body would succumb to mortal weakness—yet, he remained clean, washed in the Jordan not only of his leprosy but also of his idolatry. Having been doubly unclean—a leprous Gentile—he had been cleansed for good, body and soul. His flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
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The story of Naaman and his healing is thus a beautiful image of how God deals with His fallen creatures. Like Naaman, we are by birth Gentile sinners, separated from God and incapable of turning to Him. Without spectacle, by means of of His word attached to ordinary water in a simple washing, He restores us and makes us clean. We go into our baptism doubly unclean, being by nature sinful and unclean and having sinned against God by our own actions. And we come out with the flesh of our souls restored like the flesh of a little child, and we are clean. We die and are buried in baptism, and rise to a new life, children of God who have been born again from above.
Like Naaman, many take offence at the simplicity of God’s working. What is Jordan among the great rivers of the Levant? And if one is prepared to pay more than a fortune for one’s healing, one can surely expect something more spectacular than a dip in that little brook. And what is baptism among the religious spectacles of the world? If we are talking about salvation and new birth, surely one can expect something more spectacular, impressive and moving than a few simple words and a splash of, or even immersion in, water.
Naaman was not the first religious enthusiast, but he was not the last. He had faith in something spectacular—healing from an incurable disease—so he expected to experience something spectacular, something that looked and felt powerful enough to deal with his leprosy, yet all he was offered was a washing of water. Likewise we are prone to looking for spectacles, too. In our conversion, in our worship, in our daily Christian lives, we want to be moved, impressed, and at least from time to time bowled over. The same words, the same chants, the same hymns, the same water, bread, wine—they just don’t satisfy the basic human need for something new that makes us feel in our hearts as well as know in our heads that God is present and working.
Like Naaman, we are forever tempted to look only at the appearance of the cure, a washing of water, failing to pay attention to who it is that is making the promise. The greatness of Naaman’s cure was in the simplicity: nothing spectacular, just a simple washing of water—with a great promise: you shall be clean.
The Small Catechism teaches us that “baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word … It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” Here is a promise far greater than that given to Naaman. Here is a promise of more than physical wholeness: forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and the devil, eternal salvation. And how is this accomplished: by a brief immersion, or sprinkling or pouring of water. And so we are taught to ask Naaman’s question: How can water do such great things? !
“Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”
Sinners are forever acting out the story of Naaman. Apart from the word of God, without faith in the One Who has promised, we too want to cling to things that make sense to us, that look impressive enough to do what they say on the tin. At the very least, we want a man of God waving his hand over the place. Or some task challenging enough to have the muscle to deal with the problem of our sin. In the mediaeval church, it was monasteries, indulgences, tasks of penance. In more recent times, even today, people will look to extravagant displays of sorrow over sins, dramatic conversion experiences, miraculous events and other suitably impressive signs that God really is at work in your life.
And all the time, it’s given to you on a plate, through the simplest means: the water and word of baptism, the spoken word from a pastor, the written word on the pages of the Bible, the bread and the wine in the Lord’s Supper, the reliable words of God in the liturgy and in wholesome Christian hymns. Everything that God wants to accomplish for us and in us is already accomplished and offered as a free gift through the simple means established by Him.
Why so simple? Wouldn’t something more impressive, the man of God waving his hand, miracles and such like, be far more persuasive to people? After all, where miracles are offered, the halls and the stadia are packed to the rafters? Isn’t it all rather foolish?
But it is in this foolish simplicity that the Gospel is offered to us as it was to Naaman. We are drawn to follow the example of the anonymous Roman centurion and trust the power of the word of Jesus: simply because of who it is that is speaking, trusting the power of His word. Paul writes to the Romans, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”
There is only one thing that endures forever, God’s word of promise in Christ Jesus. By choosing the humble means of water, word, bread and wine, to save us, God draws our attention entirely to His word of promise in Christ, an everlasting foundation that will not waver, come hell or high water, sickness or health, success or failure. And like Naaman, empowered by the Gospel, we will serve no other god than Him who sent His Son to die for us, to make us His children, and to empower us to live lives of daily repentance and faith until we enter His kingdom with immortal bodies and incorruptible souls.
Thanks be to God!