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Syrian General seeks help in Israel - Sunday 12th February

Today we hear the first part of the story of Naaman, the Syrian. It forms part of the story of Elisha the Prophet, one of the great characters of the Old Testament. The purpose of the story is to reveal the greatness of God, to show a proper response to God and to warn against misuse of power. For us, today, it might be a quaint retelling of a legend of the past – but if we are prepared to listen with our hearts as well as our ears, we will experience, just as Naaman did, the greatness of God.

Naaman was the commander in chief of the army of the Aramean King of Syria, a proud and arrogant man, with great possessions and many slaves, including a little Israelite girl, captured on one of his successful raids into Israelite territory. He was the man on whose arm the old king leant for support when they went into the temple to worship Rimmon, the god of Damascus.

But for all his power, he suffered from leprosy. Whether it was a skin disease or a leprosy of the spirit doesn’t matter – Naaman’s life was disfigured by it.

Over against Naaman’s arrogance is the humility and compassion of the little Israelite girl. Forced into slavery, she is concerned for her master. If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.

Naaman heard of this, and went to the King to ask permission to go to Samaria. It’s a bit like Benjamin Netanyahu wanting to Hamas for help in a personal matter – quite unthinkable – but it happens. The Aramean King writes Naaman a letter of safe conduct to the King of Israel. The King of Israel responds by flying into a panic – misunderstanding Naaman’s visit and tearing his clothes in terror.

In contrast, Elisha is calm, confident and statesmanlike. Let Naaman come to me, he says, that he may learn there is a prophet in Israel. No panic, no misunderstanding, Elisha is a true servant of God, where the Israelite king is a quivering nincompoop.

So Naaman comes to Elisha, with chariots and retinue, every inch the commanding general. But human pride is nothing in the sight of God, and Elisha sends a messenger to tell Naaman what to do. And Naaman is furious, insulted. What, bathe in the Jordan river? Its like asking a man who is accustomed to the surf at Bondi to splash about in the Enmore Pool! Absolutely outrageous!

It is left to the lowly servants of the great warrior to bring him to his senses. “My Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘wash and be clean’.”

At last Naaman is humbled – not by force of arms, or by the might of the king, or even by Elisha’s power – he hears the voice of God and is washed clean – his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

My mind flashes back to the little Israelite maid at the beginning of the story, whose faith in God’s healing sent this great man on his journey. I am reminded, too, of Jesus’ words, unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

Here our reading breaks off, but if we look at the next verse, we see Naaman going back to Elisha, he and all his company, on foot and humble. Elisha is there and Naaman stands before him and says, “Now I know that there is no god in all the earth except in Israel.” The leprosy, the spiritual unease is gone, and Naaman, the foreigner, the Syrian enemy, has discovered his true Lord, the God of Israel.

This is not the end of the story, but it’s enough for today – and here is an opportunity to see how the story touches us. Naaman’s story is the story of every converted Christian – starting with a life that may seem to be fulfilling and successful, but which is known to be flawed and lacking in some vital element. And there is the little evangelist – the still, small voice of the Israelite maid – confident that here is a simple answer. And then you and I struggle to respond to God, imagining that our response must be something great, inspiring, complex and vast.

But what is required is simple. Amos, another prophet, declares that our response should be to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

Simple, but not easy. If we read the rest of the story of Naaman we’ll that responding to God can involve divided loyalties, hard decisions and courage. Naaman’s life was changed for ever, from being proud he became humble, from being demanding he became grateful, from following false gods he turned to the One true God – let us pray that ours lives may change too.

Where we follow false dreams, let us turn to Christ; where there is haste, let us be patient; where there is anger, let us be peacemakers; where there is deceit, let us build trust; and where there is dissention and division, let us bring unity of spirit and the peace of God.

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