Last week we heard a word from the Gospel of Luke about a risk-taking and extravagantly-loving God, who will do everything and anything to restore humanity to fellowship with God and with one’s neighbor. It’s also a word about a God who likes to celebrate this fact with a party. It’s a pretty powerful and wonderful word. But there’s another word to be found in Scripture, and it also needs to be heard. That word is found in today’s lesson from Jeremiah.
1. The Cry of the Wounded Heart
Nine years ago, on the second Sunday after September 11th, I preached from this very text. Like today, it was the lectionary reading from the Old Testament, but it spoke directly to the shock that our nation was still experiencing. It offered a word of consolation to people, trying to make sense of the horrific events of the previous week. As I took to the pulpit that day and preached my sermon, I tried to wrestle with the grief and the anger people were feeling. I reflected on the angry calls for vengeance that I was reading and hearing. These feelings were understandable, but to my mind they were contrary to the gospel of Jesus. I tried to offer a different perspective, one that reflected the nature and character of the God we know and love in Jesus Christ, using this passage from Jeremiah as a lens through which we could look at our situation and make sense of it. What Jeremiah does for us is give voice to the despair that so many were feeling. But, giving voice to our despair isn’t enough. There has to be a voice of hope and consolation as well, and despite the heaviness of this passage there’s also a glimmer of hope and a promise of healing, even in the midst of a word of judgment on a wayward people.
As we have seen in recent weeks, the shadow of September 11th still hangs over our nation. The anger, the despair, and the fear engendered by the events of that day remain with us. But it’s not just 9-11 that casts a shadow over our lives. There are the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Katrina, confessions of moral failure on the part of religious and political leaders, the continuing legacy of racism in our land, a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a lingering economic downturn that has cost millions of people their jobs and even their life savings. And these are just the events that touch American lives. As we reflect on our situation in life, the cry of Jeremiah seems to express the feelings of the moment: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” (Jer. 8:18). This cry of the heart isn’t just found in Jeremiah. The Psalmist also cries out:
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalm 13:1-2a).
Then there’s that cry of dereliction from the Psalmist that’s found then on the lips of Jesus as he hung on the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1).
These aren’t joyous words, and yet they reflect the absence of hope that stands over our lives like a cloud that won’t go away. Sometimes we think we have to put on a smiley face before God and our neighbors, and pretend that nothing is happening to us. But these texts give us permission to cry out to God and ask why.
2. Hearing Words of Judgment
Now, when Jeremiah spoke these words the Babylonians were bearing down on Jerusalem. We don’t hear the full word of judgment that Jeremiah levels against the people in this passage, but it’s there in the broader context. Jeremiah essentially told the people of Judah that since they had broken things, they now owned what they’d broken. They’d gone against God’s word, and so now they were suffering the consequences. The sufferings of the day were the result of God’s judgment on the spiritual sickness that afflicted the nation.
The darkness that’s present in this passage of Scripture should make us uncomfortable. It’s good to remember that while the Scriptures bring us good news, the biblical writers were realistic about the world in which we live. Sometimes we need to be reminded that what we say and do can have a negative effect on our lives and the lives of others. While I don’t believe God sent those planes into the towers of Manhattan, or sent Katrina as a sign of judgment on New Orleans, or the earthquake that hit Haiti, or the floods in Pakistan, events such as these can be a wake-up call of sorts. They catch our attention and cause us stop and consider the presence of darkness in our lives. That may be why many churches saw an increase in attendance after 9-11. Even if this attendance increase was short-lived, it represented the human need to find a word of healing, balm of Gilead that would heal a sin-sick soul.
3. The Balm of Gilead
We come to church hoping to hear a positive word, a healing word. Although there are those who enjoy fire and brimstone, most of us will take a pass on words like that. There’s a reason why preachers like Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, and Joel Osteen are so popular, they preach a positive message. Unfortunately, their message is too often a partial gospel. Although it’s not my habit to criticize other preachers, at least not in my sermons, I find it enlightening to read that the primary cause of the break between Robert Schuller and his son, which led to the dismissal of the son as pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, was the father’s concern that his son talked too much about the Bible and about Jesus. Apparently, if the Bible and Jesus are the focus, then the message might not be as positive as some people want it to be.
Now, I’m more an optimist than I a pessimist, more Winnie the Pooh than Eeyore, but I’m not naive. I know about the dark side of life, and so if we’re to hear the whole gospel, we need to hear the dark side as well as the bright side of life. Although we might wish things to be different, there is truth in the words of Ecclesiastes: There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to rejoice and a time to grieve (Eccles. 3:1-8). That’s just the way life is. Still, even as Jeremiah brings a word of judgment on his people, he also cries out for healing.
"Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?" "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!"
Jeremiah recognizes that we can’t go on forever living on the dark side of life. We can’t dwell in the darkness forever, even if the cloud doesn’t want to dissipate. And so, we must go looking for the balm of Gilead, which brings healing to “our sin-sick souls.” The question is – where can we find this balm of Gilead? Where does the physician for our souls reside?
The passage for the day doesn’t give us an immediate answer. We have to continue reading, past the point where the people go into exile. Then and only then do we hear a word of hope. In his letter to the exiles in Babylon, Jeremiah writes:
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have made for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jer. 29:10-14).
There is, as they say, light at the end of the tunnel, so keep on searching for God. Keep looking for the balm of Gilead.
And as we seek a word of healing, we’re led to Jesus, who is the great physician and the healer of our lives. If we read the gospels, we know that healing stood at the center of his ministry. Wherever he went, he reached out and he touched people’s lives. He restored hope to those who lived without hope. He restored broken bodies and broken lives. We see this promise of healing in his own death and resurrection. Hanging on the cross as he did that day, Jesus tasted the bitterness, the pain, and the despair of humanity. He bore on his body the blows of human anger and hatred, and he offered forgiveness in return. When we hear the cry “Is there no balm in Gilead?” the answer that we hear is that it’s Jesus who brings God’s healing presence to us.
Whether we grieve the loss of one we hold dear or a person we don’t even know who dies as a victim of violence in Afghanistan, Darfur, Congo, Detroit, or even own neighborhoods, the good news is that God is present with us and that God has tasted our sorrow in Jesus. As we hear this message of hope we also discover that we’re to be the agents of that hope. And so in the words of that old spiritual we sing out:
"There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul."
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
17th Sunday after Pentecost
September 19, 2010