Scripture: 2 Kings 5:1–14
Once again, the great debate has begun across social media that comes around this time of year. Memes are made. Strong stances are taken. Opinions are voiced. Friendships are tested. No, I’m not talking about midterm elections. The question on my social media pages is this…when can the Christmas season begin? Or really, when is it acceptable to admit to people you have started watching Christmas movies? You know, those cheesy, Hallmark Christmas movies with the same plot line about how someone not in the Christmas spirit meets someone full of the Christmas spirit, there is a conflict between these two people and by the end of the movie surprise, these people have fallen in love and all have the spirit of Christmas in their hearts. Whether you love them or hate them, you have to admit there is something about these movies that causes this conversation to come up every year. Fans enjoy seeing what silly over-the-top Christmas themed conflicts arrive, feeling the emotions of the characters during the whirl-wind romance, and knowing that there will always be a happy ending. There is comfort and even joy from these tropes.
In biblical times, healing stories were also known for drama and had a standard form, but this story in 2 Kings is different. It is not what the original listeners (the Israelites) or the main character (Naaman) were expecting. First, for the original listeners, the main character of our story is a surprise. It was not an Israelite, but a military leader of Aram, Israel’s enemy. The text even says that God gave Naaman victory over the Israelites in battle. Now, Naaman would not be popular among the original listeners. He is an enemy and not a character they want to root for. So when the Israelites first heard that Naaman had leprosy, a skin disease, I wonder if the Israelites felt a little happy knowing
their enemy wasn’t doing that well, and they probably had mixed emotions about him being healed. Which leads us to the first plot twist, a potential solution for healing is introduced by someone unexpected—an Israelite, and a young girl taken as a slave when Aram defeated Israel. Why would she offer a suggestion for her master, the man that took her away from her homeland, to be healed? And why would Naaman listen to her? Her age, gender, nationality, and social status made her property, not a person; she was invisible. Yet for some reason, she tells Naaman’s wife that she wishes Naaman could go to a prophet in her land because this prophet could cure him. When Naaman learns of what the girl said, he listens to her, tells the king, and gets a blessing to go to Israel to be healed.
When Naaman arrives at the royal court in Israel, he presents a letter to the king of Israel from the king of Aram that asks for Naaman to be healed. The king of Israel is furious and goes into mourning. He thinks he is being tricked, that the king of Aram is asking him to do an impossible task, which will give Aram reason to attack Israel again. The king begins to mourn for the future lives that will be lost in battle and the turmoil war brings. This was definitely not the reaction Naaman was expecting. He probably thought that the prophet would be in the court of the king, ready to heal him, but this was not the case. Somehow, though, Elisha the prophet hears what was happening and sends a message to the king, telling the king to send Naaman to his house.
So Naaman goes to Elisha’s house with his horses and chariots, symbols of power and wealth. One can imagine Naaman is assuming he would be given a royal-like treatment from Elisha, but instead Naaman is greeted at the gate by a messenger who gives him a message from Elisha. Naaman does not even see the prophet. The messenger tells him to wash himself in the Jordan River seven times and then he will be healed. Again, this is not what Naaman was expecting. Naaman thought Elisha would come out and call to the Lord in a grand way, lay his hands on him, and then he
would be healed. That is what happens in healing stories—grand gestures, some dramatic words, and then viola—a healing. But that did not happen, so Naaman became angry and insulted. He came with horses and chariots to show how important of a person he was and the prophet did not even have the courtesy to come out of his house and talk to him, but just sent a messenger. And what did the messenger say to do but to wash in the Jordan river—why the Jordan River? The rivers where he is from are much nicer, much cleaner. Naaman wanted a grand, dramatic healing and when that did not happen, he gets dramatic and starts throwing a fit. He is furious. So what should happen next? Who would enter the scene? Who can talk sense into Naaman? An advisor, perhaps, or maybe an angel or even God himself? No—it is a servant who has the bravery to approach him and call him out. The servant asks Naaman, “If you had been asked to do something grand and heroic, wouldn’t you have done it? So why are you upset about doing something so simple?” Naaman is humbled by the servants words and sees his error in judgment, so Naaman goes and does what Elisha said, he bathed in the Jordan seven times and he was healed. Not only was he healed but his flesh was like new, like the flesh of a young boy.
On his way to Israel, Naaman probably had some picture in his head of how his healing would happen and as we have seen, that picture was nothing like what actually happened. Even though it was unexpected, it ended up being better than he imagined because not only was his skin healed, but it was like that of a baby’s—soft, smooth, and maybe even with that new baby smell.
This was also not the story the original readers expected. In the previous chapter, Elisha raised someone from the dead, so they also might have thought that this would be another grand miracle. The main character, Naaman, was surprising because he was an enemy that God looked favorably upon in battle and then again through healing. In the rest of the chapter the surprises continue when Naaman becomes a man of God and asks for forgiveness while Elisha’s servant, an Israelite, is unfaithful and gets punished with leprosy.
We, too, may hope for grandiose gestures from God. We want God to act in a big, miraculous way that will prove to others that God is real, God is powerful, God is good. This story challenges this picture and reminds us that God works through unexpected, ordinary people—an enemy general, a slave girl, a servant—and through very ordinary acts, like taking a bath. While the people and acts are ordinary, God still works in extraordinary ways, like transforming the diseased skin of an adult to be new like a baby’s. It may be better than we expect.
If we become too focused on wanting a big miracle, we may miss seeing that God indeed is working in our midst, but through small, ordinary people and acts. A prayer that continues to challenge me reads, “Stir us to rise each morning expecting to encounter you and be caught up in your work” (Common Prayer, 172). This prayer always leaves me wondering, what if we expected to encounter God and God’s work everyday? What if we welcomed God into the ordinary parts of our lives? Not just our lives on Sundays, or only while we pray or read our Bible, but what if we expected to encounter God through ordinary people and ordinary acts? How would our lives be different if we welcomed God into the ordinary? How would our stewardship look different if we welcomed God into how we handle all of our resources and not just those we set aside for church? I don’t know what this will look like for you, but here are two pictures to help us imagine the possibilities. First, there is Betty, my choir buddy from the church I went to in middle and high school. She was a widower in her eighties and we sat next to each other in choir. We helped each other keep track of the
different music we needed for each Sunday and enjoyed talking with each other. One week we were chatting and her daughter had been visiting. Betty told me that while she enjoyed her daughter’s company, she was okay living alone because every day, all day, she talked to Jesus. And while her daughter had been visiting, she had missed her talks with Jesus. Betty had invited God into her everyday, ordinary routines.
Second, there is the automatic paper towel dispenser at the afterschool program I worked at in Pittsburgh. Everyday after snack, the kids go to the bathroom, and everyday after snack, the automatic paper towel dispenser would stop working—we would say it got tired and took a nap. One day, though, I decided to tinker with it and when (by what felt like a miracle) paper towels started coming out, the little preschooler in the bathroom cheered for me like I had just run a marathon. She chose to see something extraordinary in the ordinary.
We’ve been given a grand invitation…God wants to be a part of the ordinary moments in our lives. So before we jump into the magic of Christmas, let’s pause in the ordinariness of this first week in November and welcome God into these days. Before we focus on welcoming others to our church, let’s make sure to welcome God into our whole lives, even the ordinary, seemingly boring parts. Because God works in the ordinary. God works through ordinary people and ordinary actions. Our lives are not movies with over-the-top events but days and weeks strung together just living our normal lives and going about our daily routines. Let’s welcome God into these moments.