Sunday 9 October 2022: Trinity 17, Twenty-eighth in Ordinary time, Proper 23
For better or for worse
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; 2 Timothy 2:8-15
Context: Sunday-morning service. A reserved congregation who do not engage with traditional call-and-response preaching (which is common in churches within the same denomination in London). A growing congregation with students from the city’s university, professionals, academics, and laity. The majority of members are middle-aged
Aim: to show how moments of despair and suffering can strengthen a person’s faith
Praise the Lord.
Father Ioann Burdin, rector of the Church of the Resurrection of Christ in Russia’s western Kostroma region, was detained for allegedly discrediting Russian military forces in his 6 March 2022 sermon for ‘Forgiveness Sunday’, the final Sunday before the beginning of the Russian Orthodox Lenten season. This morning, if I were preaching to a congregation in Ukraine or in Russia, what would my sermon be entitled? How would I preach to those who have lost homes, families or loved ones and whose lives have been wrecked? What sermon would I preach to Russian visitors to our church this morning? It could only be a sermon that strengthens faith in perilous times – a sermon which, despite our despair and suffering, strengthens a person’s faith in the Lord Jesus for better or for worse.
In our Old Testament reading, 2 Kings 5:1-3 and 7-15c, Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, is said to be a mighty warrior – we are told in the text that it was through his military skills that God had given victory to Aram. However, for all his brilliance and heroics, these outstanding qualities are not what lead him to know the God of Israel.
Naaman has leprosy. He is told that if he wants to be cleansed from his leprosy, he must obey the man of God Elisha’s direction and do something that appears to be the worst thing to do (but in the end is the best thing to have done), and dip himself in the river called Jordan seven times.
Naaman asks this question perhaps within himself: ‘Why should I dip myself in the Jordan seven times? Why should I suffer even more than I am suffering now…? If I am to dip in a river, are not the Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters in Israel?’
The answer to Naaman’s question was, perhaps, yes; there were better and cleaner rivers to dip in. However, victories can come by and through the worst and most painful routes and situations in order to strengthen a person’s faith.
Father Ioann Burdin of the Resurrection Church in western Russia might have avoided being detained if he had gone somewhere else to preach. But where he stood was the perfect place to expose suffering and injustice. Father Ioann serves God for better or for worse.
Naaman comes to know the God of Israel by immersing himself in the Jordan River on the conviction of the prophet Elisha.
Naaman dips himself seven times in the Jordan and is cleansed from his leprosy. He is willing to give a gift to Elisha, but Elisha refuses to take a gift or to stand in the way of Naaman’s having a clear path to knowing the God of Israel.
Following this experience of dipping seven times in the Jordan he wants to serve the God of Elisha to the point (in 2 Kings 5:17-18) that he takes some soil from the ground around the Jordan (so sacred has it now become, in his view), so that he can use this earth like a kneeling pad to offer prayers to the God of Elisha and Israel and not to any other gods – for within his heart he is now serving the true and only God.
He is obliged by duty and loyalty to go into the temple of Rimmon (a false idol god of Aram). When he bows down in that temple now, however, he will be kneeling on earth from the Jordan and offering prayers to the God of Elisha and Israel. Remembering his experience, for better or for worse, he is now prepared to serve the God of Israel and Elisha. Hallelujah.
In our New Testament reading, 2 Timothy 2:8–15, the apostle Paul speaks of his suffering and likens it to that of a criminal – but he is not a criminal; he is just preaching for better or for worse. He is determined to endure any and every-thing that is thrown at him. Even to be in chains for preaching – suffering – in despair. This has strengthened his faith to the point that he declares words that should be our words; and our dedication should be like that of Naaman, whatever platforms we are privileged or unprivileged to appear on. ‘For better or for worse.’
My precious brethren: this morning, here is a trustworthy saying: if we died with him, (Jesus,) we will also live with him. If we endure, we will also reign with him.
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