Servants Serve, Pastor Fred sermon
I was in my late teens when I discovered Bob Dylan, who fast became one of my musical and cultural hero’s. He’s had a wide and eclectic career, changing his styles, bands and persona numerous times. But one of the least anticipated changes, was his late 1970’s turn to Evangelical Christianity. He had never really said much, or explored his own Jewish heritage, so for his followers, Bob, being Born Again, was a shocker.
The hit on his 1st of 3 Christian albums was, ‘Gotta Serve Somebody.’ And many of his fans just couldn’t swallow the kind of religious obedience he seemed to be singing about:
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody
We all serve somebody – though most Americans don’t like to admit it. Do you know who you serve?
In our 1st Reading, Naaman, the Commander of the entire Syrian forces, is ‘highly esteemed,’ a heavy weight champion of the world. His only flaw is that he has a skin blanch disease. Not leprosy exactly, but one of the many skin diseases listed as ‘unclean’ that ostracized you from the community. Naaman, because of his high status, was seemingly able to have retained his command. But none-the-less, he didn’t escape feeling stigmatized.
And as a Commander, God gave him victory over Israel, 1st Kings tells us, though Naaman doesn’t know it was the God of Israel who enabled it.
And in that victory, as routinely happend, in war, Naaman’s forces captured many Israeli’s, and they were pressed into service as slaves. One of the ‘young Israeli girls’ was assigned to Naaman’s house, and one day, she sort of casually remarks to Naaman’s wife that, wouldn’t it be wonderful if my Master – that is, Naaman – might make a little visit to the Prophet in Israel across the border, because I’m sure he could cure the disease of his skin blanch.
Well, apparently his wife tells Naaman at dinner that very night, because the next thing you know, Naaman is off to his master, the king, to share the good news. And the king of Syria was all for it, even writing a personal letter of recommendation, to the King of Israel, for Naaman to take with him. And just for good measure, Naaman takes a big bundle of silver and gold as gifts, as well as 10 suits of fine tailored clothes!
Okay, so far, we know – Naaman is a highly regarded Commander. And the only one he serves is the king. But the subversive, underlying truth is, without his servant girl, the young Jewish woman, Naaman wouldn’t have been going on this journey at all, in hopes of healing his unclean status!
So, once in Israel, Naaman delivers the King of Syria’s letter to the King of Israel, which was an extra, and nearly disastrous step, in the process, that the servant girl certainly hadn’t recommended. For the king of Syria – who serves, and is accountable to no one – has completely misread the situation. He wrote, “When you get this letter, you’ll know that I’ve personally sent my servant Naaman to you – Heal him of his skin disease!” But the king of Israel is not the healer! And he interprets the letter as a trap, a military threat. After all, there is Naaman the Commander in his chariot, at his doorstep, who had just recently conquered them! Has he come to break the truce and ravage them again?!
The king of Israel is so upset he rends his garments, tears his robe in half, a sign of public grief, that would spread quickly. And thank goodness, Elisha is among those who get the message!
‘Don’t be upset, send Naaman to me,’ says the healer! ‘I’ll show him there’s a prophet in Israel!’ And you can just imagine the servant girl back in Syria beginning to smile!
So Naaman takes his fancy chariot, and all his gifts, and heads up to see Elisha. But when he arrives at his gate, Elisha isn’t there. He had sent out one of his servants to deliver his message, to simply go and dip 7 times, in the barely running, trick-ly Jordan River. Your skin will be healed and you’ll be as good as new,” the messenger said, on behalf of Elisha.
But for the highly decorated Commander, this is a slap in the face. He expects Elisha to greet him in person, and to perform the miracle for him, by waving his hand over the place of the skin blanch. Naaman expects to be served, and is incensed that he should be asked to bathe in the puny little Jordan, when he could just as easily had stayed home and immersed himself in the far finer, and much more mighty rivers, of Syria.
Once again, it takes a servant, or two, to keep the healing of Naaman on track! He is actually stomping off in a tantrum, and his servants have to run to catch him. But they are able to reason with him, that if the Prophet Elisha had asked him to do something much more difficult, more impressive, he would have done it, right?! So why not do this relatively simple thing, give it a try? If it doesn’t work, you can keep going on your way back home. But maybe it will, and then you’ll be healed!
And miraculously, Naaman goes down to the Jordan, washes 7 times, and is made clean. And his skin is restored, it says, like ‘the flesh of a young lad,’ which is a phrase in Hebrew that closely echo’s the description of, ‘the young servant girl,’ who got this whole mission started! There is now a kinship between them.
And it’s a sign, that signals a switch that goes off in Naaman. He changes, from prideful Commander, to a much more humble servant. If you read the rest of the chapter, you’d find out that Naaman goes back to Elisha. This time walking right up to his house, and stands before him now in a respectful way. And like the 1 out of 10 Lepers who is thankful, in Jesus’ parable, Naaman expresses his heartfelt thanks, and now pledges his faith and obedience, to the one God of Israel.
And it seems truly appropriate now, that he should humbly offer his gifts of silver, gold, and fine linens, in thanksgiving. But Elisha is not transactional about his gift of healing. He won’t, and can’t, accept gifts of value, of this world. That’s not how the Grace of God works!
God’s love and grace are a free gift. Your life is a gift. Your health is a gift. Making things whole and well, is what God is all about.
We can serve that. But we can’t buy it. We can become servants of the one God, which means loving-sacrifice will be involved, for it means we can no longer lord it over others. We cannot be masters of others, or retain a special privilege at the expense of others, if we are servants, servants of the God of all creation.
“Your gunna have to serve somebody! You may be the heavyweight champion of the world, You may be Naaman, or a socialite with a long string of pearls, But you're gonna have to serve somebody.”
And it’s the servants, in the story of Naaman, who model the life of faith –
and, well – a life of service, for us! Who do we serve?
For when we are obedient in service to our LORD, we honor and respect the kingdom and realm of God. And that makes us equals and respectful of one another in the realm of God that begins right now. A life of service is not a humiliation, but opens up to us, our true and full humanity, which fulfills our Godly call and mission.
Let’s not pretend we don’t serve somebody, and thereby serve only our short term interests, at the expense of others. Let’s serve the living, triune God, the creator of heaven and earth, who (in Christ Jesus) has come to save and heal the whole world.