Wash and Be Clean

Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14
Date: Epiphany VI + 2/12/12

A man sick with leprosy came to Jesus, “and he was made clean.” A great man named Naaman sick with leprosy came to the prophet Elisha, “and he was clean.” Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the man when He healed him. Elisha didn’t even “wave his hand” but told Naaman to go wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. The theme of Jesus’ healing ministry continues today. Bodily healing by God is not done for its own sake but for the sake of proclaiming that God’s salvation is for the whole person, body and soul, the greatest healing, the last laugh against sin and death we could say, “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

After communion, you will recall, the pastor used to say, “The body and blood of our Lord strengthen and preserve you steadfast in the true faith to life everlasting. Go in peace” (LW p. 192). On the one hand it is of utmost importance to speak explicit “body and blood language” when speaking of the sacrament of our Lord. On the other hand the parting blessing speaks “faith language.” But it is just as important to speak “body and blood language” on our part as is now reflected in the Lutheran Service Book when the pastor speaks the added phrase, saying, “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you IN BODY AND SOUL to life everlasting. Depart in peace” (LSB p. 199). Today, and every day, we come to Jesus as we are, maybe weary, maybe sick, maybe sad. We come with the conviction that, if He will, He can make us well again. There is no magic involved. Rather, it is the power of the God who created us in the first place, bringing His life-giving, reviving, redeeming power. He brings it through His means of grace, His Word and Holy Sacraments. Today He says to us as He said to Naaman, “Wash and be clean.”

God’s people were commanded of old that any who suffered from the skin disease of leprosy had to be quarantined and kept apart from everyone else. Apparently not so for the Gentile Syrians of whom the great man and highly favored commander of the army named Naaman was also a leper. It was by the word of a little Israelite girl that had been taken captive that Naaman heard of “the prophet who is in Samaria” who could cure leprosy. So the king of Syria sent Naaman with many gifts to the king of Israel, Joram (852-841) at the time. King Joram was a little put out by the request, “tearing his clothes and saying, ‘Am I God, to kill and to make alive…?’”

The Prophet Elisha, “the man of God” as our text calls him, then “texted,” “tweeted,” “sent to the king” the message to send the Syrian to him, “that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” And here is the dramatic conflict that is of interest to us today. Elisha didn’t even come out of his house but sent someone out with the message, “Go and wash ‏(רָחַץ) in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” “Wash and be clean.”

Now you know from the end of the story that Naaman finally did what the prophet, the man of God, told him to do, “and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” The power of God’s healing came to Naaman by means of water and the Word. It is not a “stretch,” therefore, for us to think today in terms of the sacrament of water and the Word, Holy Baptism, the divinely commanded action of God whereby He “works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe,” as Christ our Lord said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). The “words of institution” of this sacrament: Christ our Lord commanded baptism saying in the last chapter of Matthew, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In other words this is the way Christ invites people to His healing, saving power to this day, saying, “Wash and be clean.”

Now recall how Naaman was angry, offended really, expecting the prophet to do some spectacular, even magical sort of action, waving his hand over his ailment and maybe calling upon the name of the Lord his God with some mysterious incantation—maybe hitting him on the forehead making Naaman keel over while yelling, “Heal!” Such are our superstitious demands on and expectations of God. We are all by nature “enthusiasts” and unclean, possessed by all sorts of false spiritual ideas. When Naaman was told, rather, to do the seemingly simple, even silly thing of washing in the Jordan River seven times he objected. “Are not…the rivers in Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” And he turned and went away in a rage.

So have especially those of Reformed, Anabaptist theology since the time of the Reformation been offended at the Biblical doctrine of the sacrament of Holy Baptism. They are those who to this day deny infant baptism and the idea that God actually does anything through this rite. They confuse faith with thinking and knowledge, therefore since little infants cannot think, they cannot “believe.” They also consider the rite of baptism, while not denying God’s command, to be an exercise only of our will and confession of our faith.

It is hard to see that anything spectacular or miraculous is happening when the priest or pastor pours water on someone’s head and you hear the drips of water in the font and the words said softly, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” But it is truly astonishing to realize and believe that this is no longer just plain water, but it is water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word, “Wash and be clean!” It’s not the water by itself, and it is not just the word of God by itself either, but the word of God in and with the water that makes it a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit. The rivers in Damascus may well have been better, clearer, or, as we say in Michigan, “purer” than the somewhat sludgy Jordan. But that wasn’t the point. The point was God’s word and command.

Martin Luther caught Naaman’s doubt and the skepticism of all unbelief when he penned the words of his famous Epiphany hymn which you have heard me quote time and again, “To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord,” saying,

All that the mortal eye beholds
Is water as we pour it.
Before the eye of faith unfolds
The pow’r of Jesus’ merit.
For here it sees the crimson flood
To all our ills bring healing;
The wonders of His precious blood
The love of God revealing,
Assuring His own pardon. (LSB 406:7)

Here you see that baptism is not just about water but also about the blood of Christ as here you are connected to the cross and sacrifice and death and resurrection of Christ, or rather, they are connected to you, all of Christ’s merit and forgiveness from the cross and empty tomb brought forward through history by this sacrament to dwell in and bear on you. For, as St. Paul says, in baptism “we were therefore buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom 6:4).

Of what sort of healing are you in need today? There are no magic incantations, no spectacular, breaking news of interest to the front pages of the newspaper; just the invitation, the water, the Word and sacraments, the command, “Wash and be clean.”

Water, blood, and Spirit crying,
By their witness testifying
To the One whose death-defying
Life has come, with life for all.

In a wat’ry grave are buried
All our sins that Jesus carried;
Christ, the Ark of Life, has ferried
Us across death’s raging flood.

Dark the way, yet Christ precedes us,
Past the scowl of death He leads us;
Spreads a table where He feeds us
With His body and His blood.

Spirit, water, blood entreating,
Working faith and its completing
In the One whose death-defeating
Life has come, with life for all. [LSB 597:1-3, 5]