7-7-19 The Warrior Within

The Warrior Within

 

Rev. Jay Rowland

Sunday July 7, 2019,

First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN 

Galatians 6:1-18

2 Kings 5:1-14 

 

Compared with, say, Moses or David or Esther, Naaman is a lesser-known character in the Bible so I thought it might be good to unpack this passage from 2nd Kings. There’s a great deal going on there. 

Naaman is Commander of the military forces of Aram--modern day Syria. So the first thing to know about him is he’s not an Israelite--not one of the Chosen People.  He is a decorated warrior and commander. His success on the battlefield has earned him fame, fortune and the loyalty of his king.  

And this is why Naaman's story is worth some reflection. Most cultures, certainly our own, are deeply invested in what I call the warrior myth.  Naaman fits the warrior archetype: he leads men into battle and returns victorious. He has conquered every foe, perhaps even death on the battlefield. We don’t know anything about Naaman’s life prior to his appearance in 2 Kings 5. But it seems clear that his valor on the battlefield has elevated Naaman to nearly god-like status.  

In spite of all that, Naaman has a serious problem which is identified almost as an afterthought at the end of verse 1: “The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy."  

The term “leprosy” usually comes footnoted in the Old Testament to explain that the Hebrew word can refer to a variety of different skin afflictions--including the worst one of all, actual leprosy.

  We don’t know which one afflicts Naaman. All we know is that this mighty warrior and commander is suffering--not from combat wounds or even post-traumatic stress, but from leprosy. 

On the battlefield, Naaman is a conqueror successfully navigating combat with all its carnage, chaos and brutality.  He commands and leads men in battle. Many to their death. He has authority, actual power over others.  But none of that is of any use against leprosy.  

The influence of the warrior archetype upon culture can be seen whenever it’s presumed that fighting is the only response to anything we cannot bear, such as illness or any threat to our existence. For example, when someone is “fighting cancer” or “fighting for their life” (or “lost their fight with” some illness). On a larger scale, we have waged wars against communism, vs poverty, against drugs, and lately against terrorism, none of which has yielded.  

Whenever “we” declare that by sheer force of willpower, we can defeat any problem that’s a clear example of the warrior myth at work.

It has been very destructive myth, at least in my lifetime. We have invested trillions of dollars in the warrior myth in VietNam, then again in Iraq & Afghanistan post 9/11.  We have no clue what to do with our warriors off the battlefield. We’ll root for them over there but then do little/nothing to equip them for the transition back to “normal” civilian life. For every warrior who successfully adapts from battlefield to home-field, multitudes do not. Yet the warrior myth persists. 

Jesus is the antidote, the antithesis, to the warrior mythf. The outcome he seeks is always connection never conquest. Jesus lives (and died) to connect us to God, to each other, to creation. The mightiest forces of this world conspired to oppose him, discredit & shame him, then kill him. Even so, Jesus opposes these mortal enemies not through force in return, but rather with spiritual resolve to keep both his humanity and his divinity intact--come what may. Jesus refuses to use force to overthrow the Roman occupation of Israel, thereby draining the warrior myth of its lifeblood. 

Without his humanity, Jesus' divinity would be to no avail. Jesus understood that using “any means necessary” to accomplish any positive outcome will ultimately corrupt the outcome.  

I would venture to guess that Jesus knew the story of Naaman quite well. In particular, the fact that even though Naaman doesn’t “know” or even worship God, God knows Naaman and cares about him.  

The sound of Naaman’s reputation precedes him as he and his entourage invade Elisha’s quiet, hobbit-like neighborhood. No need to ring Eilsha’s doorbell the whole town knew who was coming to Elisha’s town. When they halt at the entrance of Elisha’s house, you can almost hear the thunderous horsepower grind to a halt. 

Elisha responds to Naaman’s show of power by sending a messenger out to meet him.  

A messenger! 

The Great and Mighty Naaman is insulted.  Warrior Naaman had assumptions about how this was going to go, but this … this … Elisha was messing it all up!  “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!…” 

Nope.  Elisha sends a messenger. This messenger then has the audacity to give an order to Mighty Warrior and Commander Naaman (I would not want to be that messenger!): “Go wash in the Jordan seven times.” 

Naaman is enraged. He fumes: “Are not the Ab’ uh-nuh and the Phar-par, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters here in Israel?  Could I not wash in THEM and be clean?” Naaman storms off in a rage. His “righteous indignation” leaves him disconnected and alone.  

Most of us find it hard – if not impossible—sometimes even unacceptable – to give up control especially when our future is on the line.  Like Naaman, we have expectations about how life is supposed to go.  And even when life goes wrong, we might even have expectations about how it’s supposed to be resolved. We invest a great deal of energy into controlling things beyond our control, which often disconnects us from the God who brings light out of darkness, order out of chaos, life from death.  

In a crisis, perhaps our greatest barrier to resolution is our expectations. Too often, like Naaman, our expectations wall us off from support.  In a crisis, expectations can quickly disrupt our connection with God and God’s community at a time when we need more of both. When we’re preoccupied with who we think we’re supposed to be, we leave no room for Who God Is  

It’s so easy to get stuck living out some image we have of ourselves, which we may have forged from long, lonely hours of fighting some enemy all alone, all by ourselves, in the darkness. And where does that battle get us but more and more isolated, more lost, and disconnected from the God in whose image we are created. 

Even so, God’s love comes through.  

See how God’s love prevails, how it comes to Naaman first through a Hebrew servant girl, then, after he rejects the gift handed to him in the prophet Elisha, through the wisdom of his own servants who, at the risk of offending him and drawing his wrath, boldly say,  “if that prophet ordered you to do something really difficult, you’d do it: if the prophet had said ‘go and fight a hopeless battle, go and lay your life on the line, the odds are against you ... but just go and do it now and your leprosy shall be gone’: you would do it without hesitation.  We know you would … WE KNOW YOU. Yet all that was asked of you was, ‘go and wash in the Jordan ’…”  

Next thing you know, there’s Naaman in the Jordan river … his leprosy washed away by the water and with it perhaps some of that warrior image he’s clung to for most of his life.  

How could this be? Naaman must have thought, the prophet isn’t even here.  

That’s right. The prophet isn’t. But God is. No magic. No drama. Just the mysterious, unpredictable love/presence of God, surrounding him there in the waters of the Jordan River of all rivers.  One he cursed. There, Naaman of all people, Naaman, warrior and demigod experiences the steadfast love of God.  

There are times when we must wade into the Jordan as we leave one reality for another. Whether it’s graduation, job loss, end of a relationship, divorce, diagnosis, or the birth of a child, death of someone we love, whatever it may be, while it’s happening we feel like we're unraveling. That's usually because we are ... but God can work with that.  

Our faith in Jesus Christ is all about crossing over. Because resurrection is on the other side of the cross, we know that the end of one reality is also the beginning of another. As people of the cross, this is not only an obvious message but a hopeful one. Throughout our life, we will face situations requiring us to transition and cross over.  We can learn to embrace these moments, trusting Jesus Christ, who is the timeless Alpha and Omega, is with us every step of the way.   

Jesus Christ comes to heal the warrior within us all.  May this be so.

End note:

[1] if untreated, the worst form of leprosy creates extensive involvement of the skin and nerves. The complications that may occur include eye involvement and deformities of the face, hands, and feet. Deformities of the face can result from destruction of the partition in the nose that divides the nostrils (nasal septum) and other facial tissues. In advanced disease, persons with lepromatous leprosy may lose their eyebrows and eyelashes, and the eyelids may become paralyzed so that individuals cannot blink or close their eyes properly. The earlobes may enlarge or become wrinkled. Deformities of the hands and feet may result from muscle paralysis and repeated trauma that is not felt due to sensory loss. The most serious complication of leprosy is the nerve damage that may occur sometimes even after treatment is begun. Much of the nerve damage occurs during a type of immunologic problem … in 25 to 50% of patients during treatment and is … the patient’s own immune system reacting against the dead bacteria that are still in the skin and nerves. Patients with the intermediate or borderline type of disease may get a type of reaction known as reversal reaction, in which there is redness and swelling of the skin lesions and swelling, tenderness, and pain in the nerves of the hands and feet. During this process, nerve damage can occur.  … (It) may also be associated with joint disease (polyarthralgia), eye inflammation, and inflammation of the testicles.  The second type of reaction occurs only in borderline lepromatous and lepromatous disease, and is known as erythema nodosum leprosum (ENL).  There may also be pain and tenderness of the nerves with subsequent nerve damage in the hands and feet.  During reactions and at times without any signs of reaction, there may be damage to the nerves of the face resulting in weakness of closure of the eyelids and loss of feeling in the cornea (corneal anesthesia). This can result in corneal dryness and scarring and lead to blindness. Persons with lepromatous leprosy may also have inflammation of the iris and the sclera of the eye, which can lead to visual impairment and, in some cases, blindness.   NORD National Organization for Rare Disorders,  https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/leprosy/