Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Jordan: The river of rebirth

The servant cleared his throat. More loudly this time. “WHAT?”, Naaman snapped.

The day had not been going well. When they had arrived at the palace of the king of Israel, Naaman had been welcomed according to protocol, as befitting someone of his rank and accomplishments. The letter from the king of Syria was then presented to the Israelite servants to be taken to their king. But the king's response had been slow. Insultingly so.

When the servants finally returned, they looked somewhat fearful. Perhaps it was the leprosy. The servants explained that the king would not cure Namaan's leprosy and that he would have to consult with a prophet named Elisha. They were given directions and shown the door. Naaman, seething, returned to his chariot. Not a word was spoken until they arrived at Elisha's door.

This time, a single servant had emerged from the house with a message for Naaman. “Go wash in the Jordan river seven times and you will be clean,” he said and then he returned into the house.

That had done it. Naaman was furious. “Why wouldn't the prophet come out and pray over me and heal me himself? He wouldn't even speak with me directly! And why the Jordan river? It's barely a river, more of a muddy stream! There are much better rivers in Syria!” Naaman's anger had not abated, even as they continued on their return home.

The servant chose his words carefully. “My Father, if the prophet had asked something difficult of you, would you have not done it? Why then would you not be willing to obey when you were simply instructed `Go wash and be clean?'”

Naaman looked at the servant for a few silent moments. Then he ordered that the chariot be turned around.

When they arrived at the Jordan, Naaman descended from his chariot. He removed his sword. He removed his armor. Finally he removed his garments and handed them to the servant. As he stood there naked, the servants could clearly see the ravages that the leprosy had already taken on his body. Naaman descended the muddy bank, wadded out into the water and immersed himself. Once. Twice. Three times. Four times. Five times. Six times. Seven times.

When Naaman came up after the seventh washing, the servants all gasped. The leprosy was gone! The damage to his body had been undone. Even all the scars Naaman had acquired from years of fighting had disappeared. Naaman was shaking with joy as the servant helped him dress, and as his fingers brushed Naaman's body he could feel that his skin was as smooth and as perfect as a newborn's.

Nicodemus the Pharisee came to speak with Jesus one night. The conversation did not go at all as he had anticipated. At one point Jesus said to him, “You must be born again” which left Nicodemus was very confused. Was Jesus was suggesting that he had to return to his mother's womb and be born again physically?

Naaman the leper experienced something as close to physical rebirth as is recorded for us in the Bible. The account makes it very clear to us that his skin was not just healed, but regenerated. But first he had to humble himself, go to the river, expose himself, and obey.

Jesus explained to Nicodemus that is wasn't physical, but spiritual rebirth that was needed. The scars and ravages of sin cannot be covered up, they must be undone. Like Naaman's physical healing, salvation requires humility, exposure and obedience. The source of the healing is despised, like the muddy Jordan river, but when we come and believe we are baptised into Christ. We are reborn and remade. As Jesus said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

(2 Kings 5; John 3)

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