2 Kings 5:1-15a
On Wednesday, Randy and I went to a local sports bar and watched the US women’s national soccer team take on England. After scoring the second goal for the United States, the goal that would ultimately win them the game, Alex Morgan stopped, stood still and took an imaginary sip of tea, poking fun at her English opponents. This, of course, caused Twitter to blow up, supporters loved it, while opponents hated it. Most notably, the British broadcaster Piers Morgan took issue and responded with some aggressive tweets, calling for the English team to put Morgan and the US team in their place. The tweets took off, and last time I looked one had over 2,400 comments, 289 retweets, and 2,200 likes. Unfortunately for Piers Morgan, England did not put the US in their place, and the Twitter world descended on Piers Morgan like a pack of wolves on an injured deer. Multiple articles have been written showcasing the best responses to Piers Morgan’s tweets.
This is just one fairly harmless example of the world we currently live in, a world where anyone can post anything on social media, and it has the potential to “go viral.” Sometimes this is based on the content of the post itself, but most often the popularity of a post is directly tied to the popularity of the person who posted it. Celebrities, politicians, and other public figures are followed by thousands, if not millions, of people. We currently have a president who communicates most frequently through Twitter, and his tweets are retweeted, responded to, and analyzed by friend and foe alike. He has 61.7M followers. Of course, there’s a danger in the potential for this kind of instant-fame available to anyone and everyone. Almost daily we hear of someone tweeting something ignorant, insensitive, or offensive, and quickly we learn that “this tweet has since been deleted.”
All that to say, in our day and age everything is public. What would have previously been an off-handed joke made among friends watching a soccer game becomes a tweet that gets 2.4K comments, mostly from people who have never met the person who made the joke. What’s more, people’s identity gets wrapped up in likes, retweets and shares, and comments. I remember a former coworker telling me in all honesty that she “really wanted to get 500 Instagram followers” (which sounded a lot like Regina George saying, “really want to lose 3 lbs.” to me).
In our society, how much public exposure you get is understood to be directly linked to how important and how influential you are. In other words, to have a public platform is to have power.
This, of course, is not a new concept. It seems like common sense that the rich, the powerful, the mighty, the ones in the public eye, are the ones moving the pieces, the ones making changes in the world, for better or worse. However, our Scripture this morning challenges this idea. One would think that the king of Israel and Namaan, the the commander of army of Aram, would be the ones with influence, the ones God would work through, but the opposite is true. The king of Israel seems to have no faith in God, forgets all about the prophet Elisha, and instantly gives in to fear and anxiety, assuming the worst of Namaan, expecting ulterior motives: that the king of Aram is simply trying to find an excuse to start a war with him. Namaan nearly misses out on being healed because of his arrogance and pride. First, Elisha doesn’t come out and meet him in person, despite his being rich and powerful, then Elisha’s directions seem too simple. On top of that, the Jordan is an inferior river to the rivers of Damascus, why should he bath there?
Meanwhile it’s the servants, the ones who remain nameless in the story – people who would have very few Twitter followers today – and the prophet Elisha – who Namaan had previously never heard of and who the king of Israel didn’t even think to consult – who know the power of God, and who bring about Namaan’s healing, his conversion, and, ultimately, his transformation. As one scholar says, this story is “about (the) divine power that flows through humble channels rather than through the pomp and power that humans esteem.”[i]
The story of the healing of Namaan’s leprosy begins with a young girl who has been abducted from her family and forced to serve as a slave in the house of Namaan. I must be honest that I’m very troubled by this character, by the unjust situation in which she lives, and by scripture’s seemingly uncritical acceptance of her situation. It’s hard to care about Namaan’s healing when we know he has abducted and enslaved a young girl. I don’t know what to make of this part of the story, so she remains a loose end in the story for me, an unresolved problem that continues to trouble me. It’s all the more troubling as we are made aware of young children on our border, separated from their parents and held in captivity themselves. The text’s failure to condemn her situation should not stop us from loudly and forcefully condemning the current injustices occurring at our border, as well as child-slavery that continues to persist around the world. From this story, however, we can see that these children are likely to be the ones who know the ways of God more fully than those in power, and they very well could be the ones through whom God will bring about the healing and redemption of those who previously oppressed them, if only we will listen to them, as Namaan listens to this young girl.
She sends him to his enemies to seek a prophet he knows nothing about. Surprisingly, perhaps out of his desperation, Namaan listens. As I mentioned earlier, the king of Israel (another powerful person of privilege) misses the point, thinking the king of Aram is asking for something impossible in order to create a cause for war. Luckily, Elisha sends word to have Namaan come to him. Again, it is a servant, not Elisha himself, who delivers the directions: Namaan is to wash in the river Jordan seven times, then he will be healed. Namaan is on the verge of storming off in anger and indignity, when, again, unnamed servants come to the rescue to tell him he might as well try what Elisha recommended. “If he told you to do something way harder, wouldn’t you have done it?” they ask. “Why not give it a try?” So Namaan begrudgingly washes himself in a river he finds inferior, only to have his leprosy washed away.
The text says, “…his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” In this statement we might hear the words of Jesus, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Namaan is not only healed, he is transformed. He becomes like a child. He now resembles the little girl he had previously enslaved more than the calloused, arrogant commander he had been only moments before.
The lectionary wanted our reading to stop at v. 14, when Namaan is healed, but I asked Brie read the first part of v. 15 as well, because in v. 15 we see that Namaan is not only physically healed but spiritually healed as well. He places his trust in the God of Israel, the one true God, the God who speaks through young children and servants and not through kings and generals. Again, words from the Gospels echo in our ears, this time from Mary and her Magnificat in Luke: “[The Lord] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”
Henri Nouwen, the late Catholic priest, author, and expert on the spiritual life wrote a wonderful book called Letters to Marc About Jesus. The title pretty much sums up what the book is about: this profound, short book consists of 7 letters Nouwen wrote to his nephew Marc about Jesus. One letter in particular has really stuck with me: the letter titled “The Hidden God.” In this letter Nouwen gets at just the point we’ve been talking about: that God rarely works where we think God works, namely in public and through public figures, but instead God most often works in ways we never know, through people with seemingly little influence, with only a few Twitter followers if any. That God works through young servant girls instead of kings, and in ordinary and unspectacular places like the river Jordan instead of the rivers of Abana and Pharpar.
Nouwen says, “God prefers to work in secret. You must have the nerve to let the mystery of God’s secrecy, God’s anonymity, sink deeply into your consciousness because, otherwise, you’re continually looking in the wrong direction…Maybe while we focus our whole attention on the VIPs and their movements, on peace conferences and protest demonstrations, it’s the totally unknown people, praying and working in silence, who make God save us yet again from destruction…Perhaps the very greatest of saints remain anonymous”[ii] (like the unnamed anonymous servants from our story).
This is not to say that action is not required, that politics are not important, or that silence in the face of injustice is acceptable, but perhaps protests, demonstrations, laws, bills, and the people who write them are the vehicles, but the prayers and simple gestures of the little people are the fuel. Perhaps what happens in public is the accumulation, the result, of so much done in private.
Did anyone see Namaan bathing in the river? Was there anything remarkable that happened? In other words, was it a public spectacle? Or did he simply, in privacy, with no one around but himself and God, wash his lepros skin 7 times with ordinary water from a simple river in Israel and slowly his skin was cured, his shame removed, his spirit restored?
Do we, perhaps, miss out on God’s presence in our own lives and God’s working in our world, because we look only for the spectacular? Are we too distracted by those with a million Twitter followers to notice God working in the quiet? Do we chase public glory, popularity, and personal achievement, thinking that these are signs of God’s favor? What if, instead, we gently, quietly, day after day, sought God in the mundane and the ordinary, in the hidden moments when it’s just us and God?
The problems of the world and our own lives can be overwhelming, and we often feel helpless and hopeless because the solutions seem so far out of our hands. Similarly, questions of our own worth, our own value, and our own identity can lead us to despair. We can feel that our value depends upon our achievements, and when we fail to reach the unrealistic ideals our culture and ourselves place upon us, we are left feeling ashamed and unworthy.
But Henri Nouwen’s words to his nephew Marc, and the message of our story from 2 Kings give me great hope. Perhaps our prayers are doing more than we think. Perhaps God works through the little people, like us, more than we know. And when I say that I don’t mean disingenuous “thoughts and prayers” that have become simple clichés, but true prayer that enters into the suffering of the world, and places within it the hope of the hidden God revealed in Jesus Christ.
And when it comes to us personally, perhaps God will do more through us when we stop running this way and that, striving for God’s approval, and instead meet God in silence and stillness. Towards the end of his letter to Marc on the “Hidden God,” Nouwen says, “The mystery of the spiritual life is that Jesus desires to meet us in the seclusion of our own heart, to make his love known to us there, to free us from our fears, and to make our own deepest self known to us.”[iii] He goes on to say a little later, “…it’s only when you’ve learned from personal experience how much Jesus cares for you and how much he desires to be your daily food, that you can learn to see that every human heart is a dwelling place for Jesus…when we know through personal experience that God does indeed live in us, we are able, like Jesus himself, to work miracles and to change the face of the earth.”[iv]
Nouwen argues that we must see ourselves as beloved of God before we can truly love others as beloved of God. We must feel God’s desire for us, before we can sense God’s desire for all people (even our enemies). We must believe that God dwells within us before we can do the works of God, otherwise we’ll try to heal the world through our own power, and that is an impossible task.
Our world is full of threats of war, of gross injustices, of hate and bigotry. Our own lives are full of responsibilities, uncertainties, and anxiety, sometimes we are plagued by self-lothing, insecurity, and feelings of unworthiness. We are tempted to think that the only way to rise above these things is to gain recognition – to get more Twitter followers and retweets, to write and publish articles, to be the boss, to start some enormous organization, to be at the forefront of public movements or demonstrations.
Or maybe we don’t want those things for ourselves, but we’ve bought into the idea that only the modern-day equivalents of Namaan and the king of Israel – the rich and the powerful – are the ones who will create change and shape the trajectory of history, that all that is beyond us and beyond our little faith community.
But our lesson today tells us that there is power in our own small, commitment to the way of Jesus, to the prayers we pray, the lives we live, and the everyday people we touch. Our own ordinary homes, hangouts, and places of work can, like the Jordan River, become sites of healing, restoration, and transformation. While the world clamors for popularity and influence, the hidden God of the young servant girl is already working in the silence of our own hearts, in the quiet lives of ordinary folk like you and me.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Brian C. Jones, “Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14”, Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4117.
[ii] Henri Nouwen, The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles, 511.
[iii] Ibid 517.
[iv] Ibid 519.