Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity October 11, 1998
2 Kings 5:8-14
279, 291, 427, 294
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
And it was so, when Elisha the man of God had heard that the king of Israel had rent his clothes, that he sent to the king, saying, Wherefore hast thou rent thy clothes? let him come now to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel. So Naaman came with his horses and with his chariot, and stood at the door of the house of Elisha. And Elisha sent a messenger unto him, saying, Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean. But Naaman was wroth, and went away, and said, Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the LORD his God, and strike his hand over the place, and recover the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? may I not wash in them, and be clean? So he turned and went away in a rage. And his servants came near, and spake unto him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean? Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean. Thus far our text.
In the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ, Who bids us abide in His Word, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
“When all else fails, follow the instructions.”—That phrase is rather revealing. It’s a sarcastic way of saying that there are certain people who simply can’t seem to read and follow instructions. Sad to say, I’m one of them! When I was a kid, teachers would write comments on my report card like, “A good student, but often fails to follow instructions.” And it still gets me into trouble to this day—I don’t know how many tax forms and license applications I’ve had to tear up, how many home products I’ve assembled the wrong way…simply because I didn’t read the instructions. Maybe you’ve had the same thing happen to you. You know what the problem is, of course. People like us think we don’t need instructions. We look at a task and think we know how to accomplish it, so we just go ahead and do it. Usually the wrong way.
Of course, it’s no big deal if you’re just putting together a bike, or installing a garage door opener. If you do it wrong, you can start all over and do it right; you just lose a little time, is all. In our text for today, though, we see a man who almost lost a lot more than that. Naaman almost lost his life—and his eternal soul—because he didn’t want to follow the instructions. Not following God’s Word in faith was a mistake that Naaman couldn’t afford to make. And neither can we! Today we consider the theme…
A person with an incurable illness will do strange things—travel to foreign countries, subject himself to experimental drugs—almost anything, if it offers the slightest hope of being cured. Naaman was like that. He was the commander of the army of Syria; rich and powerful, a man of means. But he also had leprosy, which was at that time an incurable disease. It slowly ate away at the body’s skin and extremities until it eventually killed the sufferer. Naaman was a leper, and he would try anything to be cured, no matter how slim his chances. That’s what brought him to the doorstep of the prophet Elisha. The magic of his Syrian gods had failed to work. “Who knows?” thought Naaman. “Maybe this prophet’s god has a stronger magic.” He certainly had nothing to lose.
As it turns out, Elisha’s instructions were simple. In fact, that was the problem—to Naaman, they seemed too simple, insultingly simple. He was used to having people grovel at his feet and make long, flattering speeches to him. But Elisha didn’t even come out to meet him. Instead, he sent out a humble messenger with a simple set of instructions: Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean.
“GO…WASH…BE CLEAN.” This was the Word of the Lord, spoken to Naaman through the prophet’s messenger. These were God’s simple instructions on how he could be cured. They would have been easy to follow. Instead, Naaman went through the roof. He was enraged. He wouldn’t follow these instructions—they were too simple! It was an insult! He couldn’t possibly be cured by doing something so easy!
It is well-said in Proverbs that “He who is quick-tempered acts foolishly, and a man of wicked intentions is hated.” —Prov 14:17. Naaman could have spared himself a lot of emotion and embarrassment if he had just held his tongue and followed the instructions. Unfortunately, we human beings seem to have a hard time doing that. Isn’t it true?—The easier God’s promise is, the harder time we have believing it. The Lord says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” —Mt 6:33. Simple instructions. And yet we worry ourselves sick over money and possessions and providing for the future. The Lord says, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver you.” —Ps 50:15. Simple instructions. And yet we suffer huge anxiety attacks every time some new illness or accident takes place in our lives. The Lord says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Again, quite simple. Too simple. It can’t be that easy to get forgiveness…so we lug the guilt of past sins around with us like a heavy suitcase, refusing to put it down. My Christian friends, this is not the way of faith. Faith follows the instructions.
Faith accepts the simplicity of God’s Word. And the Bible says simply, “Your sins have all been paid for by Christ!” For Jesus, of course, it was difficult. For Him, it meant living out a perfect life—never sinning once—so He could wrap us in the white robe of His own righteousness. For Jesus, it meant suffering the curses and jeers of his enemies, the torture of the scourging and the crown of thorns, and the full force of God’s wrath over sin as He suffered for us on the cross. For Him it was excruciatingly difficult…for us, it is easy. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” the Bible says, “and you will be saved.” —Acts 16:31. It’s so easy, in fact, that without the Holy Spirit working faith in our hearts, we’d never believe that such Good News could possibly be true!
Faith trusts the power of God’s Word. But there on Elisha’s front doorstep, General Naaman wasn’t feeling faith. All he felt was anger. “Naaman was wroth, and went away, and said, Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the LORD his God, and strike his hand over the place, and recover the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? may I not wash in them, and be clean? So he turned and went away in a rage.”
What did the commander want? He wanted a showy religious ceremony. He wanted a lot of hand-waving and hocus pocus—that was something he could believe in. Some people are still that way about religious things. They want a big church with fancy furnishings. They like to see fancy vestments on the minister, and hear long liturgical forms that no one can understand, as though the power of religion was in these things. Some people put their trust in the outward forms of baptism and confirmation and church membership, and think, “As long as these ceremonies have been performed on me, I don’t have to give another thought to God.” But the power that saves—and the power that gives meaning to these ceremonies—is faith in God’s Word, not in the outward forms or the waving of hands.
The Lord’s Supper is another good example. There’s nothing magical in the bread and the wine. You could make the same bread yourself simply by leaving the yeast out; you could buy the same wine in the grocery store. What gives the Sacrament its power is the Word of God, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” In faith, we discern the real presence of our Savior’s body and blood in and with the bread and wine. In faith, we trust the power of God’s Word of absolution. In faith, we follow the simple instructions, “Take and eat…for the forgiveness of sins!”
Finally, when faith follows the instructions, it is never disappointed. It always receives the benefits of God’s Word!
At some point, the Holy Ghost put faith in the heart of this foreign soldier, Naaman. Be it ever so weak, Naaman’s anger turned gradually to a desperate flickering hope. It may have been when he finally quit fuming long enough to listen to the wise counsel of his servants: His servants came near, and spake unto him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean? Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
Finally, Naaman broke down and followed the simple instructions…and it worked! He was completely clean—better than new. Can you imagine the joy he must have felt? Can you imagine the relief at being instantly cured from the repulsive disease that had hung over him for years? Yes, I think we can imagine it. Because through faith, the benefits of God’s Word are available to us, too. Through faith, the Lord has cured us of the deadly disease of sin. God’s instructions to us are just as easy as Naaman’s: “GO…WASH…BE CLEAN” No matter what our background, no matter what sins and mistakes and shortcomings lie scattered in our past, God invites us today to be cleansed. Come, wash in the blood of the Lamb, and have the damning disease of your sin instantly cured. It seems too simple to work, but have faith! God promises that it will! The hymnwriter put the invitation beautifully in the first hymn we sang this morning…
“Today Thy mercy calls us
To wash away our sin.
However great our trespass,
Whatever we have been,
However long from mercy
Our hearts have turned away,
Thy precious blood can cleanse us
And make us white today.”
“When all else fails, follow the instructions.” Let that be other people’s motto, but not ours! Let us not wait until “all else fails” before going to our gracious God. In His Word, God has given us simple instructions to obtain cleansing from our sins. Let’s follow them from now on and continually in our lives. Let’s accept the simplicity of God’s Word, and trust the power of God’s Word. Then, without doubt, we will know the benefits of God’s Word. AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.