River Miracles and Snow-White Sins – City of Refuge Message 3/16/2019

To say that there’s a lot going on in the world would be a colossal understatement, right? It would be along the same lines as saying water is wet or Mount Everest is tall. C’mon Captain Obvious, just lay it all out there. But seriously, the number of things (data, events, situations, etc.) that we’re attempting to process at any given time is staggering. We are surrounded by innumerable stimuli in our lives all vying for a piece of our attention, and that overactive stimulus often results in lack of focus and shortened attention spans. We are drowning in white noise and we don’t even realize it’s slowly killing us. In fact, we accept it so readily as part of everyday life that we often struggle to function without it being present. We have to consciously make choices that support the habit of mindfulness and the disciplines of silence and prayer. We have to work at being transformed through the renewal of our minds.


Read Romans 12:1-2 – Phillips Translation

“With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give Him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to Him and acceptable by Him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the Plan of God for you is good, meets all His demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.”


Paul, after going through a litany of things that God – through the work of Christ – has done for us in the first 11 chapters of Romans, implores us to make a conscious effort to operate differently in our lives. It is through the Mercy of God that we are able to live in this fashion; He commands us to be holy and then makes the way for us to accomplish this through Jesus. He’s painting a picture that would have been partially familiar and yet somewhat strange to his audience. In the prevailing Greek/Roman thought of the day, the notion of presenting the body to God would have been odd as they operated with a dualism that treated the body as something irredeemable and unworthy to be offered. Paul is dispelling that by saying the entirety of your being – flesh, soul, spirit – has been redeemed at a price and he urges us to offer it as a living sacrifice unto the Lord. It’s an appeal to the will to be disciplined and present our entire selves in submission. The idea of a sacrifice would have been very familiar to both the Gentile and Jewish audience, but the concept of one that was alive and remained alive was new. It’s an ongoing sacrifice, one that we must continually submit to in worship and reverence for the Lord.

How exactly are we supposed to accomplish that? To answer that we look to the next verse in this portion of scripture. We’re to resist the system of the world around us, the acceptable practices and standards of the pagan culture that we find ourselves in and let God work on us from the inside giving us a new outlook from within.  We want to do this, right? We want to read our Bibles and spend time in prayer and worship – individually and corporately – but we sometimes get tripped up in a couple of ways. One way is that you might be living your life by Feeling. How do I feel today? About my job? My spouse? Worship? My Church? This life by feeling misses the transforming power of renewing the mind because it’s focused on something temporary, fleeting, and constantly in flux. The other way we might get tripped up is by living a life solely about “Doing.” I don’t need to know all the specifics about the context or theology, just give me the four points or the seven keys and let me be on my way to doing the work. Life by doing also misses the transforming power of renewing the mind because it’s focused on a misguided notion that it’s the things accomplished that provide the barometer for how good or holy we are.

Now, God is certainly not against feelings or doing work. These are things that are good in principal and can be beneficial to our Faith and Christian life, but they cannot be the foundation for it. The first questions can’t be, “How do I feel?” or “What do I do?” Rather, it should be “What is true here?” “What does God’s Word say?” “Is what I’m hearing in line with what Scripture says about the nature and character of God?”

God wants that relationship with us. He orchestrated this plan from the foundations of time for Jesus to repair the divide so that we could be together again as intended. He wants to speak with us as friends, as a loving father with His children. He wants us to be transformed from the inside out so that we all resemble Jesus more and more each day the more time we spend in Scripture, and in prayer.

The word transformed in this passage (metamopho) is the same word used to describe Jesus during the Transfiguration. That’s pretty cool! The only other passage where Paul uses this same word is in 2nd Corinthians 3:18 and it further illustrates that this kind of transformation comes from spending time with the Lord.

There’s a great story in the Old Testament that provides a striking example of both sides of this idea of transformation. It’s found in 2nd Kings chapter 5 and features a Syrian general with Leprosy that seeks out the prophet Elisha.

Read 2 Kings 5:1-3

Naaman was a pretty big deal, right? He was the commander of the Syrian army and had fought/won many decisive battles for his king. He was seen as a “mighty man of valor” – a description also given to the likes of Gideon, Jephthah, David, Jeroboam, and Eliada – coincidentally he was also the only Gentile in the Old Testament referred to with this title. Oh…and he was also a leper. That’s a bit of a stinger. He has all of these mighty accomplishments, but they’re all overshadowed by this one statement – He’s a leper.

Ancient leprosy began as small, red spots on the skin. Before too long the spots get bigger, and start to turn white, with sort of a shiny, or scaly appearance. Pretty soon the spots spread over the whole body and hair begins to fall out – first from the head, then even from the eyebrows. As things get worse, finger nails and toenails become loose; they start to rot and eventually fall off. Then the joints of fingers and toes begin to rot and fall off piece by piece. Gums begin to shrink and they can’t hold the teeth anymore, so each of them is lost. Leprosy keeps eating away at your face until literally the nose, the palate, and even the eyes rot – and the victim wastes away until death.


Sounds like just the sort of thing you’d want to have, right? Wouldn’t that make for great dinner conversation? Anyway, we see that the Syrians had taken captives recently – a nice roundabout way of saying the spoils of raiding are slaves for the soldiers and their families – and one such young Israelite is now in service to Naaman’s wife. She mentions that there’s a prophet in Samaria that would heal him, if he were there. This is pretty incredible to me. This girl has been taken captive and forced into servitude, and if anything could have bitterly reveled in the fact that the general was going to die a horrible death from this disease. But that’s not what happens. Much like Joseph, God uses this terrible circumstance to demonstrate His goodness. He has a plan to dramatically affect Naaman’s life and this girl is part of it.


Read 2 Kings 5:4-7


Now, if you’re reading the rest of the accounts in 2nd Kings, it seems odd that the King of Syria would send a letter with his General to the King of Israel. The countries have been bitter enemies and we can gather that the events in 2nd Kings are not following a strict chronological order. Nevertheless, Naaman secures the blessing of his King and takes an abundance of wealth with him to offer for the services of the prophet. By the monetary standards of the day, the amount he took was roughly 1.2 million dollars. Naaman was desperate to be cleansed of this disease.

King Jehoram was visibly perplexed by the request. In fact, he tore his clothes which would signify that he was quite distressed. I imagine the thought process was something along the lines of, “Are you kidding me? Does he think I can just manifest the power of God as I see fit? I’m not the prophet, nor are we on good terms…this SOB is looking for a fight…” Neither Naaman nor the Syrian King would have known that Elisha and King Jehoram did not see eye to eye. There’s a prophet in Israel with the power to heal something as incurable as Leprosy, why wouldn’t the King be quite familiar with him? In fact, Jehoram was quite familiar but not leading his people to serve God – which put him at odds with the Lord’s chosen voice.


Read 2 Kings 5:8-9


Elisha hears about what happens and asks the King what he’s worried about? This feels kinda tongue in cheek to me, like he’s saying to the King “take it easy bro, I’ve got this.” He rightly recognizes that the King is having a full-blown crisis because he has no relationship with God, but God can Heal and the King could know this if he bothered to seek out that relationship. Naaman has come in good faith seeking a miracle that his pagan deity cannot provide, and Elisha asks that he come to his house.


Read 2 Kings 5:10-13


Naaman showed up at the home of Elisha, and he had it all figured out. Elisha was going to come out and meet him and treat him with the dignity and respect that a man of his social stature demanded. He was going to do some elaborate ritual and call upon the power of the God of Israel and heal him. You have to admire the faith he has based on the testimony of a slave girl, it’s truly remarkable. What occurs next, though, was quite a blow to the ol’ ego for Naaman. Elisha doesn’t even come out to meet him. He sends a servant to greet Naaman and provides the instructions to proceed down to the Jordan River, wash in it seven times, and the healing would be completed. Naaman cannot believe it. All of his expectations are crushed, and he lets his temper loose. “This is how I get treated?! I’m the lord commander of the Syrian army! I’m a big deal, and this Israeli prophet can’t even be bothered to come out to greet me himself?! And I’m to go jump in the disgusting Jordan river seven times to be healed?! If bathing in a river is all it takes, why not one in my homeland, both of which are far superior to any river in Israel…” And so on. Luckily for Naaman, he has servants on this journey with him that are not afraid to speak some good sense to their Master. This man could end them without giving it a thought, and yet they were bold enough to speak up during his angry fit. “You’re upset because he told you to take a bath? If he had told you to do some spectacular feat of service, like sacrificing a thousand goats or something, you would have done it in a heartbeat. But because he said, go wash up in the river seven times you’re offended?”


Read 2 Kings 5:14-16


Naaman sees the sense of his servant’s advice and heads down to the Jordan to be cleansed. The Hebrew word translated as dipped more accurately means ‘plunged.’ Naaman jumped full on into the river seven times as instructed, and this act of faith was rewarded – he was completely cured of his disease. The simplicity of the miracle left no room for doubt that it was God that facilitated it. It wasn’t some ceremony or sorcery that Elisha concocted – something Naaman expected – but the healing power of a true deity. This is where we see the first shift in Naaman’s thinking. He has been confronted with the irrefutable proof that Jehovah far outshines his native deity Rimmon, who he now knows has no power at all.

He returns to Elisha and confirms this to him, there is no God but the God of Israel, and he displays his gratitude and offers a gift, that Elisha refuses. This is a genuine gesture from Naaman, and it seems to be offered in good faith to give thanks and support to the prophet, but Elisha refuses all the same.


Read 2 Kings 5:17-19


Naaman is still figuring this stuff out. He’s still got his mind on the idea of territorial gods, and hasn’t quite worked out the fact that Jehovah is just as much God in Syria as He is in Israel. He asks for two mule-loads of soil so that he could have a connection to his new God, a kind of tangible reminder of the new faith he was stepping into. His understanding could be visualized as a glass that’s half full. He also recognizes that there are expectations from his old life that may cause awkward compromises. He’s been touched in a powerful way and he’s learned that all his former idols are now useless. He’s hoping for grace as he works through these compromises and grows stronger in his devotion to the Lord.

We could be tempted to look at this and go, “Shouldn’t he be all in? to hell with those idols and expectations, I’m only following Jehovah now, Like Daniel praying to the Lord faithfully in Babylonian captivity?” Maybe, but Naaman isn’t there yet. He has to work up to the kind of Faith that Daniel would later demonstrate. We’ve all got to start somewhere right? That’s where the ongoing process of renewing the mind comes in. Elisha gives a great non-committal but approving response of “go in peace.” He’s leaving the path of Naaman’s newfound faith up to him and the Lord to work out.


Read 2 Kings 5:20-24


The story isn’t quite over yet. Elisha’s servant Gehazi cannot believe that his Master turned down the reward offered by Naaman. He still views him as an enemy and an outsider, and felt that they should get whatever they could from him. Gehazi probably had a mixture of feelings and motives churning inside him over this miracle. He might have been somewhat incredulous that a sign so powerful would be shown to the commander of the enemy forces. It wasn’t the first time that Elisha had performed a miracle for a foreigner, but the fact that this was the highest-ranking military officer for an enemy that Israel had been constantly at war with probably didn’t sit well with him. It was also a significant sum of money that was being offered for the healing, and it proved to be a temptation too great for Gehazi. He determines he’s going to get whatever he can from Naaman, concocts a ridiculous story, and sings his song of extortion. Naaman is all too eager to help, as he had urged Elisha to take something as payment for the service he provided. Gehazi takes it, along with some help from Naaman’s servants and stashes it away in his house. The fact that he’s hiding it indicates he already knows the actions he has taken are wrong.


Read 2 Kings 5:25-27


Elisha knows what happened. He questions Gehazi on his whereabouts, and gets only falsehood from his servant. “I didn’t go anywhere.” Oh, but he knows how untrue that is and calls him out. It does not appear that Elisha had any sort of strict rules about accepting support for his ministry, but it was abundantly clear to him in this instance that God did not want him to receive anything for this act. This was a demonstration of God’s power in the life of someone who did not know Him and the glory was for Him alone.

Gehazi should have known this. He had been present with Elisha for many other miracles, and had seen the power of God first hand. He is an example of a glass half empty mentality and someone that has access to the life to be found in renewing the mind and yet does not seek the discipline. He experienced God and chose pagan greed. He wanted the riches that Naaman had, and he got them. His greed also earned him the curse of Naaman’s leprosy, for his family forever.


We have a choice to make in our lives. We can be like Naaman, and recognize the powerful experience we’ve had with God and establish a life of discipline to help us be transformed more and more into the image of Christ. We have to admit that we are compromised in our lives and take action to address those compromises in a way that reflects a steadfast faith in the Lord and a measured growth in our walk with Him. It’s not instantaneous. It’s definitely going to take effort on our part to cultivate the disciplines that aid us in renewing our minds.

We can be like Gehazi, but I would advise against choosing that path. If you’re on it – and I have been in the past – it’s not too late to turn around and head in a better direction. We want to see a positive transformation happen in our lives, we want to shine. If we opt to do nothing or to stay mired in the conformity of the world, we’ll be transformed by a leprosy that slowly takes us piece by piece and ends in death.


Developing these disciplines is hard. We don’t want to take that path, we like our comfort. The easy road doesn’t really get us anywhere though. Consistently spending time in your Bible, cultivating regular times of prayer and solitude, learning to appreciate silence – these things are not easy. They are rewarding, though, in the deeper relationship with Jesus that develops. Silence is one of the hardest ones, I think. I’m a fairly introverted person so I don’t mind solitude, but even alone I struggle for silence. The modern world fights against silence with a near constant stream of noise. We don’t even recognize how much of it we block out in our daily lives, so when we’re presented with actual silence it’s almost unnerving.

That silence is good, though. It’s in those times of silence and solitude that we learn to hear God speaking to us. We learn to recognize His voice so we can still pick it out when the noise is trying to drown it out. I would challenge us all, myself included, to start taking a regular time of silent reflection each day. Start small, like 5 minutes. Turn off all your devices and leave them in another room. Do your scripture reading, or find a few verses to meditate on. Spend it in prayer. That five minutes may seem like an eternity, but I bet after awhile it might become a favorite part of our day.

We may not have physical idols that we construct and make altars to in this current age, but they’re still out there. Technology, Media, Self-Image, Wealth, Power – these are all still potential idols in our life that we’re elevating to the place of worship that belongs solely to Jesus. Cultivating spiritual disciplines helps us to recognize these things for what they are and put them in their proper places. Those things are not bad out right, and can be useful tools in our lives, but the moment they ascend to the altar meant only for Jesus they become a compromise and an idol to be put down.


I borrowed a lot of thoughts from N.T. Wright’s book, Following Jesus, and I feel like the final paragraph of the chapter on renewing the mind (which features the story from 2nd Kings as its focal point) is also a fitting way to end my thoughts here:

I would like to think that there might be a few Naamans reading this book. If you’re in doubt as to where you fit in the picture – whether your glass is half full or half empty – ask yourself this question. As you contemplate the resurrection of Jesus, what is your basic reaction? Christ is risen – so what? The sign of Gehazi, with his glass half empty, is, first, boredom; then the question ‘do I really have to take this thing that seriously?’; and then outright rebellion, answering ‘no’ to the question. The sign of Naaman, of a glass half full, of a step towards the light, is the sense that in the resurrection the true God has revealed himself to be your God, and has called you to worship Him, to straighten out your thinking with Him at the centre, and to follow this Jesus along the way. You may have a long way to go. You will have to live for awhile ‘no longer at ease’. The change in your life may not be as dramatic as Naaman’s. But if that’s where you start you can take Elisha’s words to Naaman as God’s words to you: ‘Go in peace’. And in that peace, with your mind renewed by the risen Jesus, start to think straight as you follow Him.

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