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November 12, 2016

The City of God

Speaker: John McLarty

Audio Recording:


Manuscript for sermon at Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists–Tentative preliminary version.

Naaman was the leading general of the armies of Damascus. And Damascus was the leading military competitor of the Jewish kingdom of Samaria. There were frequent border skirmishes. We might compare it to the current relationship between India and Pakistan or Israel and Iran or North and South Korea. They were enemies.

The raiding parties took captives. The captives became slaves in the respective nations. It was like Boko Haram kidnapping those 200 girls in Nigeria. Finders keepers. To the victors the spoils. It was a barbaric, brutal world.

In that setting Naaman was a leper. Incurable, ostracizing, terrible. But he was such an effective general, he kept his position.

His wife had a maid, one of those captives seized in a raid across the border into Samaria. The maid said to her mistress, “If my master would go to Samaria, there is a prophet there who could cure his leprosy.”

When you have an incurable, untreatable illness almost any promise of hope is worth checking out. Naaman had his sources, spies in Samaria. He checked out the maid’s claim. And it was true. The prophet Elisha was the most amazing miracle worker in the ancient world. In the entire Bible no one besides Jesus himself comes even close. Elisha could do anything.

Naaman talked with his king. Told him the story. Naaman would like to go see the prophet Elisha in Samaria. It would be unusual, the chief general of the kingdom of Damascus traveling to Samaria for medical assistance. But stranger things have happened.

The king sent Naaman off to Samaria with a pile of gold and silver and a letter to the king of Samaria. Mr. King of Samaria. I’m sending you my good man, Naaman, and am requesting that you arrange for the healing of his leprosy.

I would be very much obliged.

Yours in the grand fraternity of Royalty,

Signed, the King of Samaria

Naaman showed up in Samaria and presented his letter to the king. When the king read the letter he ripped open his clothes in a show of horror and perplexity.

What??!! Is the King of Damascus looking for a pretext to start a war? Might as well ask me to make camels fly and horses talk. Am I God? What makes him think I can cure leprosy?

Naaman tried to reassure the king. No, they were not looking to start a war. They had heard that somewhere in the Kingdom of Samaria there was a cure for leprosy. And the king was prepared to pay handsomely for the cure. No offense was intended.

About this time, a courier hands the king a note from the prophet Elisha.

“Why are you ripping up your clothes? Send him to me.”

Of course! The king sends Naaman off to the prophet’s house.

Arriving outside the prophet’s house, Naaman waits, expecting appropriate courtesies. Instead, after a few minutes a servant comes out the door and approaches the chariot.

“Hi. Are you Naaman, the guy from Damascus?”

Naaman is taken aback by the lack of formality.

“Yes,” one of Naaman’s servants responds. “This is Naaman, chief general of the kingdom of Damascus, conqueror of nations north, south, east and west, spoiler of cities. This is Naaman, the neck on which turns the head of our lord, the King of Damascus.”

“Good.” Says Gehazi, the servant. “My master, Elisha, Prophet of Yahweh, directed me to give you this message: Go wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River and you will be healed of your leprosy.”

That was it. No fanfare. No conversation. No face time. No ceremony. No ritual. Just go wash yourself in the Jordan. Seven times. A word given by a servant.

Naaman exploded. “What? I, the chief general and first courtier of the kingdom of Damascus, I am treated like a common peasant and ordered by an invisible prophet to go wash in the Jordan River? This is outrageous. Besides the Jordan is a warm-water, muck-bottomed ribbon of dirt. The rivers in Damascus are crystal clear. If I were going to wash, and I’m not saying I would, but if I were going to wash in pursuit of healing, why not the beautiful rivers of Damascus?”

He ordered his entourage to hit the road. As the company moved up the road, Naaman’s servants protested. “Master, if the prophet had directed you to perform some heroic feat, you would have surely attempted it. If the prophet had demanded a great payment, you were ready to pay. So why not do this simple thing. What can it hurt?”

It took a while for the general to calm down, but the logic of his servants was impeccable. So eventually, they turned their chariots and pack horses toward the Jordan River.
At the river, Naaman stripped and squished his way through the sucky near shore mud out to where the water was deep enough to dunk himself. He dunked seven times and came out of the river with the skin of a baby.

It was an astounding miracle. In all the rest of the Old Testament there is no other account of a healing from chronic leprosy. Even in the stories of Elisha, this is the only account of a healing from leprosy. Across the Middle East no miracle worker had this kind of power. No god cured leprosy. Elisha and his God, Yahweh, were unique.

Naaman was an instant convert. He would serve this God and honor this prophet for the rest of his life.

Naaman and his caravan headed back to the prophet’s house.

This time the prophet welcomed him. History does not give us any details, but the suggestion is the general must have become a student, a learner, a disciple. The chief general of the kingdom of Damascus spent enough time with Elisha, the prophet of God, to learn what it meant to became a devotee of the God of Elisha.

It’s what comes next that I want us to pay attention to.

After the healing, Naaman went back home, back to his job as chief general of the kingdom of Damascus. There in that place, in that role, he lived his life of devotion.

Where do we live our lives of devotion to God?

This election highlights the deep complications of human systems.

A huge majority of American evangelicals voted for a candidate who has very publicly repudiated many Christian values. A significant number of progressive and liberal Christians voted for a candidate who has deep ties with the wealthy elite who have prospered through the recent decades of wealth transfer from the middle class to the upper class.

There are no perfect politicians, of course. And no godly political parties. But during the campaign Mr. Trump’s rhetoric was unusually blunt in expressing ideas that run counter to the teachings of Jesus–his claim to need no forgiveness, derision toward foreigners, lusty disregard for the dignity of women. Mr. Trump has now been elected. Which raises a daunting question for those of us who believe words matter and have high regard for the teachings of Jesus: Where do we go to faithfully live out our faith?

It seems to me the story of Naaman gives this answer: We live out our faith in the place where we already are. We live our faith in this country. In this city. In this job.

Sometimes we might be tempted to imagine there is some ideal place to serve God. A place where the people around us would be more supportive of faith, a place where the institutions and symbols of power were more favorable to our faith.

Maybe.

But the story of Naaman offers a different lesson: We can serve God where we are, even if “where we are” is in the heart of Damascus, the institutional enemy of our people, the institutional embodiment of opposition to our values.

It’s natural to want a pure place in which to serve. Beware. Let’s not allow our desire to be connected with only pure expressions of our faith to keep us from doing good in the real world, the messy world, that is immediately present to us.

Serve God in the place where you are.

I’m not saying you should stay in an unhealthy place if you can go to a place that works better for you. I am saying, don’t imagine that because you are in a difficult place, serving Jesus is impossible or optional. If Naaman could serve God while remaining chief general of the kingdom of Damascus, you can serve God in the place where you are.

Just do it.

Now some words about how we do this.

Feed your soul. Daily. Many of us consume news daily. Every day we read a newspaper, watch TV news, check things on Facebook or other online sources. As you give attention to the news, it is likely you will find yourself outraged. You cannot believe people could be so stupid or evil, so short-sighted or perverse. The more news you consume, the more outrage and disgust you will feel.

All of this news will warp your soul, if you not careful.

If we are going to keep alive spiritually, we must feed ourselves on spiritually nourishing food. Rush Limbaugh is not uplifting. If you listen to Rush or other people like him, people who spew negativity, you will inevitably be tainted. Your view of the world will be warped. You will imagine the world to be much worse than it actually is. Your soul will be poisoned.

If we are going to follow the example of Naaman and serve faithfully in a place that is alien to faith, we are going to have to deliberately feed our souls.

One of the most essential spiritual practices is a daily time of devotion.

People have different names for this practice: Personal devotions. Daily quiet time. Morning watch. Meditation. Prayer.

I don’t have strong attachment to any particular label or any particular practice. Over the past forty years I have tried a variety of techniques and practices. I have read the Bible in various languages. I’ve tried journaling and something called “lectio divina.” I’ve read Bible commentaries. I’ve read books by Ellen White and other authors. In recent years, I’ve practiced non-textual meditation outside.

I don’t have a strong opinion about the relative merits of different practices. I do have a strong opinion that we are shaped by what we give our attention to. If we wish for our lives to participate in holiness, we will feed our souls on good things, regularly, deliberately.

We can’t literally visit a great prophet like Elisha and get ourselves healed of leprosy. We can deliberately and regularly give attention to things that are beautiful, holy, inspiring. Then, having fed our souls we can join with others in serving people.

We can serve God where we are.

Let’s do it.

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