Growing through discipline
by Jack Wald | November 23rd, 2003

II Kings 5:19-27; 8:1-6

Two weeks ago the sermon focused on the story of Naaman, the commander of the army of Aram, who came to Israel seeking a cure for his skin disease. He did not come hat in hand begging for help, asking for charity, he came with a fortune. $1,000,000 US in gold, silver and clothing to be given to the one who could heal him.

As you remember, Elisha gave him instructions to immerse himself in the Jordan River seven times and then he would be healed. He did this and came back to the house of Elisha with skin like that of a young boy and with his fortune to give in gratitude to Elisha.

Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. Please accept now a gift from your servant.”

Imagine the scene. Naaman and his horses and chariots and in the chariot closest to Elisha are bags filled with gold and silver and beautiful clothing. There is in fact too much for just one chariot and in some of the other chariots, there are similar bags, filled to the top, enough money to make him one of the richest men in Israel.

But do you remember when Elijah set off on the last day of his life and told Elisha three times to stay behind? Do you remember what Elisha said then?
“As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.”
It had not taken Elisha long to consider the option Elijah presented him that day and it did not take long to consider the offer made to him by Naaman on this day.
16 The prophet answered, “As surely as the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.” And even though Naaman urged him, he refused.

Elisha took a glance and refused. It did not matter if it was one coin or a huge pile of coins, he was not going to make money from the work that God had done in Naaman’s life.

Elisha did not always refuse gifts offered to him. Remember the Shunammite woman whose son Elisha healed? She and her husband fixed up a room on their roof so whenever Elisha passed by, he could stay there with his servant Gehazi. Elisha did not always refuse gifts offered to him, but in this case, I think God had revealed to him that he was not supposed to take a gift from Naaman and so he immediately and adamantly refused.

Why do I think this? Remember from a couple weeks ago that part of Naaman’s healing was that his pride needed to be broken. There was a connection between his sin of pride and his skin disease. Naaman came with a fortune to pay for his healing, but God wanted him to know that he could not buy God’s gifts. One of the lessons Naaman needed to learn was that God’s grace comes without attachments. God gives us what is good for us and there is nothing we can do to repay what we have received.

So when Naaman offered Elisha this fortune, Elisha was quick and immediate in his response, “As surely as the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.”

But Elisha was not the only one who saw the fortune Naaman brought with him. Gehazi, the servant of Naaman, was also there and he saw the bags of gold and silver and beautiful clothing as well. In fact, if this scene was to be presented in cartoon fashion, the eyes of Gehazi would stretch out of their sockets and bounce, boing, boing, boing along the ground to get a closer look at what was in the chariots.

Gehazi had never seen so much money and when he heard Naaman offer that fortune to his master, his mind quickly began to spin. If Elisha had that money, surely he would give some of it to his faithful and trustworthy servant Gehazi. How much do you think I would receive? God gets 10% which would leave $900,000 so maybe Elisha would give his servant 10%. Would I get 10% of the $1,000,000 or 10% of what was left over? $100,000 or $90,000, either one is a lot of money. And maybe Elisha could buy a nice cart and horse to take them around so they did not have to walk all the time and maybe …

And then in the midst of his calculations and speculations, he heard Elisha say, “As surely as the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.”

What? Did I hear right? “I will not accept a thing?” Is that what my master said? And then since this was a hot culture, the offer was made at least two more times and each time Elisha refused and each time, Gehazi saw his good fortune being taken away from him.

Naaman left with two donkeys loaded up with soil from Israel and Gehazi watched his fortune disappear over the hillside.

Although Gehazi could no longer see Naaman and his entourage, he could still see the gold, silver and clothing. The picture of that fortune was burned into his eyes and he was filled with lust. This lust burned in him until he could no longer stand it and he ran after Naaman.

After Naaman had traveled some distance,  20 Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said to himself, “My master was too easy on Naaman, this Aramean, by not accepting from him what he brought. As surely as the LORD lives, I will run after him and get something from him.”

Gehazi caught up to Naaman and made up a story about two prophets coming to visit who needed help and Naaman was very generous. Gehazi asked for one talent of silver and two sets of clothing. Naaman gave him two talents of silver along with the clothes.

This was nothing compared to what had been offered to Elisha, but this was still a magnificent gift. A talent of silver was the equivalent of three hundred years of wages for the average Israelite. And this gift was doubled.

Two of Naaman’s servants helped Elisha carry it back. It was an uncomfortable weight for one person to carry by himself, 150 pounds, 68 kilograms. But at the hillside overlooking the house of Elisha, Gehazi dismissed the servants and said he would take it from there. And so he struggled with this burden to his room, hid it, caught his breath, cleaned himself off and presented himself to Elisha.

It is an indication of the power of the lust in Gehazi’s heart that he thought he could pull this off. He had been with Elisha for years. He had seen him receive insights from God about other people. When they were surrounded in Dothan, he had seen that Elisha was able to see the army of the Lord surrounding them, protecting them. If he had not been blinded by lust, Gehazi would have realized he had no chance of fooling Elisha.

Then he went in and stood before his master Elisha.
“Where have you been, Gehazi?” Elisha asked.
“Your servant didn’t go anywhere,” Gehazi answered.
26 But Elisha said to him, “Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the time to take money, or to accept clothes, olive groves, vineyards, flocks, herds, or menservants and maidservants?  27 Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants forever.” Then Gehazi went from Elisha’s presence and he was leprous, as white as snow.

What was the sin of Gehazi for which he was judged? He lusted after what was not his. That’s the 10th commandment. He made the gold and silver and clothing more important than his relationship with God. That’s the 1st commandment. He lied to Naaman and did so by implicating the company of prophets who were innocent and had nothing to do with his deceit. He lied to Elisha when he returned. That’s the 9th commandment, broken twice. When he set off on his deceit he said, “As surely as the Lord lives.” That’s the 3rd commandment, taking the Lord’s name in vain.

He broke the 1st, 3rd, 9th and 10th commandments, but more than any of these, he worked against the purpose of God in Naaman’s life. God wanted to teach Naaman that his gifts could not be bought and so Elisha had refused to take anything. Now as Naaman continued on his journey, this lesson was compromised. Naaman could say that he had paid back, at least in some small way, what God had done for him.

And because of the sin of Gehazi, God’s judgement was exercised against him and he became inflicted with the skin condition that had afflicted Naaman.

God does exercise judgement for sin. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their sin. Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years because of their sin and none except Joshua and Caleb were permitted to enter the Promised Land of Canaan. Israel and Judah were carried away into captivity by the Assyrians and Babylonians because of their sin.

Judgement was exercised against Ahab and Jezebel because of their sin. Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts were killed by God for their sin as was King Herod. Nebuchadnezzar was judged by God for his pride as was King Uzziah. In the prophets we read of this nation or that being used by God to exercise his judgement against another nation because of the sin of the people in that nation.

It is not hard to find examples of those in the Bible who were judged by God for their sin. But the problem comes when we look at our own lives and the lives of those around us. How do we know if the evil we or others around us experience is the judgement of God or something else?

Imagine the day after Gehazi became leprous that a neighbor saw Gehazi and asked someone what happened to him. “God judged him for taking money from Naaman.” This is pretty clear. But now let’s go to a leprosarium and walk around looking at all those suffering from leprosy. Should we begin to study the history of each person and try to determine what sin caused their leprosy? Should we go to a school for the blind and try to determine what sin caused their blindness?

The disciples of Jesus saw a man born blind begging along the road and asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus said neither this man nor his parents had sinned.

Not all evil we encounter is the direct consequence of sin in our lives. The SARS epidemic is perhaps the latest example. SARS was indiscriminate in who it affected and who it did not. Good and bad were affected. Millions were killed, including my grandfather’s brother, during the influenza epidemic during WWI.

Hurricanes and typhoons strike without discrimination. Earthquakes do not distinguish between the deserving and undeserving when they destroy lives and property.

Innocent people suffer because of the evil deeds others do. The bombings in Turkey have killed 30 some people and left over 400 others wounded. Some of these people will be permanently disfigured or crippled or blinded because of the action of the car bombers.

Can we say that all of these people suffered because of God’s judgement against them? To do so is to make God a mean, malicious, indiscriminate God and that is not the God revealed to us in the Scriptures.

On the other hand ( to use a pun), if I deliberately hit my thumb with a hammer and then complain that my thumbnail is in pain and ask why it is God has done this to me, the answer is that I am the idiot who decided to hit my thumb with a hammer and I am responsible for the pain I am experiencing. If I steal something and get caught and the police put me in prison, it does no good to complain that I am being treated unfairly. If I am sexually promiscuous and pick up a sexually transmitted disease, I have only myself to blame for my actions. Sometimes it is clear, like it was to Gehazi, that it is our actions that cause us to suffer. Sometimes it is not so clear.

In the end, it does not matter if I know what I did that is causing me to suffer or if I am unaware of the reason why I am suffering. There may be no reason why I am suffering other than I was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, the car bomb exploded and now I am in the hospital.

Whether I know why or not, I am confronted with a choice. How will I choose to respond to the suffering I am experiencing? I am in an accident and am permanently crippled. What will I do? If my child or spouse is killed, how will I respond? How will I respond to suffering?

We live in a world filled with evil. Bad things happen all the time. They have always happened and they always will happen. The question then is how I am going to react when I am confronted with evil.

At the end of Chapter 5 in II Kings, Gehazi left the house of Elisha, his skin as white as snow, a leper. What happened to Gehazi after this? Where did he go? What did he do? How did he react to this discipline he had received?

Three chapters later, Gehazi reappears in the account of Elisha and when we find him, he is sitting with the king telling him about all the great things Elisha had done. How can it be that Gehazi, a leper, is able to sit with the king. How is it possible that Gehazi who was punished so severely is now speaking so positively about Elisha?

There are at least three possibilities for this. One is that the leprosy Gehazi had was not the kind that required isolation and so he was able to talk with the king, just as Naaman was free to talk with the king of Aram when he was afflicted with his skin disease.

A second possibility is that the accounts of Elisha are not always in chronological order. This scene in chapter 8 may have occurred before the healing of Naaman.

A third possibility is that Gehazi repented for his sin and he was restored to good health. God’s judgement against him and his descendants was reversed.

For the purposes of this sermon, I am going to choose either the first or third of these possibilities. I am going to assume that Gehazi talked with the king after the healing of Naaman and not before.

When Gehazi left the house of Elisha, his world was in shambles. He had lost the respect and trust of his master. His sin had been publically exposed and now all who saw him would know what he had done. His shame would be obvious to all. He would have to beg to earn his living because he had lost his job as Elisha’s servant.

Who knows what Gehazi felt in the days following this, but it would not be surprising if he experienced bitterness, anger, grief, humiliation. Those first days and weeks after he was afflicted with leprosy must have been the worst days of his life.

But then at some point, bitterness and anger made way for remorse. “If only I had not given in to that temptation. What a fool I was. If only I could go back and do it over again.”

And then, like King David and King Ahab and Nebuchadnezzar and like many others who have suffered from the discipline of God in their lives, Gehazi got down on his knees and repented of his sin and although it is not clear in the text, it is entirely plausible to me that God healed him.

In any case, there we find him in Chapter 8 talking with the king about all the great things Elisha had done. Humanly speaking, we find this difficult to believe and so want to say that the story is out of order and this must have happened before Naaman. But we should never underestimate what God can do in a person’s life. God is able to bring healing so complete that even those who deliberately hurt us can be forgiven. In Gehazi’s case, he only had to forgive himself for his weakness.

The point is this. When God disciplines us, he does so with the goal in mind of turning us toward him. God’s goal is not to punish us. His goal is consistently to draw us toward repentance and a closer relationship with himself.

The writer of Hebrews wrote to Jews who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah and now were facing persecution for being Christians. It is not hard to imagine what they were saying to each other. “Why are we being persecuted? What have we done to anybody? This isn’t fair. This isn’t right. Why should we suffer?” And so they wanted to abandon Christianity and revert to their Judaism.

The writer of Hebrews responded to their complaining with this:

Hebrews 12:4-13
you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons:
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
6 because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”

He quoted Proverbs 3:11-12 and then went on to say that

God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.  11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the disorder and inequality that was being experienced in their celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Listen to this part of his argument

I Corinthians 11:32
When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.

Each of us has disappointments. In our life story, we have had experiences that are unpleasant. Some may be truly ugly. Some of us may be experiencing difficult times right now. It could be a physical battle with our health. It could be that we have emotional battles and struggle with depression or anxiety. It could be that we struggle with the loss of someone we loved. It could be that we struggle with the injustice of life. Some seem to have it so easy while others have to work so hard just to survive. It could be that we struggle with relationships or the lack of relationships we wish we had.

Life is full of disappointments. Life is full of injustice. Life is full of suffering. What will you choose to do in reaction to the cruelty of life?

My parents attend the Unitarian Church in Princeton, NJ. For a couple years, we lived in Massachusetts and I worked in New Jersey. I traveled a lot but I also spent about half the month living with my parents. So I went with them to some of the activities in their Unitarian Church and got to know some of the people who were members there. I met some wonderful people but I noticed something interesting. About half the people who attended did so because the philosophy of the Unitarian Church most closely matched their own philosophy. But there was another half of the church who had experienced some bitter disappointment in life and in reaction to that bitter disappointment, had turned their back on the Christian God they had grown up with.

As a consequence, they could be tolerant of almost any religious philosophy except orthodox Christianity. My mother is among those who turned her back on God because of cruel disappointments in life.

There is another way. Joni Erickson broke her neck in a diving accident in 1967 when she was a teenager and she has been a quadriplegic ever since, unable to use her arms or legs, confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

She wrote in her first book, Joni, about lying in a canvass cocoon with no hope of ever walking again, no hope of ever leading a normal life, her romance with her boyfriend doomed. She wanted to die but was unable to do even that.

How I wished for strength and control enough in my fingers to do something, anything, to end my life.

Eleven years later, she wrote a book about the subject of suffering and had this to say.
As I sit on our porch balcony overlooking the surrounding hills of our horse farm and take in all the smells and sounds of this pretty summer day, it’s hard to believe that I ever had thoughts like that. In fact, I almost can’t remember what feeling that way was like. Oh, I’m still paralyzed – still can’t walk, still need to be bathed and dressed. But I’m no longer depressed. And to be honest, I can even say that I’m actually glad for the things which have happened to me. … God had reasons behind my suffering, and learning some of them has made all the difference in the world. He has reasons for your suffering, too.

When you suffer, it is entirely appropriate to experience feelings of anger, bitterness and grief. But don’t stop there. Keep on going, keep on struggling and come to the point of submission and trust. Learn to see the wisdom of these verses in the book of Job
Job 5:17-18
“Blessed is the man whom God corrects;
so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.
18 For he wounds, but he also binds up;
he injures, but his hands also heal.

Receive the love Jesus offers, even in discipline, and accept his invitation found in Revelation 3
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.  20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.

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I Peter 5
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.  11 To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.