Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sovereign Grace, Healing Love

Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-19a; Luke 17:11-19a

HAVE YOU EVER MADE a terrible mistake? I don't mean something ordinary like forgetting to take the meat out to thaw, I mean committing some terrible trespass. You yelled at your spouse in anger and called her a filthy name. You blurted out a secret that wasn't yours. You punished your child for something he didn't do. Maybe you did something that seemed to be really good and helpful at the time, but when you came to yourself you realized it was the worst thing you could have done. Whatever it was, you couldn't just say, "Oops, sorry, didn't mean to do that!" Even if you didn't exactly "mean" to do it, the damage you did was lasting and deep. People were wounded and upset, and they were going to stay that way for a long time.

That wasn't really a mistake, what you did, it was a sin. As a decent human being, when you realized the enormity of your trespass, how did you feel? You didn't blow it off, I don't think. You apologized, of course. You asked forgiveness. You repented. And repented. And repented some more. But your friend/spouse/child was still so hurt! How could you ever have done that to them? You felt they never could forgive you. That you shouldn't forgive yourself. Maybe you should tear your garments like the lepers of old time and go about in wilderness places ringing a warning bell and calling out, "Unclean! Unclean!" Your guilt seemed to cling to you. It seemed to break out all over you like some loathsome skin disease. How could you merit forgiveness after what you'd done? "Unclean, unclean!"

We have two stories about lepers in today's Scripture readings. As we look into them, let's keep in mind that in Bible times, leprosy and other disfiguring skin diseases were not just a physical illness somebody might get, they were visible symbols of sin. A leper was a walking billboard of the damage sin did and how it separated a person from God and his neighbor. It depicted decay and corruption and a living death.

The laws of Moses about leprosy and so on can be found in Leviticus 13 and 14. If you read those chapters carefully, you'll notice something curious: The problem with these infectious skin diseases wasn't just that the sufferer had a disease, it's that it made him look mixed and mottled. Not uniform. Not whole. Not clean. It even says in Leviticus 13:12-13 that if the disease spread so far that the sufferer was a flat white all over his body, the priest could declare him clean again.

The laws ostracizing lepers were like the laws against mixing wool and linen in your clothing or plowing with a donkey and an ox yoked together or sowing two different kinds of seed in one field. These restrictions seem strange to us, but they were God's way of hammering home how His chosen people Israel had to remain purely dedicated to Him alone. Thoroughly. Faithfully. Cleanly. All those situations and conditions were symbols of mixing with the pagan nations. They were pictures of the false worship that tried to honor Gentile idols side by side with Jehovah God. From the very birth of the nation, God was impressing on them that they were to be whole and pure and devoted to Him alone. The salvation of the whole world depended on it.

And so you had the leper, with his red and white and brown skin, a picture of unfaithfulness to God. You had the corruption of his flesh as a symbol of the corruption of death and sin. You had his enforced separation to be a demonstration of how God's people must separate themselves from sin. It was terrible for the leper, but even more terrible is the effect that sin has in the idolatrous, unrepentant heart. Israel had to see and fear.

But who wants to live life as a negative sermon illustration? "Keep away! Keep away! Unclean! Unclean!" You could do nothing, nothing to help yourself. You could only pray that God would heal you and you could go show yourself to the priest, make your sacrifice, and be pronounced clean again.

And so we come to the story of Naaman, the Aramean (or Syrian) general. You notice first that he still seems to be living in his own house and he is able to go to the palace of the king of Aram. He also travels to the palace of Joram, king of Israel, and to Elisha's house with a large retinue. He isn't under the ban to live separated, for he's a Gentile. You may be thinking, good for them, they didn't have those Hebrew restrictions and rules. Yes, but they also didn't have the glorious covenant promises attached to those restricted and rules. And the Gentiles didn't have the sovereign power of Jehovah God working through the prophets that could heal a leper like Naaman.

So up comes the great General Naaman to the door of Elisha the prophet-- and the man of God doesn't even come to the door to greet him! Don't be mistaken-- Elisha isn't afraid of catching leprosy himself. No, he's expressed his purpose in the previous verses, where he tells King Joram to "Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel." Naaman expects Elisha to "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." He wants Elisha to do something. But Elisha wants Naaman to know that he, Elisha, is only God's prophet, the channel through which God works. Naaman has to learn that it is the Lord and the Lord alone who heals.

And so he has the servant tell Naaman to go dip himself seven times in the Jordan River-- the dirty, insignificant, piddling Jordan River. There was nothing healing or magical about the waters of the Jordan! If Naaman was going to be healed there, it would obviously be by God's sovereign grace alone.

The great General Naaman had to show his faith in the God of Israel by following the order, no matter how disappointing it was. Happily for him, he listened to his servants, got over his rage, and obeyed.

And what happened then? We read in verse 14 that "his flesh was restored and became clean"-- that is, healthy, whole, and unblemished-- "like that of a young boy." God didn't just put him back to middle-aged normal, He renewed his skin so it was like the skin of a little child!

That was worth killing his pride for! Naaman hurries back to thank Elisha for what he had done. Thanks to him, he has come to know the Lord Almighty! He says, "Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel." The Lord God Jehovah, the God of Israel, is God alone! So never again will he worship any God but the Lord. He then requests the two mule-loads of Israel's earth. I admit-- the commentators are divided on why he does this. But most likely, like all the Gentiles of those days, Naaman believed that a god or goddess could be worshipped properly only on his or her own territory. With this earth he could make an altar or maybe scatter it in a shrine in his own home, so to make himself a little Israel in Syria, a sacred spot where the Lord was God and would accept his sacrifices. Naaman didn't quite understand that the Lord was God in all the earth, but he understood that the Lord was the only God who was really real, and the Lord honored the intent of his heart.

But there's one more thing Naaman needs before his cleansing will be complete. As commander of the army of Aram he was literally the Syrian king's right-hand man. And one of his duties was to attend his sovereign into the temple of the false god Rimmon and support him with his arm as the king made his reverences to this so-called god. As a Syrian he couldn't exactly go home and announce he wasn't going to do that any more. But how could Naaman bow down to Rimmon when he was now wholly devoted to the Lord as the only God? Would the Lord Jehovah graciously forgive him for bowing down his body in that idol temple, now that he would never again bow down his heart or his mind? He'd have to keep on doing it for a long time. Could the Lord forgive him for that? Might He? Would He?

And Elisha replies, "Go in peace." And Naaman goes, cleansed not only in body but also in spirit. "Go in peace," for by faith he has been made clean and well.

The grace God showed through Elisha foreshadows the greater grace He showed the world through the Messiah Jesus, the Son of God made flesh. Our passage in Luke tells us that Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem to be crucified. He was travelling through the borderlands between Galilee and Samaria-- Samaria, where around 925 years before His Father in heaven had healed Naaman through His servant Elisha. On the outskirts of a village Jesus encounters ten lepers, nine Jews and one Samaritan. They know He is a prophet who can heal them. They stand at a proper distance and call out, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!"

It doesn't take the supernatural mind of Christ to know what those lepers wanted. They wanted to be cleansed and healed. They had no hope for healing in themselves, their only hope was that God's prophet Jesus will do it for them.

And He does. "Go, show yourselves to the priests." Leviticus tells us it wasn't the priest's job to cure the leper, it was only his job to declare before God and man that the leper was already cured and therefore had become acceptable and clean. The Old Covenant was still in effect and Jesus honors His Father's plan in it.

All ten of these lepers had faith enough immediately to head for the home of the closest priest they could find. They were sure Jesus could heal their bodies. And He did. "As they went," Luke tells us, "they were cleansed." They became like Naaman after he had bathed in the Jordan River, their skin restored to radiance and health.

But only one was cleansed in his spirit. And ironically, that one was the Samaritan. The despised half-breed. The unkosher foreigner. He immediately comes back to Jesus praising God loudly, enthusiastically, deep-heartedly for his healing. He throws himself at Jesus' feet-- this mixed-race Samaritan-- and thanked Him and thanked Him.

"Where are the other nine?" Jesus asks. Where are the nine Jews? They were all cured. Why didn't they also come back to render Him honor and thanks? Did they take their position as sons of the covenant for granted? Could it be that when the nine Jews obtained the bodily healing they wanted, they no longer needed the Son of God?

But the lone Samaritan has returned, and like Naaman the Syrian he praises the God of Israel and gives Him the glory. And like Naaman, his cleansing was complete. Jesus says to him, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well." The healing he received extended to his inmost soul, and it drove him to the feet of Jesus in gratitude and praise.

That is what Jesus can do with your sin, and with mine. He can take even the worst of our sins away and restore us to be like little children. We can be wandering around like lepers in the isolation of our guilt, separated from God, from other people, even alienated from ourselves, and He brings us the cleansing cure we never could obtain on our own. He can step into situations where we have wreaked havoc on other people's lives and work a miracle of restoration and hope. He does this by the forgiveness He won for you and me in His death on the Cross. There He paid for all our sins. We did deserve God's punishment. We did deserve God's wrath. But as Isaiah the prophet says, "By His wounds we are healed."

How do we receive that healing, especially as Christians who still sin every day? What do we do when we just want to beat ourselves up, when our guilt tells us how we don't deserve the forgiveness of God at all?

We remember the word of Elisha the prophet. He said, "Go wash yourself seven times in the waters of the Jordan and you will be restored." Let us, you and me, plunge ourselves again and again into the waters of our baptism. As often as we need it, as often as we sin, let us remember how the water of baptism recalls the blood that flowed from Jesus our Master as He hung on the cross. That blood makes a full, free, and complete covering for all our sins, no matter whom they affect, no matter how terrible they might be.

But as we bathe in that precious flood, what are we looking for? Is it enough for us to feel better about ourselves and have our relationships with others restored? Or do we want something more?

Yes, let's want something more. Let's lay hold on how good God is and rejoice in forgiveness He brings. Let's seek to be bound ever closer to Him, so we reject all mixed devotion and joyfully worship Him alone. May we never take His covenant love for granted, but always return Him the thanks He deserves.

Leprosy was a sign of confusion, corruption, and death. But we have been cleansed from the leprosy of our sin, we are healed every day by the blood of Jesus and given wholeness, purity, and life. This is the gift of God through His crucified and risen Son.

People of God, remember your baptism. Remember His blood that cleanses you still. Together, let us all return to the feet of Jesus and give Him unending thanks and praise. Amen.

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