There is a Balm in Gilead: A sermon on Jeremiah 8

14188523_1260289087335740_7885670721171133113_oBy the Rev. Anna Doherty

Scholars have debated long and hard over whether or not the voice in today’s reading from Jeremiah,

is the voice of the prophet or of God.

The truth of the matter is that Jeremiah, like many of God’s prophets, sometimes serves as a a mouthpiece for God…

So that the two voices blend together, and there isn’t really a way to tell whether it is Jeremiah who mourns for God’s people…

or whether it is God.

Most scholars agree that, in this particular passage from Jeremiah, it is quite likely both…

So that today’s voice can be reasonably understood as being both human and divine, human and holy grief at the suffering of God’s people.

And actually, this is an important understanding to have.

Human suffering, human grief and lament is something that we know, in our own world and in our own lives

But knowing that God laments and grieves along with us, changes our understanding of God.

Sometimes this can be profoundly comforting to people.

To know that their God feels the same grief they do, that they are not alone in experiencing the pain of loss, of frustration, of mourning.

But sometimes, knowing that God laments alongside of us in our suffering, can be a difficult thing to digest.

For some people, this understanding diminishes God in their mind…as if God should be above or immune to the problems of humanity.

For others, God’s ability to mourn alongside of God’s people, can actually be frustrating.

God shouldn’t mourn alongside of us in our suffering, God should do something to end human suffering, to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Particularly, when we talk about the kind of human suffering that keeps happening over and over, again and again…

particularly the tragic, violent death and destruction of God’s people.

There’s something very poignant about the prophet and God’s cry today,

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

This famous line, immortalized in the hymn we will soon sing, actually becomes even more poignant when we understand the context in which it was uttered.

The region of Gilead, east of the Jordan, was famous for its balm, a kind of aromatic resin.

The balm of Gilead was regarded as having properties that eased pain or covered the smell of festering wounds.

The balm of Gilead was famous for its ability to heal.

However, the irony in this, perhaps also the reason why Gilead had developed such a healing resin in the first place…

was because the region was beset with conflict between Syria, and the northern kingdoms of Israel.

Battles kept being fought there, people kept being killed, such that many probably did bear festering wounds, deep pain, or even untimely, violent death.

There was a balm in Gilead, but it did little to end the violence and death there.

The poignancy, for me, in God and the prophet’s cry today, is that that region, Gilead…otherwise known as Syria and its neighbors…

…is still a region of the world where people are suffering and dying from violent extremism, both political and religious.

According to Physicians for Human Rights, in the past five years, the Syrian government has assassinated, bombed and tortured to death almost seven hundred medical personal.

Non-state actors, including ISIS have killed 27.

Syrian government forces are actually targeting hospitals and medical personnel as a form of warfare against the civilian population.

The last pediatrician in Aleppo just died.

As did the last cardiologist in Hama.

There is no physician in Gilead.

You get the idea, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why has the health of my poor people not been restored?”

Just as God and the prophet lament over violence and destruction, we too are still carrying on the same lament…

…generations later, and even in the same part of the world.

Certain kinds of human suffering just seems to be repeated again and again, over and over.

In the face of that kind of suffering, it is easy to slip into despair that so little has changed.

I wish I could tell you that I had a satisfying answer to the question as to why human suffering happens, particularly when it happens to innocent people…

I have never come up with a satisfying answer to that question, so I won’t try and give one.

But God’s words today do hold power, “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.”

If nothing else, when we take the time to grieve, we know that god grieves with us.

And suddenly, how we act, and how we feel and view the world, become of vital importance to God.

We are not alone adrift on this planet in an unfeeling universe—we have a God who is both sympathetic and responsive to human pain and suffering.

Now just to be clear, this actually means something.

It’s not as if our suffering simply reverberates in the heavens and God suffers too.

It’s not as if the suffering just continues only with divine sympathy for it.

No, suffering may happen, but the transformative power of God, the love of God for God’s people is so great, that God literally feels our pain.

And if this is not enough of a comfort to us, God also does something else.

Because out of suffering God brings life and hope.

We all know that the cross is not the end of the story.

Out of suffering comes renewal.

That’s the power of God.

God doesn’t just feel our suffering, God does something life-giving through it and in the midst of it.

Just to be clear, I do not believe that this is why suffering happens.

It is not as if God causes suffering so that we can come out as stronger Christians on the other end.

That is not the way of a God who is infinitely loving, generous, and compassionate towards God’s people.

But God does take the suffering of this world, and through the power of the spirit, and through Jesus Christ, God turns that suffering into hope.

God turns death into life.

What is wonderful about the prophet’s question, “Is there no balm in Gilead?”

is that there is, in fact an answer.

Yes, there is a balm in Gilead.

There is the famous healing resin, but that, it seems, has done little to address the true pain that God’s people experience.

But as today’s wonderful hymn suggests, there is another balm in Gilead, and it is the kind of balm that heals not just bodies, but souls.

As the hymn suggests, it is Jesus Christ who is our balm in Gilead…

Jesus, who is, in his very self, both human and divine.

In Jesus, God knows every aspect of what it means to be a human being in this world, including pain, grief, suffering, and death.

And it is not only that God knows and understands such suffering, but in Jesus, God transforms the human experience into something divine and holy…

God brings life from death, turns suffering into redemption, and creates a new beginning out of what seems like a permanent end.

Suffering and pain may happen, but it is never the final end of the story.

There is a balm in Gilead, that makes the wounded whole.