Sunday next before Lent – Year B 2018
2 Kings 5:1-14
1 Cor 9:24-27
‘The Hidden Kingdom – True Authority’
‘I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air’
The story of the healing of Naaman the Syrian – out OT reading today – is one full of wonderful and revelatory detail. Every time I read or better hear it, I notice something new. But for a very long time I have associate this story with one of my university lecturers from many years ago now.
In the Biophysics department, Dr Parker was a bit of a legend, but in a mysterious way. He lectured through a beard, seldom looked at anyone, and was at times incomprehensible, and wasn’t one for being seen in and around the department. Yet, he was revered. The story was that if you were looking for an idea for a PhD, you should try and find Dr Parker. If you could find him he would usually be tucked away in a lab somewhere doing something odd, if not incomprehensible, like trying to open a centrifuge whilst it was working, to see what would happen. The rumour was that if you managed to, the centrifuge itself would arise from its vacuum sealed casing rise into the air rather like a flying saucer and bury its way through the concrete slabbed walls of which the whole department was built. Of course it was likely that only Dr Parker knew the truth of this . . . There you would ask him your question and without looking at you he would mutter something through his dense beard, and if you understood him aright you would undoubtedly go off, make your fortune and win the nobel prize for Biology, whilst he continued to do incomprehensible things. And I always think of Dr Parker when I think of Elisha the prophet and especially with regard to the story of Naaman.
Here comes the commander of the Assyrian Army no doubt with a retinue – It’s world war 2 and FM Rommel turns up at your door, probably accompanied by a small panzer division – and Naaman asks for help – the FM asks you for a cup of tea 🙂 ) And Elisha doesn’t even come to the door – he seems to be otherwise occupied, hidden away inside his house and sends his servant with the necessary and to Naaman incomprehensible instructions. ‘Wash in the Jordan, that muddy stream? Aren’t our Syrian rivers far superior?’ But just like the advice from Dr Parker, Elisha’s advice has powerful effect.
Neither Dr Parker, nor more importantly for our purposes this morning, Elisha, were just available whenever you wanted them. But remarkable things flowed from them. Surely we might think, Elisha one might think could set up a website, or the equivalent, a road side stall and advertise ‘Healings here! Come and get your healings! Leprosy, paralysis, raising the dead!’ But he didn’t, and neither did Jesus . . .
These past few weeks we’ve started to hear Mark’s account of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and amongst many things two things often stand out. Firstly there is the note of Authority. When Jesus leaves the wilderness he calls the disciples. They just leave their nets and go. He teaches in the synagogue at Capernaum, and ‘they were astonished at his teaching, for He taught them as one having authority’ He heals a man with an unclean spirit, commanding the spirit to ‘Be quiet, and come out of him’ (we will return to this shortly). Again those who look on are amazed at His authority over ‘even the unclean spirits’. Elisha gives an abrupt instruction, and Naaman in obeying it is healed. Elisha has authority, and over and again we hear of The Authority of Jesus . . .
AND that he is often unavailable – he goes apart to pray – and when Peter tells him “Everyone is looking for you!” but he says ‘Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth’
Most significantly for us as we prepare for Lent, we remember how he spends 40 days alone ‘tempted by Satan’. Brett will be preaching on this next week, and Mark is very sparing – two verses. Yet Matthew and Luke give us the details of what is happening in the desert, and as we prepare for this season of our self-denial we might understand why we do what we do, after all, Lent will have begun by this time next week. It is surely better to know why you are doing what you are doing before you start!
And whatever else the temptations are about, they are about Jesus learning to say one word, learning to say No!
As I said a couple of weeks ago, testing times are given to us that we might Grow to maturity. I was with someone not so long ago who was going through a trial, a time of testing, and they said something quite remarkable nowadays, ‘I must take the trouble to seek to learn what God is teaching me in this time’. Testing and trials are about learning, and Jesus’s trials are of a dimension that we can scarce imagine.
Forty days hungry – and ‘turn the stones into bread’ – You Know what you want! ‘just worship me and it can all be yours’. The trial of the Obedience that comes through faith (Romans 1:7). Learning to say No . . . So perhaps Jesus’ hiddenness, his refusal to be wherever and whenever the crowds want him, is the secret to His Authority, humanly speaking. After all Jesus is Every Bit Human, Fully human. He can only learn as we can . . . and perhaps True Authority is rooted first in the ability to say No. Being hidden away, facing the demons . . . funny how we only have dreams of grandiosity on our own, funny how our darkest thoughts only reveal themselves to us when we are alone . . . As the desert fathers would say, ‘stay in your cell, it will teach you everything’, not least to say no to the myriad temptations and delusions we might suffer . . .
Three times Jesus faces the trial of Satan – Three times against the most appalling temptation imaginable he says No and emerges as one who has Authority . . . and so the leper comes to Jesus, and recognising his Authority says to Him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean” “If you are willing” The leper recognises that True Authority cannot be manipulated to our own ends.”If you are willing . . .” and Jesus, ‘moved with compassion, stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him “I am willing; be cleansed.” At the moment he spoke, the leprosy left [the man]’ (my tr.)
From this Authority flows Healing, Great Healing. An authority learned in the hidden place, rooted in the capacity to say ‘No’.
Well at this point it would be easy to go home and if asked say ‘Eric told us we need to say no, or at least more often’, but that is still missing the point which is twofold. What is this capacity to say ‘no’ rooted in? It is after all often easy to say ‘No’ to others but to little effect. No, True Authority is rooted in learning to say no to oneself.
The temptations of Jesus, cut right into the very heart, down into the very marrow of his desires, his deepest desires. He knows that there is only one way, and that that is his Father’s way – ‘Worship God! Him only shall you serve!’ ‘I only do what I see the Father doing’ He submits himself to the Will of His Father – the ends do not justify the means, for the wrong means subvert the ends. Only the Way His Father reveals to Him will bring Life, will bring healing to lepers and those in bondage. So it is not first about learning to say no to others, it is about learning to say no to yourself . . .
But there is even there an all too simple deception. ‘We say no to ourselves by saying yes to others, so always saying yes to others is saying no to ourself,’ – but no. Jesus certainly does not reveal this in his life. For simply always saying yes to others is surrendering your responsibility for your own life. Saying ‘yes’ to every whim within, is no different to saying ‘yes’ to every demand from without, and we have long long known this. Jesus says ‘Those who seek to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake and the Gospel will save it’ but you have to have a life to lose in order to save it!! Simply always saying yes to everyone and everything is not self denial, it is pure victimhood and often leads to deep bitterness and resentment, clinging onto a life that is no life at all. Only the one who Knows their Life can lay it down. And humans have long known this – yet our age is a forgetful age
Socrates, whom the oracle of Delphi (female – the Source of Wisdom), declared to be the wisest amongst men once said that he heard a voice within him. He had learned to unquestioningly obey that voice. It was that subtle quiet voice that would from time to time say ‘no’. He attributed good in his life to never going against that voice.
True self denial is learning to hear the gentle and quiet voice saying ‘no’. Whatever manner of self-denial we choose this Lent, and it is most sad that we have to choose for we will do it alone and may be little help to one another – but whatever self-denial we practise these coming forty days, we do so to learn to hear that small voice, the Holy Spirit’s Strengthening.
For surely, if you can’t say no even to a bag of chips [NZ for crisps in the UK] , then your ability to say yes to others in a meaningful sense is perhaps an illusion. If you have no authority over yourself – why might you think you can in any sense command others or be capable of good towards others? We are then just mere chaos. And it is the chaos without that constantly threatens Jesus.
‘And Jesus strictly warned the man [who had been healed] and immediately sent him away saying ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing those things which Moses commanded, as a testimony to them’ However, the man went out and began to proclaim it feely, and to spread the matter, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to him from every direction’
Jesus heals the man of his outer affliction, but he is not healed inwardly. He does not Hear the Voice which says ‘No’ The Voice which directs him to hidden obedience before the priests, to the obedience of faith, the hidden way of Jesus – we will explore this more on Ash Wednesday. Rather he disobeys, spilling it all out – and the result is that Jesus is driven away as again and again the Crowds threaten to overwhelm Him. The testing of Jesus does not finish in the desert, that is their beginning. Leaving the desert the crowds press in on every side – hiding The Tempter – always testing Him, always calling on him to throw himself down from the Temple – never satisfied, insatiable – Never able to say, ‘No! Never able to say Enough! Give us a sign, Jesus – and another and another and another!! Insatiable, the mark of demonic possession.
Lent is our preparation for Pascha – for Holy Week, for Maundy Thursday, for the trial of the Garden, and for Good Friday, the Final Trial, the Trial of the Cross . . . Everything, the desert, the chaos of the crowd, everything has been teaching Jesus the perfect way of obedience to the Father, for this moment.
And there once more in the final showdown is the chaotic Crowd – the Last Temptation. The Greatest Temptation. In the agony of Crucifixion he hangs there as the crowd, possessed by Satan himself call out the words of the Tempter ‘if you are the Son of God, come down from the Cross’ . . . Jesus final Trial . . . and his Final ‘No’
As we prepare ourselves for Lent, as we receive Him in bread and Wine – may we reflect upon our human condition, that in order to say the Great Yes to us of Easter Day, the word of Jesus from the cross is ‘No’.
His True and Hidden Authority. Bringing Yes from No. Life from Death