God Blesses an Enemy Combatant

2 Kings 5:1 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and elevated in the sight of his lord, because through him the Lord, God of Israel had given victory to Aram.

Let us prayerfully consider the theme: God’s Blessing on an Enemy Combatant. In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen

Naaman the Aramean, Naaman the gentile, Naaman the foreigner, Naaman the non-Israelite was a great man. He was a great man because someone else’s God - Israel’s God who would become our God - worked with, for and through him without his knowledge. 

This Fourth of July weekend as we celebrate our history Naaman reminds us that we don’t own God, that God is active in the world, blessing and granting goodness to folk we may not know without regard to race, ethnicity, country of origin or religion.

To understand why this introductory verse is such a big deal you have to know who the Arameans were and what their history with Israel was like. The Arameans lived on Israel’s northwestern border, in what is now southern Syria, sharing a border with the tribe of Manesseh. Joshua tells war stories of great victories when the Israelites entered the land of Canaan. But he doesn’t mention the Aramean victory over Israel or the eight years that Israel was subject to Aramean rule recorded in Judges 3:8. 

The Israelites eventually won their freedom. And the two peoples largely kept their distance for the next three centuries. However, during Solomon’s reign an enemy of David ascended the Aramean throne and conflict returned to the two nations. 

When the Israelite monarchy split into Northern and Southern camps, Aram was perceived to be a valuable ally. In 1 Kings 15:18, Solomon's great grandson Asa sent the king of Aram in his day all of the treasure in the temple to buy his loyalty and support against the king of Israel. That’s how bitter the rivalry was between the two sister states - they would sell off God’s furniture to a sworn enemy to get the upper hand over their distant cousins. 

Time passed and God intervened in the state affairs of Aram. In 1 Kings 19:15, God called Elijah - Elisha’s prophetic predecessor to anoint a new king in Aram. Unfortunately the previous king was still alive. (That’s another sermon.) 

There is also the story in 1 Kings 19 of the king of Aram attacking Samaria, Israel’s capitol city and demanding that the king of Israel surrender his silver, gold, women and children for no apparent reason - although verse 12 says that he has been drinking - and he marches on Israel with the help of 32 other kings. God and Israel win the day and just like old friends after a night out, the kings make up. The peace lasted for three years.

Well, a new king arose in Israel who decided that he wanted a piece of land that Aram had taken some years before. Since Israel and Judah were now on good terms, they went to war together. But it cost that king of Israel his life and his throne.

All of this happens before our first lesson. Those hearing or reading this text before us would have known this history - and the following centuries of intermittent warfare between Israel, Judah and Aram - and possibly been scandalized by the claim that one of them, an Aramean, an enemy combatant, was being guided by the God of Israel and was a great man in the sight of God, their God, our God. 

But the Arameans didn’t worship their God or our God. The Aramean religion sounds like a who’s who of forbidden gods: Baal, Anat, Asherah, Sun, Moon, Rain and Thunder gods, War and Fertility goddesses, borrowed Assyrian and Babylonian gods - they worshipped them all. And God seems not to care.

God extended divine providence to Naaman before our lesson begins, guiding his life and career. Remember that Naaman is a military commander and a good one; he is a mighty warrior. Given the history of armed conflict between Israel and Aram (and sometimes between Israel and Judah and Aram) that means that in all likelihood God was prospering Naaman at the expense of some of God’s own - dare I say chosen? - people. It is fair to say that Naaman spent large portions of his adult life and military career at war with Israel. He was an enemy combatant.

And yet, in Naaman’s deepest need God comes to his aid through God’s own people and heals him. Naaman has a terrible skin disease - flaking, peeling, oozing. Not what we have come to call leprosy today, the biblical disease didn’t result in loss of extremities. But it visibly marked its sufferers as diseased and rendered them taboo (a better translation than unclean) in societies across the Ancient Near East, including Israel, Judah and Aram. 

In one battle between Israel and Aram, the Arameans - perhaps under Naaman’s command - captured a small Israelite girl. (The adjective in Hebrew is “small” and not “young,” suggesting that she was just a child, prepubescent, a tween or perhaps even younger.) At her tender age and in spite of her captivity she knew that her God could heal Naaman. 

The faith of the enslaved is a whole other sermon suitable for the Fourth of July - imagine how firm was her faith and that of her parents who instilled that holy faith in her as a child - that in spite of the ravages of war, in spite of being kidnapped into slavery, in spite of being separated from everyone and everything she had ever known - she held firm to her simple childhood faith. She may not have known why God permitted all that had befallen her, her family and her people, but she knew that God could and would heal her captor.

And she told him the good news. There was a prophet in Samaria, a servant of the living God who saw the invisible, touched the untouchable and through whom God made the impossible possible. 

Now Naaman went up the chain of command and things got twisted. I can tell you as a third generation veteran that all chains of command are not created equal. I can’t tell you what Naaman’s lord was thinking except perhaps he was in his own way trying to respect Israel’s chain of command. So he wrote a letter to the king of Israel asking him to heal his faithful military servant - unfortunately omitting any reference to the prophet. 

The king of Israel flies into a panic - he can’t heal anybody of anything. Is the king of Aram setting him up to fail? Is this the prelude to another invasion? He knows their political and military history. Is his throne in danger? Is his life in danger? Now what?

I think the king threw a fine tantrum and pitched a blue fit, so that folk couldn’t keep the story to themselves. The word spread through the monarchy like wildfire. And somebody told Elisha. And Elisha was cool. Why are you trippin’? Send him to me. He needs to learn - and so do you - that there is a prophet in Israel. 

And Elisha heals him, through an intermediary, but the healing is contingent on Naaman’s compliance with Elisha’s instructions. And Elisha’s instructions are bizarre: Go wash in the Jordan River - which on a good  day is a muddy torrent - seven times and you will be healed. Now Naaman knew the drill, or at least he thought he did. He’d seen priests, prophets, magicians and healers at work. He knew they usually put on a show - remember Moses and Pharaoh’s magicians? And there was Elijah’s recent showdown with 400 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. I’m sure everybody was still talking about that - and Elisha wouldn’t even come out of the house!

To heck with him! Naaman stomps off, ready to take his diseased warrior’s flesh back home. But his servants pointed out to him that he would not have shied away from the most difficult task imposed on him by his would be healer, so why refuse such a simple one? Naaman went to the Jordan River, immersed himself in the ritual that predates baptism - again and again, seven times. And as he emerged from the water the last time, the flesh of his hardened warrior’s body had the fresh blush of youth. He was healed and restored. And he was still an outsider, a gentile, a foreigner, a non-Israelite, an Aramean, an enemy combatant.

God’s fidelity to Naaman who did not worship the God of Israel is good news. The Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek Jewish and Christian Scriptures tell the stories of Israel and their God who has become our God. Yet even Israel must admit that they have no monopoly on God. God loves whom God wills, God heals whom God wills, God chooses whom God wills.

There are stories like Naaman’s scattered through out the scriptures: Isaiah promises in 19:24-25 that “One day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Commander of Heaven’s Armies has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”” Amos asks God’s people in 9:8 on God’s behalf, 

Are you not like the Nubians to me,

people of Israel? says the Holy One of Old.

Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,

and the Philistines from Caphtor 

and the Arameans from Kir?

Naaman’s people have their own gentile Exodus story. Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” The believers in Acts 10 were astounded that the Holy Spirit was poured out even on gentiles. Paul writes in Ephesians 3, “5 In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to God’s holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: 6 that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” 

God’s love for Israel is balanced by God’s love for gentiles, for us. For we are Naaman’s descendants as surely as we are have been grafted into the ancient tree of Israel through the blood of Jesus. God loves not one, but all. This is the good news in the gospel of the Israelite slave girl to Naaman the gentile. And this good news is celebrated by the Psalmist who invites us to worship a God beyond borders:

Psalm 66:1 Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth…

3 Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!

4 All the earth worships you;

they sing praises to you,

sing praises to your name.” Selah

5 Come and see what God has done:

God is awesome in God’s deeds 

among the children of earth.

8 Bless our God, O peoples,

let the sound of God’s praise be heard...

This Fourth of July weekend we remember our complicated, war-torn history in the United States of America. We remember that we are a nation of immigrants, slaves and slave-traders, hunted and hounded native peoples herded onto reservations, and survivors of massacres. We are a nation of Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, atheists and humanists.

To say “God bless America!” is to say like Tiny Tim, “God bless us one and all!” Indeed, God bless America and God bless the whole world, including those with whom we are at war and even our enemies and enemy combatants. Amen.

May the God who choose Naaman and Elisha,

Who spoke through an enslaved girl-child 

and nameless servants,

To heal an enemy combatant,

Continue to weave the strands of your life

In the Divine design. Amen. 

 

4 July 2010

Trinity Solebury Episcopal Church

Solebury PA