June 2, 1996
Naaman, a commander in his king’s army, was a mighty man of valor, power, and prestige. His greatness, however, was overshadowed by the fact that he was also a leper. In its devastation of life and disregard for status, sin is like leprosy of the soul, and it cannot be cured by great success. Examining Naaman’s response to the prophet Elisha’s unexpected cure, Alistair Begg helps us discover the good news of God’s solution for today’s own spiritual leprosy.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Can I ask you to take your Bibles and turn with me again, this time to the Old Testament, and to 2 Kings 5—2 Kings 5:1:
“Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.
“Now bands from Aram had gone out and … taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’
“Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. ‘By all means, go,’ the king of Aram replied. ‘I will send a letter to the king of Israel.’ So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: ‘With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.’
“As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, ‘Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!’
“When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: ‘Why have you torn your robes? [Make] the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.’ So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, ‘Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.’
“… Naaman went away angry and said, ‘I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?’ So he turned and went off in a rage.
“Naaman’s servants went to him and said, ‘My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, “Wash and be cleansed”!’ So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.”
Now, before we consider this passage together, a word of prayer:
Now, “make the Book,” we pray, “live to me, O Lord, show me Thyself within Thy Word, show me myself and show me my Savior, and make the Book live to me.” Amen.
“Once upon a time.” Those memorable words from childhood are a cause of joyful reflection for those of us who were the happy recipients of stories being read to us, especially as the day would end. Just the opening phrase was enough to get our imaginations firing, and whether it was in the realm of fiction or of fantasy, nonfiction, whatever it might’ve been, we loved to have a story told to us. And we used to wait eagerly and expectantly, in the hope that it was going to end the way we loved for it to end, the way that allowed us to go to sleep happy and contented, with the closing phrase, “And so they all lived happily ever after.”
And now we’ve become adults, and we still love stories—fiction and nonfiction. And because I know how much so many of you like stories, I thought that I would turn you to one of the great stories in the Old Testament. And we have just read a part of it here in these opening verses of 2 Kings 5. It’s the story of a man called Naaman.
Now, as we’ve grown into adulthood, we know that not all of the stories end with such happy conclusions. For there is so much in life that is marked by pain and by sadness. Indeed, there is a lot of bad news. It’s not all bad news; we know that there are many joys—much that we share that gives us a smile and a spring in our step. And yet the fact of the matter is that even a cursory reading of our daily newspapers confronts us with the pain and the emptiness that is so much a part of life for us.
For example, in Friday’s paper, just culling one or two things… There is such a sense of sadness that pervades the newspaper. Nothing sadder for me than a tiny piece on the Metro page that simply is headed “Body Found in Trunk”—the tragic story of a man whose body had been decomposing in the back of a car for eight weeks before it was discovered. When the rental company came to take it out of the police pound to put it into service, they checked it over, opened the trunk, and they didn’t find old tools lying around; they found an old body lying around—the body of a thirty-six-year-old man who had been shot through the head and the chest. And you read that and you say, “Hm, this is bad news.” You read a phrase like, “Well, I think the motive was that they just felt like he had more than they did,” and you scan back to the beginning, and you realize that this is the story of a man who gets up hearing his front door broken down, and before he has a chance to defend either himself or the members or the contents of his house, he is brutally murdered, shot through the chest, keenly anticipating his [thirty]-seventh birthday.
And then you look at the work that is being done amongst the homeless, the provision of housing for them, and you say to yourself, “It is good to be a part of a society that cares for homeless people like this.” And we want to stand by that, and we want to ensure that folks have an adequate opportunity in life and can get a good beginning, and we applaud those who put their ingenuity and their engineering and their finance to providing the kind of housing that would make it possible for these individuals. And then you open the paper, and you read, “Developers Plead Guilty to the HUD Fraud,” and you discover that those who on the surface were engaged in the altruistic acts of human kindness were actually involved in culling for themselves the fruits of their own greediness.
I put it to you that we are in need of some good news in a bad news world. For there is, even in the best of our days, a plaintive song which seems to play in the back of many of our minds. There’s a sort of sad music of humanity. I don’t mean the up-front and honest acknowledgement of it. Do you realize how long ago it was that Barry McGuire sang “Eve of Destruction”?
The eastern world it is explodin’,
Violence flaring, [and] bullets loadin’,
You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’,
You don’t believe in war, [but] what’s that gun you’re totin’?
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’,
But you tell me over and over and over again, my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.
Some of you aren’t old enough to remember that. But you are old enough to have listened to the song that was popularized by Anne Murray:
I rolled out this morning, the kids had the morning news show on;
Bryant Gumbel was talking about the fighting in Lebanon,
Some senator was squawking about the economy;
It’s gonna get worse, you see, we need a change of policy.
There’s a local paper rolled up in a rubber band,
One more sad stories, one more than I can stand;
Just once how I’d like to see the headlines say,
“Not much to print today, can’t find nothing bad to say,” because
Nobody robbed a liquor store on the lower part of town,
Nobody OD’d, nobody burned a single building down,
Nobody fired a shot in anger, nobody had to die in vain;
We sure could use a little good news today.
And here in the heart of the Old Testament is a good news story in a bad news world: Once upon a time, there was a man called Naaman…
Now, people say to me many times, “I find the Bible such a confusing book. I’ve been told that there are sixty-six books, and it covers centuries, and it was written by a number of authors, and I just find it all so perplexing, and I don’t know where to begin.” Well, for those who are confused by the Bible, I want to tell you this: the Bible is ultimately one story. There is one theme which runs through the whole of this book, and it is the story of the relationship between God and man—how it began, how it was spoiled, how it may be rectified, and how one day it’s going to be perfect.
“Fine,” says somebody, “but I would like something a little more practical, you know. I don’t like to live in the realms that are simply theoretical.” I need to say again to you this morning that this is the most practical of books. Because this book is a mirror. This book is a map. When we look into this book, we see ourselves. When we look into this book, we discover the nature and the cause of all of our troubles. And what’s even better, we discover the answer to the troubles that we face. Indeed, the story of this book, the message of this book, is good news in a bad news world. And it is wonderfully illustrated in this story that we now consider.
I’d like to note with you three things concerning Naaman: first of all, to notice his context, and then to notice his condition, and then to notice his cure.
First of all, his context. We all have a context in which we live—an environment, a framework, the things that influence us, and the matters that we enjoy, and the people with whom we spend time. What do we know of the context in which Naaman lived? Well, there are two things in particular I would like you to notice. One is that Naaman lived in a very desirable place. He lived in a very desirable place. If you think of what is for you the desirable place to live in in America, then that’s where he lived. For me it is probably Santa Barbara, so I imagine Naaman in Santa Barbara—Montecito, to be exact. For you, it may be somewhere else. But it was a really nice spot.
Syria was a delightful and a colorful country. Damascus, the main city, was a city of wealth and leisure. It provided all the kinds of cultural attractions that men and women look for. There was the beauty of art. There was the enjoyment of music. There was all of the opportunity for recreation that opened up before them. There were two fine rivers which flowed down into the center of the city—rivers which began in the mountains of Lebanon, in all of their pristine beauty and purity, flowing down into a fertile oasis of trees. And it was down in this oasis, in the lowland, that the city of Damascus had been built. And if we’d been able to go back in time to the period that is described for us here, then we would’ve found Naaman exactly in that context. And we would’ve said to one another, “Boy, this is a nice place to take a vacation, and this would be an unbelievable place to stay.” He lived in a very desirable place.
Secondly, we’re told that he enjoyed an enviable position. Look, if your Bible is open, and you can see this for yourself. First of all, he had power. He was a commander. He wasn’t a private or a lance corporal or a corporal or a sergeant; he was a commander. And he was a commander of the king’s army. And as a result of that, he had people who reported to him, just as many of you do this morning, here. He was responsible for people’s lives, just as some of you are this morning. And his position was a powerful position.
It was also a prestigious position, insofar as we are told that “he was a great man in the sight of his master.” You see, the king would have a lot of people who were under his sphere of influence—indeed, they were all under his sphere of influence—but he wouldn’t regard them all as great. But we’re told here that when the king looked at Naaman, he regarded Naaman as “a great man.” It wasn’t simply that the people looked up at him and said, “My, what a great man Naaman is!” but when the king upon his throne looked upon Naaman, he viewed him as a great man.
He was in an enviable position; it had power and prestige. He was highly regarded, and particularly because he was “a valiant solider.” He was, if you like, a “Braveheart” in his own generation. And people understood that.
And also, in his enviable position, he had possessions. They usually come with power and prestige, and in his case they had. When you simply read in verse 5 all that he was able to take on his journey in search of a cure, you realize that he had a lot of stuff. I was only able to do a little bit of calculation, and you know how poor my calculations are, and so I stopped, but I was already up in hundreds of thousands of dollars, when you calculate the price of an ounce of gold on the market at the moment. I didn’t take time to look up the silver, but we were close to three quarters of a million in gold, we added into that the silver, then you’ve gotta put the fine clothing in—and this guy had cash!
In fact, from any angle, Naaman had made it. Naaman was living the American Dream before America was dreamt of. He had power. He had prestige. He had possessions. He was like Richard Cory, made famous in the song of Paul Simon:
They say that Richard Cory owns one-half of this whole town,
And with political connections he spreads his wealth around;
Born into society, a banker’s only child,
He had everything a man could want—power, grace and style.
That was Naaman. He’d be on the front of People magazine. He’d be at all the right parties.
But when we’ve said all of that, we haven’t said the most significant thing about Naaman. Because that comes in the final phrase of verse 1, and it is introduced with the word “but.” You will notice that. He was “great,” he was “highly regarded,” he was victorious, he was “valiant,” but he “had leprosy.” There was one dimension to Naaman’s existence which cast long shadows over everything else that he enjoyed. All of his proud achievements were somehow or another dimmed by this one factor. When people thought of him, yes, they knew him as powerful and prestigious and a man of wealth and worth, and yet they knew one thing about him: “Naaman has leprosy.”
Well, I said our second point was his condition, and we’re clearly there. His context is that he lived in a very desirable place and he assumed a very enviable position. And don’t miss the point this morning, ladies and gentlemen: by any stretch of the imagination, if you’ve traveled the world at all, you know that even at our most impoverished in this group, we live in a very desirable place, and we enjoy very enviable positions. But what was his condition? Well, it was simply this: that he was leprous. That he was leprous. And so all that he enjoyed, all the variety of his opportunities, all the benefits of his possessions, could not come close to tackling his problem. There wasn’t, if you like, anything that he was able to do. And the leprosy was spoiling his life.
“Oh,” you say, “this is very interesting so far. Never knew this was in 2 Kings 5. Never knew about a man called Naaman. Didn’t realize there were three a’s in his name. But you know what? Are you ever going to sort of bridge the gap between the late twentieth century and wherever we are here? Because after all, this is historically interesting, but this is practically and personally irrelevant,” some people are saying. “I didn’t want to come here and listen to a historical lecture.” No, I’m glad, because I didn’t plan to give one. And let me explain to you: Naaman’s condition was a spoiling, spreading, ugly condition. A spoiling, spreading, separating, ugly condition. It is a classic biblical picture of the condition of men and women this morning in the United States of America—the condition that the Bible calls sin. And it is here, earthed in the Old Testament, an amazing illustration.
And this is the point of contact: the physical condition faced by Naaman is a picture of the spiritual condition faced by each one of us. Each of us is aware this morning that whatever else is in doubt, man is not today the way that God intended him to be.
Well, the Bible is absolutely clear. The Bible says this: that in the beginning, when God made the heavens and the earth, when he planted man and woman in the garden of Eden, everything was good. There was no disappointment, there was no unhappiness, there was nothing wrong at all. It was, if you like, to pick a word again from the ’60s, “groovy.” It was groovy. You remember groovy? “59th Street Bridge Song”:
Slow down, you move too fast,
We’ve got to make the morning last,
Kicking down the cobblestones,
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy.
I got no needs to do,
No promises to keep,
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready for sleep;
Let the morning time drop all its pleasures on me;
Life, I love you,
All is groovy.
Hey lo, lamppost, what’cha knowin’?
I come to watch your flowers growin’;
Ain’t ya got no rhymes for me?
Doot-in doo-doo, feelin’ groovy.
And that is exactly what it says. It was as groovy as it gets in the garden of Eden. Perfect! And then, read the story for yourself—homework, the early chapters of Genesis. And sin enters into the human condition, and suddenly there is death, suddenly there is murder, suddenly there is sexual abuse, suddenly there is absolute chaos. And suddenly life is robbed of its wholeness, its completeness, and its perfection. And that is why this morning, dear folks, when each of us describes our context, and we’re able to say of ourselves, “Well, you know my name is So-and-So, and I have done this, and I have been there, and I’ve achieved this, and I’ve earned that, and I live there, and I visit here,” and so on, at the end of all of that, we’re heading inevitably for the little word but.
And the word leads us into the fact of our condition that’s clearly ours as was Naaman’s leprosy, framed for us in Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fall[en] short of the glory of God.” Leprosy was no respecter of Naaman’s status. And sin is no respecter of yours or mine. The reason the Bible says “all” is because it means all, and because it is all. And there is not a man or a woman or a young person in this building at this moment who is free from that inclusive phrase.
And it is this sin which detracts from our happiness. It is this sin which finds us living, many of us this morning, with great regret—wondering why it is that we cannot wash out, as it were, the spots of our past existence, living with guilt, living with fear, living with a deep-seated resentment and anger, living with a sense of emptiness, living with a sense of aloneness. And no matter what we try and do, and no matter where we’re able to go, still this plaintive song, this melody, keeps playing in the back of our heads.
There wasn’t a chariot, you see, that Naaman could ride, there wasn’t an outfit that Naaman could wear, that could cure the condition that was so obvious to him every time he took a shower. And there’s not a car that you and I can buy and drive, there’s not an Armani suit that you can go out and purchase and wear, that will take care of the settling dust of sin, which spoils and spreads and separates, detracts from our happiness, and frankly, makes us ultimately positively unhappy.
Why are men and women today so unhappy in our world? Why so many gloomy faces? Why in this land of great opportunity are men and women the way they are? Why is it that on university campuses there is so much deadness and futility and failure? What is the reason? Well, psychologists and sociologists are at all kinds of extremes to provide an answer. And the Bible is very, very clear.
And sin is ugly, as sure as leprosy was ugly. No matter how we may try and dress it up, sin is downright ugly. They may try and make sexual sin look attractive on the inside pages of the Friday Plain Dealer, but it is downright ugly. They may make greed look something very attractive, but it is downright ugly. And so it is that many of the ugly buildings through which we walk in the architecture of our days, and many of the strange artistic representations that have emanated from the mind of our contemporary thinkers, stress for us the great disengagement of life, the great incongruity of so much, and before us is a picture of our own human condition. So much that is marked by ugliness.
It doesn’t matter who we are, it doesn’t matter where we are, it doesn’t matter when we lived. Sin is not an intellectual problem; it’s a moral problem. That’s why, you see, no matter how good your SAT scores were, they weren’t good enough for you to deal with guilt. If you could get a 1500 and be free from sin, it’d be worth trying for, but you maybe got one, and you know you can’t. That’s why financial status can never take us high enough to get beyond the cloud level that lingers as a result of this terminal human condition. And when, loved ones, this morning, we pare it all away, the fact of the matter is that, just like Naaman, we’re in deep trouble. Ultimately, we’re just miserable sinners.
“Oh,” you say, “but I didn’t come here to hear that. That’s downright offensive.” I know it is. And I would never think to say it to you—unless, of course, I was only trying to tell you what is in this book. You see, it’s a concoction of the late twentieth century to encourage men and women to come to church so that you can tell them how good they are—parade their successes and tell them what a wonderful job they’re doing and everything. Because they go home and they say, “I don’t know why that fellow says that, because I’m not as good as that. My wife knows I’m not, my children know I’m not, my boss and my employees know I’m not. I’ve got a problem here. There is a plaintive melody in the back of my mind. What in the world is the problem?” Well, I gotta tell you: you’re a miserable sinner! Our lives are full of jealousy and envy and lust and passion, and without exception, we are suffering from the leprosy of our souls. And there is nothing that, in our success, will be able to cure it.
Well, let’s go then to cure. His context was that he was in a very desirable place and he enjoyed a very enviable position, much as many of us do. His condition was that he had leprosy. That was true about him in such a way that it made everything else just not as distinct. His condition detracted from his happiness, his condition made him unhappy, and his condition was downright ugly. And that, says the Bible, is exactly what is the state of affairs with sin: it detracts from our happiness, it makes us unhappy and is downright ugly.
Well then, what of a cure? Well, the amazing thing in this chapter is clearly this: that Naaman obviously had the resources to kind of get any kind of cure that he wanted. He would’ve had access to the best physicians of his day, he was aware of his condition, and he would’ve been prepared, presumably, to go to any lengths to effect a cure—because after all, he didn’t want people talking behind their hands and saying, “You know, the one thing that strikes me about Naaman is that he has leprosy.” But he continues to suffer, the disease gets worse, there’s nothing that can be done; even the kings themselves are somewhat baffled by the whole problem. Indeed, they’re helpless to do anything to correct the problem. He goes to his master the king, and his master the king puts his best foot forward, and he says, “Well, if you’re going to go, that makes perfect sense. I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” “Ah, very good, and thank you so much.”
Now, all he’s doing is, he’s doing what he can do. After all, kings write letters, and they’re used to people pronouncing them: “The king of Aram says this, and the king of Israel says that.” And when the king of Aram and the king of Israel have said what they have to say, Naaman still has leprosy. And when the president says what he has to say, and when the Congress says what it has to say, and when we pronounce legislation on this and legislation on that, the fact of the matter is that we still live with a terminal condition the Bible calls sin.
And look at Naaman, and you look at our culture this morning. Verse 7, the king of Israel reads the letter, and he tears his robes and he says, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life?” Surely there must be that within the heart of any leader of our modern world, as they travel the globe and as they seek to do what they can do in public service—surely in the watches of the night, they must almost physically tear their clothes and say, “How can I deal with this? How can I make an impact here? How can we bring peace? How can we bring a cure? How can we deal with these teenagers? Let’s have a curfew law. Let’s try and get them home at night. Let’s try and keep them away from this and that.” And eventually they’re cast down to say, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life?”
You see, you only need a cursory reading of history, in terms of sociology, to realize the inability of humanity to fix things. It’s not so long ago when men and women, especially in Britain, were told that the reason that everybody did these bad things was because people were poor. And if they weren’t as poor, then they wouldn’t steal, and they wouldn’t be jealous, and so on, and so what we’ll do is, we’ll work by legislation to deal with the problem of poverty and to provide for them resources by means of the welfare state and so on. And then, said the sociologists, “When we deal with the problem, of course, then we’ll have the cure.”
And now we have one of the most affluent countries in the whole of western Europe, in Britain, and what’re the sociologists give as an explanation for all the greed and all the corruption and all the murder? “Oh,” they say, “it’s because people have far too much!” Before, they said, “the people are working too long. It’s like slave labor, you know. They’re at their work all the time. And the reason they’re at their work—it makes them angry, and it makes them spiteful, and so if we would cure that, then we’d fix it. So let’s work to get it down to forty hours, or thirty-five, or whatever it might be, and give them all this leisure time.” And now we say, “And why is it that they’re doing all these bad things?” “Well,” they say, “it’s perfectly obvious. It’s because they have far too much time on their hands! We have to find things for them to do.” And the fact of the matter is, bewildered, they stand before these external forces, all the time looking for answers, and all the time looking in the wrong direction. It is not that people are unaware of the fact that they need answers; it is that they just won’t look where they ought to look.
One of our local communities just put out a lovely piece on the community: all the fine things about the community, and what there is in the community, and the central events, and everything else. And I looked in vain in it for the listing of a church or a synagogue. Now, to some that may be insignificant, but it is a perfect illustration of our culture today. Never before would people have identified their community without paying particular regard to the place of the church in the center of the affairs of men and women, but today it doesn’t even get a listing. It’s a sideline. “We’re going to look over here, and we’ll look over there. We’ll find the answer in a council, or in a psychological therapy group, or in something else, but oh, for goodness’ sake, take all that church business away out of the road. We know we have a problem, but we for sure won’t be looking for it there.”
The thing about Naaman is that it wasn’t that there was no solution, but it was that he was ignorant of where the solution could be found. He was looking for something grand, something that would fit his status, something that would leave him with a bolstered sense of self-esteem. And we’re no more ready for such a cure than was Naaman.
Let me say two things about this cure, and then I’m finished. First of all, that the cure came from an unexpected source. It came from an unexpected source. Verse 2: “Now bands from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.” What was her name? We don’t know. How old was she? We haven’t a clue. Was she prominent? Absolutely not. Did she figure in the courts of Naaman? Definitely not. She was, if you like, the lady that came over on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and did two or three hours for his wife. He was usually gone at business, never saw her, came home, knew that someone had cleaned the bathroom up, was thankful for it, but she was irrelevant to him. She had no place in his existence. So if you have a pressing problem and you need a cure, and you’re used to being able to go to kings and senators and congressmen, and you’re used to being able to find the answer at the level of high society, and you anticipate that it will come from the boardroom or from academia, then the last place in the world you’re gonna look is in a broom closet, right?
I don’t want to be unkind to you this morning, but some of you remain outside of the kingdom of God because you, like Naaman, want somebody to do some great religious thing for you that fits your status. “Don’t you realize who I am? I’m Naaman. I mean, can’t you see the limousines that I’ve got parked outside your house here, Elisha? I mean, this isn’t just some flea-bit general from anywhere. I am directly under the command of the king of Aram. I have power. I have prestige. I have possessions. Indeed, I’m prepared to give you the possessions, and I expected that the least that you would do, Elisha, is just come out of your house, for goodness’ sake, stand beside me, wave your hand over the spot, and cleanse me of my problem.”
Do you know how many people believe that that’s the way you deal with the problem of sin? You go find a religious man, you park your car outside his house or outside his church, you put your money in the bucket, and you ask him to come out and wave his hand over the spot and fix you up. It will never, ever happen. Never. No one was ever cured of spiritual leprosy as a result of a religious ceremony performed by a presumably religious individual. And so there is no expectation to look in this lowly place for a cure.
Now, you see, this is the glory of the gospel, is it not? If you think about it and just follow the line through, here you’ve got these great empires of Assyria and the empires of the Chaldeans and Babylon and Egypt, and these are the great building blocks of secular history, and then you’ve got this funny little insignificant strip of real estate called Palestine. People look at this and say, “Palestine? It’s nothing. What would ever come out of Palestine?” And the answer is that right out of Palestine came the solution for the condition of Naaman.
Isn’t it the same thing as humanity scans the horizon, looking for a Messiah? “Now, we know that there’s presumably someone who will come, someone who will triumph and reign, and someone that we can look to who will be a leader. We might look for him in this place or that place or the other, but not in Bethlehem. Not in Bethlehem Ephrathah, the least of all the tribes of Israel—not the least. And if in Bethlehem, at least in a semireasonable establishment. And if in Bethlehem, at least maybe in a nice room. But not, for goodness’ sake, in a stable! You’re not telling me, Alistair, that the answer to my condition ultimately takes me to that cradle there in Bethlehem?” Yes!
When he grew, didn’t they say the same thing? “Can any good thing come out of… Nazareth? You know, we don’t mind somebody coming from Jerusalem. We don’t mind somebody even coming over from Damascus. But why would we listen to this character? He spends all of his time with a rabble of poor people. He’s always hanging around in pubs, and he’s with all these unsavory characters. We thought that if he was the Messiah, he’d get up with us, where we like to be. And when he goes up to Jerusalem, we expect him to come up with dignity, on a large white charger, but not on a donkey. And we expect that when he is lifted up, he will be lifted up on a throne, but not lifted up on a cross.” And like Naaman we say, “Nah. There are better places that I can go. There are better solutions that I can find—solutions which leave me with my esteem, leave me with my ego, meet me where I am. There will be none of this dumping down in the dirty waters of the Jordan for me.”
Because, you see, not only did the cure come from an unexpected source, but the cure was frankly an unusual solution: “[And] Elisha sent a messenger [which said], ‘Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan.’” He didn’t like it. Why? Because it hurt his pride and it humbled him. He thinks he knows everything, and he knows nothing. He was angry. Nothing had happened the way he expected it. And yet he sticks with his strategy, and he remains a leper.
Isn’t this amazing? I mean, here is a guy who, for all that he has, has got one pressing problem. He knows that more than any other thing in the world, he wants to be rid of that problem. But he wants to be rid of it on his own terms, in his own way, and by his own say-so. So when someone comes to him and says, “Listen, this is what you have to do,” he is prepared to keep his problem, to retain his self-esteem, rather than give up his pride and be relieved of the scabs on his hands.
Naaman was absolutely insulted by the solution. He regarded it as humiliating and as ridiculous. And so do men and women this morning. When Paul writes to the Corinthians, he says, in the preaching of the cross, this news of the death of the Lord Jesus, he says, “We preach Christ crucified,” which is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” In chapter 2 he says, “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit because they are foolishness to him.”
So I’m not surprised when I’m out, and perhaps on the golf course, and I’m talking with one of my partners, and I say, “You know, I believe that the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.” “Oh,” they say, “that’s rather profound.” I say, “Well, it’s not really. I just got it somewhere, and I like to say it.” And they laugh, and then we talk some more, and I eventually say, “You know, I believe that in the death of Jesus of Nazareth is the answer to your problem and mine, and is the issue, is the pivotal event, of all of human history.” And at that point, by and large, people say, politely, “Listen, I never heard anything as foolish in all my life.” So if you feel that way, you’re already in the book. It’s no surprise! You’re supposed to feel that way. You see, you feel that way first.
People this morning say, “You know, this America is a great nation, and I was brought up with a very nice mom and dad, and I’m grateful for that, and I’ve always tried to put my best foot forward, and really, the rivers in which I can go and wash are a lot better than this crummy stream, and I wish I’d never got myself in here in the first place. And furthermore, I think that I know what the Christian life is. I think the Christian life is simply this: that you imitate Jesus Christ. And so,” you say to me, “that’s exactly what I’ve begun to do. I am now trying to put his teaching into practice, I am trying to come to church at least once a week, and I am hoping that as a result of having spruced up my act, got a little religion, and tried to imitate Jesus Christ, tried to live by the Sermon on the Mount, tried to put in place the Golden Rule, that eventually God will reward me for doing all those things. So I imitate Jesus, he scores me, and then, depending on how I score, he includes me in heaven or he leaves me out.”
That is not good news. That is bad news. Indeed, that is lousy news! You only need to think about that for a couple of minutes. Because what you’re saying is, going to heaven, being cured of spiritual leprosy, is on the basis of how good you can be. Well, the question is, how good do you have to be? And the answer is, perfect. So that cuts out a significant number of us to begin with, does it not? So that is bad news. And yet that is the news which is offered from pulpit after pulpit after pulpit. And it is a chronicle of despair: “Now, I want you this week to go out and imitate Jesus Christ!” And the average businessman says, “I can’t do it.”
Of course you can’t do it! No more than you can imitate Shakespeare, for goodness’ sake! You can’t write Shakespeare’s sonnets unless the genius of Shakespeare came to live in you. You can’t imitate Jesus Christ unless the life of Christ came to live in you. So the good news is not the imitation of Christ; the good news is transformation by Christ.
See, what did Naaman bring? What did he bring to the Jordan? His condition.
“But he brought gold and silver and stuff.”
Yeah, uh-huh. And what good was all of that? No good at all, right?
“Well,” you say to me, “are you telling me that my morality, and that my position in life, and my giving to the United Way, this isn’t in the equation?”
Yeah, it is in the equation. You know what the Bible calls it? “Filthy rags”! It calls it the worst kind of dry cleaning. It is only when, like Naaman, you and I are prepared to say, “‘Just as I am, without one plea’ in my defense—save for the fact that this Jesus, when he died upon the cross, bore my punishment, took my pain, took all of my badness, in his own body, so that I might be cured as a result of his taking my condition.”
Can you imagine a physician who healed like that? You went to the doctor, and he diagnosed the condition, and he said, “You know, you have a tumor here under your arm.” And then he said, “Here, give me that.” And the tumor appeared on his arm, and your arm was immediately clean.
You say, “This is a mystery. Could never be.” No, of course it couldn’t be, but that is exactly the mystery of the gospel.
Let me conclude by saying this to you: Naaman came very close to dying as a leper, ’cause he was angry—the way I would imagine some are angry this morning. You’re angry with the people you’re sitting next to, ’cause you’re saying, “Goodness gracious, if they had only told me what this was like, I would never have shown up here.” And you’re already trying to work out a diplomatic way to get as far from them as you possibly can as quickly as you might. And Naaman was angry—absolutely steaming! Can you not imagine… I mean, you’ve gotta imagine the guy. And yet his servant said to him, “Hey, Naaman… Naaman, if the guy had asked you to do some unbelievable thing, wouldn’t you have done it?”
And the answer is yes. He had $750,000 worth of gold he was ready to dump, a similar amount in silver, and an unbelievable wardrobe. If the guy had come out and said, “You know what? I wanted a million and a half in gold, two million in silver, I wanted fifty outfits rather than twelve,” Naaman would’ve said, “Go back and get the stuff.” In the same way that if I said to you this morning, “Let me tell you the way into the kingdom of heaven: give x amount to this, go on a pilgrimage to there, run three times round the block, and when you come back, I’m gonna give you a little button, and that button’ll be your security.” And people’d be lining up for that button so fast! Because it leaves us with our ego: “We can do it! I gave, I performed, I ran, I got the pin!”
Uh-uh. Here’s the deal: Get down on your knees, and admit that you are suffering from spiritual leprosy. Admit the fact that your desirable place of residence and your enviable position in society does nothing to deal with the issue. Acknowledge that sin detracts from your happiness. It makes you unhappy. It’s dreadfully ugly. And believe that when Jesus died upon the cross, he bore your sin, so that you need not fear death. You can reject what I’m saying to you, and if you do, you will remain in your sin. The Bible says you will die in your sin, and for all of eternity you will be without hope and you will have nothing to cheer you. But if you would, as Naaman did, turn around and stoop down, then you may embrace the good news in a bad news world.
Let’s pause in a moment of prayer.
Just where we’re seated this morning, let us be very, very clear that the good news is not an invitation to imitate Jesus Christ; the good news is a call to be transformed by Christ. What do we have to do? Believe his promise. “Surely,” you say, “there’s something more than that. Don’t I have to attend courses, read books, attend church, get this done and that done?” No. Believe his promise. And then the lifestyle will emerge from the transformation of your life.
Just where you’re seated today, tell God what’s on your heart. If he’s spoken into your life, admit that you know yourself to be in this condition. Become like a little child in trusting in his provision for your need. And then stand to your feet to declare your commitment to follow him.
Lord, hear our prayers, and let our cry come unto you. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943).
 P. F. Sloan, “Eve of Destruction” (1965).
 Rory Bourke, Charlie Black, and Tommy Rocco, “A Little Good News” (1983). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Paul Simon, “Richard Cory” (1966). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Paul Simon, “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” (1966). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Micah 5:2 (paraphrased).
 John 1:46 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 1:23 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 2:14 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 64:6 (NIV 1984).
 Charlotte Elliott, “Just as I Am” (1835).
Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.