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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

September 22, 2013

Is There No Balm in Gilead?

Jeremiah 8:18-19:1; Luke 16:1-13

             As a young man, the prophet Jeremiah lived at the time of Josiah, one of a small handful of Israel’s kings judged by the Biblical writers as good.  Assyria was waning in power and Israel was left on its own to govern itself for a season.  One of Josiah’s first acts was to rebuild and to cleanse the Temple of the influence of foreign gods.  In the rebuilding of the Temple, a long-neglected temple scroll was discovered, likely a version of Deuteronomy, which included the Ten Commandments, the heart of the law.  When Josiah heard the law read again, he rent his garments, he was so overcome, and he launched a vigorous program of religious reform throughout Israel.

             Sadly, Josiah was killed in battle and was followed by King Jehoiakim, who cared not at all about the reforms of Josiah.  At the same time that Israel was falling away from Yahweh, Babylon was rising in power and now threatened Israel and Jerusalem, her holy city.  Jeremiah is filled with grief as he sees how the people and their leaders have fallen away from Yahweh.  He is often called “the weeping prophet,” and in our passage this morning, we can see why.  Jeremiah laments the unfaithfulness of his own people, and he sees the specter of Babylon and their impending invasion as Yahweh’s judgment upon them.  Jeremiah is heartbroken.  “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.”  The people cry, “Is the Lord not in Zion?  Is her King not in her?”  The people wonder if God has forsaken or forgotten them, though they do not wonder about their own unfaithfulness.  This was the prophet’s calling.

             Jeremiah had what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said all the great prophets of Israel were given by Yahweh, what Heschel called, “the Divine pathos.”  Jeremiah felt sick for his own people in their sin and unfaithfulness.  But Jeremiah also felt Yahweh’s anger and sadness over the foolish unfaithfulness of the people.  Heschel said the prophets stood with a foot in two worlds: the world of their own people, and that of Israel’s Holy God.  So Jeremiah asks, speaking for Yahweh, “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”

             When Bill Clinton was president (Did you catch that transition, from Jeremiah to Bill Clinton?!), he turned the phrase, “I feel your pain,” into a cliché, some would say an empty cliché.  But in fact, Jeremiah here feels deeply the pain of his own unfaithful people.  Yet he also feels Yahweh’s great pain over their disobedience.

             Jeremiah realized that things may have gone too far, that Israel’s unfaithfulness may be something that has gone on too long for an easy cure.  “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved,” he says.  This is never something Americans, so given to optimism, find easy to hear.  But you can wait too long to address your sin or your sickness.  The Gospel singer James Cleveland sings, “It’s going to be too late.”  Every pastor has seen the sad reality of people who wait too long to face their issues.  There is a season in which a broken relationship can be healed, repaired, a time when a problem in the workplace or at school can still be addressed.  But then comes a time when it is too late.  The idea that it is too late for redemption or for healing or for some kind of miracle to deliver us is a hard one for us to hear.  But here Jeremiah offers us a sobering word.  You can wait too long; you can be too late.  And this can be true for a whole nation.

             Jeremiah is in agony as he sees judgment from a holy and just God coming in the form of a Babylonian invasion of Israel and of her holy city, Jerusalem.  “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.”  Part of what made Abraham Lincoln such a great leader was that he never ceased to consider the South part of “one nation under God, indivisible.”  He grieved over the secession of the South from the Union, and loved the South every bit as much as he loved the North.  “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln said in one of his most important speeches, quoting from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

             Then Jeremiah asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?”  It is a rhetorical question, and we who know the Gospel song need to step away from it for a moment and let the question stand, let it hang in the air between us.  Every generation can hear the question of Jeremiah, because all of us come to places where we cannot help but to ask it.  “Is there no balm in Gilead?”  “Is there no help, no healing which is to come?  Is it too late?  Are things so awful that there will be no healing, no happy ending?”  Demoralization and suffering span all centuries and all cultures.  Hopelessness and human pain and fear are universal experiences of the human family.  “Is there no balm in Gilead?”

             Gilead is mentioned, of course, in Genesis 37:25.  We are told that a caravan of Ishmaelites was traveling from Gilead to Egypt carrying “gum, balm and resin.”  This balm was from the Styrax tree and was used medicinally to bring comfort and healing.  “Is there no balm in Gilead?”  Is there no medicine, no help coming for what ails our nation for what threatens to destroy our way of life?  That is the question Jeremiah asks.  And if you don’t think it is a relevant question in America today, then you are not paying attention.  I dare say it is a question all of us have asked at some point.  Parents ask it for their wayward and lost children.  Every teenager asks it at some point for themselves, because who gets through those tumultuous years easily?  I asked it when my father developed Alzheimer’s and eight years later when my dear mother was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer.  I have asked it for countless parishioners I have dearly loved as they have faced horrible, aggressive illnesses, and my heart has broken as we have lost too many of them in slow motion.

             Rick Warren is the mega-church pastoral superstar and best-selling author.  Last spring his son Matthew committed suicide.  He shot himself in the head in his mid-twenties after a lifetime of struggle with mental illness.  Did you know that every thirteen-and-a-half minutes someone commits suicide in America?  Matthew Warren’s parents tried everything they could to help him.  “If love could have kept Matthew alive, he’d still be with us today, because he was greatly loved,” Warren says.  As a teenager he went to his father and said, “It is real clear to me, Dad; I’m not going to get any better.”  “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?”

             We held the funeral yesterday for Rose Van Pernis.  Rose was born in Barranquilla, Columbia, and came to America in 1978.  She learned English and finished her Masters in physical therapy at New York University.  Rose and Tom raised two sons in this church who are her great gifts to the world, Brandon, who serves as one of our wonderful Youth Directors, and Paul, who is a junior at the University of Virginia.  About ten years ago, Rose found out she had breast cancer.  For ten years she and Tom fought the good fight, and Rose bought every day, every extra minute of life that she possibly could to be with Tom and her two dearly-loved boys.  Rose shared her courageous journey with many of us.  Medically, her cancer went from bad to worse.  Looking back, cancer was out to get Rose, and nothing was going to stop it.  But spiritually, we watched Tom and Rose carry on a different battle, one in which their faith in God’s providence grew deeper and stronger and more beautiful.  Every time Rose would come home from a hospitalization, she would ask Tom to stop first at church, and she would come into this sanctuary and give thanks to God.  Then she would come up to the front, touch the cross and pray.  Rose knew, you see, that there was a balm in Gilead, a source of healing and hope that not even her vicious cancer could touch.  And even in the midst of suffering and death, that balm in Gilead, that Great Physician, gave Rose hope and life and joy.

             Fifty years ago this month, on Sunday, September 15, 1963, a bomb went off in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killing four young girls there for Sunday school.  Jon Meacham says this act was one of the great turning points in twentieth century American history.  If you have not read his one-page commentary in Time Magazine on the bombing’s anniversary, you should.  Martin Luther King Jr. came to preach at the funeral for the four lovely young girls.  He said, “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil, and history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive.  The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city.”  And King’s words proved to be prophetic.  You see, King knew as well that there is a balm in Gilead, a Redeemer who does not save us from suffering, but who promises to save us through suffering.  The Welshman who designed the gift to the 16th Street Baptist Church knew this as well.  The bomb blew out part of the stained glass window, and blew out the face of Jesus at the center of the window.  This man from Wales replaced the window, and today a black Jesus stands with arms outstretched “to a future beyond the blood and the bombs.”

             “There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin sick soul.”




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