The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 3, 2016
II Kings 5:1-14
The World Turned Upside Down
In honor of the Fourth of July weekend, I want to start my sermon at the Battle of Yorktown. If you need a refresher from high school history, the Battle of Yorktown took place in 1781 on Yorktown peninsula in Virginia. It was the decisive and conclusive battle in the American War of Independence. Trapped on the peninsula was Lord General Charles Cornwallis and the imperial might of the English army. His soldiers and mercenaries were professionals, hardened veterans of many wars. On the other side you had George Washington with the continental army – mostly a band of ruffians, criminals, and what we would now call insurgents and terrorists. It’s all about perspective isn’t it? To think that our American forebears were considered insurgents. And, we shouldn’t forget our allies. The French navy surrounded the English position so that they couldn’t escape. Remember, that without the French, we would not have won our independence. Eventually the Americans and the French wear down the English, and Lord General Cornwallis surrenders. That effectively ended the war. Shortly thereafter terms would be settled and America was truly independent. Happy Fourth of July.
But something curious happened at the end of the Battle of Yorktown. As the defeated British army marched past the victorious George Washington with muskets shouldered, many of them wept. They were coming to grips with how backward it all seemed. A professional army with Lord General Cornwallis, the might of an empire, had been humiliated by a ragtag bunch of rebels. It all seemed so unreal. The British band decided to play a fitting tune for the occasion. They played a song called, “The World Turned Upside Down.” Indeed, the world turned upside down.
Long before the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, there was another general not unlike Lord General Cornwallis. He was called Naaman and he was a Syrian general, a leader of a great empire. Like Cornwallis, Naaman was rich, he was powerful, he commanded a vast army that had been victorious in many battles before. And like Cornwallis, Naaman is humiliated. Not by military defeat, but by disease. Naaman discovers that he is a leper.
In this time, leprosy was the diagnosis for any number of skin diseases. But the real cost of this diagnosis was that Naaman would be cast out of society. He would be pushed to the fringes, considered to be unclean. He would have to experience the humiliation of being cut off from his family and friends. Naaman’s world has been turned upside down.
But it’s about to get a whole lot weirder.
A young slave girl, a captive from the land of Israel, tells Naaman that there is a prophet in Israel that could cure him of this disease. Remember, in the time of the Old Testament, in the book we are reading from this morning of Second Kings, the Syrians and the Israelites are enemies. And yet here is an Israelite slave girl telling a mighty Syrian general to go to an Israelite prophet in order to be healed. The world is turned upside down.
So Naaman does what any logical mighty general would do. He packs up his wealth. Silver, gold, fine clothing. It’s like Naaman has a high deductible health insurance plan, so he’s getting his cash in order. Then, notice where Naaman goes. He does not go to the prophet Elisha, whom the slave girl had told Naaman to visit. No, because Naaman is mighty, he goes to another mighty one, the king of Israel. Naaman doesn’t get it yet. The world is turned upside down, and to receive healing and grace, you don’t go to kings and rulers and generals. You go to prophets. Prophets were the weirdos of the day: outsiders, loners, seers. Think of John the Baptist, eating bugs. They had no respectable place at royal courts. They lived in the wilderness. But it’s from the prophets that God’s healing will come. The world is turned upside.
So Naaman goes to the prophet Elisha. Naaman rolls up to Elisha’s house on a chariot with horses, soldiers, gold, silver, and the finest clothes. Naaman the mighty general expects Elisha the lowly prophet to come out to Naaman. To greet Naaman. To give Naaman the proper reverence befitting a mighty general. Ah, but the world is turned upside down. Elisha does not even bother to come out of his house. Elisha sends a messenger out who says to Naaman, “wash in the Jordan River seven times and you shall be clean.”
Naaman flips his lid. “I’m important,” he says, “look at all my chariots and horses.” He cries out, “I thought that for me he would surely come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” Naaman wants a big show. Naaman wants some hocus pocus. Being so rich and mighty, he thinks he deserves the finest treatment. Naaman goes on, “are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” Naaman doesn’t want to swim in the nasty open sewer that is the Jordan River. Ah, but the world is turned upside down.
Eventually his servants convince Naaman to do what Elisha the prophet said to do. Because, seriously, they say, it’s a pretty simple thing to take a dip in the water. If Elisha had required a hard task, Naaman would have done it. This is easy, so why not give it a try? Of course, because God is present, the healing works. Naaman is restored. The leprosy leaves him. For Naaman, this is his independence day. He is freed from the disease. He’s free to return to this community. Naaman has received grace upon grace.
And that’s where the story that we heard today cuts off. But there is a bit more than we have to know about.
Naaman comes back to Elisha, Naaman declares his allegiance to the God of Israel. Now he knows that there is no god in all the earth except the God of Israel. The world is turned upside down. A man who has fought in the name of Syria and its gods, now worships the God of his enemies. Strange times indeed.
And finally, Naaman wants to pay Elisha for the healing. Remember, he’s brought his deductible with him, ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. Naaman has yet to learn that with God things are not bought and paid for. Things are simply given. The gift of healing that Naaman has received is a gift. It’s just a gift. It’s free. Naaman wants to monetize the transaction, but Elisha will not have it. Elisha the prophet says, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!”
Naaman’s world has been turned upside down and inside out. Slave girls direct him to healing. Kings have no power. Prophets pay him no honor. Healing comes from a strange river. And some things cannot be paid for.
My friends, this God whom we serve will turn your world upside down. I see plenty of posts on Facebook by Christians, I hear plenty of Christians talk, and the way they talk about God is the same way that they talk about themselves. If someone is a Democrat, you can bet their view of God looks like a Democrat. If someone is a Republican, you can bet their view of God looks like a Republican. The best place to see this is in artistic depictions of Jesus. White people paint Jesus to look white. Black people paint Jesus to look black. All forgetting that Jesus was probably brown skinned and about four and a half feet tall with a beard that I would be jealous of. We make God in our own image. Like Naaman, we expect that we know how things are going to work out and how it is that this God behaves.
Ah, but God’s world is upside down from ours. We must declare independence from such paltry and insipid ideas about God. We must let God be God. And wherever that takes us, who knows, but it surely will not be what we expect. Naaman expected a king and got a prophet. He expected a big show but got a bath in a sewer. He expected to pay for his healing but it was free.
We are all sick, just like Naaman. I hope this isn’t news to you. But you are sick – body sick, money sick, soul sick, work sick. We’re all sick. We are Naaman. We are being pushed to the fringes, maybe even just the fringes of our own emotional ability to keep it all together.
And the good news of Jesus Christ, the good news in this story about Naaman, is that healing is a free gift. It is there. It is not even difficult to receive healing. God will heal you, but first you have to put down your assumptions. You have to let God be God. Don’t tell God how you need healing. Don’t tell God where that healing is supposed to come from. Don’t bargain with God, trying to cut a deal for your healing. Let God be God. And then get out of the way. God desperately wants to heal you of whatever ails you, to love you, to comfort you, and to put it all together again.
Consider this your independence day. You are free from your overly egotistical assumptions. You are free from putting God in your own box. You are free from thinking that God is like you. You are free to let God turn your world upside down.
In a sense, God will make you into Naaman. When you are sick and in trouble, listen for the voices that you wouldn’t normally listen to; they might just point you in Jesus’ direction. It might just be that the person with the answer to what ails you could be, a complete stranger, a child, a sinner, an enemy. And when you ask God for grace and healing, don’t expect a big, flashy show. Grace and healing might just come in a quiet moment, in a quiet place that you don’t expect. And finally, receive God’s gift for what it is, a free gift. Don’t cheapen your relationship with God by monetizing it. God gives what God gives. We only give money back to God because we’re grateful, not because we have to pay for God’s loves. Our financial gifts to God are not transactions, they are offerings of gratitude.
So often times I hear how the God of the Old Testament is a vengeful, wrathful God. A God who delights in killing and anger. And then how Jesus came and the God of the New Testament is a God of grace and love. Make no mistake. Make no mistake, this is the same God. In this passage from the Old Testament, God is compassionate and kind to Naaman, a man who does not even worship God. And there are plenty of places in the New Testament where God talks about splitting up families, of letting dead people go unburied, of shaking the dust of your feet to protest.
It’s high time for us to allow God to turn our world upside down. Allow Jesus to speak to you, and to open your eyes to a whole new world around you. Set yourself free from small thinking about God. Set yourself free from telling God who you want God to be. Don’t assume that you know what God wants. This is a problem for both the left and the right. We tell the other side that God is on our side, and that they are wrong. The problem is that we come to God with our own agendas, our own proclivities, and expect God thinks the way we do. But God will turn the world upside down.