Summary: This sermon is basd on Jeremiah 8:18-22 and offers an example of sermon material that may be developed for Cover the Uninsured Week.
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? Is her King not in her?” (“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”) “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? (Jeremiah 8:18-22, NRSV)
A Closer Look at the Passage in Context: Jeremiah 8:4-9:1
For many of us, the hymn “There Is a Balm in Gilead” is so familiar, we feel as if we already know this passage, as if we already know its message. It is, however, a powerful passage that deserves a closer look.
Jeremiah 8:4ff resounds with words of judgment and lament that so characterize this book of the Bible. Again and again Jeremiah addresses the people’s waywardness, their straying from right paths, using rhetorical questions to highlight the senselessness of it. One who falls gets up, right? One who strays turns back, right? So why not this people?! Animals show better sense than the people who have gone astray. The focus of 8:4-7 is on the people’s refusal to repent, to turn in a new direction.
Verses nine through 13 turn the critique to the “wise,” religious leaders—scribes, prophets and priests—whose teaching and “wisdom” conflict with the word of the Lord revealed to the prophet. The written word the religious leaders keep is not lived out in the actions God desires. The suffering that results from this judgment will affect not only the religious leaders but their families and communities. In fact, it is not only the wise who are indicted here, but the whole community, “because from the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from the prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jer. 8:10b-11)
8:14-17 describes the military threat from the North and with great irony describes the people deciding to flee to the city for shelter, only to find judgment and danger there.
Finally, to our central focus: 8:18-9:1, which begins with tears and sorrow. Patrick D. Miller, Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, and others suggest that the one weeping may be God, not only the prophet as many have imagined. In verse 19b and again in verse 22, the prophet asks three rhetorical questions, the third of which is accusatory. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” Of course there is. “The balm was a resin from the Styrax tree produced especially in the Transjordan region and widely used for medicinal purposes.” (Oxford Annotated Bible) It was as plentiful as ever. “Is there no physician there?” Again, the rhetorical question assumes the answer is, “yes, there is a physician there.” Then, the next question accuses, “Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?” The problem is not the absence of resources for healing. The problem is the sin and injustice of the people that have resulted in such judgment and suffering. And so our passage ends with the prophet and God weeping “day and night for the slain of my people!”
Patrick Miller notes the movement from sin to judgment to lament in this and other passages in Jeremiah. “The logic is that in this movement a sinful people evoke God’s judgment and end up in grievous lamentation, a lament that is shared by the prophet and by God.” (p. 642 The New Interpreter’s Bible).
This passage also emphasizes another theme in Jeremiah: turn and return. The Hebrew word shub is used both in describing the people’s turning away from the right path and their repenting, turning back to God. The active nature of “turn away” and “turn back” helps recast sin and repentance from passive states of one’s heart, as they are sometimes seen, to acts and choices that we make. The indwelling of God places conditions on the heart of the believer that must be lived out in their actions.
Too, no single class or sort of person has a corner on sin in this passage. The people of Judah are held accountable, the religious leaders are held accountable, the community as a whole from the least to the greatest is said to experience sin. There can be no finger pointing among those who sin; all are judged…and all are invited to return to God.
There are those who do not have health care coverage in virtually every congregation.