Sermon: Sunday, 7th May, 2023
Speaker: Alistair Donald
Scripture: Ephesians 2:8-9 and 2 Kings 5:1-14
People just don’t know about what the Bible means by grace. It’s a foreign word to them. It’s hard to define and, once defined, it’s hard to grasp or accept! So wonderful it is! So amazing! Why is that? I hope we’ll see by the end of this sermon!
‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast.’ (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Paul wrote this to those who were already Christians. But they had to be reminded. How do we get right with God? Is it what we ‘do’ for God, as almost the whole human race believes? Or is it by grace – something wholly undeserved? A good way of illustrating grace is to look at this story from the Old Testament. It’s set around 850 BC in 2 countries (Israel and Aram, or Syria), with the River Jordan as the boundary between them. It contrasts 2 people – Naaman, a general in the army for Aram, and a servant girl there who had been captured from Israel. A very big contrast in every way!
Naaman healed of leprosy
‘Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy. Bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’ Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. ‘By all means, go,’ the king of Aram replied. ‘I will send a letter to the king of Israel.’ So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: ‘With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.’
As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, ‘Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!’ When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: ‘Why have you torn your robes? Make the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.’ So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, ‘Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.’
But Naaman went away angry and said, ‘I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?’ So he turned and went off in a rage.
Naaman’s servants went to him and said, ‘My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed!’ So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.’ (2 Kings 5:1-14)
Naaman, we read, is a great man; he’s highly regarded. He walks and talks the language of greatness. He’s a ‘somebody’. He has status. He has a wife with servants. He is no doubt very rich. If he was with us today, he would no doubt live in a gated community. He would own a top-of-the-range car, with a chauffeur to drive him about. Maybe a private jet. Naaman is a ‘somebody’. But he has one big problem that he has no idea how to cure; he has an infectious skin disease: leprosy.
The servant girl is different in every way possible: she’s a ‘nobody’ – we don’t even know her name. And as we’ll see that’s the point! This person who seems so insignificant plays an important part in God’s plans! Don’t you find that reassuring? I know that I do! It’s not fame, fortune and power that are important to God but, rather, faithfulness to him and willingness to speak and act for him. Those are the character traits that are important to God! So we have this little servant girl. She’s far from home. She’d been taken captive in a raid across the River Jordan, and she was now far from her native land of Israel. I’m sure she is lonely – different language, different customs. We’re not told that she’s being ill-treated, but life is not great for her.
But this little servant girl has one thing that Naaman doesn’t have; she has faith in the Living God, the God of Israel. She’s serving in the household of pagan worshippers. But like Daniel, many years later in exile in Babylon. she has kept the faith. She hasn’t let it all drift when she moves away from her home and family. That can happen, can’t it, when people leave home and move away? But this girl still worships the Living God. And she has faith that God will be able to cure her master Naaman, through the ministry of Elisha the prophet back home in Israel.
So she says to her mistress, ‘If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’ (2 Kings 5:3) And Naaman is willing to give it a go. People generally are, aren’t they, when they get an apparently incurable disease? So he’s willing. But remember who he is: he’s a great man. He’s important! He knows how the world works! He’s not going to go directly to some nobody prophet or priest in a despised neighbouring country, some flunkey that no-one has ever heard of. Important people deal directly with each other – have you noticed that? So he gets his own king to write a letter – not to the Prophet Elisha, but to the King of Israel. King-on-King correspondence! He also packs a load of money. Surely money is the answer to everything? Money makes the world go round!
So off he goes, clutching the letter from his king, addressed to the king of Israel. ‘With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.’ (Not quite what the servant girl had said). Not surprisingly, the King of Israel thinks it’s all a provocation – his neighbouring king is surely trying to pick a fight, by asking him to do something that he knows that he doesn’t have the power to do. And he tore his robes – an ancient middle eastern way of signalling his utter despair and fear.
But the story doesn’t end there. We now hear from the Prophet Elisha (successor to the more famous Elijah). This is, of course, the prophet that the servant girl meant when she suggested that Naaman travel over to Israel in the first place! When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: ‘Why have you torn your robes? Make the man come to me, and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.’ So Naaman arrives with his huge entourage of horses and chariots at Elisha’s little house – probably just a hut, a rather humble dwelling, and certainly not the kind of place that an important man like Naaman was expecting to enter. And Elisha didn’t go out, but sent one of his own servants out to Naaman with a message that was quite unexpected: ‘Go, wash yourself seven times in the River Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.’
And Naaman’s response is like: ‘Whaaaat??? Is that it? You mean to tell me that I’ve come all this way to be told to go and bathe in that piddling little stream that you call a river? And he roared off in a fury, saying: ‘I thought he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot, and cure me of my leprosy! ‘And don’t even get me going about rivers’, he appears to say: Are not the rivers of Damascus in my homeland better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?’ So he stormed off in an absolute rage!
And friends: this is a perfect illustration of why the Grace of God is so hard for many people to accept today, as well as back then, as we’ll be seeing shortly. There must be more to it than just believing in Jesus, believing in his Cross, no? Hold that thought! So what exactly was Naaman’s problem? He was too proud to accept the solution to his problem. ‘Wash seven times in a little river? Is that it? Does he really expect me – great man that I am – to do something so demeaning as to humble myself in that way?’ It’s just as well that his servants chased after him and reasoned with him: ‘If a prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you to wash and be cleansed?’ So this great man, this general, went down and dipped in the Jordan seven times and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
Eventually he swallowed his pride, and obeyed the simple thing that had been asked of him. He recognised his predicament, humbled himself, and obeyed. Why, then, is this ancient account from the Old Testament such a good illustration of what’s so amazing about God’s Grace? Here’s why: Our predicament is not that we have leprosy. Our predicament is different. More universal. The Bible calls it the problem of sin. Sin is not just doing bad things. It’s more deep-seated than that. Sin is a barrier between us and God. Instead of putting God first, others second and ourselves last of all, we humans by nature turn that on its head: Me first, others next and God often as an afterthought, if there at all. Time and again, we find ourselves not doing what we should do or not saying what we should say, or even not thinking what we should think. That is sin. And because we are all made in the image of God, and are intended to worship God and give glory to him – that’s the way we’re designed! – when men and women don’t do that, they direct their worship elsewhere.
We’re hard-wired to worship, so when we don’t worship God, where is worship then directed? To idols. To false gods. In the Bible, and in many cultural and religious traditions, that means worshipping something made of stone or wood. That’s what Naaman previously did, in a temple dedicated to false gods. But even when people don’t to that, they dream up imaginary idols. As John Calvin said, the human heart is an idol-factory! For some it’s money. For others it’s their job. For yet others it’s acceptance: what other people think about their social media posts. And that takes you down a route to nowhere, where you end up worshipping yourself. Look what happens if you dare to question, for example, someone else’s so-called gender identity. It’s treated as nothing short of blasphemy! Why is that? Because when we humans don’t worship the Living God as we were designed to do, we don’t stop worshipping – we can’t stop worshipping since that’s the way God made us! But we find other outlets for our worship.
Unlike Naaman in this Bible passage, our predicament is not that we have leprosy. Our predicament is different. More universal. The problem of sin. And sin estranges us from God and renders us guilty in his sight. We see the fruits of sin all around us; war, greed, anger, racism, the demeaning of women. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know it’s not just a problem out there where other people do really bad things. There’s running down someone’s reputation behind their back. There’s borrowing from a colleague and ‘forgetting’ to repay the debt. Perhaps you are an exception?
Now if this all a bit depressing, too much like bad news rather than good news – then hang on! When it’s a dark and cloudy day, like it’s been in recent days, and then the sun bursts through and warms us, we appreciate it more than if there were no clouds at all! All this talk of sin only clears the way for the good news – that God sent Jesus into the world not only to show us how to live, but to die a sacrificial death, and to free us from the guilt of sin, and the power of sin. So those who trust in Jesus don’t face the judgment of God on our lives at the end of our days because Jesus has already done that on our behalf. As the most famous verse in the Bible puts it; ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)
Naaman just had to do one simple thing to be cleansed of his leprosy and we only have to do one simple thing to be cleansed of our sin: believe that Jesus died for you and for me. Like Naaman, that simple message is sometimes resisted. Is that really it? Something so straightforward? A clever person might be looking for something more grand to guide their life, a great philosophical system, that he or she can grasp with an advanced intellect. But here’s me saying, ‘Believe in Jesus’ death on your behalf?’ Is that it? Yes, that’s it.
Or someone may feel that they’ve just messed up their life too much. There’s such a mountain of bad decisions, of ignoring God, of hurting others (or of being hurt by others). It’s impossible for that burden to be lifted. It’s surely impossible to get a fresh start. But here’s me saying, ‘Believe in Jesus’ death on your behalf, and you’ll be reconciled to God?’ Is that it? Yes, that’s it. Another problem Naaman had (later in the passage in 2 Kings 5) is this: he wanted to pay. Remember how he’d brought all these horses laden with shekels of gold and fancy clothing? After he was cured, he went back up the hill to Elisha’s house and wanted to pay for his cure. But the prophet said no. Why? Because the gift of cleansing was free, without charge.
And that’s another reason why the Grace of God is so Amazing. Not only does it mean that God doesn’t condemn us, not only does it give us a fresh start – but it’s free! In our pride, we have this unfortunate tendency that we want to recommend ourselves to God in some way: ‘Hey, God, have you noticed that I’m not really such a bad person? I come to church most Sundays! I even give to good causes! Look at all that I’ve done – surely you must accept me!’ And this brings us straight back to those verses in Ephesians 2, where the Apostle Paul had to deal with the exact same issue: ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.’
Jesus once told a story that shines a light on this very same issue. It’s in the Gospel of Luke. ‘Two men went up to Temple to pray: Pharisee (a religious man) and a tax collector (thought to be the lowest of the low). The Pharisee prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evil-doers adulterers – or even like that tax collector. I fast twice week and give a tenth of all I get.’ The Tax Collector: stood at a distance, looking down: ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ And Jesus said : ‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’ (Luke 18:10-14)
Now please don’t misunderstand: there is a place for good works, but it’s as a loving response to what Jesus has already done for us. Good works are the proof that we have believed in Jesus. ‘For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.’ (Ephesians 2:10)
It’s important that we get this the right way round. It’s not that our good works are some kind of display to show God how worthy we are of his love (that’s what the Pharisee tried! Didn’t work!) People like this are saying in effect: ‘I may not be perfect, but I’m not like other people who are worse than me! I’ve often gone to church. I’m a good person really!’ Is that what you think? If so, then you’re relying on your good deeds, rather than on the cross of Christ! So we don’t do good works or good deeds to recommend ourselves to God, as Naaman tried to do, as the Pharisee in the parable Jesus told did. Rather, we do good works as a loving response to the Grace of God in Christ once we have humbled all our pride, and come to Jesus, believing that his death on the cross puts us right with God, in a way that we could never earn for ourselves. And we find a new peace in our lives. A new balance. A new purpose. A new love for others. And best of all – it’s all free!
Isn’t that amazing? Yes it is! That’s what’s so amazing about grace! Now, in closing – this may be very familiar to you. If so, then I’ll just say this: don’t let familiarity breed contempt. Let that familiarity lead you to do what the servant girl did; recommend the solution to others. You think you’re not equipped for that. Well, the servant girl had no special training. But she knew to point people to the source of amazing grace. But if this is a bit new to you, if you’ve seen how amazing God’s grace is, then I’ll just say this; don’t let the moment pass. God’s amazing grace is for you. Believe in your heart, and you too can be freed from the terrible disease of sin. And Jesus will come into your life to help you to change and to become more like him.