When will we ever learn? When we stop waiting for the right time, for the opportune moment and simply seize the day?
I guess when we begin to have wisdom, when we begin to trust the Lord, fear the Lord even, though we’d be loathe admitting it. That’s the beginning of wisdom, don’t you see, the fear of the Lord, and we have done such a magnificent job of hiding, of shielding our fear that we may even convince ourselves that we do not feel it anymore.
It is pride, of course, the notion that we can live without fear, because it assumes that there is nothing beyond our reach, nothing beyond our power to conquer, nothing beyond us at all.
But the truth of the matter is, almost everything important is beyond our reach, beyond our power to conquer, beyond us.
The market can turn and our dreams of endless vacations in retirement come tumbling down. The word “cancer” can be mentioned in a doctor’s office and suddenly our focus is no longer on the trivial fluff of day to day existence but is ratcheted firmly onto what really matters and we get blinders to the rest.
Any number of things can happen, unexpected turns, twists of fate that yank us here and there, to places we never expected to go.
You innocently volunteer to deliver a monologue in church one Advent and the next thing you know a voice inside of you tells you to leave everything and move to Minnesota and become a pastor.
You walk down the mall and see a fetching face, and before you can say Jack Robinson zing go the strings of your heart and you’ll leave mother and father and follow wherever they lead you, to the altar, to the real estate office to the gates of Hell if that’s where they go. Love is like that sometimes.
You can deny it. You can say that you chose carefully every move that you made, that you act instead of re-acting, but you are kidding yourself. We are built to respond to the world, to be moved by it, moved to tears, to anger, to joy. We are built to be moved.
Beyond our control, beyond our wishes.
We try and fight it because we think we need to be in control, we think that the most important thing is that events take place according to our plan, since we know where we are going and what is going to happen, we’ve got it all planned, you see.
There is so much of this world that we can control, after all, so much that has been given over to our stewardship that there must be nothing that is beyond us. We can manipulate the atom, so why not the market? We are the masters of growing the food needed to feed the people of the world, why is it that the weather is beyond our reach?
It is the thought that has made us reach for the stars, and then reach at least as far as the moon, incomprehensibly leaving the atmosphere so graciously provided for us by God. It is what has led us to cure disease, invent materials lighter than wood but stronger than steel, to create a computer vastly more powerful than those of our forebears and to then put it into the palm of my hand and inspire me to do nothing more than play Doodle Jump on it.
It is what made us who we are.
Only it isn’t what made us who we are. God made us who we are. That striving, that prideful need for mastery over the whole of the universe may have been the thing that has driven us as a species for so long, but it too is a gift of God and we have misused this one a little, I think. We’ve used it to convince ourselves that we no longer need God.
And no number of Hurricanes pounding our shores and no number of tornadoes ripping through our heartlands and no snowstorm, no flooding, no drought ever seems to pierce the veil of our perceived mastery of the earth. God is not trying to get our attention; I don’t think so at least; but we certainly are trying not to notice that there are forces in creation that are simply beyond us, bigger than us, vastly more powerful than we are.
We are so wrapped up in the things that we have planned that it is easy to miss the opportunities when they present themselves, the times when God really is trying to get our attention. Maybe because it is sometimes true that God’s message to us is not at all what we want to hear.
And that is too bad because it is at those moments when we are called to act with just a smidge of grace, just a touch of humility and to let God, for the time being anyway, be God.
That is what Naaman struggles with this morning. He is being called upon to simply accept the grace of God and he finds that he has so little grace of his own that he cannot. You see it takes grace for God to overlook, to bring not to mind as they say in the Bible, our sins and trespasses. They are violations against the sovereignty of God and an affront to God’s pride, God’s dignity.
So it also takes grace for us to step back from the accomplishments and the glories and the accolades of our fellow men and allow God to be God, the creator, redeemer, the one who seeks to make us whole, surrendering our pride at the altar of God’s love.
Naaman wants to be important, after all, everyone tells him that he is. He is a mighty man, the finest recommendation that the Old Testament can offer though this morning’s translation calls him merely “great.” He is a mighty man and in high favor with his master and so he (and his entourage) travel at the behest of a captive Israelite girl to ask for a healing, as if they were asking for a loaf of bread, or a side of beef.
It must have been quite a show, all of that swag to give to the prophet of God, the reading from this morning leaves out the gifts, but it is ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. These are the things you bring, not to honor the prophet you are coming to see, but to show off how rich you are, a vulgar display of wealth and power meant to impress the heck out of Elisha, to show that Naaman was a mighty man and a mighty important one at that and his request must be honored.
He had to be the one in charge of the situation even though he was also the one coming, hat in hand, suffering and perhaps dying of this dread disease. As bold and brash as he wants to be in this reading, he is the one coming and begging. Begging the man of God, not the verified and sanctified and royally approved holy man, the healer of the court of the king and believe me, in times like this there were wise men who were tasked with being healers but they had all apparently failed, its not like the king wouldn’t have tried to save his mighty man general before now.
No, this is the holy man, the man of God that the humblest captive in the service of Naaman’s wife mentioned as having the power to heal, this is the man before whom Naaman must stand and essentially beg that his life on this earth, his usefulness in the world might not end, might be saved.
Naturally, he tries mightily not to acknowledge that this is what he’s doing, but by any objective measure, he is at his wits end, his last chance is this holy man; and so he and his entourage, with camels piled high with gifts and riches, have come to the fountain of grace to seek the Lord’s favor.
He is so achingly like us, so magnificently and obviously analogous to the human condition we all live in now that I am amazed that I have never preached this sermon before.
Legend has it that when Martin Luther died there was found either on his person or on the table in his room a scrap of paper that read, “We are beggars, this is true.” What better analogy could we have than this brash and blustering mighty man, proud and bold in his accomplishments, yet broken and tortured by his ailment, coming before the one who can make him well and still trying to be the one who is in control, the one to tell Elisha how this is going to go, the important person in this play.
How common it is these days to hear someone say “The Bible says this” and to point to a single verse somewhere and to spin out an entire philosophy from a single, out of context line of scripture, as if they could all stand independent of the rest of them, as if they were not to be taken as a whole.
We want to hear the voice of God as if it were the voice in our own heads, massaging it until it agrees with us, diminishing the parts we don’t like and expanding upon the things we do like. We forget that we are the ones coming before the throne, hats in hand, we display no grace, we show no humility, we, like Naaman, want it to seem like we are still in charge, still powerful.
And so we miss an opportunity.
We miss the opportunity to surrender to God’s grace and in so doing, allow it to fill us, and show through us, to embody that grace in the world. We arrive broken and battered, lost and mired in sin and we cannot bring ourselves to just ask, to just say please, to admit to the wrong and beg the Lord for forgiveness so that all of our misery, all of it may be taken away, all of our disease, all of our fear, all of our disappointment, every bit of it can, in an instant be replaced by the love of God in Christ Jesus, given to us for free, no payment necessary.
Nine out of ten of us will likely not surrender, given what the Gospel says this morning. We will not make our confession, show our gratitude; turn back from the way we have always been from the bluster and the braggadocio and simply kneel, and show the grace of God in us because we have surrendered to the grace of God given to us.
Many come to this place and hear the words and feel the touch of the water on their foreheads, and taste the sweet wine on their lips.
They come because they are broken, worried, and afraid. They doubt their worth in the grand scheme of things, they worry if they are good enough, busy enough, holy enough, if they are enough. Most won’t admit it even then; they’ll say they come because their parents came. They’ll say they come because they know someone who comes and they want to find the peace they see their friend has. They’ll say they come because the people, the music, the pastor is so nice.
And a captive in the household of the Lord will tell them of a healer who can make them well. Someone nothing more than a servant will point the way and speak the words that carry in them the power of God, the love of God and the salvation, the freedom from their suffering.
Will nine go off on their way and only one return? I gotta tell you, to this servant, to this captive in the household of the Lord, one in ten sounds pretty good. At no time have I ever been in doubt but that the words that I speak carry with them the power of salvation and at no time have I ever been convinced that I have added a single thing to those words.
But I only know the one savior. I can only point in one direction and I will do so again and again, with every fiber of my being and with my every breath and if one in ten turns and given praise to God, if one in ten can be found to surrender to god’s grace and in so doing become the messenger, the captive in the house of the Lord, then I will sleep well, and rise in the morning and begin again.
Not everyone is called to be a pastor. But everyone is called. We are called out of our sadness and our fear and our hatred and our despair and into the light of the love of God and that is all well and good. Will you come before the Lord as the brash and proud conqueror and refuse to be healed unless you are the one calling the shots? Will you wait until it is your time?
Or will you kneel and seize the opportunity to show grace, to allow God to be God and to do God’s will upon you which is to set you free? In so doing you will finally realize that it is always your time, you time to embrace the love of God and let God’s grace shine brightly in your life.