Sunday, October 10, 2004

Nineteenth Sunday in Pentecost
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

For if we died with him, we shall also live with him: if we endure, we shall also reign with him: if we shall deny him, he also will deny us: if we are faithless, he abideth faithful; for he cannot deny himself.

When I lived in California, our church’s women’s group had a prayer partner’s program. Each year we chose a name and for a year we prayed for our partner while someone unknown to us was praying for our needs. Throughout the year we did special things for our prayer partners – cards, small gifts, little surprises left in the narthex on a Sunday morning. At the end of the year we had a special luncheon where we revealed our prayer partners. It was a time of such thankfulness as the truth was revealed.

It was amazing how often the prayer partners did exactly the right thing at the right time. I often received cards when I was feeling down and the gifts at Christmas or birthdays were just what I wanted. I could not wait until the luncheon so I could tell my partner what an impact she had on my life. I was thankful at the time, but until I knew the identity of the giver, it was impossible to share my thanks.

This type of program is wonderful because it helps us to learn to live in thankfulness without trying to repay the giver. In our world it seems that every gift must be returned with something even better. When we are invited to dinner, we feel obligated to invite our hosts to our house. When someone gives us something we think they have only done so because they want something from us. We are suspicious of gifts that come out of nowhere. There is no such thing as a free gift, so we wonder what is expected of us in return. We answer according to our cultural expectations.

This is why Naaman tried to pay Elisha for his healing. In the Old Testament lesson for today, Naaman is a great commander of the army of the king of Aram. Naaman also had leprosy. Now, according to Jewish law, any sort of skin disorder would make a man unclean – unblessed by God. This did not seem to be a problem for Naaman since he was greatly honored by the king. However, disease has a way of spreading, and a skin disease that is slight today might become so bad in time that it could become impossible for Naaman to continue serving the king.

A young Israelite girl had been taken captive during a border raid and became the servant of Naaman’s wife. This young girl believed in God and knew that there was a prophet who could heal Naaman’s disease. She told her mistress who suggested to her husband that he should go see this prophet. In that world, prophets were paid for their gifts and for their words – often controlled financially by the king and under his authority. So, when Naaman decided to go to the prophet, it was natural that the king of Aram would send Naaman to Elisha through the king of Israel.

The king of Israel thought this was a trick. He knew there was no way he could heal Naaman or even force Elisha to do so. “And it came to pass, when the king of Israel had read the letter, that he rent his clothes, and said, Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man doth send unto me to recover a man of his leprosy? but consider, I pray you, and see how he seeketh a quarrel against me.” He thought this was the king of Aram’s way of causing war between the two nations. Elisha knew this was God’s way of making His power known to the nations. He sent a message to the king. “Wherefore hast thou rent thy clothes? let him come now to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel.”

Naaman was disappointed by Elisha’s answer to his request. Naaman was a powerful man, proven by the large contingent that accompanied him on this trip and the gifts he took to pay for the healing. Elisha did not even come to the door to greet him. He simply sent a message to Naaman to wash in the river Jordan seven times. This made Naaman angry. “Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of Jehovah his God, and wave his hand over the place, and recover the leper. Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the 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.”

Naaman had probably seen the prophets perform in Aram. He expected Elisha to use some magical technique to make the healing happen. He would have been used to some grand show, created to make the healing appear more real or more worthy of payment. He certainly did not expect the prophet to send him to the Jordan River, especially since there were better rivers available to him in Aram. The healing would come, not from the actions of the prophet but from the obedience to God’s word given through the prophet.

Naaman’s people convinced him that it would not hurt to do as the prophet commanded. “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?” I wonder how often we think that healing comes only with some great act of faith or some grand undertaking. We promise God that if He gives us what we want we will stop doing something or we will take up some cause in His name. “If only you do this for me, I will…”

Yet, God can’t be bought. Naaman did go to the Jordan and his leprosy was cured. Naaman went back to Elisha, expecting to pay him for his work but Elisha refused to take the money. “Behold now, I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel: now therefore, I pray thee, take a present of thy servant.” He offered a confession of faith in God, but still wanted to pay the prophet. He did not understand the ways of the God of Israel and responded according to the ways of the world. He was putting his faith in the wrong hands.

The Gospel lesson is a similar story. Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem when he came across ten men with leprosy. They stood at a distance – since they were unclean they did not want to make Jesus unclean – and yelled “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

What did they think when they asked Jesus to have mercy? Lepers were outcasts. They did not have anyone to love them. They had no source of food, clothing, and shelter. They had only one another and the occasional act of mercy. Jesus did many things during His ministry. He fed the hungry. He touched the sick and raised the dead. He spoke forgiveness in to the lives of many. Most certainly they had heard the stories of Jesus and all He could do. Jesus might have met any of their needs for food, comfort, peace and healing.

Jesus commanded them to go to the priests and they all went in faith. I wonder what they were thinking as they left Jesus. It was proper to show yourself to the priest when you were cured of a disease, but they had not yet been cured. Did they think they would be healed or did they expect to find mercy at the Temple? In what had they placed their faith?

While they were leaving they were cured of their disease. Nine of the lepers continued to the priests, doing exactly as expected according to their religion and society. We do not hear any more about those nine men. Did they go straight to the temple and offer their sacrifices? Did they stop at home to hug their wives and kiss their children before taking their thanksgiving and praise to God? They were thankful, I am sure. This cure saved their lives. They could return home, work and live as a normal person again. It probably saved the lives of their families who suffered along with their loved one who’d been outcast. Their world was returned to them with that cure but their thankfulness did not manifest as praise to God. It was displayed in a return to the normal course of life.

One of the lepers, however, turned around when he realized he had been healed. He praised God in a loud voice and knelt before Jesus with shouts of thanksgiving. Only the one man had faith in the one who’d made them clean.

This is a troublesome passage for many people particularly when we look at it through the lens of the Old Testament lesson. After all, Naaman was cleansed because he had obeyed God’s word. The nine who continued on were only obeying Jesus’ command, yet it is the one who returned that is honored. Did not the nine also have faith? Naaman confessed faith in God, but he also tried to pay the prophet. Is that faith? The nine were doing as they knew to do, but they still did not see that God was doing something new. They did not know Jesus, did not recognize Him as the source of their cure. And since they did not return, they missed out on the greater healing. Jesus said to the man, “Were there none found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger? And he said unto him, Arise, and go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.” The one was healed while the other nine were just cured.

It is not enough to confess faith in God. While there is only One True God, there are thousands, perhaps millions of false gods. It is not faith if we think that there is some promise or payment we can make to earn God’s mercy. We might find cures by believing in the other gods. Certainly medical science has made wonderful strides in finding cures and prevention for many diseases that not long ago brought death. Miraculous cures are not found only in Christian experiences, but have been a part of many other religions. However, Christ offers something more than just physical healing.

Christ heals the whole person. We may not always get the physical cure that we desire but through Christ we are made whole. He offers peace, joy and hope. He grants forgiveness and mercy. When the lepers asked for mercy, they wanted to be saved from their earthly bondage, but one knew that he’d been released from even more. They all received the gift, but the nine did not recognize the true identity of the giver and did not know to whom they should offer thanksgiving and praise. They had faith in the wrong things.

What is faith? Last week I defined faith as trust in God, and yet is that definition deep enough? What does it mean to trust God? Naaman trusted God’s word through Elisha. The ten trusted Jesus’ words. They all received cures to their diseases. However, only one was made whole through faith in Jesus Christ. Only one offered thanksgiving to the One who is worthy to receive our praise. It is not enough to confess faith in God. We have to know Him and recognize His works in our life.

Faith is not blind as so many would infer. The psalmist confesses his faith in the presence of an assembly, and he does so by recounting the wonderful things God has done. He praises God by referencing the works of His hands. “The works of Jehovah are great, Sought out of all them that have pleasure therein. His work is honor and majesty; And his righteousness endureth for ever. He hath made his wonderful works to be remembered: Jehovah is gracious and merciful.” Unfortunately, God’s people often forgot the great and marvelous things He did and when He came to them in the final and most incredible act of mercy, they did not recognize Him.

The only leper to see the truth was a Samaritan. The other nine were caught up in their own understanding of God; they did only what they knew to be right. They did not recognize the presence of God and ran off to do what was expected. They put their faith in their actions rather than in the One who could really make them whole.

Paul writes to Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ.” It is not enough to confess faith in God. Our entire faith rests on Christ and His work on the cross. We can not be saved in any other way but through Him. “Faithful is the saying: For if we died with him, we shall also live with him: if we endure, we shall also reign with him: if we shall deny him, he also will deny us: if we are faithless, he abideth faithful; for he cannot deny himself.”

Perhaps we think we can return the favor that God has given through Jesus. Perhaps we think we can get God to do what we want by making promises that we can’t keep. Perhaps we think we can manipulate and control God with our resources. Perhaps we think we can be good enough to deserve His mercy. We can’t. We are fallible. We are untrustworthy. Yet, God has revealed Himself through Jesus Christ and He gives us the faith to believe. Faith is what made that one leper turn around and praise God at the feet of Jesus our Lord. Faith is what makes us live a life of thanksgiving, confessing all the wonderful works He has done in our lives. Yet, even when we are faithless, God is faithful.

Thanks be to God.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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