Epiphany 3 January 22, 2012
Naaman, the Syrian, was angry. He had come to Elisha the prophet, seeking to be cleansed of his leprosy. But all Elisha told him to do was to “go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored.” Naaman was apparently expecting something a little more…spiritual. He assumed that if he was going to be healed by a prophet of God, his healing would have a divine and heavenly character to it.
The medicine that Elisha prescribed, in Naaman’s mind, wasn’t good enough. “I thought he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper.” Not only was the method unsatisfactory, but even the means—“Could I not wash in the Abana and Pharpar rivers of Damascus, and be clean?”
Naaman’s problem was that he was looking only at the outward shell, and not recognizing that regardless of the appearance, it was still a divine work. He was not content, not satisfied with what God prescribed.
Certainly, by itself, the Jordan River water had no healing properties. It was no different than any other water, except maybe that it was a bit more muddy. When the Word and command of God came, however, it was transformed into a true healing fountain. And when Naaman finally put aside his pride, and listened to his servants, he went down and washed, according to the word of Elisha. And his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child.
There is a little Naaman in all of us, I believe. There is a part of us that thinks that the medicine God prescribes for our sin is not up to snuff. God gives His Son on behalf of the world, and many think: what is this? A man to die for men? A cross? What kind of Savior is this? Surely if God really meant to save us from our sins and from death and hell, he would do it in a much more obvious way—a way that makes sense to human reason.
Maybe you’ve never thought like this before. But there are plenty who have. John says that Jesus “came to his own, and his own did not receive him.” There was nothing about Jesus outwardly that distinguished him from others. So many regarded him only according to the flesh, according to his outward appearance. As Isaiah prophesied: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
In the same way the Lord says to us today: “You wish to be cleansed and free of your sins, then I have the medicine. Believe on My dear Son, who was crucified and raised for you. Go and wash in the baptismal font. And you will be clean. You wish to have your sins forgiven, your soul nourished and fed, then come and eat My Supper.”
But for many this is not good enough. Throughout the history of the Church, there have been many such Naamans—not happy with the medicine that has been prescribed. Surely there is something more than this, they think. Surely God would not use such unimpressive instruments to do his works and to heal his people from their sins.
They see a pastor reading the Word, preaching, leading the liturgy, dispensing Holy Communion, administering baptism, and this is all they see. It all seems to the eye to be quite earthly, and not heavenly at all. And so they conclude that God’s Spirit must not be here. Because, if God were really here with His Spirit, then there would be more excitement. They would surely feel something more.
Then they visit their friend’s church one Sunday. The pastor doesn’t preach from the pulpit, but wanders around, and really connects with people. And he doesn’t wear those vestments like our pastor does. He’s just like us! Instead of those stuffy old hymns, they sang songs that really got them pumped up. Some people had their hands in the air and their eyes closed, and they just looked like they were in spiritual ecstacy.
And when they came home, they said, “Now that was a spiritual experience.” Never mind the fact that the pastor talked more about his own faith walk than he did about Jesus. Nevermind the fact that when it came time for Communion, the pastor said that this bread and wine symbolized the body and blood of Christ. For them, this was true Christianity.
But this is to miss the point. God has located his saving medicine in things that do not look impressive to the human eye, because He wants us to trust His Word, and not our own thoughts and experiences. Of course it does not stand to reason that a the world could be reconciled through a man and a cross, through the shedding of blood. Of course it does not stand to reason that God would bring his kingdom and grace among us through a splash of water, or a sip of wine or a bite of a wafer of bread.
But that’s just the point. God hides himself in his opposite, in things that do not appear godly, so that we might learn to see not with our eyes but with our ears, to see by faith. Naaman did not at first understand this, but after he became clean by the Word of the prophet, he did. At first he was incredulous that merely washing in the Jordan River seven times would effect something so great as to heal his leprosy.
Contrast Naaman and his unbelief with the great faith of the leper and also the Centurion in today’s Gospel. In the Gospel we heard of another leper, who came and knelt before Jesus and said, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” While so many others regarded Jesus only according to the flesh, according to his outward appearance, this leper saw by faith a true healing fountain in the person of Christ.
“If you are willing, you can make me clean.” There is no doubt or uncertainty in this leper’s words. His prayer is not like so many of ours, full of doubts and uncertain words. The leper knew by faith that Christ was willing to help him. And his faith was rewarded. Christ says “I am willing.” “Be clean.”
Unlike Naaman, there was no complaining on the part of the leper about the method. You don’t hear the leper saying, “Look, you’re supposed to be some great healer. Isn’t there something more? Is that all you’re going to do is say, ‘Be clean’ and that’s it?” The leper is not concerned about how it is done, only that it is done. So also should our faith cling not to the outward appearance, but to the Word and what it promises.
And then we come to the Centurion, a Roman soldier, another commander like Naaman. He too comes to Jesus, and calls on him for help. “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” He too must have heard of the works of the Christ. And so he implores Jesus on behalf of his servant.
What is interesting about this scenario though is that Jesus offers to come to his house and heal him, but the centurion says no. “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Only say the word? Again, contrast this response with that of Naaman the Syrian. Words were not enough for Naaman.
But the centurion understands the power and authority of words. “For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” So he, better than anyone, understands that Jesus need only speak a word, and his servant would be healed.
It goes without saying Christ’s word carries not merely human authority, but divine authority. He says: “Let there be light,” and there is light. He tells the wind and the waves to be still, and they obey. He says: “Be cleansed,” and lepers are cleansed. He tells Lazarus to come out of the tomb, and he rises from the dead. He speaks His Word to a boy in a coffin, says, “Get up” and he comes to life again.
When Christ opens His mouth and speaks, things happen. His Word, spoken or written, is powerful, and it does the very thing that it promises. That’s why Paul today in the Epistle says that the Gospel is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” This little word “power” comes from the same word that we get our word “dynamite” from. The Gospel is God’s dynamite, his power, his authority for all who believe.
Because in it, the righteousness of God is revealed. In it Christ is revealed, along with his forgiving mercy, his life, his salvation. This Gospel can convert a stony, unbelieving heart like Paul’s, as well as a gentile heart like the leper or the centurion. It can forgive even the darkest and ugliest of our sins.
Christ praised the faith of this centurion. Here a Roman Soldier had greater faith than anyone in Israel, he says. A Gentile believes, and believers doubt. Those who ought to know better do not see that this man is indeed God in the flesh.
And so does Christ commend us, when we hold to his Word, when we hold his Sacraments in high regard, despite their humble appearance. “Great is your faith,” says Christ when you confess your unworthiness in his presence, and trust his saving words. For Christ is indeed willing and able to hear and answer your prayers.
In faith, then, let us say with the centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, indeed, even the roof of my mouth, but only speak the Word and my soul shall be healed.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.