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Sermon: God’s Boundaries

July 4, 2010

2 Kings 5:1-14

You remember the cartoonist Gary Larson, right?  He produced The Far Side for many years.  You can see on the screen one of his cartoons.  There is a father and son, and from their back yard, they are watching a singing bird.  As you can see, all around are the fences that separate one yard from another.

The father says, “And now, Randy, by use of song, the male sparrow will stake out his territory…an instinct common in the lower animals.”

Gary Larson cartoon

Common in the lower animals and common in the species Homo sapiens.  We all have our territories to protect, and they are many.  There is, of course, the home and family.  There is territory at work—both paid and volunteer—upon which no outsider is permitted to tread.  There are city and county boundaries, national borders.  There are copyright laws that protect intellectual territory.  There is the boundary of the self that is sometimes the most impenetrable of all.  And the God we worship sees every single one of the boundaries we erect and the territories we protect, and God ignores all of them.  The boundaries that we put up are as laughable to God as the line of masking tape that one brother puts down the middle of the bedroom and then says to the other brother, “This is my side of the room, and that is yours.”

Case in point: Naaman was a successful general, and he was in great favor with his master, the king of Aram.  Why?  Because God, Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, had given victory to Aram by the hand of the general Naaman.  There is, however, an annoying problem with this.

Let’s discuss a little ancient Near East geography.  Aram was the kingdom just to the north of the two Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  Aram was in what is now the nation of Syria.  The Arameans were sometimes at war with Israel and Judah, and sometimes they allied themselves with the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel to fight against the southern Jewish kingdom of Judah.  The Arameans, and their great general Naaman, were enemies to the people who worshiped God.

On one of the cross-border raids, the Arameans had captured some Israelites and forced them into service.  One of these was a young girl who served Naaman’s wife.  Naaman was a great warrior, but he was also a leper.        The young Israelite girl said, “In my land we have a great prophet who could cure the general of his leprosy.”

This seemed good to Naaman, and so he asked his king to help out.  The king of Aram agreed and sent an enormous gift to the king of Israel so that he would make an appointment for Naaman with the great healer of Israel.  And so the baggage train of gold and silver and clothing arrived before the king of Israel with the message from the king of Aram, “Please heal my servant of his leprosy.”

This threw the king into an uproar.  Cure him of his leprosy?  That’s like saying, “Oh by the way, I heard you can cure cancer.”  Well maybe God could do that, but certainly not a mere king.  The king said, “I think the king of Aram is trying to pick a fight.  He wants war.”

There was a man in Israel, however, named Elisha.  As you know, Elisha was a prophet of God.  Elisha heard about all of this and said to his king, “Just send the man to me.”  What happened, after some doubting and disbelief on the part of Naaman, was that God worked through Elisha to make Naaman clean.  The general washed himself in the Jordan River seven times and his flesh was restored, like the flesh of a youngster.

On the surface, this seems like a wonderful story of healing, but in truth it is a very inconvenient and annoying story.  Naaman and the other Arameans are the enemy.  Not only did God show favor to them by giving them victory in war, but then God healed Naaman of his leprosy.  And to make matters worse, do you remember that servant girl stolen from Israel, the one who suggested Naaman visit Elisha?  Well, she’s still a servant to Naaman’s wife.  She didn’t even get to go home.  Disturbing.

Jesus himself knew how distressing the story is.  Many hundreds of years after Naaman was healed of his leprosy, Jesus was preaching in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth.  He said, “There were…many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”  That was part of the reason his hometown became enraged at Jesus and wanted to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:16-30).  God has an annoying way of ignoring the boundaries and territories we spend so much time and energy setting up and protecting.

The good news, however, is that just as God does not shut out my enemies God does not shut me out, either.  And simply because God shows grace to my neighbor does not mean that there is less grace available to me.  Just because God blesses another land and another people does not mean that God does not bless us.  There is enough of God to go around for all, and that is a good thing since God is so profligate with grace, love and blessing.  I do not have to be threatened when others receive good things by the hand of God.

It’s a very good thing that God blesses the enemy, because to some people you and I—you and I—are the enemy.  But still it’s hard.  It isn’t easy not to feel anger, a sense of injustice, even fear, when we think that God loves someone who stands outside of our boundaries.  It is difficult to see people who aren’t a part of “us” as God sees them.

A man who grew up during the Great Depression told this story about his early years:

I lived near a railroad track as a boy, and I remember a number of mornings getting awake, getting up, going into the kitchen to get some breakfast, and there’d be a strange, ugly looking, poorly dressed man at the table eating—just eating away, eating away.  I was scared of him.  And when he left, I would say, “Mom, who was that?”

She’d say, “Well, his name was Henry, and he said he was hungry.”

“Well, where’d he come from?”

“He came down the railroad tracks.”

People called them hobos.  They walked the tracks begging, maybe stealing, getting what they could to stay alive.  They’d stop by our house, and there, sitting in the kitchen eating what we had to eat, just eating it like they’d never have another meal.  And I’d say, “Mama, weren’t you scared?”

She said, “He’s hungry.”

“Well, I was scared of him!”

“Well, he was hungry.”

(Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, eds.  [St. Louis: Chalice, 2001], 109.)

Well, he was a leper.  He was a sinner.  He was God’s child.

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