July 3, 2016
7th Sunday After Pentecost
Lissa Wray Beal
2 Kings 5:1-14; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
We live in a world of growing nationalism, as indicated in recent events such as the Brexit vote. President Obama’s recent speech to Parliament warned of its darker side, and the question of Canadian nationalism was addressed in Saturday’s Globe & Mail article on recent Canadian immigration. The world’s growing nationalism – and its darker side – are often born out of fear, rapid global developments, and a gnawing feeling of our lack of control. Nationalism can be a good servant but a bad master. And if coupled with fear? History has shown it can be disastrous.
Our Old Testament narrative today reminds us that there is really nothing new in the world. Though the events of this story occurred 3000 years ago, it is set in a national scene that we recognize. It is a story of nations at war; of kings and general; of prisoners deported to serve in another nation.
It is starting to note, then, that its main character, Naaman, undercuts what we expect in a story of nationalism. While a foreign (and victorious) general, his victory is at the LORD’s hand – in the ancient world, the gods were supposed to fight on behalf of their country. Why is Israel’s God fighting against Israel and for Aram? Naaman is accorded by Elisha none of the respect expected to be shown to a victorious enemy; instead, he treats him with near-contempt. And Elisha has promised healing for Naaman, so that it will be known by a foreigner as well as Israel there is a God in Israel. The prescribed “medicine” is to wash in the national river – one that Naaman scorns, feeling the rivers of the victorious nation, Aram, would be better and more effective for such a cure.
Most startling of all, nationalism is undercut when the God of Israel heals the foreigner. And in response? Naaman praises the God of Israel, rightly acknowledging that “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”
Here, Naaman hits on the truth of this narrative, and the one thing that undercuts all nationalism: it is that the God revealed in Israel is the God of all nations; of Israelites and foreigners. And the God of all peoples: insignificant servants (such as the Israelite servant-girl who urged Naaman on his healing quest) as well as powerful commanders (such as Naaman). This story reveals what the Old Testament has been saying all along: God is the God of all, and will respond to the need of any who seek him.
This leads us to the same truth in our gospel reading which is likewise set in the context of nationalism and empire. Jesus sends out 70 disciples (having earlier in Luke 9 sent out his 12). This is an unusual number that evokes the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 where 70 nations (the known world at the time) are listed. The number “70” here in Luke seems to suggest that Jesus sends out disciples with a message for all nations.
And it is “all the nations” that Luke shows is the concern of the gospel. We see this by noticing as Luke begins: Zechariah remembering the promise to Abraham (which was that “all nations would be blessed” through Abraham’s seed. That seed is now revealed as Jesus through whom the blessing will come. The angels at Jesus’ birth proclaim “Peace on earth; goodwill to all.” Simeon takes the child in his arms and blesses God who has in the child shown “the glory of Israel and the light of revelation to the Gentiles.” Luke begins his gospels with the whole world in view. It is also how he ends his gospel, for Jesus sends his disciples to preach “repentance for forgiveness of sins to all nations” (Lk 24:47).
So it is no surprise that Jesus sends out 70 disciples with instructions: They are to tell all they meet that “the Kingdom of God has come near.”
In the context of Israel – a nation in the midst of the Roman empire – Jesus’ message is a strong proclamation that in the midst of kingdoms, a greater kingdom was being established. God’s kingdom. A kingdom that works in the midst of the world, often quietly. Sometimes secretly. Sometimes in the midst of danger and death.
It is a kingdom that has endured and grown through the rise and fall of all earthly kingdoms. It is a kingdom that cares not a whit for the national identity of those who enter. It is a kingdom that brings young and old, rich and poor, powerful and powerless to God: as equals. As God’s children, all loved. All claimed by Christ.
So, do not fear as our own world is being shaped and changed in ways that can at times be fearful and uncertain. We do live in this world. We work for God within its realities.
But we belong to another kingdom that has been established in the midst of these worldly kingdoms. It is the Kingdom of God, established in power through the raising of Christ from the dead. It is a kingdom that is not stopped by the kingdoms of this world. It is a kingdom that works to heal and set free. To bring justice and peace. To proclaim that Jesus, crucified and risen, has paid the cost of our sins, and through faith in him, we are set free to know, love, and serve God without fear.
The kingdom of God has come near in Christ. Do not fear. But like Naaman, stand and proclaim in word and action, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except the God of Israel.” That God is no national God, but the LORD of heaven and earth whose kingdom knows no end.
Be at peace as the world shifts around us. God’s kingdom is in our midst.