Saturday, September 22, 2007

IS THERE NO BALM IN GILEAD?

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

When I last took up this text, six years ago today, it was the second Sunday after September 11, 2001. I think we all have memories of that day, and even two Sundays later, we were still in a state of shock. As I preached that day, I tried to make sense of what had happened just days before. I tried to wrestle with the grief and the anger people were feeling. I reflected on the angry calls for vengeance, which were understandable. I then tried to offer a different perspective, one that reflected the nature and character of the God we know and love in Jesus. That Sunday I tried to make sense of what had happened by using Jeremiah as my lens. As I read this text I heard words of judgement and despair, and then I went looking for words of consolation and hope.

In many ways the shadow of September 11, 2001 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’s the war in Iraq, Katrina, confessions of moral failure, and the continuing legacy of racism, which is seen in the trial going on Jena, Louisiana. So, we understand when we hear Jeremiah cry out: "My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick." (Jer. 8:18).

Jeremiah isn’t the only voice crying out for the people. There are others, such as the psalmist who 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 that’s found first in the Psalms and 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 texts, and yet they express our real feelings of despair and abandonment. Sometimes we think we have to always put on a smiley face before God, but these texts give us permission to cry out and ask why.

I. WORDS OF JUDGMENT

When Jeremiah spoke the words read this morning, the Babylonians were bearing down on Jerusalem. If you read the entire chapter you’ll hear Jeremiah saying to his neighbors – this is the bed you made, and it’s the bed you’ll have to sleep in. Jeremiah says that the events of his day are a sign of God’s judgment on their spiritual sickness, which was seen in their idolatry and in their treatment of one another.

I expect that the darkness of this passage of Scripture makes us uncomfortable. And that’s as it should be, for while the Scriptures bring us good news, the biblical writers are 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 the lives of others. While I don’t believe God sent those planes into the towers of Manhattan or Katrina, events such as these are wake-up calls of sorts. When things like these events happen, at least for a moment we stop and consider the shadows that hang over our world.
II. THE BALM OF GILEAD

I realize that this may seem like a gloomy message. As most of you know, I’m a pretty up beat and optimistic person. I’m more like Winnie the Pooh than Eeyore. But I know that life has its shadow side. There is, as the preacher says, 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.

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 live in the shadow side, we must move forward and find our healing. The question is, where is the balm of Gilead? Where is the physician for our souls?

There isn’t an answer in this immediate text, but if we continue to read on, past the point when the people go into exile, we hear Jeremiah tell the exiles that a time will come when they’ll return home. So don’t give up, keep hope alive (29:10ff). There is, as they say, light at the end of the tunnel, so keep hanging on.

As we seek a word of healing with Jeremiah, we’re led to Jesus, who is the great physician and the healer of our hearts. 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 peoples 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. We hear the cry: Is there no balm in Gilead? We hear the answer in the gospels – It is Jesus who bring us God’s healing presence.

A number of Sundays back I preached a message on healing, and that sermon has stirred more conversations than any other I’ve preached. I’m not exactly sure why that is, but I think it has to do with the fact that we all need the healing touch of God. Whether it’s physical, emotional, or spiritual, we are seeking relief from pain and anguish.
I suppose it’s appropriate that we take up this subject when grief is strongly felt by this congregation. Tomorrow we will again gather in this place to remember, to celebrate, and to grieve. We will bid goodbye to one of our own. It’s still hard for me to believe that Mary Ann has died. Just a week ago she was here – a bit tired, but still full of life and full of hope. Two days later she was gone. We as her friends and her family now stand here a bit speechless and needing to be touched by the grace of God.
So, whether it’s the loss of one we hold dear such as Mary Ann, or whether it’s one who at least to us is an unnamed and unknown victim of violence in Iraq, Darfur, Congo or even own neighborhoods, we can find hope for healing in the presence of God. 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."



Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
17th Sunday after Pentecost
September 23, 2007

1 comment:

dean said...

Times are darker now than even when you gave this word. As Jeremiah said, we have made our bed, and now we must lie in it. Good news saints! Jesus is coming back soon! Turn your hearts away from this world and towards eternity! Don't look back!