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Pastor Glenn McDonald: The Man Who Came Back


Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    

 

What are the 10 scariest words in the English language?

 

Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down

 

Just like that, you’ve been reminded of the 1987 hit song by English pop singer Rick Astley.  It’s one of those tunes that gets stuck in your head – and that some theologians believe will be playing on a continuous loop in hell. 

 

The official music video of Astley singing and dancing (and not dancing particularly well) has become a notorious Internet meme.  Almost 20 years ago, people began circulating links to the video, usually disguised as something else.  If you innocently click on the link, only to encounter Astley in all his glory, you’ve been “Rickrolled.” 

 

YouTube estimates that the video has now been viewed more than 1.5 billion times.  Astley admits that he himself has been Rickrolled on multiple occasions.

 

Long before MTV invaded our collective consciousness, Jewish rabbis were utilizing a teaching technique called “remez.” 

 

A remez is a hint – a suggestion, allusion, or reminder.  Just as hearing the chorus of a pop song can prompt you to start singing the verses, the citation of a single verse of Scripture can lead you to remember that verse’s original context.

 

Diane Shirlaw-Ferreira, a Messianic Jewish blogger, points out that Jesus routinely used this method of teaching.  As Good Friday approaches, we need think no further than his anguished cry on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That’s the first verse of Psalm 22.  For someone dying slowly of asphyxiation, speaking each of those words would have required supreme effort. 

 

Most commentators believe Jesus’ citation of that verse is a remez. 

 

Those gathered at Calvary (with the exception of the Roman execution squad) would almost certainly have been immersed all their lives in scriptural study and memorization.  Just as we hear the words, “Now I lay me down to sleep” and tend to think of the whole child’s prayer, they would have been reminded of everything else in Psalm 22.

 

It is a psalm of suffering and despair that leads to great victory.  By reciting aloud the first verse, Jesus is not only embracing the horror of that day but claiming the triumph of better days to come. 

 

At least one of Jesus’ miracles is a powerful geographical and spiritual remez.  We find it in Luke 17:11-19:

 

It happened that as he made his way toward Jerusalem, he crossed over the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten men, all lepers, met him. They kept their distance but raised their voices, calling out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  Taking a good look at them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” They went, and while still on their way, became clean.

 

One of them, when he realized that he was healed, turned around and came back, shouting his gratitude, glorifying God. He kneeled at Jesus’ feet, so grateful. He couldn’t thank him enough—and he was a Samaritan.  Jesus said, “Were not ten healed? Where are the nine? Can none be found to come back and give glory to God except this outsider?” Then he said to him, “Get up. On your way. Your faith has healed and saved you.”  (“The Message”) 

 

Listeners familiar with the Old Testament would have said, “We’ve heard this story before.”

 

In 2 Kings 5 we encounter another foreigner (like the Samaritan), who also has leprosy, who is also told to go somewhere else to receive healing, and who also comes back overwhelmed with thankfulness.  And his healing also takes place in this general vicinity, near the Israelite town of Dothan. 

 

The story of Naaman, a Syrian outsider, is stirring. 

 

We are told that he is the commander of the army of the kingdom of Aram, one of the sworn enemies of Israel.

 

In the ancient world you can be great, you can be beautiful, and you can be powerful.  But if you are a leper, then socially and spiritually you are dead.

 

Naaman’s flesh, to one degree or another, is scaly and degenerating.  At some point his fingers and toes and the tip of his nose will fall off.  Here is a man who has the power to call out battalions to fight.  But nobody wants to be around him.  His own family members shrink from touching him.  His whole existence has been sabotaged by this condition that he cannot fix or control. 

 

Suddenly there comes an unexpected opportunity.  A young, captive Israelite girl says to him, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria!  He would cure him of his leprosy.’”  She’s referring to the prophet Elisha.

 

Propelled by a mixture of curiosity and desperate hope, Naaman loads up his servants and his horses and crosses the border into Israel, bringing with him 150 pounds of gold, 750 pounds of silver, and ten suits of clothing.  It was definitely more challenging to carry money in the days before Bitcoin.  He comes to Elisha’s house.  Never has anyone been so prepared to buy a miracle. 

 

That’s what makes 2 Kings 5:10 so over-the-top insulting: “Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, ‘Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.’”

 

The Aramean general goes ballistic. 

 

“But Naaman went away angry and said, ‘I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.’”  In other words, “Doesn't this prophet know who I am?  He wants me to go jump into a muddy creek?  I could have stayed home and done that.  He at least could have come out and done a little leprosy dance.”  Thus verse twelve concludes, “He turned and went off in a rage.”

 

What God is saying through Elisha is, “Naaman, I know you’re used to being in charge.  But if you want to experience My power, you’ll have to give up the illusion of being in control and just do what I say – even though it goes against your intuition.” 

 

This is where Naaman's servants come to the rescue.  “Look,” they reason, “you came all this way prepared to do anything you were asked to do.  You would have carried out the hardest, bravest, or costliest assignment.  Now this prophet asks you to do the simplest thing any of us could ever have imagined.  Won’t you at least give it a try?"

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To wash in the Jordan, Naaman will have to remove his armor.  He will have to reveal to the world the physical condition he would prefer to hide.  

 

He chooses to humble himself: “He went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.”  

 

During the course of a single day, Naaman loses two things.  He loses his leprosy and he loses the delusion that being in control is the best way to go through life. He returns to Elisha’s house, overwhelmed with joy and expressions of praise to God. 

 

Here is where the story resonates powerfully with Luke 17.

 

Jesus is saying, “When it comes to God’s grace, there are no foreigners.  There are no people disqualified because of their ethnicity or current sense of hopelessness – no Arameans, Samaritans, or lepers.”

 

Nevertheless, there is a dividing line.

 

On the one side there are those who have much to be happy about but don’t get around to saying thank you.  That would include the nine lepers who are healed and then go their merry way.  They’re grateful, no doubt.  Even people who don’t believe in God are grateful for sunny days, cherry pie, and clear X-rays. 

 

But those who are grateful and thankful belong in an entirely different category.  Jesus calls out the man who came back. 

 

The ones who choose to come back and make a special effort to say, “Thank-you, God!” – like Naaman and the Samaritan, even though they aren’t card-carrying members of the people of God – these are the very ones who bring deep delight to the Lord.   

 

In which category are you?

 

Let your hope become trust.  Let your gratitude become thankfulness. 

 

There’s so much to be thankful for – that this is the first Monday of spring, for instance, and that Easter is just around the corner.

 

And that for at least the past 10 minutes, the odds are very good that you haven’t been Rickrolled. 

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