A Sermon by Rev. Ian Arnold
“Many believe that people are purified from evils by merely believing what the Church teaches;
some, that we are purified by doing good;
others, that it is by knowing, speaking and teaching such things as pertain to the Church;
others, by reading the Word and books of piety;
others, by attending churches, listening to sermons and especially by approaching the Holy Supper;
others, by renouncing the world and devoting oneself to piety;
and others, by confessing oneself guilty of sins of all kinds; and so on.
Nevertheless, in no way is anyone purified by all these works unless they examine themselves, recognise their sins, acknowledge them, condemn themselves for them, and do the work of repentance by desisting from them; and unless they do all these things as of themselves but still acknowledge from the heart that they do them from the Lord.”
(Divine Providence, paragraph 121)
Taking in again friends, from the second book of Kings, chapter 5:
But Naaman became furious, and went away and said, “Indeed, I have said to myself, He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy. Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters in Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage.
Friends, its a sad thing and a tragedy in many ways that when it comes to the Bible, people miss what is so central and really fundamental to connecting with it: and that is that the Bible is a mirror. The Bible is a mirror in which we see ourselves, our experiences, our highs, our lows reflected back to us.
Just now in the United States there is a huge debate going on about the teaching in schools of what they call “intelligent design”. I believe it’s even gone to the courts. And it is a rehash of the old creation versus evolution debate: the people who are promoting the theory of intelligent design are regarded as being fundamentalists and literalists when it comes to the Bible. How sad it is! There has always been, down through the centuries, argument about the scientific accuracy of the Bible. There has always been argument about the historical accuracy of the Bible. But the arguments completely miss the point. What a waste of time and of solicitors and barristers and all the rest! Because the central connecting point that we need when it comes to the Word of the Lord is this simple reality about it: that it is a mirror, and that as we look into the Bible we see ourselves reflected in it.
Friends, I want you to believe, because it is the truth, that this is so on every page. There is not a page to which you might turn that is not in some way a mirror reflecting back to you something of yourself. To give you an example: during this week Margaret and I, who are presently reading through the prophesy of Ezekiel, came to chapter 38. Now you may wonder what chapter 38 of the prophesy of Ezekiel has about it that it might reflect back to us something of ourselves, but I’ll tell you what the chapter is about. It is about the enemies of ancient Israel, who came upon them when they were unprepared and their defences were down and when they were not expecting it. And as I looked at that chapter, I reflected on what it might be saying to me. I thought, of course, there’s many times when my spiritual enemies come upon me when I’m least expecting it and when my defences are down and when I’m not prepared. How real it became, that obscure chapter of denunciation of Israel’s enemies, when I was able to identify what this message was all about. There are thousands of times when I can think of occasions when my spiritual enemies have come upon me when I least expected it, when I wasn’t prepared, when my defences were down. On every page there is a mirror that reflects back to you something of yourself, something of your experiences, something of the battles you go through, or whatever it may be. It is the way in which we connect with the reality that the Word is for us.
Now having said that, there are of course certain stories that leap out of the Bible and in connection with which we are able to see the truth of what I’m saying much more obviously, much more clearly that it is a mirror. And this story of Naaman, which I’ve taken as my text for this morning, is one of them. Naaman, as we all know, was a big and powerful man. He was full of pride and self-importance. He staggered across the world stage in those days. He believed that his status demanded that a prophet in Israel should come out, scrape the ground, make way for him, bring out a banquet, or do all sorts of things in recognition of who he was. But Elisha had nothing to do with it. He didn’t even go to the door: he sent out a servant and gave Naaman simple instructions. He didn’t go to the door either to dress him down, to tell him off, explain to him where he’d gone wrong. He just simply sent instructions: do this and all will be well. But of course, Naaman was furious.
I just want to hang on to something here for a moment. The way in which Elisha the prophet responded to Naaman is exactly the way in which the Lord responds to us. He doesn’t engage with what we’ve done, He doesn’t come and dress us down; He doesn’t focus on what He knows to be wrong. Instead of that, He gives us simple instructions about fundamentals. And if we follow His instructions and get the fundamentals right, then our pride, our self-importance, our tendency to swagger across the world stage will just evaporate. The Lord does not engage with us, focussing on those obvious things that need to be changed and put right about us. He goes to the core; He goes to the things that are the source of the things that are wrong about us. And like I say, He gives simple instructions.
But do we listen to them? Do we respond to them? Do we hear them? Or are we like Naaman? It’s human nature, of course, to set aside what is so obvious and straightforward and simple in the belief that something more complicated and difficult must be the answer to the situation. Do you know how many simple adversities in life would be solved by something as simple as an apology? Many a difficulty in life would be solved by our willingness to extend a word of forgiveness. Nothing could be simpler, and yet we make it difficult because we somehow can’t seem to relate to the simplicity and the straightforwardness of the ways that the Lord urges upon us.
The Lord. Let’s just pause for a moment and think about the Lord. The Lord wants us to be spiritually healthy and happy people. There’s no question of that basic truth of human existence. The Lord yearns for us to live in joy and happiness; yearns for us to be free of anxieties and fears; yearns for us to be content and trusting; yearns for us to be relaxed and comfortable with those around us, and mindful of and seeking their well-being at all times. This is the Lord. This is where His focus and energy is. Here’s a quote:
The Divine Love is a longing for the salvation of all, and the happiness of all, from inmost and in fullness.
A wonderful statement from the book Heaven and Hell, paragraph 397.
How, though, do we come to this joy and happiness? How do we come to be free of our anxieties and fears? How do we come to be content and trusting? How and what are the ways to become relaxed and comfortable with those around us, mindful and seeking their well-being at all times?
The Lord gives us the simplest of instructions. When John the Baptist was preaching before the Lord began His public ministry, people flocked to him and asked, “What must we do?” And his answers were simplicity itself. From Luke chapter 3:
Then the tax collectors came to be baptised, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.” Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”
Simplicity itself. What a lovely example of simple instructions to live more fully, more richly, more healthily, and with a greater sense of wholeness of being. The Lords instructions to us are simplicity itself.
Divine Providence 33 reads:
So far as anyone shuns evils as diabolical and as obstacles to the Lord’s entrance, he is more and more closely conjoined to the Lord.
It’s exactly what John the Baptist was saying to the people who came to him: “Stop doing the wrong thing; do the right thing.” What is the Lord saying? Stop doing the wrong thing, and you’ll find yourself automatically doing the right thing. Simple instructions, simplicity itself.
Naaman, as we know, was not only furious, but he believed that there were alternatives, and it took his servants to persuade him otherwise. Its important friends, that you realise that that passage that I read earlier in the service from Divine Providence 121 is all about people thinking that there are alternatives: go to church, attend the Holy Supper, listen to sermons, give up things, be obviously self-sacrificing in outward and worldly way. There’s a whole catalogue of alternatives that people think are required. No, not at all, not at all! The Lord’s instructions are simplicity itself. I was reading this week about escapism: people, for example, who can’t handle issues to do with their self-esteem, so they throw themselves into their work and become workaholics in a frenzied effort of self-denial. Quite chilling stuff! And there are all sorts of escapes we try to take and alternative routes we try to follow, setting to one side the simplicity of what the Lord tells us to do.
Now the woman with the issue of blood, whose story I read first of all, is a fascinating one, and it ties in with the story of Naaman. And it does for this reason: you see, she tried all the alternatives before she came to the Lord. Do you remember what it says there? She had spent all that she had going here, going there, trying this and trying that, and it got her nowhere. Throw yourself into your work, try binge drinking, see if the answer lies in a whirl of activity of a worldly nature: and it doesn’t. To live fully and wholly and healthily, they’re not the answer. The answer lies here, simplicity itself: stop doing the wrong thing and you’ll automatically find yourself doing the right thing. How amazing we are, that we somehow can’t lock onto the simplicity of what the Lord asks of us. It’s not encyclopaedic knowledge. You know the Jews of the Old Testament, they thought that they must carry out sacrifices and do this, that and the other; and they had to be told:
What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?
… Micah chapter 6, verse 8.
The final quotation that I want to bring to your attention this morning, and with which I am concluding, is from the work Apocalypse Explained paragraph 365:
To be healed spiritually is to be delivered from evils and falsities.
To live in fullness, robustly, full of zest and life from the Lord, to be healed spiritually, is to be delivered from evils and falsities. That’s when we come into the fullness of who the Lord created us to be. And when we come into such a sense of healing from the Lord, it is guaranteed to have an effect on our spiritual body, the body in which we will live to eternity in the spiritual world; and it cannot but radiate out and have its effect in our sense of balance and well-being as far as our physical body is concerned as well.
Let’s not be another Naaman, let’s not let our pride and self-importance and inability to recognise simplicity get in the way. Think back to those words:
But Naaman became furious, and went away and said, “Indeed, I have said to myself, He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy.”
Do you remember the rich young man who came to Jesus and said, “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? What do I have to do? What do you want me to do? What big thing? What sacrifice am I called to do?” He too was somehow unable to recognise the simplicity of the instructions the Lord gives to us: the way to come to spiritual, vibrant health and well-being.
“Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters in Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. And his servants came near and spoke to him and said, “My father, if the prophet has told you to do something great, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, Wash and be clean?” So he went down and dipped seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child and he was clean.