Today I’d like us to consider the way that victims of their own success are pulled, step by step, down the ladder to a more authentic life. In the name of the God who does the yanking: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Some people are victims of their own success. Their stability becomes too small for them. Their victories become wearisome. Something about them has to crash if their lives are to move from big and phony to small and real.
Consider Naaman, the army commander from Aram. He’s a big shot. He can go see the king whenever he wants to. There’s always work for him since Israel and Aram are caught in intermittent warfare; the peace never lasts for long. Naaman is a success: the big house, the fancy chariot, the trophy wife. He’s got everybody impressed about him, even himself.
Naaman has become a victim of his own success. Now it’s time for him to crash.
One day the general develops an itch. His skin breaks out, first in hidden places, then in spots where everybody sees it. Big red ugly blotches. He tries the treatments that the army doctors prescribe–they’re some of the best doctors–but nothing happens. The big ugly blotches get so bad that he doesn’t want to show his face at the officers’ club.
Naaman runs his household about the same way he runs his army; he’s definitely the one in charge. And if Naaman’s not happy, nobody’s happy. So this problem with the blotches throws the household into a tailspin. Nobody knows what to do about it. Putting on skin cream just makes the blotches more disgusting. Naaman’s wife, his daughters, his sons, the cook, the gardener, the maid, nobody knows what to do to make the old man better and have some peace again.
Then one day somebody speaks up. An unlikely somebody. Maybe even a nobody. She’s a girl who works in the kitchen, an Israelite captured during one of the battles. This girl puts in a word for some prophet, some holy joe, who lives over in Samaria. The girl says that this prophet can heal Naaman for sure.
The general’s big red blotches have pulled him one big step down the ladder of success. Now he takes another big step down, and he chooses to do so.
Somehow the kitchen girl’s suggestion becomes known to him. Not only that, but he decides to take her advice. She may be an Israelite, one of the enemy, but sometimes your enemy can be your best friend. Life is like that. Or so Naaman thinks to himself.
Off he troops to see the king. He tells the king what the girl said. Now the king is quite eager to see his army commander hale and hearty again. And fortunately it’s one of those rare times when Aram is not at war with Israel.
So the king of Aram writes a letter to the king of Israel. It seems like the proper thing to do. One king should help another, at least when they’re not pledged to kill each other. “Cure my general of his illness,” the king of Aram writes. It seems so little to ask of another king. And to sweeten the deal, the king of Aram sends along a pile of gold, silver, and fancy clothes that’s, well, fit for a king.
The king of Israel takes this for a trick. After all, he doesn’t get letters every day where one of his enemies asks him to heal somebody. He figures it’s some weird way that Aram’s king is picking a fight in order to get the war started up again. And so he throws a royal hissy fit, which is duly noted by his couriers and becomes news around the country.
News of the royal hissy fit and the reason for it comes to the prophet Elisha. Now this Elisha is a genuine healer. He encourages the king to make a referral. Naaman should come to see him, no appointment necessary.
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Naaman has already gone a few steps down the ladder that he once climbed to the height of destructive success. First he got a bad case of the blotches. Then he paid attention to the advice from the Israelite girl who worked in his kitchen. Then the traveled into what used to be enemy territory with a note from the king of Aram asking for help.
Maybe he’s not quite the blustering brigadier that he used to be. But in his own eyes, he’s still pretty hot stuff. And there’s no getting around it: he and his officers look pretty sharp when they end up outside Elisha’s front door with their horses and their chariots, their shiny brass and fluttering flags. The local Israelites may hate this guy from Aram, but even to them he looks every inch a success.
Get ready to be yanked down another step, Naaman! Elisha doesn’t come out to meet you. He doesn’t invite you in for a drink. You don’t even get to see his face. Seems that he’s in a meeting, and the best he can do is send his secretary out with a message: “Wash in the Jordan. Do it seven times. The blotches will disappear.”
Naaman crumples up the little piece of paper, throws it away, stomps off to his chariot, and leaves the place, well exceeding the local speed limit, and kicking up quite a cloud of dust.
Later, when they stop for lunch, he’s still steamed up. “What kind of cure is that, wallowing around in the Jordan river?” shouts Naaman. “I thought he would make a big deal of it, come out, call on the name of his God, wave his hand over me, and poof! no more blotches. But he doesn’t put on a show. He doesn’t even show his face! All I get is a prescription to bathe in the local river. We’ve got better rivers than that back home.”
His officers and orderlies notice with regret that this tirade is not only a trial for their eardrums, but make Naaman’s blotches look even bigger and uglier than usual. For a moment, each man questions whether the army was the right career choice after all.
Then one of them, an old colonel with a wise face, approaches him and addresses him in a respectful, quiet voice. “Sir, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? Then all the more reason for you to do something so simple as wash in the river.”
Naaman says nothing, but silently agrees with what the colonel told him. Yes, if the prophet had demanded something difficult, dangerous, heroic, even foolhardy, Naaman would have done it without hesitation. It would have cured his skin and pumped up his ego at the same time, an irresistible combination. But to do something plain and ordinary and humble, well, that was what really frightened him. Risk his life? No problem! Give up his self-image? Very scary!
Yet, whether Naaman likes it or not, this advice has to it the ring of truth. It almost seems as though angel hands take firm hold of him and escort him to the river bank. He wants to go there, but he doesn’t want to go there.
Once he arrives, he strips off his uniform and lowers himself into the water.
It’s a step down, in more ways than one. A step down from toxic success to new health and life. His skin becomes like the skin of a little child; his heart finds new life.
It’s hard to tell which is the greater miracle.
Perhaps we know people, even ourselves, who have been victims of success. Yet these people have gone from the top of the ladder downward, sometimes yanked down a step, sometimes moving more or less at will.
There are different kinds of steps down the ladder.
––An illness which signifies that life is successful but somehow untrue.
––Paying heed to the wisdom of people who seem insignificant.
––Entering enemy territory in search of healing.
––Encountering humiliation when no one makes a big deal over us, yet we receive genuine help.
––Doing something simple and true rather than pumping up the ego yet again.
All these and others are steps down the ladder, and when we feel yanked down a step, it may be angel hands that guide us.
This ladder points downward, but takes us where we are meant to go. It humiliates our successful selves, that we may be raised to genuine life. In the end our descent turns out to be the only ascent that really matters.
Christianity has a name for this ladder. It is called the Cross. The Cross of Jesus certainly, but our cross as well. The gift of Jesus to Naaman and to us and to all who are victims of their own success.
An English carol celebrates this gift:
“The ladder is long, it is strong and well made,
has stood hundreds of years and is not yet decayed;
many millions have climbed it and reached Zion’s hill,
many millions by faith now are climbing it still.
“Alleluia to Jesus, who died on the tree
and has raised up a ladder of mercy for me,
and has raised up a ladder of mercy for me.”
[From Hymn 453, “As Jacob with travel was weary one day.” from The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985).]
Are you becoming a victim of your own success, or are you getting pulled down to a more authentic life? Where is it you are climbing?
––Copyright for this sermon 2006, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.