Note: I preached a version of this sermon on Sunday, October 13 at Christ Lutheran Church in Dallas.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I love magic. Anyone else? I love magic because I love the process of making illusions and I love trying to figure them out.
And I love magic because of all the trappings. All the showmanship. The mysterious, exotic-sounding stage names that magicians adopt. The gaudy tuxedos. The props. The stage patter. The theatrical gestures. The magic words borrowed from foreign languages.
Now the very best illusionists don’t use these trappings and don’t need them. That’s because all of this showmanship—all of these eye-catching details—are there to make us feel that something magical or at least inexplicable is happening. They don’t add anything. We don’t really believe that a wand is magic or the word “presto” makes a chicken disappear. But they create an atmosphere in which we don’t notice, or don’t understand, what really is happening. They’re eyewash. They are part of a confidence game.
In the story of Naaman the Syrian general, which we just heard, we hear something remarkable. As we just saw, it takes so many people to get Naaman to the point of healing: a war captive slave girl, Naaman’s wife, his king, the king of Israel, messengers, servants, all the way to the prophet Elisha and back again. Lots of people! And Naaman doesn’t notice all that. He’s not interested in all that. Which is why, when the prophet sends word that he should wash in the river and he’ll be healed of his leprosy, he gets angry. I thought that for me the prophet would surely come out and stand and call upon his God and wave his hand over the spot and cure me! There are better rivers back home and all he wants me to do is wash in the muddy old Jordan seven times! This is an insult.
Naaman doesn’t just want to be healed. He wants to be impressed. He wants to be persuaded. He wants theatrics. He wants the prophet to come out and shout and wave his hands and say magic words. He wants visible, compelling, powerful signs of God’s invisible, subtle working.
Naaman is what Martin Luther would call, many many centuries later, a “theologian of glory.” By “theologian of glory,” Luther meant someone who looks for the works of God in what is beautiful and impressive and obviously good. This is a very human impulse, right? Where is God at work? Well, look for the best of everything—look for beauty, wisdom, truth, power. God is like that, but more so. We don’t just want God to heal us. We want God to impress us. To persuade us. We want visible, compelling, powerful signs of God’s work. This is why magicians use all their theatrics, all their gestures and props and costumes—we, like Naaman the Syrian, want to be dazzled.
But Luther’s argument is that the Gospel gives us something different than what we may want from God. Something different than Naaman the general seems to expect. Luther says that by contrast to the theologian of glory, the “theologian of the cross” looks for God not in beauty, wisdom, truth, and power, but in the cross of Jesus. God is most fully revealed for us in suffering and humility, not in power and glory. The theologian of glory always goes wrong, Luther argued, because he always looks for God in the wrong place. He looks for God in the form of human goodness and human power, but just more so. God chose to be revealed in the opposite way, to be born as Jesus of Nazareth: a lowly and humble and sometimes even miserable form that would not in any way rely on our desire to be dazzled. To be impressed. So that all we would be left with is trust.
Naaman wants to be impressed and is bitterly disappointed. He wants shouting and magic words and hand waving and theatrics but all he gets is a simple command: wash in the Jordan seven times. All he has to do is trust the word of the prophet and he can’t do it. So it falls to his servants—the lowly people, so lowly they don’t even get names—it falls to his servants to persuade him. “Look, boss, if the prophet told you to do something hard, you’d have done it, right? You want to be made clean. You’d do whatever thing he told you. So why not do this easy thing he tells you to do?”
So Naaman listens, and washes, and is made clean.
This story is a powerful illustration of God’s mercy and power on one hand and human stubbornness on the other. Naaman isn’t even one of God’s chosen people and yet God’s power is more than enough to heal him. Naaman wants a magic place, a magic person, magic words, but the power of God isn’t tied to one person or place or word. As Paul writes to Timothy today, Paul may be imprisoned but the Word of God is not chained. It is loose in the world. It can come from anyone’s lips. And because Naaman is so stubborn, and so reluctant to believe, God works through little people, invisible people—the slaves, the servants, the messengers—to drag him to healing. Naaman, the powerful man who wanted to see God in power, ultimately had to be healed by the God who would be most fully known only on a cross.
God does not need tricks. The word reaches our ears. The water joins us to Christ. The sin is forgiven. The bread becomes body. These things happen right in front of us, with no need for misdirection or theatrics. God’s humble servants of words, water, bread and wine all rush to serve us, to move us, to heal us.
I hope we all hear in this story that God is always more willing to speak to us than we are to listen. God is always more willing to heal than we are to be healed. God is always more willing to act than we are to believe. And so faith, for us, is not a matter of finding a sign or being dazzled or feeling awe. It’s about receiving the God who is already here for us, already speaking to us, already feeding us and making us whole. Amen.