A sermon preached
Readings: 2 Kings 5:1-17; Mark 1:40-45
II Kings 5:1-17
The Servant, the River and the Soil
Imagine a 5* US General, hero of the Gulf War and all that, suffering
secretly from AIDS,
and you have in modern terms the start of the story of Naaman,
the Syrian army commander who is gradually being eaten up by leprosy -
and desperate for a cure.
That he finds a cure is due in the first instance to
his wife’s servant girl.
Actually she was a slave –
in Oscar nomination terms not even a supporting actress -
so much a bit part player that we don’t even know her name.
She was an Israelite, captured by the Syrians during their wars with Israel.
Now she serves the commander of the forces who defeated her people.
In that position she discovers about his leprosy.
How easy for her to have praised God and said –
”Thank goodness! -
at last, the enemies of my people have their come-uppance.
Naaman has his true deserts.”
How easy to have said –
“Anyway there’s nothing I can do about it –
I’m a nobody, a mere captive foreign slave girl –
and you don’t get much lower in the social pecking order than that.”
But no - she shows not passive content but
active concern –
even for this man ultimately responsible for her captivity –
incidentally she recognizes something we all need to remember at this time -
that God’s love and care can extend even to the evil men of war
- “the man of blood is not excluded from the love of God”.1
And so, though only a slave she does what she can -
“She said to her mistress, If only my master would
see the prophet who is in Samaria!
He would cure him of his leprosy.” (verse 3)
And by demonstrating and sharing her faith
this nameless servant provides the hinge on which the whole story of Naaman’s redemption is to hang.
Yesterday a million people could have so easily said –
“Well there’s nothing I can do about it – I
can’t stop a war –
I can’t heal this sickness in the community of nations”.
Instead they took their banners and marched.
Who knows whether that will make the
But I know this- we will never make the difference, you and I,
if we sit on our hands and say “I’m a nobody”
Do you know the story of the robin and the dove?
me the weight of a snowflake”, a robin asked a wild dove.
“Nothing more than nothing” was the answer.
that case, I must tell you a marvellous story,” the robin said,
“I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow –
not heavily, not in a raging blizzard: no, just like in a dream,
without any sound and without any violence.
I did not have anything better to do,
I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch.
The number was exactly 3,741,952.
When the 3,741,953rd dropped onto the branch –
nothing more than nothing as you say –
the branch broke off.”
Having said that, the robin flew away.
dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter,
thought about the story for a while, and finally said to herself –
“Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come in the world.” 2
Just one snowflake.
Just one nameless powerless servant girl –
but because of her Naaman was cured.
And so it was that Naaman,
the great General,
goes to see Elisha, and finally he finds the prophet’s hut
and awaits the red carpet and the oracular healing.
Of course what he gets is very different.
Elisha doesn’t appear in person at all – just sends a message -
“Elisha sent a messenger to say to him,
Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan,
and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.
But Naaman went away angry and said,
I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand
and call on the name of the Lord his God,
wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.
Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus,
better than any of the waters of Israel?
Couldn't I wash in them and be cleansed?
So he turned and went off in a rage.” (verses 10-12)
Luckily some more servants intervene
and persuade Naaman that he would have done great and complex things –
he would have gone and got the Milk Tray as per the advert if that had been required -
surely in that case he could at least bathe seven times in the Jordan.
God’s purposes can be achieved by ordinary people –
they can also be achieved through very ordinary things.
Indeed like Naaman we can sometimes fall into
the trap of saying
“I will do anything exciting and newsworthy for you Lord –
just don’t ask me to do the washing up and the ordinary behind the scenes stuff –
there are others who can do that well enough without me.”
But God says to Naaman – you may be a 5* general,
but to be healed you need to be humble –
and I want you to do something ordinary.
Don’t underestimate the impact of throwing yourself
wholeheartedly into ordinary deeds.
We may never know what impact they have.
Today is Education Sunday
and we give thanks for and pray for all those involved in formal and informal education.
It’s not just about Plato and Rousseau
but all those who teach and guide and help other develop and grow.
Do you remember your first Sunday School
Some of us need longer memories than others for that one.
Listen to these 50 year old memories from John Coutts about his Sunday School teacher:
What was your
I can’t remember. Perhaps I never knew:
we children called you plain “Miss Furness”.
Was I nine or ten?
You looked extremely old but never ugly;
you wore a weekly hat and never shouted.
used to shake a little, holding the Bible –
tiny print in double columns, mapless, uncanny, pictureless
and marked NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY.
Your knobbly knuckles puzzled me. Why so swollen?
Bible stories I don’t remember much,
recalling chiefly details about yourself:
you finished school at twelve – can this be right?
plaited straw for hats.
Your pocket money came to tuppence weekly.
This, divided into ha’pence, you gave to God in four instalments,
once on Saturdays and thrice on sacred Sundays.
This was impressive!
You used to give us each a slab of solid golden toffee
wrapped in thick smooth paper.
rationed then. I calculated
it must have cost you every single coupon!
grace! I read my birthday card
glimpsing mysteries – the God you loved
given so gladly with the broken toffee….3
At this service when we thank God for the broken
may we not also give thanks for the broken toffee and
thank God for ordinary saints doing ordinary things –
And I wonder -
will others give thanks for us in like manner in 50 years’ time?
It doesn’t have to hit the front page of the papers
Naaman wasn’t told to part the Red Sea –
just dip in the muddy sluggish waters of Jordan seven times.
We might set ourselves seven similar tasks – ordinary things -
· Go to Church for seven Sundays in succession
· rise early seven consecutive mornings and begin the day with Bible reading and prayer
· seven times, when uncharitable thoughts fill our minds, drive them out with thoughts of love
· seven days perform some unsolicited, spontaneous gesture of costly kindness for the sake of Christ” 4
and maybe work at it until you can love and forgive 70x7.:
In such ways do we heal and find healing.
Ordinary people, ordinary things transformed by God’s presence.
Why? Because (in the words of today’s inroit)
caritas et amor, Deus ibi est -
Where there is love and charity, there also is God 5
Ordinary people, Ordinary
And finally, ordinary soil.
At long last Naaman is
persuaded to do what Elisha bids him –
he washes 7 times,is cured, and is converted to Israel’s God.
in a final touching moment he asks Elisha,
”…please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry,
for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices
to any other god but the Lord.” (verse 17)
Because he wished to worship the God of Israel,
and so he thought he needed to take the earth of Israel back with him to Syria
that he might stand on holy ground.
Like Liverpool fans trying to get hold of a bit of
sacred Anfield turf,
Naaman wanted his bit of portable holy ground
Naaman still had a bit to learn
Our God is a God of ordinary people, ordinary actions and ordinary earth – any earth will do -
for however ordinary the servant,
however common or garden the task,
whatever the bit of earth we may stand on – in God’s power
all these things can become holy and powerful for the Lord.
The BBC is running a poetry competition to find a new poem to rival Blake’s Jerusalem.
It will take a bit of matching –
For in our ordinary way, we are all called to build
Jerusalem in this and every place -
to do such ordinary things from which may come
the healing of the nations.
Every bit of God’s earth is potentially holy ground
so let us not rest till the dark Satanic mills be no more
and we have built Jerusalem everywhere - yes,
even here in what can yet be - in God’s power,
England’s green and pleasant land.
1 Jacques Ellul, “The politics of God and the politics of man”
2 Adapted from Kurt Kauter, “New Fables, Thus Spoke the Marabou” quoted in Donald Hilton “Liturgy of Life” p 203
3 John Coutts “All Year Round 2001” © CTBI & John Coutts
4 Leonard Griffith, Expository Times, vol 81 p.285