"And in every beginning there is a magic that protects us and helps us to live."
This is a quote from Hermann Hesse and perhaps you will be a little enchanted by my sermon ;-) which is about to begin.
Otherwise, I am not quite as enthusiastic about this quote.
I agree with the magic. When you start something new, you get involved in something new, you don't know exactly what to expect. That can be exciting.
I once read a statement by a member of the now defunct aCapella group "Wise Guys" where he explained why he wanted to quit. He was in his early 50s at the time and had been singing in this group since his school days, quite quickly also full-time. All his other professional plans came to a halt. For example, he had studied Protestant theology parallel to his music career and wanted to become a pastor as a second mainstay. This was not compatible with touring and he gave it up.
Now he was faced with the question of continuing to perform with the Wise Guys until retirement or starting something new. And in his early 50s, that's such an age: it's either now or not at all. And he took the plunge and is now doing a solo career. The time was over for studies, the opportunity was missed.
When you're 40 or 50, you start asking yourself about the balance of your life, and some people want to know it all over again: A new job, a move, and sometimes this wanting-to-know-it-again affects the relationship and you break up, although of course not every break-up has this cause.
When we look at these cases, we also realise that the magic of the beginning can somehow be there, but that it protects us and helps us to live seems to me to go more in the direction of wishful thinking. Just because we start something new doesn't necessarily make it better.
A very special beginning is when you start anew with God. This can be a first time beginning, or a new beginning.
There is certainly a magic in such a beginning, but it is not the magic that protects us and helps us to live, but in God we experience protection and help to live.
On the way to the beginning
I would like to look at a text from 2 Kings 5 on this subject (vv.1-3; NL):
Naaman was a highly decorated and successful warlord. But he had leprosy. Leprosy does not necessarily have to be leprosy, because many other skin diseases were also called leprosy at that time. It was not possible to classify it precisely at that time, but he certainly suffered from it.
Getting rid of this illness would probably have felt like a new life, like a magical new beginning. But it didn't look like that would be possible, until then this servant tells something about a prophet in her old homeland.
This Israelite girl behaves admirably here. She was stolen from home into slavery and yet one day she takes pity on her sick master. We don't know, of course, how long this girl has been in slavery here, but one might identify with thoughts like "Rot away!" rather than a desire for sanctification for her master.
She has learned to forgive and that under such circumstances. I find that exemplary.
And only through her forgiveness does she point Naaman to the Prophet and thus show him the way to healing.
Perhaps this is a picture of forgiveness freeing Christians to point others to Jesus. Unforgiving Christians are certainly not a good witness.
The Aramaic king did not really listen. For him it was probably unthinkable that a prophet had more power than a king. So of course he sees the king of Israel as his contact person. And with enough gold and silver, you can buy anything, can't you? Even the healing of leprosy!
The Israelite king sees it somewhat differently (v.7):
A certain panic is perhaps understandable here. There could almost have been a war. But it remained peaceful.
He leaves him at the door with his horses, chariots and gold and silver. Elisha does not come out himself. It's as if he squawks through the intercom of his house: "Wash seven times in the Jordan, and all will be well. And bye!"
Now this is not quite so polite, but Elisha was a bit peculiar anyway and all in all this was also an important lesson for Naaman, as we see later (v.11-14):
Now he has brought so much gold and now he expects something. I am important, a great military leader. I can expect VIP treatment.
He was a private patient to the power of three and he is only treated like a health insurance patient. But he didn't have to wait a month for an appointment. For a specialist appointment with a dermatologist, it can take a little longer.
And then the treatment is also illogical. There are much better rivers in Damascus than in Israel, he says.
However, the Jordan is longer and larger than the Abana and the Parpar, if today's distances of the rivers correspond to those of that time. But when it comes to sensitivities and pride, facts often fall by the wayside. And "better" is not tangible. Rivers in Damascus simply have to be better than those in Israel.
I think some people feel the same way when they first come into contact with Christians and Jesus. They think they are who-knows-how important. "I'm going to explain the world to these unworldly Christians," they might think. And they should be glad that a stranger is coming at all, etc.
God is already waiting for every person, just as Elisha waited for Naaman. He himself summoned him, Elisha wanted Naaman to come to him. In the same way, God waits for every person, he wants everyone to come.
But the party does not start when a person enters the church hall for the first time. If someone comes with the attitude "Here I am, pay attention to me, I am important", then God will not be there. He may hear God's speaking through his ground staff, which unfortunately sometimes only sounds like a squawking intercom. God's people here on earth are unfortunately only flawed people who don't do many things right here and there. And if you want, you can always find a Christian who has behaved stupidly in some situation. This certainly applies to me personally from time to time (hopefully only rarely).
And some people can't cope with that and leave. And Naaman felt the same way. He turned around and walked away angrily.
Well, what do you do as a community? Elisha does nothing here. He neither comes out nor sends his servant after him.
The church should also not send the pastor after each of these cases. This is where other people come in (v.13.14; NL):
It is his companions, the people who know him, who know how he thinks. And Naaman seems to be a rational person, because the companions grab him with logic. Something big he would have done, why not something small.
And they overcome such pride. You don't really want to do something small, you want to be important, something big should happen. Everyone should see it. But this vanity blocks his healing, and often enough pride and vanity is an obstacle on the way to get to know God.
You are too proud to acknowledge that someone else has to help you. Jesus Christ has done everything for us, his deed has blotted out all our sins, and if you still want to put your own heroism on the line, you can't do that.
His companions help him to overcome his pride. And Naaman is obviously important to his companions.
They could also have said: "The vain idiot, it's his own fault."
We do not know what Naaman was like as a person, whether he was lovable or whether he was also proud and self-centred in everyday life.
But God put people by his side who cared about Naaman. And I think it is important that we as Christians are also prepared to be such people, not everyone for everyone, but individually for those whom God puts in our way. It's about us wrestling with our naaman or naamans, praying for them, convincing them so that they find Jesus.
And here it works. He gets involved, submerges himself seven times and is cured.
One can imagine that he might have felt rather stupid at one time or another during the individual diving actions. He makes a face, maybe wants to quit, but then happens to look at one of his companions, who gives him an encouraging nod. And then he goes through with it.
If you compare these diving processes with the path to Jesus, then you can imagine that some things also seem strange to the newcomer, perhaps even daunting. Some things he may rightly see as strange, others only seem so, and when he understands it, he finds it good.
And if he has then decided for Jesus Christ, then the previous history no longer plays such a big role. But what happens next is important (v.15-16; NL):
Interestingly, Elisha is now coming out of the house, because otherwise he could not stand in front of him.
This is a symbol of encountering God. One can only really encounter God when one belongs to Jesus Christ, when one is virtually healed of sin.
And Naaman really understood. He does not say that Elisha is a great magician or healer, he does not praise the healing waters of the Jordan, but he has understood that God has healed him.
And that, of course, is the real goal, which we also cannot do ourselves.
Of course, we should make an effort to create good, attractive services, to convey a clear but understandable message, music that carries away and moves and also the other events in our congregation should be good in the sense that interested people can imagine coming.
I also found the Churchnews from the last semi-ELF service totally great. Let's try out new things, let us older people be inspired by the younger ones to try out new things. God is also creative and always creates something new.
And everything should serve to make people aware that there is no other God in the world, that salvation is in Jesus Christ. That is the goal.
Then this discussion comes up "I want to return the favour". And that's where Elisa is ironclad. The impression must never appear that you have to contribute or have contributed something to your salvation, or that you have even bought it.
"I have worked so hard, I have put in so much effort, and therefore I deserve to be healed." Righteousness in works is something that is deeply ingrained in many people. Unfortunately, this is also found in some Christian denominations, e.g. in Catholic doctrine. Here is a quote from katholisch-leben.org (http://www.katholisch-leben.org/rechtfertigung.htm):
However, no one (without a very special privilege of God's grace) can be certain with a certainty such as is proper to faith that he is justified before God. But if a person has done everything to prepare himself for justification, he may hope that God will have mercy on him.
One can understand that humanly. It also seems more logical that one has to contribute something. Many religious communities that are not usually counted as Christian churches, such as Jehovah's Witnesses or the New Apostles, also consider this point to be correct.
But as if Elisha had already suspected this at the time, he remains ironclad here: No reciprocating gifts in connection with God's healing.
We can only receive Jesus' sacrifice on the cross from him as a perfect gift without anything in return.
But the story goes further (v.17.18; NL):
I think Naaman has learned a lot in the short time. So, no gifts, but he wants to take something with him to remind him of the situation, what it always brings to his mind. He loads up earth so that when he looks at the heap of earth or the area with the earth at home, he remembers that he was in Israel, he was healed and came to know God.
He now no longer wants a piece of the glory for his salvation for himself, but he does not want to forget it. He plans for the future to always remember it.
And then comes a sentence that we may have heard before or that we have said ourselves before: "Well, I really want to be on the road with Jesus now and stick to the Bible, but on this one point I can't. I really can't."
And we experienced Christians might then let loose such sayings as: "So all or nothing!" or "God will give you the strength!" or "Be strong and courageous!", etc.
That is already a tough request. After all, he says that in the future he wants and needs to continue playing the idolater for the false idol of his homeland, and in front of the public.
You can't do that!
But Elisha, who was tough as nails before, just says, "Go in peace!"
I would have thought of more: Of course, you can't participate in idolatry and please send the Israelite girl home again. And these attacks on my people, they will stop now!
But Elisha only says, "Go in peace!"
Why does Elisa only say that and not more?
This verse has often reminded me of our former church practice of not baptising people who were living together out of wedlock, or a few decades ago we also excluded church members who were living together out of wedlock.
By way of introduction, I must say that I think it is right from the Bible that sex belongs in marriage. I cannot go into this in detail here due to time constraints, but it is already written at the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 2:24; ELB:
I have once deliberately taken a non-modern translation. In other translations, instead of "attach" it says "join" and instead of one flesh it says "one body and one soul" or "one unity". And sex expresses this union of life, this unity of life, that is it in the highest perfection. And therefore, in my view, sex outside of marriage is not creaturely and not good in the long run.
Nevertheless, I find the former church practice wrong today. When people set out with Jesus, you can't expect them to do everything right straight away or to recognise everything right away.
Elisha gives Naaman time. He knows that Naaman now has the right companion in God. "Go in peace" is exactly the right sentence. It also contains the trust that God will help him to make the right decisions. Maybe with God's help Naaman will find a way to avoid going to the idol temple, maybe he will talk to the king when he sees him healed. But maybe it will take a few more years before he finds a way to stop pretending to be an idolater.
I do not want to criticise the decisions of our community at that time, we, including myself, decided according to our knowledge at that time.
But today I would accept someone who started with Jesus and testified to that into the church, even if they were living with someone illegitimately.
No one wants to play morality police here, no one wants to control the beds.
I want to say to someone who is starting with Jesus, "Go in peace" and I want to pray for them and trust in God that they will gain knowledge and make the right decisions with God.
Of course I see the problem, especially as someone who sometimes stands in the pulpit, that on the one hand we are very much mandated to also address ethical questions in sermons. What is right and what is wrong, and, very importantly, well founded on the Bible. If people with different levels of knowledge are sitting in the service and such a question is raised, it could happen that someone taps the person next to him and says: "Now listen carefully, this concerns you exactly! But such behaviour would not be so good.
We as preachers have to be particularly sensitive to this.
"Go in peace."
I want people to overcome all obstacles, personal and otherwise, and come to our church and get to know Jesus and thereby be healed and set out on the path step by step.
I am aware that many new questions arise in this context; how is it with long-time Christians who one has the impression are again behaving like beginner Christians? How does one classify the biblical passages on the subject of church exclusion here? etc.
There is still a lot that is not clear to me in this context, and that would go beyond the scope of today, so I would like to conclude and summarise once again.
- A new beginning can be something magical, especially when someone starts with Jesus.
- Naaman was respected, highly decorated, but his illness made his life difficult.
- The Israelite has forgiven and is thereby free to point to salvation.
- Powerful people often do not see where the healing is, but only think in terms of power. From there, the king of Damascus turns to the king of Israel, who directly panics. But the prophet Elisha is ready to help.
- The rescue does not go as Naaman imagines. He wants to make a big fuss as an important person. Something as simple as what Elisha tells him is nonsense. In the same way, for many people the cross is also silliness.
- His companions make an effort to convince him. And Naaman then gets involved. For which people are we personally such companions?
- He has understood, he has come to know God. But he wants to give something in return, but Elisha wants nothing. Grace is only given for free, only without anything in return.
- Naaman does not want to forget what he has experienced. And he sees the coming problems.
- "Go in peace!" Let's help, let's pray for people to overcome all personal and other obstacles and come to our church and get to know Jesus and become healed and start their journey with God step by step.