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.