Hosea 1

I wonder how many households have a baby-name book? Quite a lot I suspect, because even if prospective parents don’t buy one themselves, they are likely to get given one. Chantal and I were solemnly presented with one soon after getting married – clearly ten months was seen as too long to wait.

Books like this are a mine of information – they tell you that Jonathan means ‘Gift of God’ and that Jemima was one of the daughters of Job after he emerged from his troubles. Names aren’t always significant, I once came unstuck at a baptism when I preached on the baby’s name – and found the parents had just chosen it because it sounded nice.

In some cultures, names carry great weight. My wife knew an Indian girl whose parents had wished for a boy, so they called her ‘Not wanted’. Imagine growing up being called that. But then ‘Not wanted’ came to Christ, discovered that God wanted her, and changed her name to Rebecca.

I rather feel for the children in today’s reading from Joel chapter 1. The Old Testament prophets often gave their children symbolic names. Isaiah’s son rejoiced in the name ‘Maher shalal hash baz’ –  presumably ‘baz’ for short. But we probably shouldn’t imagine his mum calling out ‘Swift to the plunder, come in, it’s time for supper’ – these prophetic names might have been extras, in the way that eldest sons today are sometimes given an ancestral family name as their middle name.

The point is the meaning. So in v.4 Jezreel refers to the place of a famous massacre, and on account of this the government will fall. And then poor little Lo-Ruhamah means ‘no pity’ because God’s judgement is coming on Israel. ‘Lo Ammi’ in v.9 means ‘not my people’ because God says ‘you are not my people and I am not your God’. It’s kind of like a broken family, the names are all wrong, they don’t speak of love because God is saying that his people have decided walk away from his family.

Last week we heard from Amos about the injustice in Israel, how the people had turned away through cruelty. Hosea’s point is different. It’s about faithfulness. God’s people have been unfaithful to him by turning to idols – and the astonishing about Hosea is that he enacts this by marrying a prostitute. He demonstrates what happening through his own family life.

The prophet marries a ‘wife of whoredom’ as our translation rather quaintly puts it. After a while she gets bored and returns to her old ways. Hosea has to go after her and pay a ransom to get her back.

As it explains in v.2 ‘the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord’. Quite often the Old Testament prophets use the picture of a failed, adulterous marriage to describe how Israel’s relationship with God has broken down. God had loved his people, committed himself to them, cared for them, but they had run off after other gods. Can we imagine how that might feel? Can we see how that speaks of a great passion and an immense pain in the heart of God?

These passages aren’t easy for us to read in the twenty-first century. We might notice that God is always imagined to be the man in the relationship, so unfaithful Israel is always a woman. And in that patriarchal society sometimes love and faithfulness are in view, at other times the woman is more like the property of the man.

But if we can get past that cultural setting, we’ll see that Hosea has a lot to say to us. Firstly he speaks of the passion of God. In this book, God is a husband, a lover. God is betrayed, let down, but love makes him forgive, makes him vulnerable. Hosea shows us that God passionately loves us Jesus told us the parable of the lost sheep – the shepherd going after the lost. But arguably Hosea goes a step further.

In our culture, God is often imagined as a distant, headmasterly figure. Many people think of God as strict but fair, respected from afar, enforcing his rules through a system of prefects. He isn’t that engaged with day to day life but if you are summoned to his study you tremble with fear.

That is not the God of the Bible. Yes he is the awesome Creator, the judge of all the earth, and you must take off your sandals in his presence. But God also loves intensely with a great passion. He burns with desire for his people, he longs after the lost, he hates injustice because he loves so much.

Secondly, God wants to be with his people, he wishes to be Lord of our lives, he desires to know us and for us to know him. That’s why worship and prayer are so important – they are not sacrificial offerings to please a distant deity. They are given to us for a different reason.

Prayer and worship spend time in God’s presence, build our connection with him. Sometimes they are a duty – and we need duty to carry us through the dry periods – but they can be a joy because through worship and prayer we encounter God. It is so important to make them a priority.

Thirdly, because he loves us so much God hates it when we turn away to idols. How does it feel when you love someone but know they are giving their love to someone else? And when that someone else will not respect her, will not treat her well, but will ultimately let her down and cast her aside? That’s how God feels about idolatry – he knows that he alone can give us life but sees us giving our loyalty to lesser things.

Do we do that? Well I haven’t noticed gilded statues on the street corners of Sherston and I don’t imagine many of you have a shrine to the household gods back at home. Perhaps when on holiday someone might invite us to visit and join in the ceremonies at the local temple…Perhaps we might want to find out a bit about the RE curriculum – does learning about other religions ever turn into participating in their worship?

But idols are much more than graven images. An idol is anything which takes the place in our lives which rightly belongs to God. We commit idolatry when we place anything else at the centre, where God’s throne ought to be. The classic three examples are money, sex, and power. They often become idols, and people devote their lives to their pursuit.

Yet idols can be much more subtle. Money sex and power are blatant, have obvious potential to corrupt, whereas other idols can be harder to see. We can learn to recognise them though, by asking ourselves some questions: What are the good things to which we might be tempted to give too much importance? For often an idol is not bad in itself – it’s just that we’ve put it in God’s throne. It can be a good thing in the wrong place.

What do we pour resources into? Where does all the money go? … When we think about praying, what is it that pops into our minds instead? … What are the unquestioned assumptions in our society, the rules and structures and organisations that everyone sees as a good thing? …     What are you not allowed to speak against? What would we think most odd if someone said ‘that’s an idol’?

These are questions that take some time to discern. The temptations each of us face will be very different. So I suggest we could take some time in prayer reflecting on this and asking God to show us if there is any risk of idolatry in our lives. I did come up with some examples.

For instance, family. How can love for your family be an idolatry? It’s remarkable how many people say that their kids are their world, even their religion. That’s not a healthy expectation to put on them – the children won’t be able to live up to it. When we seek from any person the security, love and meaning that can only be found in God, then that is idolatry.

I’ve seen marriages fall apart under the strain of working long hours and shuttling kids here and there in the pursuit of the best education. Community can be like the Emperor claiming his pinch of incense when there is an overwhelming pressure for everyone to join in. Tolerance can be an effective way of shutting out the claims of Christ.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that family, education, community, tolerance are bad things. Far from it – all are positive assets to our society and God’s gifts in creation. But just as the people in Hosea’s time took wheat and cows and made gods out of them, so people today can take the best things and enthrone them in the place of God. Our ultimate security and identity should not be in our jobs or houses, but in God. Only God can be in God’s place, only he can bear that weight of being the foundation for the rest of our lives. If anything else, anyone else, no matter how good, occupies that place, that thing or person will eventually crumble under the load and let us down.

What then can we do? We could tear the idols down. They did that from time to time in the Old Testament – but it never lasted long. Something else always popped up in their place. And so it will, if God is not in the centre. That is the way to deal with idolatry, that is the way to ensure that everything occupies its proper place. If God is the foundation, then all the good things can be built up on that base. If we worship and trust in God alone, if we find our security and meaning in him, then everything else can be enjoyed in its right way. Let us pray

 

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Summer fruit – Amos 8

Last week Jonathan and I made a summer pudding. It’s the first one I’ve ever made, it was wonderful – a bit sloppy but packed full of sweet juicy delicious berries. Summer fruit is such a treat and a blessing.

It was in the time of Amos too. If you had a basket of summer fruit, like the one he describes in verse 1 of our reading, then it meant you were doing alright. If you could afford to spare land for fruit bushes, and the time to tend them, then you were comfortably off, not scrabbling to get by. Those who were poor would use all their patch of land to grow the essentials of life: wheat and barley. They couldn’t aspire to fruit.

So when the 8th century BC prophet Amos describes Israel as being like a basket of summer fruit, it tells us a bit about that society. We know from history that the Northern Kingdom in those days was doing well. The neighbouring superpowers, Egypt and Assyria, were too preoccupied with internal issues to cause problems. Israel’s King Jeroboam had crushed his old enemy, the Syrians. There was a peace dividend: stability gave rise to wealth and an affluent society.

But wealth brings its own dangers. In his book on the English Countryside Oliver Rackham relates how the most difficult times for nature, the times of greatest habitat loss, have not been when everyone is poor and scraping a living. You might think desperately poor peasants would cut down woods and burn heaths in an attempt to use every last bit of land. But actually the times of greatest ecological danger have been the times of national wealth – when trees have been felled for grandiose building projects and industrial charcoal.

When people have wealth, they often want more. Money can easily accumulate in the hands of a few. Across many societies, historic and present-day, we see the same pattern: an increasing division between the haves and the have-nots. Many benefit from rising levels of income but some are left behind. It was like that in Amos’ time and he speaks up with the passion of God for the poor.

God is a God of justice and he sees. In verse 5 God hears the merchants saying ‘When will the Sabbath be over so that we can offer wheat for sale?’ Sounds familiar? In the UK Sunday trading laws were recently under pressure. Large stores said changes would raise another £1.5 billion. But for whom? Who gets to share it? And at what cost? Shop assistants feared they would be forced to work all hours, and not have a special day with the family. In the end Conservative backbenchers, Labour and the SNP decided it was too great a cost for society.

In Amos’ time the traders wanted the religious festival to end so that they could make money, especially by cheating the poor. V.5 describes a market scene – the merchant is measuring out the grain but his jug is a small measure. When the customer comes to pay and weighs out silver on the scales, the weight the merchant uses is overheavy – the customers are paying more for less. In the end the poor resort to selling their children into slavery, which is what verse 6 describes, in order to feed themselves on the poor quality sweepings of the wheat.

Nowadays those who have less can often lose more because of their lack of economic power. For instance, the Citizens Advice Bureau recently found that people who buy their electricity with a coin operated meter are much more likely to be on low incomes, but spend about £200 a year more than people paying by direct debit. Of course, they’re paying for predictability, but it doesn’t help them escape the poverty trap.

Part of the answer will be for those of us who are better off to use our spending power responsibly. The decisions we make can change the situation for people many miles away. Have you ever researched your favourite clothes shops online to find out what their ethics are? Would you change your shop on that basis? What are conditions like for the people who make our electronic goods? Traidcraft are currently running a campaign about some FTSE 100 copper miners and the impact of their operations on local villages. Which company we invest in matters.

God cares about all these things. It may sound like politics, but politics comes down to everyday life, and so does faith. God is a God of justice who longs for people to be treated fairly. The picture of God that the Bible reveals to us is a God of love, and love hates it when people are hurt. Jesus shows us the passion of God when he cleanses the temple of the cheating traders.

Sometimes cleansing is what is needed. Sometimes the situation is so bad that society has to start again with a clean slate. That’s why Amos describes a basket of fruit – it has a double meaning. Yes, fruit represents affluence. But in Hebrew the word for fruit also sounds like the word for ‘end’. And as God says in verse 2, the end has come upon my people Israel. God will not pass by their injustice any longer.

Verse 8 may be referring to an earthquake, as the ground rises and falls like a river. Verse 9 sounds like very much like an eclipse. Amos sees these as signs of upheaval; natural phenomena which act as symbols of disaster to come. Just thirty years later, Assyria invaded Israel and Amos’ words were fulfilled. What seemed so unlikely came to pass.

Their religion did not protect them. Instead, in verse 10, their feasts were turned into mourning and their songs into lamentation. Elsewhere in his book, Amos tells us that outward religion flourished at that time. The people loved their seasonal celebrations. Feast days were well attended. The places of worship were well maintained. But it was only an outward form.

Amos criticises religion which makes no difference to its adherents’ behaviour. Real faith changes lives. The Israelites thought they were in a privileged position before God – instead their special relationship brought special responsibility too. Anyone who claims to follow the God of the Bible must take his passion for justice seriously.

If we do not, we run the same risk that Amos describes in v.11. There will be a famine, not of bread or water, but of the Word of the Lord. Amos says that anyone who persistently hardens their conscience eventually loses it. A society that always ignores God’s voice eventually loses the ability to hear it, and perhaps even loses the people who will proclaim it.

So our Old Testament reading challenges us to take justice seriously. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had seemed wealthy, at peace. But that affluence masked deep divisions in society, and without God’s protection it collapsed. Amos warns us that nations reap what they sow. Wealth will not benefit our society if not everyone has a stake in it. People who feel excluded turn to the extremes and a divided society cannot stand.

But there is hope here. Why would Amos write if he did not hope that things could change? Why bother if disaster could not be averted? Whenever the Bible speaks of judgement it does so so that its hearers may repent. It is too late for Amos’ original audience, but who knows how future generations might respond? Let us then ask God to show us how we can make a better, fairer world.

The Good Samaritan

If you were to do some market research on the parables of Jesus, I wonder which would be the most popular? Imagine doing this as the preparation for the TV gameshow Pointless – asking various people in the street which parable of Jesus they can think of. I’d be willing to bet that the Parable of the Good Samaritan would be best known, closely followed by the Lost Sheep.

And I expect most people would be able to tell you how they understand the parable – it’s about helping people isn’t it? Be kind to your neighbour, look after the vulnerable person. Don’t be like the priest and the Levite who walked on by, instead do your bit and be a Good Samaritan.

Of course, there may be excuses. Both the Priest and the Levite worked in the temple and might not have wanted to touch what might be a dead body for fear it would keep them from their duties – although the commentators do say that an exception could be made for a neglected body – such as might be in this situation. Perhaps those who passed by did so hurriedly, fearing it might be a trap. Although I imagine it would be pretty easy to tell if the man was really injured or not. Whatever the excuses, many people understand this story as an encouragement to help whoever is in need.

So what might stop people from helping the needy today? I saw an article on the BBC website recently about a man in India called Kanhaiya Lal, desperately calling out for help as motorists swerve past him. The bodies of his wife and daughter lay next to the mangled motorbike on which they had all been travelling before the accident. Apparently it is a well-known Indian phenomenon – nobody wants to help because if you do the police assume you’re responsible for the accident. And if you take a victim to hospital you might end up being billed for the treatment.

In other words, the system there is stacked against people. Can we see examples in our society where there are similar disincentives to help? Martin Luther King asked the same question about this parable. He said: ‘On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed.

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar, it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.’

It’s easy to see the problems in another country. But what about us? What stops us helping? Our response in a crisis is determined by our day to day responses. Great courage is formed by small acts of regular bravery. Compassion in disaster is the result of a habit formed by many small acts of kindness. So what are the challenges we need to overcome daily?

Perhaps there is a fear of being defrauded – of giving a pound or two to an imposter or paying over the odds for a tea towel from a door to door salesman. But if so, what have we lost? Just a couple of pounds and our pride. Maybe sometimes we just have to be willing to risk taking the hit.

We can sometimes fear being trapped. I once donated by text message to one of these chuggers – just out of curiosity really. Big mistake. My mobile number was then on someone’s list. I don’t want to give to unworthy causes or to charities that are going to hassle me – so I make sure that my charitable giving isn’t impulsive and erratic but prayerfully chosen. That seems to be in the spirit of the Good Samaritan

Organisations and charities are one thing. Responding to individual personal need is another. Many of us are happy to help someone out but feel very wary about being drawn in and being depended upon. What to do about the woman who is so needy that you could drink tea with her for two hours every day and her need for company or support would still not be met?

In those situations there’s a case for the wider community to share the care rather than just one or two individuals. And it’s odd how occasionally I come across a situation where someone is virtually their neighbour’s carer – and yet that vulnerable person has family living in the same village. Love asks the question: what is really going to help this person, not just what makes this person feel better. Love seeks a long term solution not a short term fix.

For instance, one could give a hundred pounds to the man who struggles to pay his rent. Perhaps that would be a one off. Perhaps if he has ongoing budgeting issues then getting some professional help like Christian Against Poverty would be the right thing.

When we get into the practicalities of helping, the best way to do it depends on the situation. But the important thing is to do what we can. The Priest and the Levite put themselves first, asking ‘what does this mean for me if I stop and help?’ The Samaritan asked the question: ‘if I don’t stop and help, what does this mean for him?’ This is a concrete example of what Jesus meant when he spoke of dying to self and following him. And it’s wonderful to see that in many of our villages there is an amazing community which looks out for neighbours and helps those in need. You could say that the parable of the Good Samaritan is being put into action all around us.

But – it’s not actually a parable about helping people. Firstly, to be a little pedantic, it’s not really a parable. A parable talks about the Kingdom using an analogy, a picture, but this is an instructional story with a point.

Secondly, and much more importantly, the setting of the story is a lawyer’s question. If Jesus had wanted to say that your neighbour you should help is anyone, even the hated Samaritan he could have told a story a bit like this:

There was once a man who lived alone near the road to Jericho. One dark night he heard someone calling for help. He ventured out, found an injured priest, brought him back in and cared for him. The next night he again heard shouts of pain. Fearing robbers he nonetheless went into the darkness, brought back a wounded Levite, bandaged his wounds and in the morning set him on his way. The next night he again heard calls. Going out he saw it was a Samaritan. Yet he brought the man into his own house, bandaged him, and cared for him until he was well.

That would be a story about helping anyone in need, even the dreaded Samaritan. And if it had been Jesus no doubt he would have told it better. Yet that’s not remotely the story Jesus told. In response to the lawyer’s question ‘Who is my neighbour’ Jesus told a story about being helped. About letting others help you.

It’s assumed that the injured man is a Jew. He receives help from the person who ought to hate him. If Jesus were telling it today it might be about an Israeli being helped by a Palestinian; an Indian by a Pakistani, a Northern Irish Protestant by a Roman Catholic. An Englishman by a…fill in the gap…traveller? A radical Muslim? Nigel Farage?! Fill in the gap – by whom would you find it most difficult to be helped?

It is often harder to receive help than it is to give it. I remember in the weeks after Jonathan was born, several members of the church tried to give us money to help with expenses. I always refused – we didn’t actually need the money but there was a bit of pride in there too. Until one day a lovely lady gave me £75 with the instruction to get a hotel room for the night so I could stay down in Bristol near Chantal rather than travel up and down each day. Up till that point I’d been rather stingy and felt it was a waste to spend money on hotels, but I was so exhausted I did – and it made such a difference. I’m so grateful to her, not for so much covering the costs but because her gift set me free to see that it was ok to be kind to ourselves, to spend money on a good night’s sleep. Receiving can be transformative.

Receiving help creates community and blessing for all. It overcomes prejudice and helps us to see one another as individuals. I remember the kind man who stopped his car to help when he saw me struggling to carry a SuperSer into Stanton Church on Christmas Eve – and he was a gypsy.

And above all, receiving help points us to the grace of God. Remember the very first question the lawyer asked: ‘What must I do to be saved?’ He wants to act, he wants to be in charge, to be the one helping and doing good. Instead he gets given a story about someone receiving help. The would-be benefactor is cast as the helpless recipient.

How closely this chimes with Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God. We must receive it as a gift, we enter it like children – as those who can only receive. God reaches out in love to the repentant sinner, he calls us to accept his forgiveness, invite his grace into our lives. We have to come to God as those in need, receiving from him, receiving from others, and then the love with which we have been blessed can overflow to those around.

Humility before God and listening to children

Children do say the funniest things. Last week I heard of a child who said: ‘Mummy, does this Brexit thing mean that we’re not going to be able to play in the Euros any more?’ Mind you, given the England football team’s result against Iceland, that might not have been a bad thing!

Sometimes the things children say make you go ‘Aw, bless’. Other times they go straight to the heart of the matter, cutting through adult waffle and really making you think. One little boy was asking his mother about the refugees, why can’t we take them all in? His mother tried to explain about pressure on services and that kind of thing. All the boy said was: ‘But then who will help us when we’re in trouble?’

In today’s reading from 2 Kings, it’s a young girl who speaks with faith in God’s power. The powerful men all around her don’t know what to do, but she turns to God and speaks up. It’s remarkable when you think about it: verse 2 tells us that she had been stolen from her parents and forced into slavery in a foreign land. It sounds far removed from us but 3000 years later the same thing is still happening today in Syria.

You might well imagine that the young slave girl would be delighted to see her captor suffer. Naaman, the Syrian General, is the one who has masterminded the invasions of Israel, he is to blame for her plight. Instead, this anonymous girl seems to have forgiven him – or at least is ready to help – and with a straightforward humility suggests a solution.

We can learn a lot from children if we are prepared to listen. Particularly in church, it’s easy to think that our duty is to educate the next generation in the faith. Which it is, but that means so much more than pumping them full of facts. It’s helping them to develop their own relationship with God, grow in their spirituality, listen for themselves to what God might be saying to them.

And when God speaks to them, when they want to tell us their thoughts and views, it’s important that we listen. I find that this needs time: if I ask children straight out ‘what do you think of so and so’, I might not get an answer, or if I do a very quick one.

But if I sit alongside that child, if I’m with her when she’s playing, if I take the time to read her a book, and am there for her, then she starts talking about what’s on her mind and all sorts of important things come out. Children need to be able to talk to grown-ups which means that we need to make the time so they have the opportunity to do so.

It’s obvious that the two kings in the story haven’t really listened. The Syrian king gets the wrong end of the stick. His letter to Israel’s King, in v. 6 reads: ‘I have sent you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’ No mention of the Lord, no mention of the prophet!

It throws Israel’s king into a panic. ‘See how our bigger neighbour is trying to pick yet another fight with me! Am I God, to cure a man of leprosy?’ No, you’re not. No-one’s saying you should be. You’ve said only God can do this. So why not turn to God and seek his help? Why wait until the prophet sends word to you himself?

I went to a lecture last week about the 1000th anniversary of the Battle of Sherston. The speaker described how in the year 1016 the Vikings had done so much damage in England that the Anglo-Saxons were desperate. According to the lecturer: ‘they had even resorted to prayer’. Goodness me, things must have been bad. As if prayer was the last ditch thing, the only hope. But how often is that true for us? How often do I try to solve a problem on my own, think it through, work hard at it, use whatever diplomacy I have – and only turn to prayer when I’m not seeing results? We need to do all that, yes, but turn to God first. And often there will be a solution. It may not even depend upon us.

For as Elisha says, there is a prophet in Israel. But the God he serves works in an unexpected way. His favour cannot be bought or commanded, instead he reaches out in grace to the humble.

Stormin’ Naaman heads off with his cavalcade to the prophet’s house. He brings with him ten talents of silver and 6000 shekels of gold, a king’s ransom. We take health for granted, don’t we, but would pay anything for it when it is gone.

Naaman seeks to buy healing, but he also turns up, in v.9, with his horses and chariots, the heavy weapons of the ancient world. It’s as if one of Putin’s generals said ‘If you heal me I’ll give you this cheque for a million pounds’ – but he’s also parked his tanks on the lawn with their gun barrels pointing at the house.

 

Elisha is not intimated nor impressed. In fact he’s downright rude. He sends out a minion with a curt message: ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be part of society again.’ Naaman is furious. He almost fails the test of humility. Were it not for his faithful retainers, who are willing to challenge him, Naaman would have stormed off. How important it is that those in power don’t surround themselves with flattering lackeys but capable people who are prepared to ask the difficult question.

 

With their persuasion, Naaman does go to the Jordan. He dips himself, one, two, three, four, five, six – nothing yet, and seven times. As he throws the water out of his eyes and the blur clears he looks down, and wonder of wonders he is healed! The God of Israel has power to heal. Power to heal even a Syrian general.

 

So what does it all mean? To start with, this is a story about humility. As a story it works in any culture: listen to unexpected wisdom, especially from the powerless; be open to God; do not stand on your dignity; be humble in recognising your need; be ready to do the strange and apparently pointless deed.

 

It is a story about humility, but a particular sort of humility. This is the humility which enables us to receive God’s salvation as a gift. That’s how it must come. Naaman comes laden with gold and silver to buy healing, but he cannot. Naaman’s servants recognise their master wants to do something to gain healing for himself, but he cannot: ‘Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult would you not have done it?’ Later on Naaman offers presents to Elisha, who refuses. God will be no man’s debtor because salvation is a gift.

 

It can only come to us as a gift, because if we try and win it or earn it we’re not trusting in the God who gives, but instead trusting in ourselves. Putting our faith in ourselves and our own efforts means we’re not putting our faith in God. For forgiveness and eternal life we have to rely on him.

 

I knew a man who struggled with this. He had started coming to church around the time of his daughter’s wedding. He did the Foundations course and grew a lot in his understanding. But one thing bothered him: he was a capable man, he led his part of a big company. He was a problem solver, used to getting things done. It took him a long time to realise that faith isn’t like that, that God gives us salvation through the cross. That it is a gift, not earnt nor bought. He said to me: ‘I wanted to do it for myself, but I have to realise that I can’t’. Which is of course incredibly liberating once you accept it.

 

Isn’t what happens to Naaman rather like baptism? It is a picture to us of God’s love and grace. Remember that you have to be humble to enter God’s Kingdom – Jesus said like a little child. It’s only when we let go of striving and entrust ourselves to God’s mercy that we really find assurance.

 

And finally, because God’s saving, healing power is freely offered in Christ, it can be for anyone. You don’t qualify because of your race, background or education. You qualify because God gives. Here we begin to see God’s promise to Abraham coming true, that through him all generations shall be blessed. For Jesus Naaman is an example of God reaching out to the foreigner, he says: there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet but only Naaman the Syrian was healed.

 

Naaman was healed, restored, saved. He was saved not because he was rich, or powerful or successful. He wasn’t a good man nor one with strong faith. But eventually, in humility, he obeyed God’s command. And that’s what God wants from us and from our world: obedience to the way of salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord.