Monday, February 13, 2012

Epiphany 6 of Series B (2 Kings 5:1-14)

“Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the fifth chapter of the book of Second Kings. Dear friends in Christ, Naaman was desperate, desperate for cleansing. He saw his leprosy, this cursed disease that consumed his flesh, and he wanted deliverance, he wanted to be clean. He knew that he was unclean, that he couldn’t hold his children, he couldn’t hug his wife, he couldn’t even fulfill the tasks that made him so valuable to his king. He is so desperate for cleansing that he is even willing to listen to the advice of a slave girl: “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” Think of how desperate Naaman must’ve been, to travel to Israel on the word of a slave!

We too are unclean, not with physical leprosy, but instead we are covered with the leprosy of sin and guilt. Some sins make us feel more unclean that others, especially those committed with our bodies, such as sexual sins, but all sin makes us unclean. That is often the way sin makes us feel; dirty, covered with filth and grime that we cannot remove with a mere shower. We need cleansing, in fact, we are desperate for it. Sin isn’t something we can see, but we can feel its corruption. We try all sorts of cures, from special diets to self-help, but none of them can quite remove the filth. In fact, many of us spend years trying to become clean. We know deep down that we are dirty, but we have no idea how to rid ourselves of the filth of sin. We feel like we will never be pure, never clean, never whole again. Like Naaman, we are ready to try anything to find the cleansing we need.

And like Naaman, we eventually come to the Church, we finally come to God. But Naaman didn’t come to God’s chosen people to beg for help, instead he came to demand it. Look at how he comes to ask for help: “So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothes.” Naaman came to buy forgiveness, he wanted to impress the king of Israel to get what he wanted. But the king can’t give it. “Am I God, to kill and to make alive?” Fortunately for Naaman and for Israel’s king, Elisha heard about this request. “Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” Naaman came, but not in humility. “So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house.” He will not stoop down to come into the house of the prophet; Elisha must come out to him. The prophet must deal with him according to his lofty status. Despite his leprosy, despite his uncleanness, which has driven him to such desperation, Naaman is still full of pride. Isn’t that like us? We know that we are unclean, we know that we in desperate need of cleansing, but we do not come to God in humility, begging for help; instead we come in pride, demanding it. We believe that we are entitled to healing, deserving God’s cleansing on our own terms.

Elisha will have none of it. “And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored, and you will be clean.’” The prophet acted to kill the pride of Naaman. He refused to even come out and see this great general, but simply prescribed the cure: water and the Word. If Naaman washes, he will be clean, not because the Jordan is filled with some special water, but because that water has the promise of God attached to it, spoken by Elisha through his messenger. This is the same cure that Jesus proclaims to you in your uncleanness. He doesn’t come to you Himself, but instead sends a messenger, a fellow sinner just as unclean as you are, who proclaims to you, “Go and wash, and you will be clean. Avail yourself of the baptismal waters, because there Jesus gives cleansing, there he will wash away your filth.” The cure for uncleanness is water and the Word, given by Jesus through his called messengers.

But human nature rebels against such humble means. “Naaman was angry and went away, saying, ‘Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” Naaman wants to see great wonders, to witness the mighty deeds of the prophet. Some show of power will surely befit his status as the hero of Syria! His pride revolts at this attempt to put it to death. He will not come in humility; healing must come the way he wants it, or he doesn’t want it at all!

In his pride, Naaman doesn’t fully understand his condition. He doesn’t say, “cure my leprosy,” but instead “cure the leper.” Naaman refuses to own up to his uncleanness, his pride won’t let him admit that leprosy is a part of him. Instead, he claims that this disease is something abstract and disconnected, a problem that needs to be fixed. Isn’t that how we deal with our sin? Sin is a problem that we want the Church, that we want our pastor, that we want Jesus, to ‘fix.’ It really doesn’t belong to me, it’s simply something that I am carrying around. We believe that our sin can be taken care of without really doing anything to us. But sin isn’t a problem that needs fixing, an issue that can be solved. Sin is a disease, a corruption that affects everything that we think, say, and do. The only way to deal with our sin is by putting it to death. God must kill in order to make alive.

That is what Elisha was doing when he refused to come out and see Naaman; he was putting Naaman’s sinful pride to death. But our pride doesn’t want to die, it rebels against the attempt of God’s Law to kill it. Like Naaman, we want the problem fixed without any cost to us. Our pride still wants to be in control, and so it demands wondrous signs, not the humility of the water and the Word. Naaman was prepared to die as a leper rather than submit himself to the means God had established for his cleansing. Fortunately, his servants continued the assault on Naaman’s pride. “His servants came near and said to him, ‘My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, “Wash and be clean”?’” These servants encouraged Naaman to give up on his pride and trust the Word given by God’s prophet. And their master listened. “So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God.” Naaman’s pride was finally crucified. He ‘goes down’ into the Jordan in humility, trusting in the means God has set forth for his cleansing. And He was made clean!

“His flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” Naaman’s washing in the Jordan didn’t symbolize cleansing, it actually accomplished it. In those waters, joined with the very promise of God, his leprosy was washed away. In the same way the waters of baptism, which carry the very promise of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, wash away the leprosy of our sin. Even our pride is destroyed in those waters, because baptism is not your work, it isn’t the great sign and wonder that your pride wants; it is the work of Jesus, acting through His messenger. You bring nothing to the font, only your sin, and Jesus drowns it there. He drowns your filth in order to bring you back up from the water clean. God kills to make alive, He puts your sin to death in the font. That is the only way to deal with sin; it can’t be ‘fixed,’ it must be killed.

That is why Jesus went to the cross. Sin must be put to death, and so Jesus became sin for us, and was put to death in our place. His pride didn’t rebel against this path, the means God had established for the salvation of all, but instead He humbled Himself, coming down into our world so that He would be lifted up upon the cross. There all of your sin was put to death; all of your filth, all of your pride, crucified with Jesus. Jesus didn’t ‘fix’ sin, He destroyed it, by bearing it to the cross and putting it to death in His own body. So when Jesus puts us to death in our baptism, He is joining us with His own death, as Saint Paul declares: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” God kills in order to make alive. Jesus was put to death bearing the sin of the world, but on the third day, He was made alive, risen never to die again. You were put to death in your baptism with Christ so that you would be made alive with Him. “We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” You are incorporated into Christ’s death as the water drowns your sinful nature, and you are incorporated into Christ’s resurrection as you are brought up from that water alive forever, cleansed from all your sin.

For Baptism doesn’t symbolize your cleansing, it actually cleans you. All the sin that you desperately try to cleanse through any other means is washed away in Baptism. That is the cleansing that you are so desperately searching for. But Baptism is only a one-time occurrence, right? How can that cleansing apply to me each and every day since? The answer is that your baptism happened once, but its effects last forever. Your leprosy is cleansed and your pride killed each and every day as you return to the font in repentance and faith, receiving Christ’s blood-bought forgiveness. You live in this world as the baptized: dead to sin, for that sin has been put to death on the cross and drowned at the font, and alive to Christ, for Jesus raises you out of those waters cleansed and renewed to live before Him forever. You do not say ‘I was baptized,’ but ‘I am baptized,’ and this identity you will carry into an eternity spent before the throne of the Lamb, your crucified and risen Savior. In His holy and precious name, in which we are baptized, Amen.

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