Sermon 79





Do Just a Bit

2 Kings 5:13


February 12, 2012


Grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     2 Kings 5 is about the prophet Elisha healing the Syrian army commander, Naaman, of his deadly leprosy. I suppose we could mine this passage for a Biblical defense of the reality of miracles in a time when many think they’re foolish (see my “Misconstruing Miracles,” Dialog, Winter 2000). But that would be to blur the focus of our text. For it dwells on the advice Naaman’s servants give to him to heal him. Let us then dwell on that counsel as well.


Kicking a Gift Horse

And when we do, we’re surprised to find that Naaman’s servants come down on him like a ton of bricks – talking to him like a proverbial Dutch uncle! They aren’t afraid of him. And so they shove him around – and with intellectual sophistication at that!

     For they present him with a counter-factual hypothetical. They say that he shouldn’t balk at Elisha’s request – to wash himself in the Jordan river seven times – simply because it’s too simple for him to do (2 Kings 5:10-13). He shouldn’t think it’s beneath him and disrespectful! And that’s because if Elisha had asked him to do something very difficult [דל, gathal] – like climbing a high and rugged mountain or traversing miles of scorching desert – he would have gladly done so! And that’s because military commanders are tough, and rarely if ever cower before what’s harrowing! So, Naaman’s servants add, that if he would be willing to do the difficult thing, then why not also do what’s less demanding – that little bit asked of him – that he may be healed?! After all, it’s not that he doesn’t have the energy and will to get it done!

     Basically Naaman’s servants rebuke him for being foolish – and kicking a gift horse in the mouth (John Heywood, 1497-1580). For he has a wonderful offer – but wants to pick at it anyway!


Being Like Naaman

Now we sinners certainly can understand that! Naaman doesn’t mystify us. For we know what it’s like to take the grace of God in vain (2 Corinthians 6:1)! We know what it’s like to drift away from so great a salvation (Hebrews 2:1-3). We know what it’s like to get started on the right foot and then blow it (Galatians 3:3). And that’s because we’re not willing to settle for the little bit of faith that’s required of us, but would rather try to save ourselves by doing the mightier [דל] works of the law (Romans 3:28) – by not offending anyone and by not being morally awry in any way.

     Martin Luther (1483-1546), our “most eminent teacher” [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p, 576], helps us understand our waywardness. Jesus tells us that it’s our faith that heals us (Mark 5:34, 10:52), and yet we still balk at it. And so does Naaman – refusing to believe that simply by washing himself in the Jordon River he would be healed! Luther explains:


[We are] like a man who has fallen into the middle of a stream. He catches the branch of a tree somehow to support himself above the water and be saved. So in the midst of sins, death, and anxieties we, too, lay hold of Christ with a weak faith. Yet this faith, tiny though it may be, still preserves us and rules over death and treads the devil… under foot (Luther’s Works 12:262).


And so Lutherans confess that faith “is not an idle thought, but frees us from death [and] brings forth… new life” (BC, p. 116)!

     Even though our faith, then, be small, it can still do great things. And so we must not “think too lightly of faith,” but regard it as the “valiant hero” which it is (LW 36:62; 28:73)! For when the disciples cried to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” – he assures them that if they only had a bit of faith – the size of a tiny grain of mustard seed – it could still root up a huge mulberry tree and plant it in the sea (Luke 17:5-6). Just think of it! And so we too pray for increased faith – that we might believe that just a little bit of it will do. We, like that famous Danish Lutheran of old, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) – whose bicentennial next year is already beckoning us – cries out to the Lord in prayer:


O lazy human discernment, O deceitful mortal wisdom, O dull, dead thoughts of slumbering faith, O wretched forgetfulness of a cold heart – no, Lord, preserve every believer… and deliver him from evil! (Journals, ed. Hong & Hong, 3:3409).


We pray, then, that we might come to see that faith isn’t puny but a “mighty [and] daring confidence in God’s grace” (LW 35:370)! We pray that we might realize that “he who doesn’t think he believes, but is in despair, has the greatest faith” (LW 40:241)! And that even though “the world would not give a penny for it” – “no matter how feeble it is,…. [faith] is still… so mighty that it tears heaven and earth apart and opens all graves” (LW 28:73)!


God’s Tiny Bits

Even so, we must not let faith run wild and gobble up all of what’s valuable in our life with God. No, says Luther. “Not that faith does the reconciling in and of itself,” he writes, “but it lays hold on and obtains the reconciliation which Christ has performed for us” (LW 36:177). So when Jesus is asked to heal the lepers he says, “I do choose. Be made clean” (Mark 1:41). These six little words are condensed into just two in the old Latin Bible – volo mundare! There you have it – God’s powerful little bit which saves us! That’s what we’re to hold on to – volo mundare. Let those two little good Latin words ring in your ears – volo mundare! For in them God makes it known that he has come to help sinners. And he does that on the cross. For that is where we see, as the Lutheran confessions say, that “only Christ, the mediator, can be pitted against God’s wrath and judgment” (BC, p. 136). For by shedding his blood, Christ saves us from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9).

     So on the cross, Jesus cries out as he is dying, “It is finished” (John 19:30) – which again, in the old Latin Bible, is just two words – consummatum est! Yes, God’s wrath has come to an end in the crucifixion of Christ – consummatum est. On the cross he is punished in our place (LW 26:284) and so we are saved from everlasting condemnation in hell – if we just believe in him (John 3:16; Romans 3:25; LW 32:76). For it is that cutting word (Hebrews 4:12) from the cross, that makes him our Savior (John 10:17).

     So receive him today in a tiny bit of bread and a few drops of wine at the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We don’t need a huge spread of food to fill us, and, by being stuffed, show us that our sins have been forgiven. No, if anything, being stuffed may well close our eyes to the wonders of salvation in Christ (Hosea 13:6; John 6:26)! So excess – gluttony and drunkenness – has no place at this “most venerable” sacrament (1 Corinthians 13:21; BC, p. 577)! That’s because this food isn’t for temporal gains, like some “belly sermon” (LW 23:5), but for our faith, as Luther explains:


The Lord’s Supper is given as a daily food and sustenance so that our faith may refresh and strengthen itself and not weaken in the struggle but grow continually stronger (BC, p. 449).


     And see also this salvation in the little bit of water that we’ll sprinkle on Shirley Woods today in her baptism. I’m not going to dowse her with a bucket full of water to heal her – and she no doubt is glad to hear that! No! Just a little bit of water will do it – for we believe that it is the word that gives power to the water, and “not the water” itself or the amount of it (BC p. 349)! No, that little bit of water will be her Jordon River in which Shirley is dipped, as it were – and cleansed from her sin, from her “spiritual leprosy” [Titus 3:5; Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. J. Lenker (1988) 1:152]!


Mortifying the Flesh

This doesn’t mean, however, that all difficulties are wiped away! Jesus, after all, says that the way is narrow and hard (Matthew 7:14), and St. Paul calls faith a fight (1 Timothy 6:12) and Luther says faith is “exceedingly arduous” (LW 29:149; 28:73)! So where does this difficulty properly lie? The Bible is able to proclaim both ease along with difficulty (Matthew 7:14, 11:30) – but can we?

     Because faith includes more than trusting in God, but obedience as well (Luke 11:28; LW 25:238), difficulties arise. That’s because faith is also “the mortification of the flesh [and] the reviving of the spirit” which helps us bring “the Savior more deeply into our hearts” (LW 14:329, 51:207). So St. Paul famously charges us to pummel our bodies in order to aid this deepening of our faith (1 Corinthians 9:27)! And it’s just this battle that makes faith so difficult and so “easily obscured and lost” (LW 26:114)!

     When I graduated from high school in 1967, it was called the summer of love (Joel Selvin, Summer of Love, 1999). Many rushed off to California for free sex and drugs. Their creed was, “if it feels good, do it!” But words like these fuel the battle of faith! For it’s in the face of such temptations and “the agonies of death” that we learn how difficult it is to “adhere to God’s Word” (LW 23:179). May God then help us in the battle that follows when we’ve joined Christ by doing our little bit to believe in him. Amen.


 (printed as preached but with some changes)