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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Sandra L. Randleman

July 7, 2013

Washing in the Waters of the Jordan

II Kings 5:1-16; Galatians 5:22-6:10

  A poet once asked, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”[1]  This is one of the most important questions we ever have to answer, and we answer the question with the way we live our lives.  The Bible gives us answers to the question in the voices of various speakers.  But the answer throughout the various books of the Bible remains remarkably consistent.  Jesus expressed the answer in these words, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  These two commandments are tied together because it is impossible to truly love our neighbor unless we love God, and we certainly cannot love God unless we love our neighbor as God commands.  Before we can love God and through God our neighbor, we must first know God.  Seeking God with all of our hearts, we will find God and the adventure that becomes the story of our wild and precious life.

In our reading from II Kings, we hear the story of a man who came to know God through a prophet of Israel.  This man, Naaman, was not a Jew.  He was the commander of the army of the king of Aram. We are told that by Naaman, God had given victory to Aram, for his army defeated the Jews.  Israel’s defeat, then, was seen as the will of the Lord.  We see through this story that Israel’s defeat is ultimately used for God’s greater good, for through these circumstances Naaman came to know God.

Despite his wonderful military victory, Naaman has a problem in that he suffers from a terrible skin disease.  During one of the Arameans’ raids on Israel, they had taken a young Jewish girl captive and she served Naaman’s wife as a servant.  The young servant girl told her mistress about a prophet in Samaria who could cure Naaman of his disease.  It is amazing how God can use the most unlikely of people to speak His words of guidance!  God uses a captive servant girl to guide her master to physical healing and to spiritual awakening to the God of Israel.  God may still speak to us through the words of other people if we but have ears to hear and His guidance to discern His voice.

Fortunately, Naaman was willing to act upon the counsel of his wife’s servant girl.  Even the king of Aram is willing to support Naaman’s intention to act upon the advice of the servant girl.  Naaman travels to Israel with his king’s letter to the king of Israel, and extravagant gifts of silver, gold and garments to give in payment for his healing.  The king of Israel interprets the letter as a demand that he cure Naaman himself.  He rightly proclaims that only God can cure Naaman of his terrible disease.  He fears that the king of Aram is looking for a pretext for war against Israel.  It seems that the king of Israel does not know what a captive servant girl knows, for there is a prophet in Samaria who can call upon God for this miraculous healing.

God is at work.  Elisha hears of the king’s distress and sends a message to the king offering to help so that Naaman might know that there is a prophet in Israel.  Naaman comes to Elisha’s house with his horses and chariots and many gifts.  He must have made an impressive sight!  Naaman expects the prophet to receive him in person, for Naaman is a great and powerful man.  Instead, Elisha sends a messenger and tells Naaman to wash himself in the Jordan River seven times and then he will be clean.  Naaman must wash not once, but seven times, a number that symbolizes perfection or completion.

When we think of washing in the waters of the Jordan, we may recall Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River many years later, long after the days of Naaman.  The baptism marked the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  As Jesus emerged from the waters, Jesus saw the heavens open and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove and a voice came from heaven, “Thou are my beloved Son, with Thee I am well  pleased.”  We would view the opportunity to wash in the waters of the Jordan River as a positive and deeply spiritual experience, but Naaman has a different perspective.    

Naaman is indignant and his pride is wounded.  He had expected to be received in person by the prophet, and he certainly did not expect to be instructed by a messenger to simply wash in the unseemly waters of a local river when the rivers of Damascus are so superior.  He turns away angry and disappointed.  Naaman may be worried about appearances.  How would it appear for Naaman, a great commander of the king’s army, to bathe in the dirty waters of the Jordan at the instructions of a mere servant of a Jewish prophet?  What if nothing happens?  Would he appear ridiculous in the eyes of all who see and hear?    

  Again, God uses unlikely messengers to direct Naaman to the healing he seeks.  God speaks through Naaman’s servants who point out that if the prophet had commanded Naaman to do something difficult and dramatic, he would have done it.  Why not follow this simple instruction of the prophet?  Naaman humbles himself to listen to the advice of his servants not yet knowing that he is hearing the guidance of God through them. Naaman washes in the waters of the Jordan seven times and he is healed.  Naaman returns to Elisha who now receives him, and he proclaims that there is no other God in all the earth except in Israel.     

Naaman has found healing and he has also found the one true God.  In retrospect, it is easy to see how God orchestrated the process of salvation for Naaman.  Israel’s military defeat and the capture of a young Jewish girl who became a servant were probably viewed as most unfortunate events.  Yet, they are woven into a plan and used to accomplish God’s good purposes.  In illness, Naaman was humbled enough that he was willing to follow the advice of his servants and the instructions of a foreign prophet who declined to receive him in person.  Naaman found what he was seeking and much, much more.

God can work in the most amazing ways through events or persons and in places where we might not expect to see God at work, guiding us, molding us, transforming us.  The Bible is filled with stories of how God uses the most surprising people to work His will and often in the most surprising of ways.  The results are always wonderful.  One of many such stories is that of a young virgin, not yet wed, who meets an angel and is given the incredible news that she is to bear the Son of God, Jesus.  Mary’s response is one of awe and acceptance, “I am the handmaid of the Lord.  Let it be to me according to your word.”  Her response of obedience and submission was like washing in the waters of the Jordan.  Amazing!

I recently visited the Butchart Gardens in Victoria.  The gardens began from the simple idea of Jennie Butchart to plant a garden in the worked-out limestone quarry that had supplied her husband’s nearby cement plant.  More than 100 years after this simple beginning, the gardens now encompass over 55 acres and are visited by nearly a million visitors each year.  The gardens skillfully combine shrubs, trees, flowers and fountains into a masterpiece of colors that delights the eye and gives life to the spirit.  An abandoned limestone quarry has become the setting of gardens that affirm the goodness and beauty of God’s creation.  Life flourishes where you would least expect it.

     There are times when our lives may seem like an abandoned limestone quarry. Life may be interrupted by the death of one dear to us, or a serious illness of ourselves or a loved one, or by a troubled relationship, or difficulty in finding or meeting the demands of a job.  We may be disappointed by doors that do not open or by our own performance and seeming lack of abilities.  Yet, it is often in such times that we can most clearly hear the voice of God, and sometimes through the most unlikely of speakers.  Perhaps we are intently listening for God in such times.  We are desperate for guidance.  We may be waiting in the silence for what may seem like a very long time.  Then we may hear an idea and wonder:  was that the still, small voice of God?  Or we may have an insight, an inspiration, an idea and feel a flicker of hope.  We may have found our waters of the Jordan.

The Bible affirms again and again that God loves us and is at work in our lives and in our community for good for all those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.  God is a God that affirms hope and life even in the darkest of moments.  God sent His Son, Jesus, to live among us to teach us of a God of love, to die for sinful beings who rejected Him and then to be raised from the dead to give us the hope of life eternal.  Jesus has promised to be with us always through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Among Jesus’ parting words to His disciples are these words:  “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:26-27).   

Our challenge is one of discerning how God is calling us to live abundantly and fully the one wild and precious life we have been given.  Our challenge is one of obedience in the ways that God is guiding us.

Ben Campbell Johnson is professor emeritus of Columbia Theological Seminary and the writer of many books.  In his book, Living Before God, Ben recounts a conversation with the abbot of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit where he was on a retreat.[2]  Ben asked the abbot, “How can I live faithfully each day before God?  What help can you give me in being alert to the Spirit?”  The first suggestion was this, “Believe that everything that happens in your life happens for your good or God’s glory.  But you must take everything in this light, for one denial breaks everything down.”

Last Tuesday morning, in our Men’s Bible Study discussion, I was reminded of the wonderful story of Jesus in the Gospel of John, healing the man born blind.  Jesus is asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus answered, “It was not this man who sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”  God can use suffering and difficult circumstances for His glory if we respond by trusting God and allowing ourselves to be guided by Him.

The abbot’s second suggestion was that Ben pray the Serenity Prayer daily:  “God give me the grace to accept the things I cannot change, the power to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Finally, the Abbot encouraged Ben to adopt the attitude of Teresa of Avila, a 16th-century saint who founded a Holy Order.  According to the Abbot, Teresa said that we all need two senses:  a sense of faith and a sense of humor.  If we wake up without a sense of faith, then we must lean on our sense of humor.  If we wake without a sense of humor, then we must lean on our sense of faith.  Acceptance of every aspect of life, regularly praying for such acceptance and developing the two senses we most need will keep us joyously in the present moment. Living in the present moment means you are not lost in the past or running to the future for greater anticipated fulfillment or deeper anxiety and that you choose to focus your awareness on the present moment. 

With awareness of the present moment, there is an opportunity to be attentive to what is happening around us, how what is happening may connect to us, and how God may be guiding us.  Sometimes God interrupts our seemingly well-planned lives in a way that completely alters the course of our lives.  John Calvin had no intention of becoming an important early leader in the Reformation and one of the fathers of our reformed tradition in the Presbyterian Church.   In 1536, Calvin was traveling to Strasbourg, but the most direct road was closed because of wars.  Calvin was forced to travel through Geneva where he intended to stop for one night only.  Guillaune Farel, a leader of the Reformed movement in Geneva, learned that Calvin was present in his town, and he paid Calvin a visit.  Farel pleaded with Calvin to remain in Geneva and work with him in the newly formed Reformed churches. Calvin’s intention was to pursue a quiet life of theological study in other settings so he declined Farel’s invitation to remain in Geneva and become a leader in the Reformed church.  Farel pleaded with Calvin again, but Calvin declined.  Finally, in desperation, Farel cried out that it might please God to curse the rest and quietness of Calvin’s study if he refused to assist him in the work of the churches in Geneva.  Calvin was horrified and shocked by Farel’s words and decided that Farel’s words might be a call from God.  Calvin remained in Geneva for most of his life, working fervently and making many contributions to the Reformed church until his death 28 years later.  God can work in what seems to be a chance meeting or circumstance.  Only in retrospect do we see the guiding hand of God at work.  

As we seek to listen with attentiveness to how God may be guiding us, there are at least four steps we can embrace to help us discern whether an idea is “of God” or consistent with His way.  First, we continue to pray and ask that God will lead us and help us with the decisions of our lives. We can even ask God for His help in desiring to follow His way rather than our way.

Second, we can ask others in our Christian community to pray for us.  Our passage from Galatians provides helpful words for those who desire to live as God leads and guides us. Paul encourages us to live in a community of believers that seeks to help one another live faithfully as followers of Jesus Christ.  Our Christian brothers and sisters, acting with humility and gentleness, can pray with us and for us and assist us as we seek to discern God’s way for our lives. We are to support one another in our Christian walk, bearing one another’s burdens.  In this way, we fulfill the law of Christ which is always founded upon love of God and love of our neighbor, the same self-sacrificial love seen in the life and death of Jesus Christ. 

Third, we can study the words of the Bible and especially the teachings and the life of Jesus.  The ultimate test is whether we would be embodying the love of Christ in our words and deeds.  If we are uncertain, there may be others in our community that will help us with our discernment.  We wait until we have a peace concerning our next course of action.  The fruit of God’s Holy Spirit, Paul tells us, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Fourth, if we have prayed, sought the wise counsel of trusted Christians and determined our course of action to be consistent with scripture and the life of Christ, we are ready for the next step.  We can knock on the doors, and see if they open.  If the idea is of God, then the way will open.  We may need to keep prayerfully knocking for a time.  If, however, the doors remains closed, there may be other doors leading to other paths we are to follow.  We must continue to listen for God’s guidance.  In the words of Paul, do “not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.”

One of my favorite movies is “Simon Burch,” based on the novel by John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany.  As the movie opens, we see a man standing in a cemetery.  He affirms that the reason he believes in God is because of Simon Burch.  Simon Burch was born no bigger than a man’s fist.  Although the doctors said Simon would not survive the night, Simon lived and grew into a pint-sized little boy of 12 years old.  Simon was so small that even at the age of 12, he played the infant Jesus in the church Christmas pageant.  Simon firmly believed that he had been placed on earth as “God’s instrument” and for a special, heroic purpose.  His faith in his destiny allowed him to endure many hardships:  indifferent and unloving parents, the teasing of other children and the ridicule of adults.  Simon proclaimed through misadventure and suffering, “God has made me the way I am for a reason” and “God has a plan for everyone.”  By the conclusion of the movie, Simon’s faith is affirmed.  He discovers his special purpose as God uses him, with his small size, to save the lives of many children.  I believe that Simon Burch was correct in believing that God does have a plan for everyone, a plan that includes growing through our lives in our love of God and our neighbors.     

God is a God of Holy surprises, inviting us to enter the water of the Jordan through people and in ways we may have never anticipated.  New opportunities for entering the waters appear before us again and again throughout our lives as our circumstances change and as we grow.   Perhaps that is why we know the way must be God’s way, too amazing and too wonderful for human minds to have ever devised.  In the words of Psalm 138, we can be assured that God will perfect that which concerns us.  May we all know the wonder of washing again and again in the waters of the Jordan that leads to abundant life in Jesus Christ.

[1] Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1992), 94.

[2] Ben Campbell Johnson, Living Before God:  Deepening Our Sense of the Divine Presence (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 88-9.

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