Monday, February 13, 2012

A Sermon On Obedience (From Someone Who Hates to Be Obedient!)

“A Simple Command”
II Kings 5:1-14
February 12, 2012

User friendly.  That’s a catch phrase we hear a lot of, isn’t it?  It seems to have been coined about the same time that our technology began to advance at breakneck speed.
Computers, smart phones, ipods, GPS, etc. were all supposed to make our lives easier and simpler, but sometimes trying to figure out the technology that will make our lives easier can drive you to distraction if the technology at hand isn’t user friendly.
The phrase user friendly is no longer used solely in reference to technology however.  I often hear this phrase in church circles.  How can we make worship more user friendly?  Are the bulletins user friendly?  Are they clear?  Would a visitor to our church have to do a lot of searching and scrambling to find pages and follow along with the service?  Can someone come to our church who isn’t Presbyterian or who isn’t churched at all and figure out what we’re doing?  Are we user friendly? 
It’s important to ask these questions, because more and more people church shop.  People don’t necessarily stay in the same denomination all their lives.  A family might be Presbyterian in one town, move to a new town and join the Methodist church because there isn’t a Presbyterian congregation close by.  Another family might attend the Baptist church instead of the Episcopalian because the Baptists have a better youth program.  Maybe someone who visits our congregation will never have gone to church before.  Which makes it even important that they have help.  So is our bulletin user friendly?  Is our worship service user friendly?  Are we user friendly?
User friendly helps us keep up.  Simple commands help us keep pace with our technology that seems to literally change from day to day.  Simple commands can help us in our churches. Simple commands and user friendly are ideas that are with us to stay. 
Even though the phrase user friendly was perhaps only coined in the last decades, the idea has been around for a long time.  Our Old Testament passage today deals with user friendly instructions.  In Second Kings the instructions given by Elisha to Naaman were vividly simple: go to the Jordan and wash seven times and you will be clean.  Naaman was a great man, a man of high calling in Aram or Syria as we know it.  But though he had proven himself to be a mighty warrior, he was plagued with leprosy.  The word leprosy in the Biblical context covers a variety of skin diseases, so it’s almost impossible to know the true nature of Naaman’s skin disorder.  Whatever Naaman’s actual skin disease was, according to one Old Testament scholar his disease carried a social stigma and was associated with death.  So Naaman suffered.  On one of the Syrian army’s many raids on Israel, a young servant girl had been taken captive and was now serving Naaman’s wife.
It was this young girl who sent Naaman on his search for healing.  She told her mistress about the prophet Elisha who lived in Samaria.  For whatever reason Naaman’s high standing did not keep him from listening to the advice of a lowly servant girl, and he set off to Samaria to find this prophet.  Considering the fact that the Arameans had defeated Israel, Naaman knew he could not just waltz across Israel’s borders unannounced and expect to find this prophet or get any help in finding him.  So Naaman told his king his sticky situation and the king sent a letter of reference to King Jehoram, the king of Israel at that time.
But the Aramean king’s letter was directed to the king for the actual healing, not Elisha – an oversight that might actually have been a bit of political trickery.  That’s certainly what King Jehoram thought.  He thought he was being tricked, so he tore his clothes and predicted disaster.  But when Elisha heard this news, he sent a message to the king.  “Why have you torn your clothes?  Send Naaman to me so that he may learn there is a prophet in Israel.”
At long last Naaman does indeed come to the home of Elisha.  He arrives with full entourage, and yet the greeting at Elisha’s door was very different than the one he probably expected.  Elisha does not bother to come out and greet Nathan in person.  He just sends a message to Naaman saying, “Go to the river Jordan, wash seven times, your skin will be restored and you will be clean.”  Easy, clear, concise, a simple command, user friendly.
But the easiness of these directions insulted Naaman.  He expected something hard, something challenging, dramatic, mysterious and even mystical.  He assumed that this Elisha, being a prophet of great renown would come to him, call loudly upon the name of God, wave his hands over his diseased skin or at least wave his hands near it and heal him.  That’s how a healing is supposed to work, right? 
If all Naaman had to do was wash in a river, why couldn’t have washed in the Abana and Pharpar, the beautiful rivers of Syria?  They were much nicer rivers than the ones in the Jordan.
Naaman turned and walked away in a rage.  But his servants stopped him.  Yet again, Naaman – a man of status and a mighty warrior, listened to what one commentator called the “bit players.”  He was neither afraid nor too proud to hear the wisdom of those who served him.
The servants said, “Master, give this prophet Elisha a chance.  You were willing to do something difficult, why not something easy?”  So Naaman went down to the Jordan and washed.  He did exactly as Elisha instructed.  It worked !  He was clean and his leprosy was cured.
If we were to continue reading we would see that Naaman returned to Elisha.  He stood before him and confessed his new faith.  “Now I know there is no other God except for the one in Israel.”  Naaman’s faith was very new.  When he tried to pay Elisha and was refused, he asked for some earth to take back with him.  If the true God was in Israel, then Naaman believed that he could only worship, offer sacrifices and burn offerings on Israelite ground.  Naaman also knew that he would still be expected to attend ceremonies worshipping the Syrian god Rimmon, so he asked for forgiveness in advance for the times when he would have to bow before another god.
Elisha did not judge him on his misperceptions or try to change his thinking.  He merely told Naaman to go in peace.
In this world of user friendly, of supposedly simple commands, I wonder sometimes if we’re more like than Naaman than not; at least when it comes to directions from God.  Most of the time we want our instructions to be clear, concise, easy to understand, and easy to follow.  If I’m trying to bake a cake or installing new software on my computer, I don’t want to have to decode riddles in order to figure out my instructions.  Yet the belief is that when it comes to directions from God, they should be difficult.  I know I feel that way.  Like my grandfather before me, I have often felt that being a Christian, being a disciple, following the path of Jesus should not be an easy picnic in the park.  Being a Christian should be a challenge, it should be hard.  The path that Jesus walked was a difficult one.  It led to the cross, and we’re called to pick up our crosses and follow him.  Isn’t that hard?  God gives us hard directives because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
But I think I’ve been confused.  Certainly there is a challenge to discipleship.  Following Jesus is no simple, easy, effortless task.  Our calling to be disciples is not one to be taken lightly or without thought to the cost.  But maybe the real difficulty is not the path we’re called down or that the direction or instructions from God are too difficult or too undemanding.  Maybe the real challenge comes in being obedient to that call, obedient to what God asks of me.  Even though Naaman was angry at the simplicity of God’s prophet Elisha’s instructions, he did finally obey them.  Naaman found his healing when he let go of his pride, and in humility listened to the bit players around him.  He found healing in obedience to the simple, but elegant command of God.  Maybe that’s where we find ours as well.
I have to admit that the rebellious free-thinking American creature that I am sometimes (often) rails at the idea of obedience.  I don’t like the idea of being just another sheep, following along behind the crowd.  But that’s not what obedience to God is all about, is it?  Being obedient to God will more often than not take me away from the crowd; it might even set me against the crowd.  What’s really hard about being obedient to God is not that God’s instructions aren’t clear or easy or user-friendly.  It’s that they contradict the instructions that I often mistakenly believe are most important – my own. 
Being obedient to God means that I have to be willing to stop trying as hard as I can to follow my own counsel.  I often get angry with God for not showing me the right path, but the real problem is that God is showing me the path, I’m just not willing to go down it without a fight.  But what does the path God calls us down look like?  I don’t think it’s any better stated than in the words of another prophet, Micah.  “The Lord has told you, O mortal, what is good.  Do justice.  Love kindness.  And walk humbly with your God.”  That is a simple command indeed. 
That’s my favorite verse in all of scripture.  My mother put it in cross stitch and I have it framed on my office wall.  But favorite or not, I can’t seem to be anymore obedient to that simple command than anything else.  I do what I want.  And more often than not, when I do what I want, when I fail at obedience to God, I end up sprawled on my backside wondering what the heck just happened.  Maybe the real challenge about these simple commands that God gives us through prophets, through his Son, is not that they are too hard or unclear; maybe the real challenge is that we don’t want to obey them.  Throughout the Bible we have people who struggled with obedience, who rebelled against it like I do, but finally when they obeyed, God’s goodness and purpose was achieved.  Abraham’s obedience brought about a multitude of descendents, as many as the stars in the sky.  Moses’ obedience led to the building of a new nation, a chosen people.  Joshua’s obedience brought down the walls.  Jesus was obedient to the point of death on a cross and the world was saved through him.   Naaman found his healing, his physical and his spiritual healing, in his obedience, in his following a simple command.   Maybe that’s where we’ll find ours as well.  Amen.

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