There is a story that is told of Martin Luther about an experience he claimed to have had while meditating on the suffering of our Lord. It was late on a Good Friday evening, he may have very well returned to his room shortly after preaching upon the great sacrifice of our Lord. And there with the image and words he had just proclaimed to the congregation fresh in his mind he pondered the incredible gift of pure blood shed for broken and underserving sinners. And suddenly an image appears before him in his chamber, an image of Christ himself with his five wounds visible. The image was so real that Luther it seemed as if Christ was actually there with him in bodily form. Luther said that his first thought was that this was some sort of celestial revelation of God, but as he thought more about it he decided that perhaps this vision came from a more devious source. So he shouted out, “Avoid thee, confounded devil: I know no other Christ than he who was crucified, and who in his Word is pictured and presented unto me.” After this the image disappeared and so Luther said he knew from whom it had come.
What fascinates me about that story is it seems to be the exact opposite action of what almost anyone else would do. Can you imagine what would happen today if an image like that would appear to a leader in the church? How long would it take until there would be TV specials on how we too can have such a vision, how we too can achieve a divine revelation – all for a small fee of course, we too could learn to mimic Luther’s meditation practices. There would be book tours and speaking engagements all driving the masses to look within, to examine their own practice, to focus their mind and energy in just the right way so that we could experience Christ in such a powerful way.
Naaman, the mighty commander of the army of the great king of Syria, was a celebrated man of honor and his victories were well known but he suffered from leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-15). As it turns out in one of the Syrian raids of Israel they had taken a little girl who was used as a slave in the service of Naaman’s wife. She apparently seeing Naaman’s suffering related the story of the great prophet in Israel who could cleanse one from such a dreadful disease. So Naaman goes to his king who then sends a letter to the king of Israel along with offerings so that his great commander might be cleansed.
It is when this news reaches the king of Israel that the excitement really begins. Imagine that you are the king of Israel; you are no match militarily with Syria, you’re the little fish in a big pond and you get a letter that says that you should heal the king’s commander of leprosy. I mean it makes sense what he does. He tears his clothes in anger and shock and says, “Am I God, to kill and make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.”
Now Elisha the prophet catches wind of this response and invites the king to go ahead and send the man to him. And notice what he says, he says, “do this so that he may know there is a prophet in Israel.” So where the king shouts, “Am I God, to kill and make alive?” The prophet says, “Send him to me.” So on goes Naaman to the home of Elisha. Now what comes next is shocking and I think kind of cool. Elisha, doesn’t even go out to meet this mighty warrior, he just sends out a servant that says, “Go and wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River and you will be cleansed.” And Naaman is ticked off, where is the big show the powerful act, the mighty display of God’s work? Elisha didn’t leave him any room for his own work or glory or emotional experience. Naaman is so upset that he turns and begins to head home.
Naaman’s desire, Naaman’s rage is not all that far from our own. We rejoice and celebrate the working of God’s Spirit through emotional experiences and powerful signs. We scan the bookstores for the latest account of ones contact with the divine in hopes that we too might duplicate their experience. Accounts of such experiences are shared over and again through e-mail contacts and Facebook postings, all encouraging us to seek the Spirit in our meditative moments and prayerful devotions. We like our Spirit free and unchained, coming to us when we least expect it, in pictures and music and visions in our chambers. We want to believe that if we are diligent enough, if we say the right prayers or do the right acts of devotion we can move the Spirit to work through some secrete incantation.
But what about your neighbor, what if someone was to come to you, needing the voice of the Spirit, needing his work in their life? What do you do with the leprosy of sin, not in your own life but in the life of your neighbors? How often have our lives been mingled with people who are broken and hurting in this world? How often have we not only been overcome by grief and shame but our neighbors have turned to us in theirs? What do you offer then? What can you do? Do you give vague answers and say, “I’m praying for you” or just rend your clothes and declare, “Am I God, to kill and make alive?”
Seeking the vision, desiring the unattached Spirit, hoping for the internal working of God doesn’t bring much comfort and confidence when we are in great need. Fortunately for Naaman, he had good and faithful servants who would not abandon him in his despair and anger. They appeal to him saying, “You have heard a great word from the prophet.” Now true it is a word that seems lowly and unimpressive, but he said, “Wash and be clean,” that’s it; won’t you at least try it? And he does, seven dips in the Jordan river according the Word of the man of God and his flesh is restored like the flesh of little child, and he was clean.
Luther had said, “I know no other Christ than he who was crucified, and who in his Word is pictured and presented unto me.” The vision apart from the Word was useless to him, Christ is not found apart from his Word but when he is indeed found there why that Word cleans even the most vile of sinners. The only thing Naaman had was the voice of the man of God, a Word unimpressively passed through a servant and connected to water where he was cleansed. The Spirit of God does his mighty work through such lowly means – through a Word; he has bound himself to it so that you might be found when he speaks his promises into your ears.
We are a people that are broken and ravaged by the leprosy of sin that lingers in every part of our bodies. We give up finding the cure within ourselves, the quest for some powerful vision has failed, our emotional highs always ebb away and in the end we are left in our sin. And at every turn when we seek help and hope and salvation the world with all her power and glory shouts out, “Am I God, to kill and make alive?” But not here, not this day. Today I have a Word for you – to do just what the king refused to do. For you are sinners dead under the holy and just Law of God. You have no hope in yourself or any work of man. But you have one who became that sin, that sin that lingers even now in your hearts, and for you he died. But he did not stay dead, and in his resurrection he gave you the promise of life and salvation.
And that promise is yours for into it you were washed, in the waters of your holy Baptism you have been cleansed, so death will not rule over you rather life is your reality, life in Christ alone, life in the promise, that sweet promise, “I forgive you all of your sins, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”