The Balm is Always There . . . Always

A sermon based on Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 22, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

When I was a small child, way, way back in the day, if any of us smaller kids got a splinter, cut, scrape or any other kind of open wound short of disabling gigantic gash there was only one balm the parents in our neighborhood applied. It smelled terrible, left a bright reddish orange stain, and really, really stung a lot. The balm was applied directly to the wound with a glass stem that had been dipped into a small jar of the dreaded cure, a balm sold by the name of Merthiolate, but better known to us as that stinky stinging stuff. As younger kids we tried to avoid that cure going so far as to hide a wound as best we could for as long as we could – because the cure seemed so much worse to us than the wound.

It was not worse of course, it really did sterilize and start the healing process. So it was good for us. But the pain and ensuing tears that the balm brought about was proof enough to the contrary in our young minds. Consequently it was to be avoided whenever possible. Inevitably though our skinned knees would be discovered by a parent when we bathed or changed our clothes, and cuts and slivers tended to swell and change to a color moms and dads would notice. Upon discovery of our wounds our parents would sympathize, but would raise questions along the line God does in our Lectionary reading. “You know we have a medicine for that? Why didn’t you let us doctor your wound?” Our answer to why we did not get help was likely known, and certainly got expressed in short order when that little glass dipping thing got unscrewed and pulled out of the bottle “I’m not hurt! I’m okay! Please don’t put that on! It hurts! It hurts! OWWWWW!” we’d cry.

It occurred to me that our childish “the cure is worse that the disease” approach that we took toward Merthiolate, is an excellent way to understand what is going on in our Lectionary lesson. There’s a wounded-ness to the nation that needs a cure, the cure is known and available, but the nation is like a child not seeking it, for fear of the uncomfortable consequences taking care will cause. This leads to God’s famous questions that we heard Bobbie read from Jeremiah, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” Gilead at the time was a central location and clearing house for medicinal remedies and healers. It had cures for wounds. Jeremiah uses that known-to-his-audience fact to have God metaphorical ask why cures were not applied or sought by the national leaders when clearly the nation was wounded.

Like a number of the texts that have come up recently in the Lectionary Jeremiah 8 is about the wounds of the nation being left unattended while the salve and healers to heal are readily available. Known remedies are not being acquired and applied. Why would anyone in a nation not apply the balm needed to heal the wounds of the nation? Because the secular and religious leaders, like a child with a scrap and a bottle of stingy medicine. Worrying about the effect of the balm that will heal the people’s woes. The balm is being God’s presence proving justice and kindness to everyone. To them God’s cure is worse than the disease.

By the time we become older children most of us have the whole wound tending scenario down.

Step one is we are wounded. Step two is a remedy is sought by us or someone who cares. Step three is gaining access to a remedy, medical care, like a balm or a physician. Step four is application of the care to the wound. Step five is the medicine taking effect usually it soothes, protects and heals. That’s all kind of obvious to us. Boiled down we get hurt and get help.

In the lesson from Jeremiah God finds that only the first part is happening. There is hurt, but no one is getting help. And God we are told is mad because of that. But anger is not all God feels. We are also told God aches with those getting hurt. That God suffers when people suffer is made clear by the words at the start of the lesson:

My joy is gone [,God says], grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land . . .

A few verses later God adds these words of anguish and pain

For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.

And then God asks why the obvious next step, the cure, has not been acquired and applied:

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?

And we are told God wants to cry tears of sorrow

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!

I am not sure why, but modern Christians seem to NOT know or think that the Bible tells us God actually has pain and sorrow and wants to cry when we hurt and die.

Moreover, God stops – and asks: “Why has the health of my poor people not been restored?” The anonymous author of our opening hymn answers that question in a very Christian way resolving the dilemma . . . the song tells us the balm is Jesus. In the scripture lesson God asks if there is a balm in Gilead? The writer of the African American spiritual answers “There is a Balm in Gilead.” The balm is the hope of friendship with Jesus and the love Christ gives. That is THE answer in the context of Christianity in general, but in the context of the awful American institution of slavery that the spiritual came out of it is very much connected to the original context in Jeremiah.

See Jeremiah was written at a time when Israel and Judah were being conquered by Babylon and their people were dragged off into enslavement in a foreign country. Jeremiah’s people, like the enslaved Americans who first sang There is a Balm in Gilead, were weighed down by the threat and the reality of the horrors and burdens of captivity and slavery. So the spiritual hymn’s context even 2500 years after Jeremiah, resonated and connected with the original setting.

I do not know if you have ever noticed, but a lot of the songs in our New Century Hymnals have historical explanations set out below songs, it’s the itty-bitty writing to the left. The note on “There is Balm in Gilead” reads:

This is one of the most moving of the African American spirituals because it illustrates the way in which the enslaved tried to encourage those who were feeling especially weighed down by the burden of their captivity.

As a whole the Book of Jeremiah understandably has a dark foreboding sense to it, there seems to be hopelessness. The wounds of God’s people caused by the secular and religious leaders of nations repeated failures to be God’s agents and end injustices and offer kindnesses are left unattended. The wounds fester before enslavement, and get worse of course, after it.

Despite the darkness there’s good news in Jeremiah, even hope and encouragement. Like the song it’s found in the balm that existed, but wasn’t being used. It’s not called Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s called God. We can hear the balm is God, in the ending of the first line in the Lectionary cutting:

My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?”

God’s the balm, and She is right there. Yet in much of the Book of Jeremiah we hear how false gods’ snake oil medicine is chosen over the healing balm of God. After God asks “Is the Lord not in Zion?” God asks “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?” The idols include worshiping the gods of wealth and power. Selfish gain trumps acting as God’s hands and feet and voice to provide justice and kindness to everyone.

But we also learn later in Jeremiah that the people, the nation and it’s leaders return to God and stay with God while in captivity and it matters much, it gives them the hope they need. It starts to sooth the wounds and offers promise of healing. Borrowing from the words I quoted in the New Century Hymnal, the Book of Jeremiah ends up

illustrat[ing] the way in which the enslaved tried to encourage those who were feeling especially weighed down by the burden of their captivity.

Christians have long the named God incarnate “Jesus.” Which is what the American Christians in slavery do in the spiritual we sang as our opening hymn. For Christians Jesus the Christ is “Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” Jeremiah spent a lot of time 2500 years ago warning that the failure to follow God, and the consequences of the sins of the nation– the immorality, injustices and oppressions of people– are wounds soothed by repentance, healed by turning to God. When Jeremiah’s warnings are not heeded the nation crumbles and captivity ensues.

But Jeremiah does not gloat, he laments and offers the hope that the balm of God will still heal the wounds and he encourages the wounded to stay true to God even in awfulness of captivity and enslavement. He assures them they will return from exile. It works. God through the prophet Jeremiah gets through and they return to being faithful to Yahweh. Not unlike the American Christians enslaved in America, the Israelite Jews enslaved in Babylon accepted that God is with them and loves them even in adversity, even in the horrors of slavery. Here’s how Jewish theologian Rabbi Joseph Telushkin puts it:

after Jeremiah dies they regard him as a hero. They preserve his message, including his devastating critiques of their behavior. They accept his insistence that God’s presence is universal, and [that God] can be worshiped in exile. Even in the darkest days of exile, they are uplifted by his optimism that someday they will return to Israel. 1

All these years later at traditional Jewish weddings around the world these hopeful promising words from Jeremiah 33 (10-11) are sung to an uplifting tune (od yeshama):

there shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord: “Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for [the Lord’s] steadfast love endures forever!”

Those last words capture the good news “the Lord is good, for [the Lord’s] steadfast love endures forever.” See, really, “there is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.” The balm is and always will be God. For us as Christians Jesus is the decisive revelation of God. Jesus the Christ is the name we give to the balm.

But by whatever name people call God, the balm of God to effect healing the wounded-ness to any nation’s people is always there . . . always. We just need to turn to God and apply the divine remedy summarized on the walls in the quilts to my right and left. When nations seek justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God wounds are soothed, protected and healed. There is a reason those three things are the only requirements God has for us, because they are the balm of God that’s always there . . . always . . . right in our hands. May we seek and apply it.


1. Telushkin, Joseph, Jewish Literacy