What does it mean, Friends, to be Children of the Promise?
This would be an easier question to think about, of course, if what we had for Scriptures were a divinely inspired catechism or creed. Maybe something in a question and answer format, where the questions would be simple: whose children are we, and what is the promise?
The answers, one hopes, would be simple as well. Then we could just go through the checklist, make sure we have the right answers, and then break for an early brunch.
But no: what we have is a collection of stories, and poems, and proverbs, and historical documents. They’re written across thousands of years, from wildly differing eras and perspectives, and they don’t yield easy answers to questions like what does it mean, to be children of the promise?
We’re tempted, I suppose, to ask the Bible to get to the point. That’s what Peter Leithart, a Presbyterian teacher whose work I appreciate, thinks.
We want Bible teaching to be practical, he says. Give me three things that I can do this week to make my life better, or to make me more holy. Make that list allerative, if you can.
Be brave. Be bold. Be benevolent. Here’s how.
I mean, you should do all that. But Peter says that “God in His infinite wisdom decided to give us a book, a very long book, and not a portrait or aphorism. God reveals Himself in his image, Jesus, but we come to know that image by reading, and that takes time.”
And who has time, right?
But Leithart says that our rushing won’t do because God is revealing Godself by leading us “through the labyrinth of the text itself. There is treasure at the center of the labyrinth, but with texts, the journey really is as important as the destination.”
So, labyrinths. I’ve shared with you before that I have no patience for walking labyrinths. It’s just this way, and then loop back that way, and then turn back again, and probably I’m supposed to be doing a breathing exercise too, and it’s just the worst.
But if you’ve explored a fictional world, whether it’s Harry Potter or Star Trek or the Lord of the Rings or Moominland or Narnia or Discworld, then you know how fun it can be to find connections within the story.
It’s worth wrestling with. The author has laid a landscape, and it’s worth exploring it to find new shores, worth digging in it to find new treasures.
Here’s one that I like, from Star Wars: Anakin and Luke, both in their little ships, both having no rational idea what’s going on, and both blowing up massive installations of the empire. Like father, like son, right?
It’s a neat little parallel- a string to follow that leads you deeper into the story. From there, you could look for other parallels between Luke and Anakin’s stories. You could look to see if any other characters in the story share that parallel. You could take one piece from those parallel scenes, like their helmet and goggles, and explore its significance.
The Biblical story is absolutely full of moments like that.
I promise that I’m coming around to the story of Elisha and Naaman, here, but I want you to see how this works, because no one story that we explore on a Sunday is a standalone narrative. They’re all connected to one another.
So we started off, this year, with the story of Noah and the Ark. The people were unfaithful and making a mess of creation, so God repented of making humans at all and decided to wash them away. God saved Noah and his family, though, on a little boat with representatives of all the animals.
And after all the other people had been destroyed, God decided not to do that again. God put a rainbow in the heavens as a sign that never again would such devastation happen. God would find another way to redeem the world.
We are children of that promise. We are the ones that God has promised to redeem, rather than destroy. We are the recipients of God’s grace.
And then we had the story of Abraham being called out into a great journey. God gives him a promise, too: that God will bless him, and that he will be a blessing. God says that all peoples of the earth will be blessed through Abraham.
We are children of that promise. We are reading Jewish stories, here, but I don’t think that any of us are Jews. We’re the children of other nations. But that was the promise, right? All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.
We saw God’s faithfulness to this promise in the story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery but never abandoned. And we saw God’s faithfulness in the story of the Exodus, in which God acted with power to rescue the children of the promise.
And we saw the children brought out into the desert, to Mt Sinai, where God’s voice rang in thunder and God’s presence covered the mountain in smoke. There they covenanted with God.
They received the law and a promise. The law was to keep them holy, so that God’s presence could safely reside with them, but that’s a sermon for another day. The promise was simple, and often repeated in various ways: if you keep my commands, you will live long in the promised land.
Three promises. God will work for the good of the world with us.. God will bless all the peoples of the earth. If we obey, we can participate in the outworking of this promise.
On our 150th anniversary homecoming, we read a less familiar story from the book of Joshua. It’s from the beginning of the book, when the Israelites first reached the Promised Land. They were camped on the other side of the Jordan River, preparing to cross over.
Now, what does that remind you of? It should remind you of earlier in the story, when the Israelites were camped on the edge of the sea, with Pharaoh’s army bearing down behind them to kill them or return them to slavery.
And then, the glory of the Lord shone round and the sea was parted in two, so that the Israelites could walk through on dry ground.
They wandered in the desert for a long time, and then they came to the boundary line of the Promised Land – the Jordan River – and there again they crossed on dry land. The river was at flood stage, but when the priests who carried the Ark of the Covenant stepped into the river, the water stopped flowing and the people passed through in safety.
While the priests were still standing in the dry riverbed with the Ark of the Covenant, God instructed that a representative from each tribe should carry a stone from the Jordan riverbed, from where the priests were standing. They placed the stones as a memorial, so that when their children asked what that rock pile was about, their parents could tell them about how they crossed the Jordan River on dry ground.
Here’s something that you should know about the Jordan River, though: it is not a mighty stream. Don’t picture the Ohio River, or the Willamette or the Mississippi.
It’s a slow moving muddy mess, really. When it’s dry, rather than flooding, you could cross it pretty easily.
I mention that because in today’s story, Naaman was insulted by the idea of bathing in the Jordan River. He said that there were better rivers for bathing back home, in Damascus.
He wasn’t wrong about that. The Jordan River wasn’t a great place for a bath. It’s not a hot springs, or someplace where you’d put a spa.
What it was, though, was the boundary line of the Promised Land. You had to go through the Jordan River to get in.
A long time later, there would be a prophet named John. He attracted a great crowd, with his preaching, and he led them in a ritual exercise… he’d take them out to the Jordan River and dunk them in it, take them under the water and pull them back up.
It was a symbolic representation of coming into the Promised Land. Maybe the person being baptized had lived in Galilee all along, but this was their entry point. They were coming out of slavery and into the Exodus journey, out of the wilderness and into the land of promise.
Even Jesus went through that ritual process. People argue about what that means, but Jesus insisted that it was necessary. He demanded to experience it just like anyone else- down into death, and up into life.
The Jordan River, of course, is where the prophet Elisha sent a man named Naaman. Naaman was a commander of the army of the king of Aram, a country that neighbored Israel. He was valiant in battle, but he had leprosy.
That’s a death sentence. It’s a death sentence in part because you die of it, eventually. But here’s the real reason: to be a leper is to be excluded from the community.
Leprosy is contagious. It wasn’t safe to have a leper inside the village, because others could be infected. To try to stem the spread of the disease, lepers would be sent into the wilderness to live, and eventually die.
Into the wilderness… you see the connection, right? Adam and Eve were exiled into the wilderness, and Abraham and Sarah were called to journey in the wilderness, and the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land.
And leprosy could take a powerful man like Naaman, a commander of armies, and send him into the wilderness.
But Israel has been at war with Naaman’s country, and Naaman’s country has the upper hand, so he has in his household an Israelite servant girl. She lives out the promise that God would be a blessing to all nations by telling her mistress about a prophet named Elisha, back in her home, who could heal Naaman.
Naaman’s wife passes the info on to Naaman, who crafts a different plan. With the blessing of his own king, he goes straight to the King of Israel.
Makes sense, right? I mean, Naaman is an important man. Why would he just go to some hobo prophet in the wilderness? It makes sense to go to the man in charge, right?
But the King of Israel is just a mess, upon hearing all this, because he assumes it’s a trap. He can’t heal leprosy, and he knows it, so he thinks that the other king is trying to bait him. He thinks that when, inevitably, Naaman is not healed, the other king will use this as a reason to attack.
The prophet Elisha hears about this, and invites Naaman to come to him. He doesn’t bother to go out to meet with Naaman, though. He just sends Naaman a message: Go wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.
This is not a good enough answer, for a powerful man like Naaman. I mean, he’s a commander! He’s used to having his plans be the plans. He calls the shots. That’s his job.
He wanted Elisha to come out to meet him, to say some prayers and to heal him on the spot. And if not that, then couldn’t he wash in a better river than the muddy Jordan?
Well, no… just like for the Israelites crossing into the Promised Land, and just like for John the Baptist and Jesus, there isn’t a better river. Naaman has to go to the Jordan if he wants to become a beneficiary of the promise.
Naaman did it, after some cajoling, and he was indeed healed. He tries to give back to Elisha, as if he could pay for the gift, and Elisha rejects this idea. So, instead, Naaman hauls back with him as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, so that he can worship and make sacrifices to the God of Israel while standing on holy ground.
Naaman was given grace, and he objected but then subjected himself to it, and he was healed. Abraham was promised that all the peoples of the earth would be blessed through him, and here’s a commander of a foreign army crossing through the Jordan, being brought into the wilderness and then up out of death into new life.
Naaman became a child of the promise. Naaman is healed of leprosy.
What about us? It would be easier, I know, if I could give you a flowchart or a checklist. Do this, and do that, and sign here on form 23B, and then you’re in.
But grace doesn’t work like that. We’re looking at a labyrinth here: a journey through the wilderness and into the land of promise.
So instead of a conclusion, exactly, here’s an advice: Naaman wouldn’t have found healing, if he hadn’t listened to his community.
He has to hear what his wife is saying, and she’s just passing along something that a servant girl said. He has to hear the word of a prophet in the land of his enemies. And then he has to hear his own servants, when he’s too proud to bathe in the muddy Jordan, and they point out that he would have been happy to do a far harder task than a mud bath.
Naaman became a child of the promise. Or, perhaps: Naaman the foreigner, Naaman the commander of the opposing army, was a child of the promise all along.
You’re a child of the promise, too. And one way or another, you’re going to go down into the muddy depths, and grace is going to bring you back up in ways you could never have expected. How can you see that, now, as part of your story?