Below is the sermon I preached in my first Sunday back in the pulpit for 8 months. Retelling the story of Naaman's healing from 2 Kings 5 gave me the opportunity to reflect more deeply on my own journey of healing--and the tables around which I hope it makes a difference.
As Naaman climbed onto the examining table, he put up a brave front. But inside, he was a mess. The king’s own physicians were taking a look at his case, and today they would give him their diagnosis. He wasn’t sure how it could happen. To him. He’d started wondering when the numbness in his fingers made him keep spilling his wine at meals. He started worrying when he’d noticed the white blotches on his skin.
The doctor came in as some doctors do--with as much self-importance as any army general. He strode into the small room and brought his professionally distant eyes to rest on the General. He spoke in short staccato sentences, like camels sprinting.
He had conferred with his colleagues about Naaman’s case. Their conclusions were unanimous. It was leprosy. The doctor went on for a brief time about the symptoms and the pattern Naaman could expect them to progress...and then, as if he'd just given Naaman the weekend weather forecast, he stifled a yawn and walked from the room. Naaman slipped down from the table and did his best to get dressed again. The numbness in his fingers was nothing now compared with the dullness of his mind, trying to comprehend the diagnosis--the death sentence--he'd just received. From now on, he knew, nothing was ever going to be the same.
Naaman shuffled out of the doctor's office and made his way home. He saw the table his wife had already set for the evening meal. The flowers she'd put at the center of the table had petals like a baby’s skin. Their beauty seemed to mock him. Like them, he'd once been full of life and color...as he thought of how old and withered he was now, he cursed the flowers: "you'll be shriveled soon enough!" he hissed, knocking over the vase and stomping out the front door. As the door slammed shut, it occurred to him that he'd never eat another meal around that table. The thought cut his mind like a blade, and he suddenly wished his mind would go numb again.
Somehow in some military campaign or other, as he had collected the spoils of war, Naaman had also picked up the disease that made even battle-hardened warriors shrink in horror. He wondered which of his enemies may have avenged their defeat by placing the seeds of the disease on his skin...One thing was sure: from now on, nothing about his life was ever going to be the same.
As Naaman made his way to the palace, a servant girl in his house raced to Naaman's wife Amira. She described what had happened upon the General's brief return home. "By Rimmon!" Amira exclaimed, "it must be leprosy. Oh, that the gods would spare him such a terrible fate!”
The girl's eyes widened and she exclaimed: “If only the general could go to my land, there the prophet could heal him.”
“Who is this prophet?” Amira demanded. She was desperate to save her husband, even if it meant pursuing some crazy slave girl’s story. As the young girl described the acts of healing she’d seen at the hands of a man she called Elisha, Amira grew more and more convinced it was worth a try.
So Amira dispatched another servant to fetch the General with the news. Hope wasn’t lost. There was reason to believe that the answers to their prayers lay in Israel. Even as she sent the servant to get her husband, Amira suspected one thing for sure: from this point on, nothing about their life would ever be the same.
Meanwhile, the General had entered the palace with his usual air of dignity. Suddenly, however, as he approached the king’s council room, Naaman found himself facing four soldiers. They were blocking his passage to the king. Naaman could see beyond them to the table where other senior officers were conferring quietly with the king. As the highest ranking officer in the land, for years Naaman’s place had been at the king’s right hand, but to his alarm he saw that in his place sat his main rival, Umar. Umar seemed to be in the middle of telling a joke, and had his hand resting gently on the king’s arm.
It suddenly dawned on Naaman. He had gone to the king’s own physicians. They would have notified the king of the diagnosis as soon as it was confirmed. Naaman couldn’t believe it. Was he under arrest? Was he being ushered home, or somewhere else? As the guards ushered him away, he watched the king’s council table fade from his view. It was the place he’d sat for all these years, the place where he’d once held such authority. From now on, Naaman realized again, nothing about his life was ever going to be the same.
At that moment the servant Amira had sent came running breathlessly toward the group. “Master, the lady of the house says you must go to Israel, for the cure for your condition exists there.”
Without hearing another word, Naaman shouted over his shoulder to the king, “Sire, the cure! It’s in Israel!”
The king, who had already been wrestling with his conscience for kicking Naaman so abruptly to the curb, murmured instructions to one of his money men. “Give him what he needs.”
Naaman, sensing his opportunity, took charge: “I shall go immediately to the nation of Israel and find where they are hiding this cure. If they won’t reveal it for money, I’ll use whatever means I must!”
With such a small traveling party, the journey to Israel didn’t take long. That was good. Because this time his mission was personal. Find the cure. Whatever it took. If he could just accomplish his mission, he was sure that nothing about his suddenly helter-skelter life would ever be the same.
The chariots pulled up outside the modest mud dwelling where the king of Israel lived. Naaman shook his head at the plainness of this king’s home. How in the world a back-water crew like these Hebrews had found a cure for leprosy was beyond him. He was reminded of the time early in his military career when he’d found a bag of jewels as he was plundering a little fishing town called Joppa. He’d taken over castles that had less loot than that little fisherman’s hut. Where the jewels had come from he never knew. But a few well placed “offerings” of those Joppa Jewels had certainly gone a long way toward helping Naaman climb the military ladder. Yes, the cure to his leprosy being in Israel was like finding jewels in Joppa.
Naaman pulled up his chariot at the door of the palace and nodded at the courier who rode with him. The courier dismounted from the chariot and carried the king’s letter to the door of the palace.
After 20 minutes of waiting in the intense sunshine, Naaman decided to seize the initiative. Letters are nice, he thought, but sometimes the only language someone like Joram understands is the kind delivered at the end of a cudgel.
As Naaman entered the palace, king Joram was sitting at the foot of his own throne. His clothes were in tatters. The letter from the King of Syria was on the floor a few feet away, where Joram had dropped it. Joram was howling hysterically, looking toward the heavens and shouting in the strange, percussive tongue of the Hebrews.
“What’s the matter with him?!” Naaman demanded. One of Joram’s advisers stepped reluctantly forward. He says "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me."
“So much for the negotiating table,” Naaman thought. And he lunged toward the groveling king. He grabbed the king’s hair and pulled him to his feet. “If it’s a quarrel you want, it’s a quarrel you’ll get! I need the cure to this blasted disease! I know you have it! I won’t leave until I get it!”
The king folded up like a tent flap, leaving Naaman holding him off the ground by his hair. If Naaman could not prevail upon this poor fool, if he could not persuade him to give him what he needed, Naaman realized that the rest of his party would simply leave Israel without him. He would then be not only a man without a rank, he would be a man without a country. As the king writhed around like a fish on the end of a line, Naaman realized that with or without a cure, nothing in his life was ever going to be the same.
In the midst of the confusion, a voice cried out. It was a high, thin voice, the voice of a child. “The prophet says ‘why, king, have you torn your robes? let the General come to me so that he may know there is a prophet in Israel.’” Naaman let go of the king, who landed on the floor with a dull thud.
Within minutes, Naaman and his delegation were kicking up dust as they sped their horses and chariots toward the prophet’s home.
If Israel’s king slept in a humble palace, their prophet stayed in an outright shack. Naaman halfway thought the ramshackle structure may fall to the ground from the vibration of the horse’s hooves.
Before he could send anyone inside, a young boy emerged from the shanty and declared: The prophet says, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean."
It was late in the day, and Naaman was feeling the cure slip from his grasp like sand out of a clenched fist. He couldn’t figure out for the life of him how to deal with these Hebrews. When all he had to do was defeat them in battle, he was fine, but without knowing precisely what he was looking for, he now felt helpless. For the first time since his reprieve in the palace that morning, Naaman began to lose hope. "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?"
He rode furiously in the direction of a grove of trees a quarter mile back. He needed some time to pull himself together. If he couldn’t think of anything else to do, he could at least come back in the morning and avenge this humiliation. He’d show the whole of Israel their prophet--at the end of his sword.
The last traces of light remained in the sky when the servants finally got their tent and table assembled. They had been mostly quiet since Naaman stormed off, speaking only enough to get their tasks accomplished. They knew and Naaman knew that if no cure were found, their orders were to abandon the general and return to the palace to resume their duties.
As they began to eat their evening meal around the table, they were shocked to see Naaman entering the servant’s tent. He not only came in, but he settled himself down at their table. The servants all stole glances at one another. What was going on that this mighty man had taken a place at the servant’s table? It was Hasim, the youngest of their number, who first spoke.
"Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?"
It was half question, half command. The young servant must have known the risk of speaking in such a way to the famously hot-headed General. But he figured they’d all be leaving the old man in this god-forsaken place tomorrow anyway, and he might as well try to help the guy while he could.
As abruptly as he’d come in, Naaman stood up to leave. He didn’t say a word to the kid who’d spoken up. He didn’t acknowledge anyone, except to murmur something cryptic about jewels from Joppa.
The general made a beeline for the muddy river. He’d determined that if he didn’t come out clean, he’d simply not come out. The murky waters of the Jordan would be the battleground where Naaman was finally defeated.
He sloshed around in the half light of dusk, sprinkling himself seven times as the prophet had instructed. He looked around, wondering if anything was happening. He didn’t feel any different. But the servants on the shore were sure looking at him differently. They stared, speechless. Their master’s skin was smooth and without blemish. Like he was young again. Salvation had indeed been found in Israel.
Naaman knew, of course, that after a sickness of such magnitude and a healing so miraculous, nothing in his life would ever be the same.
As you all know by now, this experience caused Naaman to become a believer in Israel’s God. It was a commitment that affected every part of his life.
His new faith brought him encouragement whenever he had to climb back onto the doctor’s table--though he occasionally still got butterflies when the doctor ordered extra tests, he found praying to Yahweh to be a terrific comfort. Even so, he never did go back to the king’s physician.
His new faith brought him peace as he sat at his employer’s table--realizing that he didn’t have to compete with Umar, but could gradually develop a relationship of trust with him instead. Naaman no longer insisted on sitting at the king’s right hand during every meeting, and soon the privilege of that spot was diminished, while the cooperation around the table was greatly improved.
Naaman’s new faith even affected his approach on the occasions he had to sit at the negotiating table--he found himself listening more and speaking less. He found he did not lose his temper as frequently or resort to name-calling so quickly (he still had a problem with this last one--calling people names had been a talent of his for ages, and even with a new faith and a new lease on life, there are certain things it’s just hard to give up!)
The other place his new faith was on display was at the servant’s table. It wasn’t a place he’d have been caught dead before his conversion, but after living with Yahweh for a while, Naaman found himself sitting at the servant’s table more often, hearing what they had to say, coming to understand how they saw the world, occasionally even helping them with some of the household tasks.
But nowhere was Naaman’s faith more clear than at his family table.
It was there, as they prayed in the name of Yahweh, that Naaman recognized every meal and every moment as a jewel, like the priceless collection he’d found in Joppa so long ago. He came to see the table where he broke bread with his family as a table of grace. Full of the bread of heavenly benediction. With a cup to quench their deepest thirst. It was in the moments around that table, taking bread and cup together, that Naaman felt most fully restored. As if Yahweh were actually present with them, celebrating their restoration as the whole, holy, family of God.