I preached this sermon on August 14, 2011, at the Dawson Creek Church of the New Jerusalem in Dawson Creek, BC.
“My father, if the prophet had spoken unto you of a great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Bathe and be clean’?” (2 Kings 5:13)
What should we do to be cleaned? How can we be cured of our spiritual diseases? The answer is simple: wash, and be cleaned. Cease to do evil, learn to do good. But that simple answer is often unsatisfying. Sometimes we want something much bigger, something immediate and powerful that heals us in an instant. In those times, we are like Naaman, who we read about this morning.
Naaman was the commander of the army of the king of Syria – “a great man.” He was a hero of his people – but he suffered from leprosy. In those times, there was no known cure for leprosy. It would have disfigured Naaman, and made his skin hard and white. Besides this, when a person has leprosy they lose sensitivity, and they can easily hurt their bodies because they don’t feel pain.
We don’t know how long Naaman had been a leper, or whether he had tried anything to find a cure, but the story reveals that he was desperate– since he brought with him an incredible sum of money that he was willing to give to Elisha if the prophet was able to cure him. In fact, the disease may have been life-threatening, since when the king of Israel was asked to find a cure, he cried out, “Am I God, to put to death and make to live?” – implying that Naaman was asking for his very life.
Elisha might have been Naaman’s last hope. But Naaman would not have even known of Elisha if it were not for a young Israelite girl who had heard of his plight. She had been captured by the Syrians in one of their frequent raids against Israel, and brought to the house of Naaman – but she did not seem to have borne any ill will against her captors. On the contrary, she expressed a sincere desire for Naaman to be healed – she said to her mistress, Naaman’s wife, “Oh that my lord were before the prophet that is in Samaria – then would he recover him of his leprosy!”
And so, after the king of Syria had sent a letter to the king of Israel, and Elisha had promised that Naaman could be healed, Naaman came to Israel. He came with his horse and chariot, and he went to the entrance of the house of Elisha the prophet. No doubt he expected a great welcome fitting for a man of his greatness. Imagine his surprise when instead a servant came out with a message: Elisha said to bathe seven times in the Jordan, and his flesh would be returned to him, and he would be clean. That was it – Elisha did not even come out to see him.
Naaman was furious. He had travelled over a hundred miles, he had crossed several rivers – including the Jordan, miles before – and the great prophet would not even speak to him in person. He had expected a great ceremony; he had thought, “He will 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!” But this – a message, to simply bathe in the Jordan – was insulting! The Jordan was not even a very great river – the rivers of Damascus, Naaman’s home city, were much more renowned. If he had to bathe in a river to be cleaned, couldn’t he as well or better bathe in the great rivers of his home? So he turned away in a rage to begin the journey back to Syria.
But his servants stopped him. They said, “If the prophet had spoken unto you of a great thing, would you not have done it? How much more when he says to you, bathe and be clean?” That gave Naaman pause. Imagine the struggle that this might have started in him. On the one hand, he had been told to do something so simple and childish that it was almost insulting. On the other hand, though, he still had his leprosy, and he had no one to turn to but Elisha. And so, he swallowed his pride. He went to the Jordan river; he dipped in it seven times – and his flesh was healed, and became soft like the skin of a young boy – and he was clean.
Naaman’s attitude in the story is one we may recognize in ourselves. It is easy to fantasize about doing something great and wonderful in the service of mankind. It’s more difficult to do the everyday things – to work thanklessly to clean the house, to put food on the table, to be nice to the cashier who messed up our order, to forgive the driver who cut us off. We would rather do something grand than mundane.
That’s the overall sense of this story – it’s about the importance of having enough humility to do something simple and straightforward rather than large and noticeable. With that general overview in mind, we can look deeper into the story, and see its particular application in terms of our regeneration, since everything in the Word has to do in the internal sense with the way we are reformed and made ready for heaven.
We begin the story with Naaman, the commander of the army of Syria. He’s a successful commander, the “saviour of his people” – and yet, he has leprosy, a damaging disease. Naaman comes from Syria, and it was known even in Old Testament times that there was religious knowledge and wisdom in Syria. The fortune-teller Balaam came from Syria, and he knew God by His name, Jehovah. The Writings for the New Church reveal that the Syrians had this knowledge because the ancient church, the true church before the founding of the Jewish religion, had existed with them. But over time that church had become corrupt. They falsified the truth that they knew, and the church left them.
Because of all this, Syria represents knowledge of truth from the Lord’s Word – and in a negative sense, a knowledge that has been falsified. Leprosy, too, represents a falsification of truth, and the profaning of it. And so Naaman stands for a person, or the part of us, that knows things from the Lord’s Word; but it knows them in a false way, a twisted way. For example, Naaman might be the voice in us that says, “All power is from the Lord, and I have no power of my own” – which is true – “so there’s nothing I can do for my spiritual life except wait and hope for God to flow in.” Or Naaman might be the voice in us that says, “The Bible says sinners go to hell” – which is true – “and I’m a sinner – there’s no way I’ll ever be good enough for heaven, so I might as well give up.” Or Naaman might be the voice that says, “God will put me where I’m going to be the happiest I can be” – which is true – “so there’s no point in trying to change.” As you can see, all of those have grains of truth in them – but the truth is falsified.
Those falsities in particular – that there is no point in trying to change, in putting effort toward our spiritual life – are falsities that keep us from goodness. They are falsities that numb us, in the way that leprosy dulls the senses of someone suffering from it. They’re falsities that make us feel dead, and that there’s nothing we can do to change where we are. When we’re in a state like Naaman, we’re in a state where life feels dull and meaningless, and where we feel like nothing is ever going to change. Naaman’s leprosy seemed incurable.
But into the scene comes that young Israelite girl. As a little child, she represents innocence. She knows of a cure for Naaman. And catching sight of innocence – in ourselves or in someone else – can prompt us to believe that there is something more in life, a deeper kind of joy than we have now. Many of us give up on the ideas of ever being innocent ourselves – we’ve seen too much, we’ve done too much – but a reminder that innocence does exist can prompt us to look for something more, to look for a cure for our spiritual leprosy.
And so Naaman comes to Israel, to Elisha the prophet. In the same way, when we have that hope that we can be cured, that something in us really can change, we can come to the church – represented by the land of Israel – and to the Word – represented by the prophet Elisha, since as a prophet he spoke the word of the Lord. We decide to see what the church has to say, what the Word has to say, and whether it can really do anything for us.
Sometimes we do this with an attitude of humility. But there are other times when we do it with something of that attitude of Naaman. We want immediate, drastic, visible change in our lives, and we won’t be satisfied with anything less.
We can come with those expectations or desires. That’s certainly what Naaman came with. But Elisha did not come out and perform some great, powerful ritual. Instead he sent a simple message: if you want to be cured, go dip in the Jordan river seven times, and you will be clean. Nothing dramatic, nothing immediate – just go back and bathe in the Jordan.
It’s clear to anyone reading this that there must be some deeper significance to the Jordan river, and to washing seven times. As a river, the Jordan represents truth. Truth quenches our thirst for understanding in the same way that water quenches our natural thirst. Truth washes away falsity the same way that water washes away dirt and grime from our bodies. And the river Jordan, because it was at the entrance to the land of Israel, represents the first, basic truths we learn from the Word. That’s why John the Baptist baptized people in the Jordan: because baptism marks an entrance into the Lord’s church and a first introduction to the basic truths of the church. These basic truths are the ones that are found right in the literal sense of the Word: that there is a God, that He wants us to love Him and love each other, that we must not murder, or steal, or bear false witness, or commit adultery.
The Jordan represents those basic truths, and washing in the Jordan means living by them. It especially means repenting from the evils listed in the Ten Commandments and elsewhere in the literal sense of the Word. That’s why John preached a baptism of “repentance, for the remission of sins.”
But to return to the story of Naaman. Just as Naaman went to Israel and listened to Elisha, we have gone to the church and listened to the Word. But our lives were not miraculously changed in an instant. We did not immediately learn some great answer that solved all our problems. Instead, we are told to bathe in the river Jordan seven times – that is, to live by the most basic teachings of the Lord’s Word.
It can be disappointing. How in the world is that going to make any difference? These are obvious things. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to lie. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to commit adultery. Everyone knows it’s bad to murder. These are so simple – they’re too simple.
And it really can be hard to believe that these will make any difference, because often we feel like we’re basically doing them anyway. “Sure, maybe I lie sometimes, but I don’t most of the time, and I don’t see how cutting out those times when I do lie will make that big an impact on my life.” “Sure, I look at other women and fantasize a bit, but I love my wife, and it doesn’t seem to do any harm.” “Yes, I’ll occasionally fudge the numbers with my job, but it’s not really hurting anyone, and stopping it wouldn’t make some huge drastic change in my life. Maybe ideally I’d do it, but that’s not really the issue. That can’t be the issue – it’s much bigger than those little things I’m doing.”
But the answer to those objections is simple: if those things aren’t that big a deal, than why not stop doing them? Why not start addressing those simple, everyday ways that you break the commandments. Maybe they aren’t the biggest issue – but if you’d be willing to do something big and grand and life-changing – why not start with the little things and see what happens?
Naaman’s servants use the same line of reasoning with him. If you’d be willing to do something great, why not do this small thing? And so Naaman – perhaps still not entirely believing it will work – bathes in the Jordan seven times. Throughout the Word, the number seven represents completeness. Bathing in the Jordan seven times means completely deciding to follow those basic commandments. It means whole-heartedly shunning evils as sins against the Lord – not just because they’re a bad idea, or might get us in trouble, but because they are blocking the Lord’s love for us, and making our lives hellish. Again, it’s hard to believe that those everyday things are so important – but unless we shun even these evils because they are sins against God, nothing is really going to change.
And Naaman does notice a change. His skin becomes like that of a young boy, and he is cleaned. That image of a young boy again calls to mind that first impulse that made us want to change – a vision of innocence. And we can find that there is hope that even we can become innocent again, with a new kind of innocence – not an innocence of ignorance, but an innocence of wisdom.
Now the change did not take place after dipping once in the Jordan, or twice, or three times. You can imagine what Naaman may have been thinking as he went into the Jordan again and again and saw nothing being washed away. Is this really going to work? And the same thing can happen if we make a commitment to shunning some everyday evil in our lives – it can seem at first like it really makes no difference at all. A person who is fighting an addiction to pornography, for example, might force himself to stop, and to shun that as a sin against God – but still at first not notice any difference in the way he relates to his wife or his girlfriend or people of the opposite sex in general. But if he keeps at it and continues to shun it, after months or even years, if he looks back to where he was before, he will notice that his life has changed.
Now, if a person takes credit for the change, they end up right where they were before. But Naaman knows that it is not due to his own greatness that he was cleaned. At the end of the story, he goes back to Elisha and offers him great riches; and when Elisha turns those down, Naaman asks only for some dirt from the land of Israel to take back with him and worship on. Think of the change that has happened in him: from the arrogant pride when he arrive; to the humility he displays here, valuing the dirt of Israel above his own wealth and reputation.
It’s easy to hear again and again in church about repentance, and to sigh, “Yes, I’ve heard that before!” It’s pretty mundane. It’s not that impressive. And because it’s so familiar, we can think it’s not going to make any difference. But challenge yourself. Today, after you’ve gone home from church, look at an everyday, small evil in your life, and resolve to shun it as a sin against the Lord. Pray to the Lord for help. And you will notice the beginnings of a change. It will open you up to new realizations about where you are spiritually, and where the Lord can take you. And if you keep learning truth from the Lord’s Word, and living by it, you will be made clean. “Go and bathe seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh shall return to you, and you shall be clean.”
Lessons: Matthew 3:1-17; 2 Kings 5:1-19; Divine Providence 329
DP 329. What is the Decalogue at the present day but like a little closed book or religious primer, opened only in the hands of infants and children? Say to anyone of mature age, Do not do this because it is contrary to the Decalogue, and who pays any attention? But if you say, Do not do this because it is contrary to the Divine laws, he may give this his attention; and yet the commandments of the Decalogue are the Divine laws themselves. An experiment was made with several spirits in the spiritual world, and when the Decalogue or Catechism was mentioned they rejected it with contempt. The reason for this is that the Decalogue in its second table, which is man’s table, teaches that evils are to be shunned; and he who does not shun them, whether from impiety or from the religious belief that works avail nothing, but only faith, hears with some contempt the Decalogue or Catechism being mentioned as though he heard mention made of a book for children, n which is no longer of any use to him.