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When We Were Still Far Off

Before a big meeting we imagine don’t we, we play out in our minds what we think will happen, perhaps we toss and turn the night before, rehearsing what we might say and anticipating what the other people present might say or do. But it doesn’t always go to plan, I remember being extremely surprised when being interviewed for a university place. At the appointed time the admissions tutor bustled in, seemingly in his gardening jumper, asked me one or two questions about the books I had been reading for pleasure (nothing about the chemical engineering I wanted to study) and then after less than ten minutes bustled off again, I supposed back to his roses. I didn’t really know what to make of it since the whole thing was so unlike what I had imagined and planned for.

Naaman too, it would seem, had some pre-conceived notions of how Elisha, the man of God, would cure him : “Surely he would come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God and would wave his hand over the spot and would cure the leprosy.”  We can see how against this image, contrary to this expectation, being told to go and wash in the Jordan would seem very unsatisfactory. After all he could have dunked himself in a perfectly good river at home, indeed he had a choice of two! Persuaded by his more moderate minded servants, however, he eventually did as he was told and so discovered that God does answer prayer, but not always in the way that we expect.

Now the lepers had a different approach. Leprosy was, in Jewish thought, one of the worst afflictions pointing up the sick person’s great sinfulness and impurity. So the lepers remained isolated, outside the village away from all the people and not daring to come at all close to Jesus. “Master have mercy on us,” they cry. They come with expectation, certainly, but see how they throw themselves on Jesus’ mercy knowing that he will understand what they need even though they do not ask particularly to be healed. Here is a difference in the two stories but there actually there are many similarities.

Naaman is told “Go wash yourself in the Jordan”, and the lepers “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” In both cases they are asked to do something, there is a need when praying for help you see, to listen to God and then to be obedient to what we hear even if it is unexpected or in Naaman’s case even unwelcome. As I said leprosy was a terrible affliction both physically and spiritually, and only a priest could pronounce you clean that is to say reclassify you from an untouchable to being once again a member of the community. It was not that the lepers were to go to the priests to be healed (any more than the waters of the Jordan healed Naaman) but they were told to go there to be seen and recognised as being healed.

You might have expected the lepers to react in the same way as Naaman, it was the priests after all that had ejected them from the village and they may have been muttering to themselves “What is the point of that - we have been there before, the priest will just say the same thing”  but in fact they quietly and obediently follow instructions and they are made well on the way.  They never imagined that this would happen at all let alone in this manner. By any standards, this is an amazing miracle, here we have a whole hospital healed simply by the words of Jesus.

The stories of Naaman and of the ten lepers of course show God’s healing power, but also they show that God meets us in God’s way not in any way that is within human understanding or prediction. We cannot play out in our minds, or rehearse or imagine what will happen.

Let us remember though that one of the lepers came back, he came back to give thanks to God and we can give thanks - at the end of our service today we will say together the prayer of thanks giving that begins “Almighty God we thank you for feeding us ….. ” but in Common Worship there is an alternative prayer that can be used in its place  and I would like to pray it now and to ask you to keep it in mind as we gather together around the Lord‘s table: 

Father of all,
We give you thanks and praise
That when we were still far off
You met us in your Son and brought us home
Dying and living, he declared your love
Gave us grace and opened the gates of glory
May we who share Christ’s body live his risen life
We who drink his cup bring life to others
We whom the spirit lights give light to the world
Keep us firm in the hope you have set before us
So we and all your children shall be free
And the whole earth live to praise your name
Through Christ our lord

Amen

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