Simple Answers

2 Kings 5:1-14

Dr. Chris White June 23, 2013

   The professional golfer, Arnold Palmer, tells a story that illustrates what we might call the ending that never happened. After a strong tee shot on the final hole of the 1961 Master’s tournament, and holding  a one-stroke lead, he approached his ball. There he found a friend on the edge of the gallery who motioned him over with an outstretched hand. He shook Arnold’s hand and congratulated him on his looming Master’s victory. Palmer said that when he turned back to his ball he knew then and there that he had lost his focus. Indeed he had. He sent the next shot into the sand trap, the next over the green, and missed a putt. He lost the Master’s by one shot.  That moment’s presumption never left him. Neither did the certainty that a Master’s win was the ending that never happened.

Our Scripture today is the ending that almost never happened. And like Arnold Palmer’s tale, it almost never happened because of a man’s pride. Turn with me if you would to 2 Kings 5:1-14.

     The story line begins by building on the greatness of Naaman, an ancient army commander in Syria. Described as highly regarded, the phrase actually means “lifted of face” and expresses the exalted station he enjoyed with the king of Aram. But it’s the last clause in verse 1, “but he had leprosy,” that is the hook. No matter what was right in Naaman’s life and career, there was this debilitating skin disease. “But he had leprosy” is the problem that needs an answer, and it is a problem large enough that he leaves his home with great gifts for the prophet he believes can help him. And, if we can skip ahead, he does find help. He does find an answer. He will be free of leprosy by God’s hand. But it almost never happened. It almost never happened because it required humility. It required humility because the miracle of healing would come through simple people, answers, and water.

      Let’s begin with simple people. Verse 2 tells us that in the home of Naaman was servant girl taken captive from Israel. Few are lower on the totem pole than a foreign slave girl. She had her place in the home, but her place was to be quiet and serve. The story, however, begins with this girl’s word to Naaman’s wife: “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” And so the chain of events begins: slave girl to wife, wife to Naaman, Naaman to king of Aram, king of Aram to king of Israel, king of Israel to Elisha. One slave girl, and the story begins. But it is maintained by simple people, too. Servants from Elisha carry the instructions, and Naaman’s own servant convinces him to follow the directions. No servant names anywhere in the story—just simple people saying what they could, doing what they should, and a man finds healing. 

     God was waiting in the simple people. We shouldn’t be surprised, of course. The feeding of the 5,000 in John’s Gospel (6:9) begins with, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go?” We don’t know the boy’s name, but we lean on that story in lean times. Who knows the name of the man on the cross defending Jesus and asking that Jesus remember him? We don’t know his name, but we appreciate the words of Jesus spoken to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Simple people are often at the beginning of God’s great works. Out of pride we are tempted to look for those we deem important, stable, with connections in our way forward. But God very often moves us closer to Him through simple people. There is a place in your life for children, for the aging, for the sick, for the struggling—people who do NOT have the world by the tail. There might be a lot to learn by listening to these people, sitting with these people, and even serving these people. As you consider your way forward, consider the simple people. *Ian, professors (Matt. 25:34-40) 

     Let’s move on to simple answers. The passing of letters between kings is a comical addition (6-7), even as it raises the blood pressure of the king of Israel. The answers seem beyond reach. But then it gets simple. When Naaman arrives he finds a message: “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” Simple. Too simple for Naaman’s taste, in fact. His wish, according to verse 11, was the Elisha would meet him in person, call on God, wave his hands, and cure him on the spot. All he’s told is to go wash in the Jordan. This is a very simple answer. And so he turns to leave in a rage.Maybe he wants magic. Maybe he wants a big show from a big prophet. All he is offered is a simple answer. 

     We know something about that disappointment, I suppose. There’s nothing worse than being told your complex problem has a very simple answer. How about these zingers: spend less than you make; give up soda; stop smoking; forgive him; stop following her on Facebook; go sit with your mom; make peace with your dad; forgive yourself; get home for supper; speak less, listen more; save for retirement; stay home; go to church; look in the mirror; quit judging. These are clearly the answers to a lot of our problems, but they are difficult to carry out. And at some level it might be pride that keeps us there. For example, in 1986 a Russian ocean liner with 1,234 people collided with a grain ship in the Black Sea. Both pilots knew that a collision was inevitable if one or the other did not change course. But neither did. Three-hundred ninety-eight people died in the waters after the crash. Both pilots were arrested. “Move. No, you move. No, you move.” No few marriage problems, family problems, financial problems, and spiritual problems hold simple answers. Not easy answers, but simple answers. But pride keeps us in place. 

     Finally, we see the simple waters. The last insult to Naaman was the call to wash in the River Jordan. Being from Syria and knowing the rivers that moved through the desert and through Damascus, he believed them far better than the river he saw in Israel. Depending on where you cross the Jordan, it can be uninspiring and muddy. Why wash here when the great rivers that made the oasis of Damascus were waiting for him at home? Naaman’s pride is nowhere more evident than here. It’s not just getting wet. It is getting wet in this foreign river. It might even verge on humiliating to leave the waters wet and unhealed. 

     The preacher Spurgeon once wrote, “Be not proud of race, face, place, or grace.” But we are proud of these things, and we often defend these things, and they blind us to God’s answers in our lives. Like Naaman, we want prayers answered certain ways, through certain people, and surely not through anything that might humiliate us. 

     And yet the great waters before us require humility. This should not surprise us. Our faith rests in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified. It is amazing that the early church never changed that part of the story. The Scriptures hold to a crucified Lord. He did not escape the cross—the stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:23). It was the height of ancient world humiliation, and he did not turn away. He embraced the humility of living with us and living as us in human form (Phil. 25:5ff). The line between humility and humiliation is thin, but it is in the eye of the beholder. We see mercy in the crucifixion, they saw failure. We see love, they saw a criminal. We see God’s favor, they saw God’s rejection.

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