Balm in Gilead | Proper 20

Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1

8:18 No healing, only grief; my heart is broken. 19 Listen to the weeping of my people all across the land: “Isn’t the LORD in Zion? Is her king no longer there?” Why then did they anger me with their images, with pointless foreign gods? 20 “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, yet we aren’t saved.” 21 Because my people are crushed, I am crushed; darkness and despair overwhelm me. 22 Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then have my people not been restored to health? 9:1 If only my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for the wounds of my people. (CEB)

Balm in Gilead

This is the first of many verses in Jeremiah which give us cause to identify him as the weeping prophet. It is a dialogue between the religious pretense of Israel, which assumes that the Lord is in Zion and is obliged to save and protect the people, and the pathos—the deep emotion—displayed by both the Lord and Jeremiah because this people understands nothing of God’s ways.

This text is an expression of grief because there is a sickness among God’s people that cannot be healed. God’s anger can also be seen here, but God’s anger is really subordinated by the hurt which The Lord experiences in the unnecessary death of his people. This is a parent who is heartsick and full of lamentation over the death of a child: something my family has experienced with the death of my young nephew, Blake. But in this case, it is The Lord who laments because his child, Israel, has made terrible decisions, and has brought this mess of suffering and death upon themselves.

Frederick Buechner’s book, Now and Then, describes the helpless yearning and heartsickness of a parent over a child when he says, “To love another, as you love a child, is to become vulnerable in a whole new way. It is no longer only through what happens to yourself that the world can hurt you, but through what happens to the one you love also and greatly more hurting. When it comes to your own hurt, there are always things you can do. You can put up a brave front, for one, and behind that front, if you are lucky, if you persist, you can become a little brave yourself. You can become strong in the broken places, as Hemingway said. You can become philosophical, recognizing how much of your troubles you have brought down on your own head and resolving to do better by yourself in the future…But when it comes to the hurt of a child you love, you are all but helpless. The child makes terrible mistakes, and there is very little you can do to ease his pain, especially when you are so often a part of his pain, as the child is a part of yours. There is no way to make him strong with such strengths as you may have found through your own hurt, or wise enough through such wisdom, and even if there were, it would be the wrong way because it would be your way and not his. The child’s pain becomes your pain, and as the innocent bystander, maybe it is even a worse pain for you, and in the long run even the bravest front is not much use.”

The Lord sees the sickness of his child, Israel, and wants to head it off, but must stand helplessly while the disease of idolatry works to its dreadful conclusion of death. The Lord, and Jeremiah, could see it coming from a long way off. They could both see it long before the political or religious leadership in Jerusalem had any idea it was coming. Warnings had been given by the Lord through Jeremiah and other prophets. But Israel would not listen. God’s pain and anguish comes from Judah’s self-inflicted injury.

But the people don’t even know they’re sick. They continue to imagine that everything is hunky-dory and that The Lord will protect them from Nebuchadnezzar just as God protected them when King Sennacherib of Assyria threatened Jerusalem (Is. 36-37). At that time, the Lord said of Jerusalem, “For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” (Is. 37:35). And God did save Jerusalem that day. Now, the people expected God to rush in and miraculously deliver them again if they’d wait.

It’s like the guy who was hiking on a mountain trail and wasn’t watching where he was going, so he ended up taking a bad step and fell over the cliff’s edge. Luckily there was a bush sticking out from the cliff wall that he was able to grab a hold of to keep from going all the way down. He prayed, “Lord, save me! I have faith in you and I know you can save me, so please get me out of this mess!” Shortly thereafter, another hiker comes along and he yells to the guy, “Hey, I’ve got some rope up here. Let me pull you up.” But they guy replies, “No thanks, I’m waiting for God to save me. Don’t worry about it.” So the hiker shrugs his shoulders and moves on. Then a mountain biker happens by and shouts to the guy, “Hey, I’ve got a rope ladder up here. I’ll let it down and you can climb up.” And they guy responds, “Thanks, but no thanks. I said my prayers and I’m waiting for God to get me out of here. Don’t worry about it. God will save me.” They mountain biker says, “You’re kidding me,” and moves on. Then a rescue helicopter shows up on the scene, and lowers a basket to the guy. The guy says, “No, really, no thanks. I’m waiting for God to save me. I’m just going to give it a little more time and wait for God to rescue me.” The helicopter crew then watches helplessly as the guy struggles to hold on to the bush, loses his grip, and falls to his death.

When the guy ends up in heaven he asks God, “Why did this happen? I asked you to save me. I had faith that you would rescue me and so I waited for you. Why didn’t you help me?” And God says, “Seriously? I sent you a hiker, a mountain biker, and a helicopter. What more did you want?” Israel would not listen to the prophets which God sent. Israel chose to ignore the warnings and continue with business as usual in the face of their own sickness and impending death.

It had long been a claim of the people and religious establishment that God is present in Zion. The Lord would protect God’s people, Israel, and come to their defense. The people quoted the Psalms in the Temple liturgy which declare God’s presence in Zion, Psalms like Psalm 46:5, which says, “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.” And Psalm 84:7, “They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.” And Psalm 99:2, “The Lord is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.”

There is another part to this as well. Jeremiah had to face the confused and complacent response of the people and leadership in Jerusalem; a complacency which had been induced by too great an emphasis upon the protective will of God and too little concern with divine righteousness. Jeremiah wasn’t seeking to rebut the assurance of God’s protection given in the Psalms of Zion, but Jeremiah was insisting that it is not the whole truth about God.

The prophets and priests were always butting heads with each other. The priests were usually more concerned about the religious establishment: offering the correct liturgy and sacrifice; while the prophets were more often concerned with the righteousness of the people: their ethics and attention to living out justice and mercy. It is the righteousness of God’s people that is often the bigger problem even today.

Not only do the people expect The Lord to be present and to save but they expected the saving acts to happen according to their time table. They see that God is running a little behind, so they remind God that the time for saving is almost over and done, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” They’re saying, Come on, God, it’s time to do your thing. They assume that God will respond to the plans of the establishment. They imagine that God is only a patron, and is therefore available at particular times and places. They still don’t see that death has come upon them, that the claims of God’s presence have been voided by their continued unfaithful idolatry. Nothing will work to fix this situation except truthful and radical repentance. But repentance is far from Judah. They don’t even think they need it. They think they are perfectly well. They don’t see their festering wounds, so they disregard Jeremiah’s words.

Jeremiah… or is it the Lord, their words are really indistinguishable from each other at this point, responds by saying, “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” God hurts because God is offended by Israel’s idolatry. Idolatry is the reason for the sickness and death of the people. Idolatry is the attempt to order and organize life around controllable objects rather than acknowledging our reliance upon a holy God. God is offended by the rampant idolatry of Israel, and Israel gives fraudulent worship to God.

Israel wishes for God’s presence in their place and on their time but Israel is already terminally ill because of idolatry. Israel wishes for God to rescue them and be there for them when they might need God, but continue to bow down to idols. Wishful thinking is inadequate religion. It is Israel’s commitment to fake gods that immobilizes the very power of the Living God that would save.

Perhaps, then, the people can look elsewhere for healing. The land of Gilead was famous for its healing balm which soothed festering wounds. Maybe there’s a doctor there who can make a difference? Maybe there’s an herbal remedy that can be found to cure the sickness of Israel: this festering wound of unfaithfulness, sin, and rejection of God through idol worship. “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” The answers are Yes, there is a balm in Gilead. It’s famous stuff, and Yes, there are physicians in Gilead.

So God asks, “Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” No answer is given in response to this question. But I think from the silence we can see that the balm in Gilead is the wrong kind of medicine for Israel’s disease, and the physicians of Gilead—as good as they are—don’t know how to treat it. The sickness is too deep. The idolatry is too pervasive. There is no help in Gilead either: no balm to make the wounded whole, no balm to cure the sin sick soul. Judah refuses the only medicine that is available: the medicine of repentance, of wholeheartedly turning back to The Lord.

Jeremiah can do nothing but weep, but he recognizes his own inadequacy in this act of mourning. His tear ducts aren’t large enough to shed the proper amount of tears for this kind of tragedy. “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!”

The hurt of Judah’s death requires more grief, more crying, and more tears than his body is capable of delivering. And there is a question of how to translate the Hebrew in this verse. The genitive construction can be taken as “the slain of my fair people,” or “those slain by my fair people.” Given what we read of the treachery of neighbors and kin if we continue a few verses into chapter 9, the second possibility looms large. Jeremiah is stunned by the collision course on which the people are bent because of their unrepentant idolatry; tears are the only appropriate response.

So why does the old African-American spiritual insist that there is a balm in Gilead? Because a remedy has indeed been found for the sickness of sin, for the grief of death. The hymn confidently proclaims that there is a balm in Gilead, but the balm to which it is referring is Jesus Christ. God loves his children and always feels deep sadness when humanity proves that it knows nothing of the ways of God. Our wounds are also largely self-inflicted, and God weeps for God’s people today just as God wept then.

When God sees, not only the sinfulness of humanity, but our refusal to live righteous lives. When God looks at his beloved children, whom God created in God’s own image, suffering from festering wounds caused by our blatant refusal or casual indifference to live in a right relationship with the Creator of the universe, our God mourns for us.

That is why God sent Jesus into the world. We, then, who call on the name of the Lord, who seek him, who earnestly repent of our sins, are offered the soothing balm that will comfort and heal all of our wounds. God is yearning for each and everyone one of his children to come to him, to drink from the fount of living water, to be healed.

But now, just as then, truthful and radical repentance is necessary for healing. Righteous living is necessary for continued good health. There is a balm in Gilead. There is a physician available, and he’s always on call. We are all sick with the disease of sin, whether we realize it or not. Only Jesus can make our woundedness whole. Only Jesus can heal our sin sick soul. Turn to the Lord, and find healing at the hands of the Great Physician. In fact, the meaning of the word saved in Greek is healed.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

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