February 12, 2012

A Young Captive Girl

Passage: II Kings 5:2-3

Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’

According to research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, “Humble people are more likely to offer a helping hand to someone in need than arrogant people.” Lead author Dr. Jordan LaBouff, said that “the findings are surprising because in nearly 30 years of research on helping behaviour, very few studies have shown any effect of personality variables on helping”.

Let me ask, do you find it surprising that a humble heart is more likely to bear the fruit of compassion towards others than a heart beset by arrogance?  Christians know this because of their acquaintance with Jesus Christ; though he was God he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on the cross.  A cursory reading of the gospels reveals our Saviour’s great compassion for others and willingness to ever offer a helping hand.  In his life the link between humility and the willingness to be completely for others is undeniable.

Every time I come to this story of Naaman—commander of the army of the King of Aram—and of his being healed of leprosy it is the young captive girl who bore witness of God’s prophet in Samaria; it is she who captures my attention.  She almost gets lost in the story.  A nameless slave with a brief mention set against the backdrop of the rich and powerful and important Naaman who has everyone’s attention.  But is this not often the way with the humble?  Consider God’s great hand to keeps us and daily to sustain our lives; how often does our Saviour—in whom all things consist—get a mention?  No it is princes, and presidents, and prime ministers that get all the press.

By all accounts Naaman’s press clippings have gone to his head; he is a great man, a gifted military office, and in high favour.  And he knows it.  Naaman’s petulance when Elisha sends his messenger with instructions for the cleansing of this leprosy reveals Naaman’s rather high regard for himself.  In his arrogance he came close to rejecting the very thing that would save him.  It is not the same today for many with respect to the gospel.  It’s not God’s healing of my sin I need; I know how to keep myself clean just fine!  “Are not ... the rivers of Damascus better than the waters of Israel?”

Against the backdrop of this important man Naaman is a young captive girl whose faith is, quite frankly, stunning.  I marvel that though she is a slave of the bitterness born of captivity yet with humble heart she offers a helping hand for the cure of this man’s leprosy—the man in whose household she is slave and who likely lead the raiding party that savaged her life.

1.  The late William Wilberforce, member of the British Parliament, lobbied tirelessly for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire; for 18 years he regularly introduced anti-slavery motions in parliament.  Finally, in 1807 the slave trade was abolished; it wasn’t until 1833 that an act of parliament finally gave freedom to all slaves in the British empire.  In January of 1865, following a bitter civil war, under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, the 13th amendment to the US constitution was passed; the abolition of slavery.

The idea that slavery should be abolished from the earth was an ideal born of the Christian convictions of the men and women who lead the charge in writing such things into law.  In the sweep of history it has only been 200 years since a nation undertook to abolish slavery.  Like me, many of you were born in a country that was once part of the British Empire; we take for granted that slavery is a curse because it seems a long time ago belonging to a dark and uninformed age.  It is such a distant memory that we use the word sometimes fondly like when we say we “slave” at our jobs.  But slaving at our work is nothing like the practise of human slavery.

When the British Empire abolished slavery the empire icnluded many countries in the world; the sad truth is that in many places in the world slavery continued unabated.  We think that because abolition of slavery is the law of our land—liberty for all enshrined in our Charter of rights and freedoms—it is so everywhere.  The bitter reality is that slavery is alive and thriving in our world today.

Siddharth Kara is an author and one of the world's foremost experts on modern day slavery and human trafficking.  In his book Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery he estimates that there are 28.4 million slaves in our world—of these 1.2 million are young women and children who were deceived, abducted, seduced, or sold by families to be prostituted across the globe. He conducted hundreds of interviews with these trafficked slaves.  In the forward to the book he wrote: “Nothing I can write can possibly convey the sensation of peering into the moribund eyes of a broken child who has been forced to have sex with hundreds of men before the age of sixteen.”

Reading the stories of those abducted into a life of slavery is not for the faint of heart.  The brutality and bitterness is sickening.  This is one of the reasons this young captive girl stands out to me in this story of Naaman.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to be violently torn from family and friends and removed to another part of the world and then forced into slavery completely cut off from the channels that might bring release.  I can hardly think about it without turning away in disgust.  But this young captive girl lived every detail of those horrors.

When you read the sentence “the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel”; this is no liberation army.  We sometimes read too quickly these sorts of details in Biblical story—almost as if they were simply bits of information merely to inform us how she came to be in Naaman’s house.  We mustn’t slide too quickly over these things even though they are difficult to contemplate.  This captivity and enslavement is sheer wickedness; God in the Bible is ever holding the sinfulness of humanity before our eyes to see, not turning aside from its ugliness.  Human trafficking is wicked and ugly business in all its forms and needs to be resisted.  We are grateful for people like Wilberforce who lead the abolition charge; we need to be ever vigilant and on the side of liberation from slavery.

2.  What I find so remarkable about the young captive girl is that her faith is still intact; though she has suffered the brutality of forcible capture and lives the inhumanity of enslavement she bears witness that the God she knows heals through the ministry of the prophet Elisha. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”  Further, her willingness to offer a helping hand is remarkable. We could readily understand if she remained silent and let her arrogant and violent captor suffer.  Somehow the bitterness of her life has not metastasized into bitterness of heart.  Someone once said that bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other guy to die. This young girl seems to know that bitterness is self-destructive; it hardly improves what is already difficult.

Her faith giving rise to her witness is worthy of note; she is a brave and courageous young girl.  But the story also bears witness that God has his hand on her even though something horrific has happened to her.  We have remarked many times that our faith ever needs sustaining; it is why weekly worship is the advised pattern for Christian life.  We all know that if our faith—our relationship with God—is dependent on our ability to muster faith then it hangs by a fragile thread.  What the believer finds is that it is God’s grip on her or him that sustains; it is God’s grip on us that is dependable.   Thus when we see such remarkable faith as this young captive girl we know that while she is fully engaged in believing it is God’s grip on her that makes this possible.  She is upheld by God’s right hand, as the Psalmist declared (139); in the Hebrew mind the right hand symbolizes mercy and strength.  To be held by God’s right hand is to be clasped by a mercy that will not relent.

When we come to church on Sunday morning we are all carrying that mixture of things that are happy in our lives and the things that are heavy to carry.  For many, thought, there are burdens that are particularly heavy to bear because they are unrelenting; some for which there is no end in sight; others for which the outcome us unclear and we groan with the anxiety of not knowing.  These burdens are of the kind many wonder how it is that people bearing them are able to bear up in the midst of carrying them—somehow they can still offer a smile and a kind greeting.

It seems to me that this young captive girl carries one of those unrelenting burdens.  She bears the scars of the being violently ripped from her home and loved ones; she lives the unrelenting reality of her slavery.  Does she hold out any hope of release in this life?  We are not told.  It tells me that the God who sustains her in their attachment to each other can also sustain me too in all that I must and might yet carry of this unrelenting kind of burden.  Christians down through the ages have also found this to be so, as have many who are present in this service today.  We know ourselves upheld in the face of the unrelenting.

3.   I spoke with you a few weeks ago about the importance of being known particularly with respect to our self-identity and an inner-core of self-confidence.  We were reflecting on the Psalmist’s declaration (139) that God knows us completely and of how our identity is revealed in trusting ourselves of his knowing of us.  Think of a child.  A child grows up with an unassailable sense of who she is and an inner core of self-confidence not because she knows whatever it is an eight year old knows; she grows up with self-confidence and security because she lives in a family where she is known.  Because her parents know her they do all manner of good for her.

God knows us completely and his knowing of us is far more that the acquisition of information about us.  The Bible witnesses that God’s knowing of his people is his sustaining them, prospering them, protecting them—doing all manner of good for them.

It is common among people that we find our identity in relationship to others (spouse, parent.etc), in relationship to our occupation, and in relationship to our accomplishments or titles.  We also rely on self-knowledge—I have this skill or talent or personality trait.  But we find that life is transitory and fragile.  Things change—yesterday’s achievements don’t matter today.  Many of the markers that we are counting on for identity have a way of fading or being obliterated.

This young slave girl had everything we typically count on for inner-confidence and personal identity torn from her by an invading army—all except of course that which truly confers identity—that God knows her.  Many of the burdens we bear of this unrelenting kind have a way of revealing the fragility of much of what we count on for identity.  (I believe that part of the reason parents often battle for custody of children in divorce is because relationship is key to our sense of personal identity; to give up my identity as father or mother is more than I can bear while my identity as spouse is disintegrating.)

Since life is so very transitory, I shall have an identity eternally, I shall be “me” eternally, only as I am known by the eternal one himself—for his knowing me makes me; that is, confers identity, even as his knowing me preserves “me” and honours me and exalts me.  This young captive girl is known by her Heavenly Father—he preservers her in all that she will face in her captivity.  Her identity will never be lost.  Her identity is not “slave” but “child”, child of the One who knows her, and confers identity on her,  and lovers her eternally.

Sudden loss, in bereavement, in loss of ability by illness or injury, in abandonment, in the disappearance of financial resources—these sorts of things often leave us wondering who we are.  The truth of our identity is bestowed by God; we find it by faith in trusting ourselves to him in whatever we find ourselves facing.

Come back to Naaman for a moment.  Why would he listen to the testimony of a slave girl, a small nobody who was the spoil of war; a little nothing from a people everyone hated?  You could say he was desperate for a cure and, in some measure, I think it true.  I have to think also that, in part, the reason Naaman’s wife shares the girl’s testimony is because there is something clear and transparent of heart in the witness of this girl.  The young girl’s confidence arises in that she is known by God; her confidence is in him.

4.  I invite you to consider her witness for the remaining moments.  To say that God knows us is to say that while others may disdain those who are socially insignificant or intellectually ordinary or politically dismissible, God uses such people on behalf of that kingdom which cannot be shaken.  Israel was despised by her neighbours and we can readily understand if such prejudice had made her hesitate in offering witness to those who despised her race and religion.  Many have rightly observed that in our culture the one bigotry that is allowed is against Christians.  I know that I often find myself hesitant to speak of the faith in community setting; ever in the back of my consciousness is the politically correct mantra of the secularist that Christian faith is offensive to some so better to keep it to yourself.  As I read the story of this young captive girl I am encouraged to be bold.

If the girl does not speak up would Naaman have ever come to be healed or come to know that there is no God in all the earth except the God proclaimed by Israel?  We wouldn’t know this story except that God spoke powerfully through her testimony to Naaman who finally bows his heart to God.  I can also imagine that his leadership of the army changed; that Israel experienced some reprieve from raiding Arameans while Naaman lead the military forces.  Her testimony came to be the catalyst for much good for many.

Never underestimate what God will do through your witness to Jesus Christ.  We read the story today of another leper who came to Jesus begging for help.  Doubtless he has a story like Naaman’s in that someone along the way pointed him to Jesus, told him of Jesus the healer.  If you consider you own faith journey there have been people along the way who shared a word of witness that pointed, that helped you to look to Jesus.  I was speaking with a young twenty something man and his girlfriend a few weeks ago about the faith; he had lots of questions.  I was encouraged that they both spoke of friends of theirs who bore witness to Jesus.

Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’