Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: 2 Kings 2:1–12, 1 Corinthians 9:24–27 & Mark 1:40–45
As human beings, we all respond differently to the events and situations we experience in life.
Take the story of the prophet Elisha healing Naaman of leprosy. In this story, we see different responses from five characters to the events that unfold in the story.
First, we have the young Israelite girl, who was taken captive by the Arameans during one of their regular raids on the people of Israel. Although she was obviously taken against her will, and was now a servant of Naaman’s wife, she didn’t sound bitter or depressed about her situation. Instead, she actually tried to help Naaman’s wife by telling her that Naaman could be healed of his leprosy, if he visited the prophet Elisha in Samaria, which was the capital city of Northern Israel at that time.
Contrast her response with that of the King of Israel, when he received a letter from the King of Aram, asking for help to heal Naaman. There had been ongoing tension between Israel and the nation of Aram during the ninth century BCE, with the Arameans conducting regular raids on Israel as I’ve already mentioned. Jehoram (the King of Israel) believed that the request from Ben–Hadad II (the King of Aram) for help, was a trick to start conflict between the two countries. Jehoram was worried about this request from Ben–Hadad, and wasn’t sure what he should do. He thought to himself, I can’t heal Naaman; only God can heal Naaman! So what did Jehoram do? He tore his clothes, which in those days, was a sign of despair or hopelessness about one’s own particular circumstances.
Now when Elisha heard how Jehoram reacted, he calmly sent word to Jehoram telling the king to let Naaman come to him and be healed, so that the Arameans might believe that Israel had a powerful prophet on its side, which then might prevent the Arameans from causing any trouble in the future.
So Naaman came to Elisha’s house, expecting Elisha himself to greet him and provide treatment. Instead, Elisha sent one of his servants to tell Naaman to go and wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman was furious that Elisha had not treated him with the respect he believed he deserved, and so he began to rant and rave about that lack of respect. One of Naaman’s own servants calmly spoke to Naaman, and persuaded him to do what Elisha had suggested. And when he did, he was completely healed of his leprosy.
So the different characters in the story exhibit very different attitudes and responses. We have the calm and faithful responses of the Israeli servant girl, Elisha, and Naaman’s own servant, which ultimately all result in a good outcome; compared with the angry and negative responses of both King Jehoram and Naaman, that would have proven to be unhelpful and ineffective if left unchallenged.
Let’s now take a look at the story in our gospel reading this morning, which like the story of Naaman and Elisha, also relates to someone being healed from leprosy. In this story, we hear that a leper came to Jesus begging Jesus to heal him. Under Jewish law, people suffering from leprosy were considered to be unclean. They were not permitted to live as part of the community, and they weren’t allowed to approach another person. In fact, they were required to call out “unclean, unclean” to warn people of their condition.
This man broke that law, and came to Jesus for healing. The man’s belief that Jesus could heal him, was obviously stronger than any fear of punishment the man might have felt. Jesus responded by having great compassion for the man, and by healing him. Strangely though, we heard that Jesus spoke sternly to the man, and warned him not to say anything to anyone about what Jesus had done for him, but to instead go and do what was required under Jewish law. If someone had been healed of leprosy, they had to be examined by the priest, and if the priest confirmed they had been healed, then the person had to make arrangements for a thanksgiving offering to be made to God, for it was believed that only God could heal someone from leprosy.
Why would Jesus have spoken sternly to the man, and told him not to speak to anyone about what Jesus had done? Probably because of what happened after he healed Peter’s mother-in-law, when all the other people were brought to him suffering from various diseases and being possessed by demons.
If you remember that gospel reading from two weeks ago; after Jesus had healed everyone, he went out into a deserted place by himself to pray. But Peter and the other disciples followed him, and told him that everyone in Capernaum was looking for him. The large crowds that gathered around Jesus to be healed, prevented him from carrying out the mission God had given him, which was to proclaim the gospel throughout all the towns and villages of Galilee. But he had been unable to enter these towns and villages because of the crowds that followed him.
He was obviously concerned that if word got out that he had healed the man with leprosy, then even more people would come looking for him to heal them, which would again prevent him from carrying out his mission. But the man who was healed, did not respect what Jesus commanded him. Instead, he went around telling anyone who would listen to him, so that the report of what Jesus had done for him spread everywhere, and Jesus soon found himself surrounded on all sides by people wanting him to heal them.
We can see from the different responses of people in these two readings this morning, that a person’s attitude has a significant impact on how they respond to ‘life events’. Winston Churchill was quoted as saying, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a BIG difference”. And another famous politician, Abraham Lincoln, put it this way, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” In other words, it all depends on the perspective of the person to the event they are facing.
The Apostle Paul, when writing to the church at Corinth, likened it to being in a race, where all of the runners compete, but where only one can win the prize. He encouraged the Corinthians to have an attitude that would enable them to win the race. And of course the race he referred to, was a metaphor for a life of faith. He encouraged the Corinthians to live this life as though it were a race. And just as if they were athletes, preparing themselves for a race, exerting self-control over what they ate and drank, and building up their physical energy and strength through exercise, Paul told them they needed to exercise that same preparation in their daily spiritual lives.
They had to be disciplined when it came to issues related to bodily desires, and they had to be diligent in matters of faith. And perhaps more than important than anything else, they had to be focussed on God. Giving thanks to God; worshipping and praising Him, had to be the most important aspect of their lives.
I wonder then, if we reflect on Paul’s message to the Corinthians; how might this apply to our own lives today?