Sunday’s sermon: It’s That Simple

Text used – 2 Kings 5:1-15a

  • Time for another children’s book, all! This is another one from one of the very favorite authors in our house: Mr. Mo Willems.
    • Other Mo Willems books I’ve talked about before: Elephant and Piggie books
    • Other Mo Willems books in general
      • Knuffle Bunny books
      • Leonardo, the Terrible Monster[1]
      • Nanette’s Baguette[2] (which is probably one of the best read-aloud books out there!)
      • And a number of other off-shoots written by other authors but endorsed by Mo Willems via Elephant and Piggie.
    • But the first book that Mo Willems wrote featured a different character: the pigeon. → introduced a highly entertaining and attitudinal pigeon with big ideas, big emotions, and epic facial expressions (You didn’t think pigeons could have facial expressions, did you?)
      • First book: Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus[3]
      • Many other highly enjoyable Pigeon books since (including the brand new one: The Pigeon Will Ride the Roller Coaster![4])
      • Pigeon story I wanted to introduce you to today: The Pigeon Needs a Bath![5]
        • [read title pages]
        • Throughout the first 2/3 of the book, the Pigeon expends a great amount of energy and persuasive power trying to convince you, the reader, that he does not, in fact, need a bath despite the fact that he is clearly covered in dirt and grime with stench trails wafting off him.
          • Finally convinced when even the flies buzzing around his stinky, dirty self fly away with the parting remarks of, “P.U.! Yuck! Let’s get out of here! Take a bath, dude!”
        • Spends another few pages in front of the bathtub doing everything he can not to get in
          • Water’s too hot → water’s too cold
          • Not enough toys → too many toys
          • Too much water → not enough water
          • Water’s too wet
          • Water’s too reflective
        • [SPOILER ALERT] But when the pigeon finally gets into the bathtub, he discovers he LOVES taking a bath! He loves playing in the water. He loves the bubbles. He loves relaxing in the water. He even loves the washing part!
          • Final pages: TEN HOURS LATER → Pigeon: “Can I stay in the tub forever?”
      • And frankly, it was too perfect a lead-in into our Scripture reading today to leave at home! I mean, it’s a story whose main character doesn’t think a simple bath is going to do him any good, but once he finally takes that bath, his entire outlook changes. Truly, this picture book is the story of Naaman in snarky, cartoon pigeon form! Okay … that may be going a bit far, but the parallels between The Pigeon Needs a Bath! and our story from the First Testament this morning are undeniable.
  • So let’s take a minute to figure out how we got from King Solomon last week to Naaman’s story this week.
    • Last week: story took place at the very beginning of Solomon’s reign as king over the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah → now skipping over the entirety of the rest of Solomon’s reign
      • Solomon building the first Temple (destroyed by the invading Babylonian army in 586 BCE)
      • Northern kingdom of Israel and southern kingdom of Judah splitting once again
      • Long line of rulers for both kingdoms → each king growing slightly worse and more corrupt and less dedicated to God than his predecessor
        • Stories of prophet Elijah fall into this time period of deteriorating kingships
        • Story of Elijah being taken up into heaven and being succeeded by his disciple, Elisha[6]
  • Brings us to today’s story
    • Naaman = “general for the king of Aram” → Aram = kingdom that shared a significant portion of the border with the northern kingdom of Israel (modern day Syria and northern Palestine) → And clearly, Naaman is a big deal. Besides being a general, our text said he was “a great man and highly regarded by his master, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram.”[7] It also calls him a “mighty warrior.” So yeah. Naaman is a big deal. BUT he also has “a skin disease,” which, within the context of Scripture, is generally understood as leprosy.
      • So let’s talk about leprosy for a minute. – disease from “Bible times,” yes, but a disease that still exists today → from non-profit Embrace a Village founded to serve people affected by leprosy “holistically through spiritual, medical, nutritional, and educational programs”[8]
        • Leprosy (aka – Hansen’s disease)[9]
          • Chronic, mildly infectious disease caused by slow-growing bacteria → incubation period of about 3-5 yrs → symptoms can take as long as 20 yrs to appear
          • Can affect the nerves, eyes, skin, and mucous membranes of the upper respiratory tract
          • Not highly contagious → contracted in the same way as a common cold (coughing/sneezing) but 95% of adults are already immune
          • Can be cured through multidrug therapy over the course of 6-12 mos.
        • Some numbers from Embrace a Village
          • Close to 250,000 cases worldwide today
          • Nearly 60% of the world’s cases are in India → culture in which a leprosy diagnosis will still find both you and your entire family ostracized by your village … not so different from “Bible times.”
      • For someone as prominent as Naaman to suffer from such a stigmatizing disease was uncommon. Nothing in our text this morning tells us how long Naaman had had his skin disease, though we might infer that he was still able to hide the effects of the disease due to the fact that he wasn’t ostracized – the fact that he still maintained his prominent position.
    • Naaman hears from captured Hebrew slave girl working for his wife about the miraculous healing capabilities of the prophet Elisha → And in her words, Naaman sees a glimmer of hope.
      • Goes to “his master” (i.e. – the king of Aram) → king of Aram (who must be privy to Naaman’s condition) agrees to write to the king of Israel to make sure Naaman and his traveling party can venture safely into the territory of the kingdom of Israel so Naaman can seek out Elisha for healing
    • So first Naaman goes to the king of Israel and presents him with this letter from the king of Aram explaining the situation and the need … and the king of Israel sort of flips out a little bit. → gives us a little insight as to just how serious a leprosy diagnosis was back then (and still is for a lot of people today) – text: When the king of Israel read the letter, he ripped his clothes. He said, “What? Am I God to hand out death and life? But this king writes me, asking me to cure someone of his skin disease! You must realize that he wants to start a fight with me!”[10]
    • Somehow Elisha hears about this reaction and sends word to the king of Israel telling him to send Naaman and his entourage to Elisha’s house → So Naaman the Big Deal and those traveling with him show up on Elisha’s doorstep … but Elisha doesn’t even come to the door himself! He simply sends a messenger to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan River seven times if he wants to be cured!
      • Naaman the Big Deal is not having it – text: Naaman went away in anger. He said, “I thought for sure he’d come out, stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the bad spot, and cure the skin disease. Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger.[11] → Naaman the Big Deal is angry that he doesn’t even get to see He’s angry that all he’s being asked to do is wash in some stupid water – some water that is clearly inferior to his Aramean water. He’s angry. He’s insulted. And why is he feeling that way? Because he’s a Big Deal. Because he’s Somebody. Because he feels entitled.
        • Plenty of other people suffering from leprosy at the time would have jumped at the chance à literally would have jumped weeping and hoping and splashing and rejoicingly into the waters of the Jordan River believing with every ounce of their being that their cure was just a simple wash away → But Naaman expects better. Naaman expects more. Because Naaman expects that he is better … he is more.
          • Scholar: Naaman is a powerful person who is used to people doing what he tells them to, and he demands the five-star treatment from [Elisha]. It’s as though he has arrived in Israel expecting a private suite in a private hospital, and instead he’s been offered a bed in the hallway.[12]
        • And because of those inflated self-expectations – because of that entitlement – he almost misses out on his chance for healing.
          • Only the words of a servant stop him: “Our father, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, ‘Wash, and become clean.’” So Naaman went down and bathed in the Jordan seven times, just as the man of God had said. His skin was restored like that of a young boy, and he became clean.[13] → As I said, a story whose main character doesn’t think a simple bath is going to do him any good, but once he finally takes that bath, his entire outlook changes.
            • Naaman’s final words upon returning to Elisha’s presence = declaration of faith: “Now I know for certain that there’s no God anywhere on earth except in Israel.”[14]
  • Too often, friends, we let our expectations about what “should be” get in the way of our faith.
    • Who and what and how others should be
    • Who and what and how we should be
    • Who and what and how the church should be
    • Who and what and how faith should be
    • Who and what and how the world should be
    • And we have this strange and maddening tendency to make things harder – sometimes infinitely harder! – than they need to be!
      • Me at regional spelling bee → word: absurd → I missed out because I was expecting the word to be harder than it was. I was expecting a trick, something hidden and difficult. I was overly complicating things. And we do that so often with our faith! We think we have to be in the right place or pray right or have the right words or the right posture or exactly the right set of beliefs for God to hear us and see us and love us. And so often, we let the buildup of our misplaced expectations get in the way of our relationship with God. We think we can’t approach God until we’ve ticked all the right boxes … done all the right things … become all the right things. But in the midst of it all, there God stands, saying simply, “Come. Love. Believe. Stop making it so hard. I’m here. You’re here. It’s that simple.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Mo Willems. Leonardo, the Terrible Monster. (New York: Hyperion Books for Children), 2005.

[2] Mo Willems. Nanette’s Baguette. (New York: Hyperion Books for Children), 2016.

[3] Mo Willems. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (New York: Hyperion Books for Children), 2003.

[4] Mo Willems. The Pigeon Will Ride the Roller Coaster! (New York: Union Square Kids), 2022.

[5] Mo Willems. The Pigeon Needs a Beth! (New York: Hyperion Books for Children), 2014.

[6] 2 Kgs 2:1-22.

[7] 2 Kgs 5:1.

[8] https://www.embraceavillage.org/who-we-are/#mission.

[9] https://www.embraceavillage.org/what-is-leprosy/.

[10] 2 Kgs 5:7.

[11] 2 Kgs 5:11-12.

[12] Cameron B.R. Howard. “Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-15a” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/elisha-heals-naaman-2/commentary-on-2-kings-51-15a-2.

[13] 2 Kgs 5:13-14.

[14] 2 Kgs 5:15a.