May 8, 2012

Step Up: Naaman's Servant Girl 2 Kings 5:1-8

On March 11, 2005 Brian Nichols was escorted into the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia to face charges on a crime he had committed. Everyone believed it would be standard procedure. The deputies had logged thousand of prisoners, the judge had presided over many cases, there was nothing to say that this day was going to be any different. Deputy Cynthia Hall lead Nichols into a cell so he could change clothes for his arraignment, but as she uncuffed him Nichols turned on her and beat her savagely dragging her into a cell and leaving her to die. He changed his clothes, and stole her keys and weapon, and slipped out of the cell unnoticed.

Instead of escaping, Nichols ran to the courthouse where he killed the judge who would have presided over his case, a court reporter, and another deputy while making his escape. He fled the courthouse by stealing multiple cars and kidnapping their occupants for cover. Over the next 26 hours, law enforcement conducted one of the largest manhunts in Atlanta history. By the time the rampage was over Nichols would be convicted of 54 felonies.

Shortly before his capture, Brian Nichols kidnapped Ashley Smith in the parking lot of her apartment complex. He forced her into the apartment and over the next few hours held her captive while he tried to figure out what to do. There was one point where Ashley could have escaped, but felt strongly that if she fled he would kill more people. So rather than flee, Ashley read to him from the Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life and from the Bible. Later when Nichols let her leave to visit her daughter, Ashley called 911 and alerted them to his location.

In the face of danger...even death, Ashley Smith responded by reading God’s Word to a man who had killed 5 people and wounded many more. For all she knew, she could be next. It was later revealed that she had struggled for years to get free from an addiction to meth, she even had some in the apartment, but in the moment of danger greatest, in the moment when she could have run back to the drug for comfort, she could have just surrendered to the situation, after all it seemed hopeless...instead she chose to trust God and share Him with her captor.

We are in a message series titled Step Up, and we are looking at men and women of the Bible who often don’t receive a lot of attention. They live in the shadows. They often receive only a verse or two in the Bible, and sometimes, like today, they aren’t even named. But what they all have in common is that in the moment that it really mattered they stepped up in obedience and made a difference for the Kingdom of God.

Today we are looking at the story of a young girl, taken into slavery by a band of raiders, and, despite her circumstances, she remained a true and steady witness for God. Rather than focus on her situation, trusted God...and change a man’s life.

Let’s read today’s passage found in 2 Kings 5:1-8,
The king of Aram had great admiration for Naaman, the commander of his army, because through him the Lord had given Aram great victories. But though Naaman was a mighty warrior, he suffered from leprosy.

2 At this time Aramean raiders had invaded the land of Israel, and among their captives was a young girl who had been given to Naaman’s wife as a maid. 3 One day the girl said to her mistress, “I wish my master would go to see the prophet in Samaria. He would heal him of his leprosy.”

4 So Naaman told the king what the young girl from Israel had said. 5 “Go and visit the prophet,” the king of Aram told him. “I will send a letter of introduction for you to take to the king of Israel.” So Naaman started out, carrying as gifts 750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and ten sets of clothing. 6 The letter to the king of Israel said: “With this letter I present my servant Naaman. I want you to heal him of his leprosy.”

7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes in dismay and said, “This man sends me a leper to heal! Am I God, that I can give life and take it away? I can see that he’s just trying to pick a fight with me.”

8 But when Elisha, the man of God, heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes in dismay, he sent this message to him: “Why are you so upset? Send Naaman to me, and he will learn that there is a true prophet here in Israel.”

This story begins with a man, a non-Jew, an Aramean named Naaman.

Naaman is a good man. His name actually means “pleasant.” He is the commander of the strongest army of his day. He is beloved by the King whose army he leads. He is successful, and he is described as a mighty warrior. But Naaman has one problem...He has leprosy.

Leprosy was a catch-all term for many different skin diseases. In the Bible it isn’t exclusively reserved for what we call leprosy today, but did include that disease. The word was used to refer to cloth with discolored patches from mildew and, when referring to a human sufferer, indicated a skin disease with discolored patches of skin. Some forms of leprosy would pass quickly, but others were long-term diseases and disrupted a person’s social standing.

The biblical word for leprosy meant “to strike down,” and the Book of Leviticus gave specific rules for dealing with leprosy and those who had it. Under Jewish Law, lepers were to remain unkempt, their beards unshaved, clothes torn, and yell out “unclean, unclean” as they walked through the streets. Even in non-Jewish settings most lepers were expelled to the edges of society and forced to live outside of human contact.

Lepers were treated this way because leprosy was seen as the judgment of God on the unfaithful. Those with leprosy is was assumed did not live according to the Law. Especially those who were not Jews.

But maybe another way to look at this is there are good people all around us with one problem...they are separated them from God. Naaman had everything he could possible want in this world, but his leprosy stood as a sign of his uncleanness before God. We know people who are good people. They are successful. They have a great family, make good money, do good things for the people around them, and yet they are separated from God.

Many find this troubling. It is difficult to believe that a “good” person is not accepted by God...somehow, on the sheer quality of their goodness. The Gospel, however, is not about good and bad. The Gospel is about whether or not we turn in faith from our sins and turn to Jesus. The fancy word we use there is repent...we repent, we turn from the path we are on. We make a 180 degree turn and in faith we follow Jesus. Naaman was a good person, but his leprosy was a physical symbol that he was still unclean before God. Without healing, his leprosy would continue to separate him from those around him and from God. Without forgiveness our sin continues to separate us from those around us and from God.

Despite Naaman’s pleasantness and success and the fact that he was loved by his King...the Jews would have a very different view of Naaman. They would assume his leprosy was punishment from God for all he had done in war against Israel...And this is where meet our unnamed slave girl.

Aramean raiders invaded her homeland, sacked and burned her town, most likely killed her family, and carried her off as a slave in the home of their commander. If anyone has the right to look at this man, whom everyone else loves, and say, “I hope you rot with this disease,” it would be this young, unnamed slave girl. No would fault her for thinking, “Naaman, you are getting everything you deserve for what you and your army did to my family and my homeland.” But she doesn’t. She does something very surprising, she takes a very different path.

It is easy for us to read through this story and not sense the outrage this story would have caused for its original listeners. The Arameans did horrific things to the people Israel, and for this story to end the way we know it does, with Naaman’s healing...would have been an outrage.

If human nature holds true, the Israelites would have been outraged at the thought of this man receiving healing after all he had done to them. But they would also have turned their anger on this young girl for even opening the door for this man to be healed. This disease is punishment from God, and Naaman deserves every bit of it in their mind.

This young girl goes to the Naaman’s wife and says, “I wish my master would go to see the prophet in Samaria. He would heal him of his leprosy.” As we look at this young girl, we learn some very powerful lessons.

This young girl could have wallowed around in her hurt, anger, and prejudice, and no one would fault her. Instead she allowed God to work in her and this opened the door for God to work in the situation.

If we are not careful our hurts, our pains, our anger and prejudice can stand in the way of God’s ability to work. There is that person at work who gets on our nerves...and then we see them distraught over something...but we walk on past...and we have kept God from speaking into that situation. There is the family member we just can’t put up with anymore...and we shut ourselves down. There is the person with that sin who makes us uncomfortable just to be we do the “good” Christian thing a be separate from the world...and because of our distance from them we will never be a witness for God.

Or maybe we hinder others because they hear us proclaim a faith in God, but see how ineffective God’s work has been in our lives and how little it has helped us...then we have once again shut off the ability be a way for them receive God.

We claim to follow Christ, but our lives look no different from anyone else. We still curse like a sailor. We still share in the juicy bits of office gossip. We claim to follow Christ, but still have inappropriate sexual behavior. We are ruled by an addiction that consumes us. We claim to follow Christ, but we are greedy, or judgmentally angry, or arrogant, or selfish.

The expectation is not that we are perfect. We don’t get it right all the time. But when people look at us, when they look at our lives, do they see us reflecting Jesus? Do they see us being transformed to be more like Jesus on a regular basis? Do they see us working in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring our lives into unison with God’s Son? Because when they don’t, we are the barrier to God’s ability to work.

Because this young girl allowed God’s healing work to be done in her life, she was able to pass that along to those around her.

This young girl could have become despondent in her situation. Instead she saw God at work and became an influencer for God’s Kingdom.

When faced with horrible situations it is easy to sink into a despair, a loneliness, or maybe a period of questioning.

Why is this happening? Is God angry with me? Where is God in all of this?

This young girl, most likely, has suffered some pretty traumatic things, but rather than sink into hopeless about the circumstances...she sees how God has placed her there to do something she doesn’t fully understand.

Most of us have heard the story of Joseph. Because his father loves him more than he loves his others sons, Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave to a band of merchants. The merchants sell him into slavery in Egypt where he works his way up in Potiphar’s household, but Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses him of attempted rape. So he is thrown into prison. In prison, he interprets the dreams of two of Pharaoh's servants. The one promises to remember Joseph and get him out, but promptly forgets. Eventually, Joseph is remembered, and interprets a dream for Pharaoh, and saves the land from famine.

Joseph’s brothers arrive seeking food, Joseph toys with them a bit, but eventually reveals his identity. The brothers fear for their lives, but Joseph says, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20). Psalm 105:19 is one of my favorite verses about...It says, Until the time came to fulfill his dreams, the Lord tested Joseph’s character.”

It is easy to get into a woe is me state of mind. The situations are grave...sometimes almost unbearable. It is hard to see beyond the pain. And yet God is at work fulfilling some much larger.

Could it be that our struggle and this tough situation is a way for God to refine our character? Could our cubicle placement next to the annoying guy with the red swingline stapler result in something powerful happening for the Kingdom of God? Could the pain we experience now result in something far deeper than we could ever imagine?

The question is not Does God CAUSE it...the real question is Can God USE it? It isn’t about whether or not we feel pain or sorrow or hurt, but whether we descend into despair and hopelessness. Can we step back and see how my discomfort might be an opportunity for God to work in the world around me? Can we refuse to get caught up in despair and hopeless and believe that in all things God can bring about something good? Can we see that this isn’t all about me, me me, and that we have an opportunity in all situations to extend the Kingdom of God?

Because this young girl did not allow despair and hopelessness to win she was able to see God at work in this situation.

This young girl could have allowed her station in life to dictate her influence. Instead she realized that with God she could make a difference.

In this culture she had everything stacked against her. She was young. She was a slave. She was an Israelite. She was a girl. She had no influence. What she had was faith in the God’s ability to heal, and a willingness to speak up when it mattered.

Compared with this young girl, the King of Israel had great influence, but no faith. Rather than seize the opportunity to point this Naaman toward God, all the King could see was the potential backlash if God failed. He doesn’t even consider healing as a possibility. He doesn’t mention the Prophet Elisha. He tears his clothes and begins to mourn this dreadful situation.

This man with all the power, all the influence in the Kingdom of Israel, a man who was supposed to be a leader pointing people to the God of Israel...actually had no influence at all and made no difference for God’s Kingdom.

The King cries out, “Am I God, that I can give life and take it away?” And it is in this question that we see his problem. He is relying on...himself. No one was asking him to be God. He was simply being asked to point the way to God.

We are influencers for the Kingdom of God. No matter what our station in life, we are called to influence the world around us and move things toward the Kingdom of God. In that task, we are not called to be God...only to point the way to God. We are like living signposts.

When faced with the opportunity to pray with someone who is is not up to us to bring make everything alright...we are simply pointing to the one who can. When given the opportunity to tell someone about is not up to us to “get them saved.” Salvation is God’s job...we are called to be a signpost pointing them toward God.

God places us in the right places, even the dangerous ones, maybe especially in the dangerous ones, so we can point the way to Him. Most of us will never have to face the situation this young girl faced. But we do have to own up to our call to be influencers. Probably the most important step is learning to seize the opportunities provided to be spiritually aware enough to see the open door for us to point the way to God.

For many of us this means learning the fine art of listening for God’s voice...we need to pray. And not just laundry list prayers or crisis prayers...but deep times of listening for God’s guidance and leadership. This will open our eyes to the possibilities that God is opening around us.

For some of us it means learning to pay attention...being aware...learning how God’s spirit moves and being ready with what God has given us to act. Being able to see the need...sense the opening.

All of this requires long periods of time spent in God’s presence and reading His Word so we can tell the difference between God speaking and our own inner leanings or the deceiver’s words.

This young girl, with no influence to speak of, was able to point the way to the God of Israel. Because she refused to allow station in life to dictate her ability to influence, she saw God work in a powerful way in Naaman’s life.

If we had time, and if Naaman was the point of this message, there is a great deal to be said about how this girl’s simple statement brought about an amazing change in Naaman...his healing and the change of commitment to following the God of Israel. But none of that would have been possible if this young girl had not allowed the work of God in her life to overflow...if she had not stepped up and been obedient.

It is easy to overlook the possibilities around us. To allow our hurt and pain and prejudice to get in the become blind to the possibilities because of how bad things are around believe that we couldn’t really make a difference anyway! God chooses you...and then places you in particular situations so that His Kingdom will advance. This young, unnamed slave girl saw her situation as an opportunity for God to work.

We have to stop asking, “Am I God who can make this happen?” and begin saying “I serve the God who is I AM who can make this happen!” Then point the way.

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