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The Book of James  Week 5
The Joy of Being Ordinary
2 Kings 5:1-5, 9-14   James 5:13-16  10-10-21

I like to think of the Letter of James as Christianity for Dummies because he cared little about dogmas but a lot about how to live as Christians.

Wisdom is more than IQ, more than college diplomas – wisdom is aligning ourselves with how things are designed to work.

James says there’s a distinction between two kinds of wisdom.

First is wisdom of the world, which is aligning ourselves with the ways our fractured world works, and he immediately tells us where that leads:

James 3:15-16 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.  For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

He then contrasts that with wisdom from heaven where we align our attitudes and behaviors with the divine order of things:

James 3:17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

Notice the word “submissive”.

It is a quality that is largely missing from today’s social landscape which is why our national debates have devolved into fights about “my rights” for everything.

“My rights” with no consideration of submitting to the good of the community.

To be submissive is to be teachable and to sometimes put the greater good of others ahead of my self-interest.

Submission to God is the very fabric of prayer.

What we commonly do in prayer is tell God what to do: I need this, I need that. Amen.

But prayer is all about submission … letting go so we are open to the divine – open to listening and then to be molded by that encounter.

Back in the first chapter of James, we were challenged when James said that God sometimes gives us trials in order to teach us … and sometimes that starts by breaking our arrogance so that we become submissive.

James 1:2-4 Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.

Back in the time of the prophet Elisha lived a powerful man named Naaman.

He had fought his way to a prestigious rank in the Aramean army.

2 Kings 5 describes him as “a great man” – so I presume he was what all parents hope their kids will become.

He’d made the right career choices, he’d networked with the right people, he’d married into the right family … he’d even brought his wife a gift of a young servant girl whom he’d grabbed during one of his raids on Israel.

If he lived today, he’d have a million Twitter followers.

But even great men sometimes get leprosy.

Leprosy was a dreaded disease both because it slowly ate away at the victim’s body and because it was the source of social shame.

It was the “L” word that people only talked about in whispered tones.

“Have you heard about Naaman? I hear he got … you know, leprosy.”

It just doesn’t matter if you’re on the right career track and live in the right neighborhood – you are just as vulnerable as every other human.

You may have built a life that is great, but you are walking around in a world that doesn’t think you are too special to hurt.

COVID, drunk drivers, cancer, strokes … they can bring any of us down.

Marriages break up.

Jobs aren’t guaranteed forever … even hardworking, time-tested employees lose jobs.

So, what do we do when we get a frightening diagnosis or our partner leaves us, or our division closes and we have to dust off our resume?

And in this COVID world, compounded by all the social turmoil, what do we do when we find ourselves drained of our usual energy and enthusiasm?

Some of us beat ourselves up for not being on top of everything, we overeat, or we act out hurtful melodramas among our family or friends.

Some of us push ahead, redoubling our efforts and hope for different results.

At some point, though, some of us step back from worldly wisdom and ask how we can find God in the midst of all this confusion and depression.

Naaman had thought he had the world on a string, but he didn’t know what to do when he contracted leprosy.

Everything he’d achieved, everything he thought he was, was over.

His wife’s servant girl told him about a prophet back home who could cure people of their diseases.

A proud man doesn’t take advice from a slave girl, but he’d already been to the most expensive clinics where all the best doctors had told him there was nothing they could do.

Then one day, he noticed that a new blotch of decaying skin had formed on his finger.

Now desperate, he wondered, “What’s to lose? People have said that God lives in that simple land, so maybe, just maybe, there’s something to all this.”

When something has gone very wrong in your life, fame and success don’t mean much anymore.

You don’t care about being great anymore, you just want to be well – you may even take a chariot ride to where it is rumored that God can be found.

So, Naaman emptied a savings account and with a platoon of soldiers swept into Israel.

When the great man and his entourage pulled into Elisha’s driveway, he assumed that the prophet would be starstruck, bow down, and oo and ah like everyone else.

He expected that the prophet would take a bag of gold and then take great interest in his story, make careful notes about his medical history, say some magic incantations … that’s the stuff healers do, especially if their presence is graced by the rich and famous.

But none of that happened.

Elisha was not impressed.

In fact, he didn’t even step outside … instead, he just sent a servant out with a message to do a very ordinary thing:

2 Kings 5:10 says that Elisha’s message said, “Go down to the Jordan River and wash yourself seven times.”

Naaman was insulted and went off in a huff.

As he climbed back into his chariot and raced away, he mumbled (2 King 5:11) I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God and would wave his hand over the spot and cure the leprosy.

Did you notice this?

“I thought that for me” he would show a little respect.

Naaman still didn’t get it.

He still thought he was special and so could not see how his disease had made him human again.

He asks himself, why would he stoop to bathing in that muddy stream in this backward country anyway?

He thinks, back home we have better streams…  back home I can bathe at the country club where I am respected and admired.

Actually, where he used to be respected and admired.

He was ready to turn away and put this insulting experience behind him when his servants encouraged him to at least try.

They said, “Look, if the old guy had asked you to do something really expensive or flashy my guess is that you’d have done it.

“Sure, this might be humiliating for someone as great as you, but, hey, what have you got to lose – except for your pride?”

Again, it is the lowly servants who understand about real power.

Maybe that’s because they don’t have all that pride and success blocking their vision of God.

We’ve gotten good at establishing five-year goals, building careers, and molding public images until we seem successful.

But it turns out that nothing is more difficult than facing our humanness stripped of greatness, and then leaning on faith.

And as this story illustrates, that’s all that we have — just a message.

People come to me to tell the story of their broken hearts, broken bodies, or broken dreams.

Since I love these people, I wish I had some magic for them.

But really all I can do is be like Elisha’s boy and faithfully bring a message.

All I have is a message: your life is special, not because you’ve worked so hard, but because you belong to God.

And God still thinks you are precious regardless of where you might be struggling.

The other day I was talking to the pastor of a nearby church and he explained that their attendance is down and that they’re having trouble getting people to volunteer.

We agreed that many people are hardly aware that they are in a fog of low-grade depression – low energy, and unclear of where to go or what to do next.

But because we find personal worth from what we achieve, how busy we are, and what grand life goals we are pursuing, we feel a bit shamed for what we are experiencing.

The American Medical Association reports that this is a national phenomenon.

Nationwide, 42% – that’s 2 out of 5 – adults reported clinically significant levels of anxiety or depression during just a two-week period last December – up 17% from a few months earlier.

Levels have decreased somewhat since then but still remain at concerning elevated rates.

I’m not saying to give in to the depression – but I am saying to take it easy on yourself.

Remember that you are not in this alone … it’s being observed everywhere.

And remember that God’s love for you is not dependent on how accomplished or busy you are.

Accept your feelings, give yourself some slack, and ask God what He wants of you right now and reengage.

You are special to God, but never more than ordinary – that’s all you have to be.

One of the bicycle routes I frequently take goes right past Oakwood Cemetery.

There is an irony to this.

As I push hard and sweat to get myself as healthy as possible, I glide past rows and rows of headstones that remind me of how my story will inevitably end.

There are some wonderful people laid to rest there, some from our congregation, and some pretty famous ones, too.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers among others … famous people whom everyone considered above the ordinary.

But the more I have come to terms with being ordinary, the more I have learned to not only be at peace with it, but to enjoy it.

It sure relieves the pressure of thinking I have to be something I am not, or to deny the fatigue and depression I sometimes quite naturally feel.

As I come to see that I am ordinary, I also come to enjoy how extraordinary God is.

2 Corinthians 4:7 we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

Sometimes the lesson from our brokenness is just a reminder that we are not gods, and it turns out that that is the only way to know and enjoy God.

That is submission.

As a disappointed Naaman was heading for home, he caught another glimpse of those decaying fingers, a glimpse of his own humanity, and decided to make a U-turn down to the Jordan River.

In some places, the Jordan River is little more than a shallow, muddy stream.

First Naaman the Great had to step down from his tall chariot and remove his shining armor, his medals and helmet.

Then he had to slip and stumble his way down the mud-slick banks.

In the movies, he would have stepped into the river and instantly be healed, but in real life, there are other humiliating steps we must endure along the way.

He dips down once and checks himself.

No change.

Two more times … no change and he’s ready to give up.

Maybe he sees some of his soldiers trying hard not to laugh.

He struggles with embarrassment and pride.

Maybe he’s ready to forget the whole thing when he sees his servant holding up three more fingers.

So down into the muddy water he goes three more times until he emerges fully healed, with the skin of a young boy.

If you think about it, most of our lives are spent somewhere between the first and seventh time of doing the right, ordinary things that the message of the Bible tells us.

We come to church, give our tithes, participate in its missions, do our daily devotions, confess our sins and accept God’s forgiveness.

There is nothing particularly grand about any of that … but at the end, when we cross the river and give up this life on earth, we look back and see that along the way we have been healed of our diseased hearts.

And we see that just as for Naaman, the point was not getting to a place of healing as much as discovering that there was never something we could fix on our own.

Learning that lesson is frightening and humbling, but it is the way we can find joy in doing the ordinary things we know are right.

And living by God’s grace as an ordinary person connected with all the other ordinary people awakens us to a community of life in which everyone is special because everyone is equally loved and infinitely valuable.

That is something to submit our personal wants to.