Summary: Jeremiah asks about healing for the people of Israel. How can we find our own healing?
Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Cry, and you are probably reading the book of Jeremiah. This gloomy prophecy about the conquering and exile of Israel is enough to send anyone searching for some spiritual Prozac. Jeremiah is torn between two great loves. He loves God and serves God as a prophet with great passion. He loves the people of Israel and he is terribly sorry to see what they will have to go through. Questioning God, Jeremiah asks, “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no Physician there?” – In other words: “God, aren’t you here anymore?”
It seems a good question for Jeremiah and for us as well when we look at a world at war, countries in crisis from disease, drought and oppression, religion that chooses legalism over compassion and dogma over discernment, and humanity lost in materialism and chronic self-absorption. It is not hard for us to see Iraq, AIDS, Darfur, church crisis and the latest celebrity obsession and say, “God, aren’t you here anymore?”
The Poet T.S. Eliot looked at the state of culture and society when he wrote “The Rock” in 1934 which said:
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
T. S. Eliot seems to re-order Jeremiah’s question. The problem is not that God isn’t with us anymore – but that we are no longer near God. We have changed the life transforming power of Christianity to a set of rules and rituals. We have given up the wisdom of diplomacy and listening for a culture of war and force. We have traded having a knowing relationship with God and others for memorizing scripture, and relying on demographics.
Now, now – I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, - “wow – Kellie’s sure in a gloomy mood – she’s been reading that Jeremiah book a little too long! Maybe a nice psalm or some proverbs would cheer her up…” but have no fear. I have a great joy and hope today and so can you – because the New Testament reminds us we are blessed when we weep – for we shall be comforted. We need only look at history to see our future.
There is a Balm in Gilead
A balm is a healing ointment. Jeremiah is asking about the famous healing lotion made from the commiphora tree of Palestine, the resinous gum we know as Myrrh. (you know the Christmas story – Gold, Frankenstein and Myrrh…er…..Frankincense and myrrh…). Jeremiah is a making a spiritual reference to the healing power of God. In the New Testament, baby Jesus will be given this balm to show healing does exist with him. That’s the good news.
Before 1865, African-American spirituals and slave-songs were sung throughout the south. These songs told the gospel and conveyed scripture to people who couldn’t read, and were used for everything from teaching English and counting to new arrivals, to keeping time in a threshing house, to communicating news about the underground railroad (“The Train is Bound for Glory”, and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were both underground railroad songs). One of the great old hymns to come out of that era was “There is a Balm in Gilead”. An oppressed people who, like Israel, had been captured, enslaved, and ill-used were answering Jeremiah’s question with the New Testament assurance that healing was here to stay. How can we find that assurance today? Let’s look at the song: