Original Artwork entitled 
This is My Son 2000  Danny Hahlbohm
Inspired Art Studio

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts
March 4, 2001

2 Kings 5:1-3, 9-14
The cleansing of Naaman

Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier; but he had leprosy.

Now bands from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman's wife. She said to her mistress, "If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." . . .

So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha's house. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, "Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed."

But Naaman went away angry and said, "I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn't I wash in them and be cleansed?" So he turned and went off in a rage.

Naaman's servants went to him and said, "My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, 'Wash and be cleansed'?" So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.

Mark 1:4, 5, 9-15 The baptism of Jesus

John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. . . .

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven opened, and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."

At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert for forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"

Arcana Coelestia #4255.5 Washing in the Jordan

The cure of Naaman's leprosy, accomplished by washing himself seven times in the Jordan according to Elisha's command, represented baptism. Baptism means introduction into the church and into the things that relate to the church, and so into rebirth and the things that relate to rebirth.

Not that we are reborn by baptism. Rather, baptism is a symbol of rebirth, which we should remember. And because the things that make the church are meant by baptism, and baptism is meant by "the Jordan," it was the Jordan in which people were baptized by John; and the Lord, too, wanted to be baptized by John in the Jordan.

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven opened, and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. (Mark 1:9, 10)

Today, as we continue following Series 2 of the Bible Study Notes by Anita Dole along with the Sunday School, we come to the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. For the next two months we will look at the life and ministry of Jesus as told in the shortest--and probably the first written--of the Gospels.

To a secular reader, the Gospel story amounts to a biography of a charismatic religious figure, exaggerated and embellished by his followers so that a mere mortal is presented as someone miraculous and divine. For people who do not believe in God and spirit, there could be no virgin birth, no healings, no miracles, and, of course, no resurrection from the dead. All of these are either wishful thinking or outright lies introduced by the Gospel writers. And Jesus is simply a man who was misrepresented by his followers--or, if his sayings are accurately reported, a man who had delusions of grandeur and a flair for hyperbole.

For Christians, the Gospel story is so much more. It is the story of the Son of God, the Word made flesh, God with us. For Swedenborgians in particular, it is the story of how God came to live among us as a divinely human being, sharing our joys and our struggles, teaching us how to live spiritually, and overcoming all the evil forces that would destroy our souls. It is the story of the Creator God coming personally to the ones he created to save us from all the evils of selfishness and materialism with which we had ensnared ourselves.

At the same time, the story of the Lord Jesus is our own story. Why? Because when God came to earth as Jesus, he lived a life that is the ultimate pattern for our more limited, merely human lives. And through the knowledge of the deeper meanings in the Bible, we find that all the events in the Lord's life tell us the story of what we go through as we are reborn and re-created as loving, wise, and spiritual human beings.

This morning, as we begin the Gospel of Mark, we are also beginning our own spiritual journey.

And it all starts in the desert. This is exactly where we are within ourselves before we make our decision to accept God into our lives and live spiritually instead of materialistically. However rich our outward life may be, without God and spirit in our lives, we are inwardly as empty and barren as the desert.

As it turns out, Patty and I just got back from a trip out to Arizona, where we spent a lot of time hiking in the desert. In some ways, the desert has gotten a bad rap. When we think of the desert, we tend to think of vast expanses of sand with little or nothing growing there, and only the occasional oasis to break up the nothingness. And there are some stretches of desert like that.

But what we saw in Arizona was very different. There was life everywhere--a rich ecosystem with plants and animals intricately designed to survive and even thrive in arid land that receives less than ten inches of rain a year. While we were in Arizona, a fairly large fraction of the average nine inches of annual rainfall for the area was coming down. So we saw the desert in bloom, with a profusion of wildflowers all around us. And it was very beautiful.

Yet it was also very forbidding. Just about everything that grows in the desert has spines or thorns or some other defenses to help it cling to life in an environment where only the hardiest plants and animals can survive. Unlike the profuse, fast-growing greenery of temperate, tropical, and rainy areas of the earth, where life thrives on sheer abundance, the plants and animals of the desert are adapted to conditions where life-giving water must be carefully conserved, and where growth is generally slow and deliberate. Modern humans are able to live in the desert mainly by drilling for water deep under the surface, or piping it in from distant rivers.

Spiritually, the desert gives us a picture of human life in which the water of spiritual truth is a scarce commodity, and we cling to the edge of emotional survival on the scantiest fare. Before our inner, spiritual self is opened to the Lord's presence in our lives, we are often covered with emotional thorns and spines in order to protect ourselves from the "big bad world" out there. Though we have growth and even beauty in our lives, there is something lacking. We are lacking the abundant, spiritual water of the Lord's refreshing truth.

And what a wonderful thing that the very first event in Jesus' ministry as told in Mark's Gospel is his baptism by John in the Jordan! Coming from the desert, we find life-giving spiritual water that washes and refreshes our souls.

To understand the meaning of the Jordan and John's baptism, let's look back for a moment to some of the Bible stories we studied earlier about the children of Israel after they had been rescued from slavery in Egypt. After leaving Egypt, the Israelites spent forty years wandering in the desert before finally reaching the Holy Land. These were difficult, trying times, full of hunger and thirst, enemies and battles, grumbling and complaining. We have all had our times of wandering in the desert. Often they are times when we do not feel close to God and heaven; when we are focusing mostly on our own life in this world, forgetting or forsaking our inner, spiritual life.

Eventually, we get to the point where we have had enough of the desert. We've struggled with thirst and thorns and barren feelings long enough. And then, at last, we turn to the Lord, looking for the new life that we have been promised in the Bible. And then we are finally ready to enter the promised land.

When the children of Israel were at last ready to enter the rich and fertile land that had been promised to them, what did they have to cross over in order to get there? The Jordan river! The miraculous crossing of the Jordan on dry land was their introduction into the holy Land of Canaan--which symbolizes a new, spiritually-oriented life. And so the Jordan river represents our first introduction into spiritual, God-centered life. And since water is a universal symbol of truth, the Jordan river especially symbolizes the deeper truth that first introduces us to spiritual life.

Each one of us who has turned our lives over to God has experienced these basic, life-giving truths that transform our thinking so that we are no longer living for material pleasures and personal power, but for the love of God and our neighbor.

Most of these truths are so simple that a child can understand them. For example, if we had previously been living mostly for our own pleasure, perhaps what turned our lives around was taking seriously such teachings of the Lord as "do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12); "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:39); and "Seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33). These are just a few of the simple, basic spiritual truths that can introduce us into deeper and more fulfilling life if we will take them to heart and follow them.

This is the true meaning of baptism. Our ritual of baptism is intended to symbolize for us the deeper, spiritual washing that happens when we accept the Lord and allow God's truth to flow into our minds and hearts. This truth cleanses us from all the unclean, unworthy thoughts and feelings that cause us to wander in an emotional and spiritual desert when we could be living in the rich and fertile land of mutual love and understanding. And though the Lord Jesus had never sinned--as we do whenever we intentionally do things we know are wrong--he wished to be baptized in order to show us by example that we must be inwardly washed clean if we wish to have true, abundant spiritual life.

The story of Naaman the Syrian, understood spiritually, gives a beautiful picture of the cleansing powers of the Jordan river. Naaman was a great, powerful, and famous person. And yet, he suffered with leprosy, a debilitating skin disease that was considered degrading in his culture.

This is how our lives are when we are living for the world and for our own purposes instead of for the Lord. We may accomplish great things in this world; we may acquire many beautiful things and experience many pleasures; we may even be looked up to by the people around us. But we will not gain any deep and lasting satisfaction from all of this. Instead, our outward life--symbolized by the skin, which is the outermost part of our body--will give us less and less satisfaction. We will feel plagued by desires that we can never fulfill, and nothing will bring us relief. Though we may hide our sense of malaise from everyone around us, we ourselves will know that our life is getting worse and worse. We are inwardly sick even when the world considers us to be a great success.

The healing of this condition comes from the same Jordan river in which John baptized the people of Judea, and also Jesus. But we are usually not ready to receive that baptism and healing right away. Especially if we've spent a lot of time and energy building up a good life for ourselves, and then tried all sorts of tricks and therapies to make ourselves feel better when that "good life" grows hollow, we will tend to resist the Lord's way of healing us. We may hold out for some great miracle to make us feel justified in going to all that trouble and expense to fix ourselves by our own strength.

But the Lord's way is really very simple. A child can do it. And as Naaman's servants told him, so can those who are great in their own eyes--as we all too often are. If we, like Naaman, are willing to set aside our pride and follow those simple divine truths such as the Golden Rule and loving our neighbor as ourselves, then our emotional and spiritual malaise will be healed. We will find new life rushing into us, giving new meaning and joy to our everyday activities. If we will take the simple steps of putting God first and showing as much consideration to others as we would like them to show to us, we will find healing for all of our broken feelings and broken relationships.

All of this, and much more, is contained in the simple story of the Lord's baptism by John in the Jordan. And if we are willing to take it to heart, we will be able to hear and follow the first teaching given to us by Jesus after his baptism and his temptation in the desert: "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" Next week, we will consider how our hearing and heeding this message changes both our inward and our outward lives, as we consider Jesus' parable of putting new wine into new bottles. Amen.


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Music: The Prism (Colors of Love)
1999 Bruce De Boer

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