Simple to Bother
A sermon on 2 Kings 5:1-14 by Nathan Nettleton, 12 February 2006
The gospel calls us on a road to healing and wholeness, but its steps are so deceptively simple (which doesn't mean easy) that we often don't take them seriously and so don't do them.
The formula was simple. A child could understand it. Go wash yourself seven times in the Jordan and you will be made clean. But the person receiving this simple formula was not a simple man. He was a great general of the Arameans. We know he was a great general even though we are told little of his campaigns. His greatness is disclosed in the fact that he was the commander of the King's army despite being a leper.
Had Naaman been a Hebrew, he would have been required to live apart from everyone else. He was not a Hebrew, and he apparently was not required to live apart from his people. Yet, it seems certain that his disease was considered both hideous and incurable. According to this scripture, he, and his king, were willing to pay millions of dollars, measured in today's currency, if the disease could be cured.
After a couple of twists in the story, Naaman presents himself before the humble home of Elisha, millions of dollars in hand to pay for the cure he so desperately wants. . . and Elisha won't even come to the door! Instead, Elisha sends a servant to give the great general the simple formula. Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and you will be healed.
And Naaman is furious. He has travelled a great distance to get a cure for his terrible disease. He is prepared to pay millions of dollars, and as one of his servants points out, he is prepared to perform any number of difficult tasks to receive this gift from God. But he is unprepared for the simple formula offered by Elisha.
Go and wash in the river, and you will be healed.
It was all too simple, and he seems to have thought that Elisha was mocking him. Trying to make him appear foolish. The great general bathing in the muddy waters of the Jordan at the command of a Hebrew prophet. I can sympathise with him too, because Elisha is not one of my favourite Biblical characters. He could be quite rude and arrogant at times, and I think his refusal to even meet Naaman was an ungracious act and rather unnecessary.
Fortunately, Naaman lets himself be persuaded. And the story tells us that Naaman walked from the waters not only healed in his body, but also giving praise to the one true God of all the earth.
There's another reason I sympathise with Naaman. It was too simple... He nearly missed out on the healing because it was too simple.
It was as simple and ridiculous as saying that we'll be healed of sin and united to Christ if we dipped in the waters of baptism. Ridiculous, too simple . . . But Naaman was healed.
I've made the mistake that Naaman almost made so many times. I've done the heavy miles and skipped the simple steps. I've looked for some big dramatic difficult thing to do that was going to sort me out and get my life together. Something that was going to change me into someone much deeper and wiser and holier, and I knew without a doubt that nothing simple could achieve such a massive transformation! If something was so simple it didn't seem like it would do much then I skipped it.
So I worked hard at College for eight years and got a degree in Theology, but I never spent any time in silence to just reflect on who I was and to allow God to do whatever God wanted to do with me. I worked full time in a cutting edge church mission among difficult and sometimes dangerous people on the streets of St Kilda, but I never spent a simple ten minutes an evening in "examen" prayer, reviewing the day and identifying how the Spirit had been moving and how I might be more responsive to her moves tomorrow. Too simple - I needed something big and spectacular.
There are long established traditions of spiritual disciplines in the Christian church and they are the pathways which generations of deeply spiritual people have found to be the ways of spiritual growth and holiness. And none of them are particularly difficult sounding things. I skipped them for years because they were so simple I think I assumed they wouldn't be of any value. It would take something much more major to transform me.
One of those disciplines is Silence. What could be simpler? You don't have to do anything. Just turn off the noise and sit and be. Just say "OK God this is your time. I'll just sit here. You do what you wish," and be silent. What could be simpler. Well, as most of you know, for a people who are used to noise and dazzling high-tech stimulation, just being in silence is not nearly as easy as it sounds. But it is when we can slow ourselves down and immerse ourselves in the silence that we are likely to have our most profound encounters with the Spirit of God. You remember the story of Elisha's predecessor, Elijah and how when he wanted to hear God speak and he expected to hear God in the big dramatic things, the earthquake, the bushfire, the hurricane, it was actually in what the Bible describes as the sound of sheer silence that he encountered God and was transformed.
Fasting is an ancient discipline. Of course for some people fasting is an unhealthy compulsion and for them eating would be the more appropriate spiritual discipline. My understanding of the value of fasting is that the voluntary resistance of a normal appetite can help develop self-control. It can help us to develop the inner energies that enable us to push through our natural defences and into unknown spiritual territory. All of us have our comfort zones and we don't like to push out to and beyond our pain barriers, physically, emotionally or spiritually. Fasting is really just a physical way of training ourselves to push beyond our normal comfort limits, so that if the lessons learned in doing that can enable us to do it emotionally and spiritually we might be able to push ourselves out into the deep places of God.
The prayer form known as "Examen" is simply taking some time to review each day and look for the signs of grace and the signs of challenge from God in it. It is a discipline that aims to develop our ability to recognise what God is doing. We often don't notice what we haven't taught ourselves to be aware of. You could easily walk across the park without being aware of any birds, even though they are there. But if you develop a practice of always looking for them, then you'll notice them every time. Examen is just like that - it is developing the practice of looking for God in each day so as not to just overlook or take for granted what God's Spirit is doing within and all around you.
All these things are very simple sounding things. Too simple for me and Naaman - I still have trouble getting myself to take them seriously at times. The Apostle Paul uses the athletes of the ancient Olympic Games as an illustration in his letter to the Corinthians, and with the Winter Olympics just beginning and the Commonwealth Games about to descend on us next month, it is an illustration which may connect for us. Most of the things top athletes do to become top athletes are pretty simple things. The difference is in the discipline to work at them, again and again and again, until they perfect these simple things. Paul is telling us that making serious progress in the spiritual life is just the same. It too is a kind of athleticism that is developed through single-minded discipline in some apparently simple things.
Even the Eucharist is a simple kind of thing - there is nothing complex or dramatic about ordinary bread and wine. Would Naaman have bothered? Probably not unless he'd had his faithful servant there in his ear saying, "But Sir, if he'd told you to do something difficult and charged you a million dollars for it you'd have done it. So if he just says 'eat and drink this in remembrance of me' why not do it?"Simple really, but ask any top athlete whether it matters when and what they eat and drink.
God has come to us in simple things - water, bread, wine - but it is easy for us to rebel. We don't want to be simple people. We wanted to be sophisticated achievers. But God is going to keep calling us to do the simple things and in them will lie all the glorious gifts of God. Let's not go storming back to Aramea in a tantrum because it was all too simple. God's gift of life is simply too good to miss!
Some questions to ponder
Are there ways, perhaps different to mine, that you relate to Naaman in this story? How does his story connect with yours?
What are some of the simple disciplines that you have neglected for a while and then found great value in?
What are some of the simple disciplines that you have heard of but haven’t really tried? Are there things stopping you?