Ordinary 14C, July 7, 2013

Guest Preacher — Mark Shannon

“Two by Two” 

2nd Kings 5:1-17
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’

16“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”17The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 18He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

                  Here we are at this time when many people travel away on vacation.  Some people travel with their families and others travel to meet relatives at a certain destination.  It may be a wedding that is the reason for the trip or perhaps a reunion.  But in the summer, when people go on vacation they travel along with others.  Have you ever gone on vacation by yourself?  I know that many resorts these days are catering to single people as potential customers.  Even Disney markets their theme parks to people travelling alone.  Before I met my wife, I spent all of my vacations alone.  I didn’t go anywhere, though.  I enjoyed being away from the job but life became much more fun when my wife and I began to travel together.
                  You’ll notice in both our Old and New Testament Scripture passages for today that the people are on the move.  They’re not on a pleasure trip but in both cases there is reason for celebration along the way.
                  First we meet a man named Naamen.  He is a mighty man of valor who has won a major victory for the king of Syria.  By distinguishing himself on the battlefield he became a trusted and valued subject of the king.  In our culture Naamen’s position would be comparable to that of a general who becomes a national hero.  Notice that the text says that Naamen did not win the victory in his own strength.  The Bible says that the Lord used Naamen to bring about victory.  This foreigner who did not know the sovereign God of Israel was chosen by the Lord for His own purpose.
                  In the Bible, a person’s name was significant and gave an indication of the person’s character.  Naamen’s name means “the beautiful” and perhaps this meant he was a very handsome man.  Yet even though he was a hero in battle Naamen suffered from the disease of leprosy.  Though he may once have been a handsome man, leprosy would lead to his disfigurement and death if he didn’t find a cure.
                  Before Naamen could take his journey, we are introduced to a slave girl.  She was a daughter of the nation of Israel and as such she had a reverence and concern for the Lord; and not just a concern for God, but for her heathen master Naamen as well.  She reports to her mistress, the wife of Naamen that there is a God in Israel that can bring about healing in even the most dire of circumstances.  Her words set in motion a physical journey to seek medical treatment and begin the process of a spiritual journey in the life of Naamen.
                  Consider the servant girl.  Even in the position of a slave in a foreign land, away from her family and among people that were alien to her, she still had the presence of mind to remember her heritage and the Lord of her people.  She also took to heart the command that each one of us has heard our Lord make to us, namely that we tell others about Him and be bearers of light to the darkness that surrounds us.  We should never let our circumstances dissuade us from sharing the good news we have heard and have claimed for ourselves.
                  Many years ago I faced a spiritual crisis.  My own faith was severely put to the test and I had serious doubts about whether or not Jesus belonged to me or if I belonged to Him.  But as I read the Bible and talked over the situation with strong Christian friends, I came to realize that even though I had doubts, I could still be faithful to God.  And then it was announced that Billy Graham would present one of his crusades here in Pittsburgh.  Many people in our congregation attended classes that were held in preparation for the event so that we could participate in the experience.  During one of these classes I learned about the need for counselors that would mingle among those coming forward after the altar call.  Even though I had a weak faith—and even though I was weak in the knees as well—I went forward onto the field at Three Rivers Stadium and talked to people who were curious about entering the kingdom.
                  So the servant girl’s message is relayed and Naamen sets out accompanied by a large entourage of servants bearing gifts and good will to the king of Israel.  After some delay on the part of the king Naamen  is granted an audience with Elisha, the man of God.  Elisha tells Naamen to bathe in the river and he will be healed.  Naamen is insulted.  He came all that way just to bathe in a river that might have who knows what in its waters?  Weren’t there plenty of good rivers in the country of his origin that he could have washed himself in far more easily?  Disgusted with the prescription he has been given, Naamen orders his followers to pack up the caravan and prepare to head home.
                  Good thing he wasn’t travelling alone, right?  If Naamen had made the journey to Elisha by himself he would have missed out on all the good stuff.  How often have we given up on accomplishing a goal without knowing how close we were to achieving it?  If we are in the midst of a quest to find a job or complete a task that is worthy of our endeavors, we cannot give ourselves the luxury of giving in and giving up!  The comedian Jay Leno tells a story about his early days in Hollywood trying to break into show business.  When he was starting out, he would make the rounds of the comedy clubs in Los Angeles in order to audition his act.  When he arrived at the clubs, he always took the last place in a long line that stretched in front of him as people before him presented their acts, each person hoping to make it in the big time.  As the hours went on, people ahead of him started to drop out of line in frustration and Jay Leno would move up and take their place.  He realized that just by standing in line and being prepared he was making progress by not giving up.
                  But Naamen wasn’t travelling alone.  As it turned out, he had a friend in low places.  Even as he was about to take his leave, a servant in Naamen’s retinue stopped him by saying that he didn’t have anything to lose by taking Elisha’s advice.  We don’t know anything about this servant.  Scripture doesn’t say whether he knew the Lord, like the slave girl that appeared earlier in the story.  But whether this servant knew God or not, he spoke a word of advice at the right time that struck a chord in Naamen’s heart.  God used the words of this servant just as he used the slave girl and Naamen himself when he was on the battlefield.
                  Years ago when I was in the midst of the crisis I spoke about earlier, I was making my rounds in the office I worked in, my thoughts deep in depression.  As I passed by the desk of one of the secretaries  she stopped me and asked what was wrong.  I sat down and told her some of the things that were on my mind.  She took the time to listen and offer some encouragement.  As I left her desk I said thanks for the conversation.
                  “Oh, that’s all right,” she said.  “You’re my concern.”
                  I pondered her words as I went about the rest of the day.  “You’re my concern,” is what she said.  In my state of mind, seeking answers to some profound questions of faith, I thought to myself that her words to me were probably the same words that Jesus would say to me.  That idea carried me through the rest of the day and through many other bad times.  I still remember this incident today.  So often, if we stop thinking about our own problems long enough, we might perceive the means by which God is trying to help us through our suffering.  Pay attention to the right words spoken at the right time and we may glimpse how much God cares for us.
                  Turning to our Gospel lesson for today we see that Jesus is giving his chosen band their marching orders.  He doesn’t send them out one by one alone to proclaim the kingdom.  Instead he pairs them up and sends them forth.  Even though they could probably cover more ground if they went out by themselves, the Lord knows what lies ahead on the road.  He knows that one person may grow weary on the mission field and that doubts and temptations may lead one person to stray from the path set before him.  But a companion on the way will support and encourage his partner.  Together their witness of what they have seen will be more persuasive.  One person is weak where the other is strong, and vice versa.  When the night is dark and the harvest is lean, two people can pray together and know that the Lord will be with them.    Two people together can share in the excitement of the journey and recount details of their adventures that one person alone might not remember or might think are insignificant.  Yes, the Lord sent them out two by two for a reason.
                  And look what he tells them about provisions for the trip.  He says don’t pack a lot of supplies, and don’t take much money, either.  They, and we, are to travel lightly.  This will allow them to see God’s provision for them as they set out to do His will.  When we travel today, we want all of the modern conveniences.  My wife shudders when I tell her stories about camping trips we took as a family.  Some people think they’re “roughing it” if the television in their hotel room doesn’t get as many channels as they have on their sets at home.  It might do us some good to pack less and expect more from the Lord who accompanies us on our vacations.
                  Jesus also has something to say about the local cuisine on this journey these disciples are taking.  He says what every good mother has told her children for generations.  “Eat what’s in front of you.”  Don’t complain about what is not set before you.  They need to be grateful for the hospitality that is shown to them by strangers. 
                  Have you heard the missionary’s prayer?  When a meal with unknown ingredients was set before him one missionary said this prayer silently:  “Lord, I’ll get it down if you’ll keep it down!”
                  It sounds like Jesus wants His travelers to keep on the move.  They are to gauge the response they receive after their proclamation of the gospel.  If someone rejects their message, they are to move along to the next village while reminding those people that the kingdom of God was near them for a time.   Jesus Himself didn’t spend much time with people who rejected His authority.  He had work to do and places to go to accomplish it.
                  When we travel through life as Christians, what kind of companions should we look for?  Jesus called his disciples and they went off as He commanded without much choice about who they would walk with in His entourage.  But how are we to choose our helpers in the work of God?
                  One rule of thumb goes something like this, and I hope it’s helpful to us all.  When we are looking for fellow Christians to befriend, we should look for a person who can be like Paul to us.  This person should be a mentor to us in the faith, reminding us and correcting us as need be while still recognizing the value of our friendship.
                  We should also look for someone who can be like Barnabus to us.  Barnabus was a disciple who accompanied Paul and other apostles on their missionary journeys in the New Testament.  The name Barnabus means “encourager” and we need to find those individuals who can strengthen and support us in our walk with the Lord.  The world is opposed to us and it’s easy to become discouraged.  We need to be reminded of the truth from time to time and a person like Barnabus can do that for us.
                  We should also look for someone who can be like Timothy for us.  You’ll remember that Timothy was a young man who had been raised in the faith by his devout mother and grandmother.  The apostle Paul took Timothy under his wing and gave him inspired advice as Timothy set out to become a new and painfully young pastor.  Likewise, we need to find someone to whom we can pass along our knowledge of the kingdom.
                  Take a moment this week and see if you can identify people in your life who resemble Paul, or Barnabus, or Timothy as they minister to you.
                  We get a glimpse of the joyful return of these disciples that Jesus sent out.  They rush into His presence at the end of their trip bursting with excitement about all of the miraculous things they saw and that were accomplished through their ministry. 
                  Jesus brings them up short by recounting a strange incident He saw.  He tells his disciples that when He was in heaven, Jesus saw Satan fall in defeat and humiliation away from the presence of almighty God.  That statement must have put a damper on the proceedings!
                  Make no mistake, as Christians we have a sworn enemy in the person of Satan, or the devil.  He is a created being who is bent on deceiving us into thinking that the Word of God is a lie.  He would like nothing better than to rob us of the joy of our salvation.  Let me be clear.  He has no power to take away our salvation.  Jesus said once a sinner repents and turns to the Lord that no one can snatch that person out of the Lord’s grasp. 
                  Have you ever considered that almost every one of the miracles that Jesus performed was also accomplished somewhere in the Old Testament?    Jesus fed the multitudes and God delivered manna in the wilderness.  Jesus raised the dead and Elijah brought back the dead son of a widow he was friends with.  Jesus healed the sick and people like Naamen were also healed in the Old Testament.  But Jesus was the first Person in Scripture that cast out demons.  This indicates that only He has the power and the authority and the strength to do this miracle.  The disciples could do this task only in the power of His name but He never told them to take on the devil and his followers by themselves. 
                  Sometimes in our walk with God we face temptation and oppression from the devil.  At those times it would be best to seek out someone who has a strong faith in order to pray together and commit the matter to God.  Don’t go into battles of that kind by yourself.
                  Take heart, though!  Notice that Jesus paints a picture of the enemy in defeat.  His doom is sure as the hymn tells us.  We have the victory and we’re just waiting for the Lord to bring about the conclusion of this epic struggle between the forces of light and the minions of darkness in His own good time.
                  Remember too that Jesus took the most important journey on His own, by Himself.  Even though He was accompanied by others up that lonely hill to the cross, only He knew the reason for the journey and its outcome.  He walked up that hill for me and He took those steps for you.  As we remember that journey, let us be mindful that He expects us to take what we know and bring that message into the lives of those around us.