Gilead’s Balm 9/19/10

Gilead’s Balm

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain,
but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.

If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul,
you can tell the love of Jesus, and say “He died for all.”

Don’t ever feel discouraged, for Jesus is your friend;
and if you lack for knowledge he’ll ne’er refuse to lend.

I.                    Our Sin-Sick Souls

I can think of no better way to bring us into this time of considering what the prophet Jeremiah was speaking to in this text than to recall a song that has touched the hearts of many – There is a Balm in Gilead.  Hearing and singing the African-American spiritual is a powerful reminder of how the promises of the God of Israel are still relevant to contemporary situations.  As a spiritual, this song expresses hope for healing and wholeness now even in the face of the suffering and brokenness that we experience on earth.  We do not have to look hard to find brokenness in the world.  We do not have to look far into our history to find suffering wrought by sin (slavery, holocausts, genocides, acts of terrorism, devastation of natural disasters).  As I sing the first part of this hymn, I invite you to reflect on the words of the song and what they mean to you …

“Of course, it is sung as a gift, as an act of encouragement to someone else whose momentary assessment of their life and faith leaves them feeling broken and inadequate.”[1]  In fact, it could be sung to the prophet Jeremiah who first asked the question “Is there no balm in Gilead?”  The song is a reassurance.

The text from which it comes however is less sure of the certainty of finding healing.  Whoever is speaking is clearly broken-hearted over the faithlessness and suffering in the world.  It is unclear, from our passage who is speaking, is it God?  Is it Jeremiah?  The most compelling viewpoint is that Jeremiah, here, is the quintessential preacher – feeling his own grief and brokenness, feeling God’s sorrow, and feeling the pain of the people to whom he speaks.  He is caught in the middle, voicing in great poetry how the world suffers and how God aches for the world, his Creation.

“Commentators generally agree that Jeremiah’s career as a prophet serves as a microcosm of the entire Hebrew Testament.  As Elmer Martens writes, ‘The book of Jeremiah … depicts the alienation of people from God, God’s unceasing attempts to bring them back to [Godself], God’s judgment on their evil through exile, the delights of restoration, and [God’s] actions not only on behalf of the people of Israel but for the benefit of the world of nations.”[2]

Through Jeremiah, we find that Israel’s story is our story: one that we live over and over again throughout history and throughout our lives.  Prone to wander away from the God we love just as God is prone to pulling us back.

II.                 Is there no balm in Gilead?  What Ails Us?

Until a year ago, I was not very fond of this song, particularly the line “to heal our sin-sick soul.”  I don’t want to think of myself as sick, nor do I wish to think of myself as sinful.  However, “the implication of Jeremiah’s rhetorical question is that the disease infecting the life of the people is more devastatingly chronic and morbid than can be remedied by physical means.  It is a disease of the spirit, the psyche, the soul, and the will.”[3]

This demands that we ask, what is it that ails us?  What is it that the prophet and God are grieving?  It is the inclination to choose a path that separates us from one another and from God.  None of us want to be sinful, but sin has this slippery way of creeping into our subconscious reasoning.  Anyone who has gone through a 12-step recovery program understands there are hundreds of tiny lies we tell ourselves to enable ourselves to make bad decisions.  Just because I like to be practical, let’s make a list: what is it that separates us from God and each other?

Sickness, ailments, allergies, injuries, physical difficulties.  These are sometimes beyond our control, but sometimes they affect our emotions as well as our bodies.  They lead us to feeling isolated, alienated, lonely, and friendless.  There are other struggles that separate us which may seem more innocuous, but may be more powerful still – depression, anxiety, shame, defensiveness, pride, arrogance, self-absorption, lack of self-esteem, self-doubt, emotional traumas, grief, anger, the inability to forgive.  These emotional pitfalls and struggles lead us to not trust others, to feel like others are competition, and inevitably, they lead us away from the God we love.

Sometimes we Christians act like to be a good, successful Christian, we must do everything possible good thing – we must be disciplined in our praying and study of the Bible, we must do good deeds, serving meals, sorting clothes, keeping up the building.  These are all very good things, don’t get me wrong.  But simply doing them does not mean that you are taking care of yourself spiritually and emotionally.  The very first step in being a Christian is taking an important and difficult step and being very honest with yourself about where you are struggling.  What is it that makes it difficult to talk with God and to live out of your faith? 

When you find where you are struggling, don’t go it alone.  Ask for help from God, from a friend, from a pastor, from someone you trust.  Take care of yourself.  You are the only you that God created, and God loves that you very much – too much to want to see you not working on being the best, most whole you that you can be.

This is the heart of this passage: God is heart-broken at the world’s suffering.  The God who creates us loves us and wants to see us being the best, most whole people that we can be.  God wants us healed and whole, in full and good relationship with God’s self and with other people. (1 Timothy – a peaceable life).   In light of this, we return to the question the “weeping prophet” asks of us,

III.               Finding the Balm in Gilead

In light of this, we return to the question the “weeping prophet” asks of us: is there no balm in Gilead?  How do we find this substance that will heal us and restore us?  “Is the balm from the balsam trees, or does it have another source?  Perhaps it comes from within, from a heart that shares intimacy with God.  Surely this balm heals all soul-sickness.”[4]  Finding wholeness in God, healing our sin-sickness, it all begins with one step in our faith journey – time spent with the Creator.  Whether that time is spent alone or with others in prayer, whether that time is while you are doing chores around the house or the yard or facilitated in a worship service … the point is not when or where, the point is simply finding that time to strip everything else away and simply rest and abide with God.

IV.               Be Still My Soul – Being Moved by God

I can think of no better way to end this sermon that to offer you a time to rest in God’s presence, to abide with God in stillness, and to cling to an ever-present God.  The easiest, most sure way I have of offering you this time is to do so in song.  So, I offer you this hymn as a rest area for you in your journey through life.  Stop.  Relax.  Allow yourself to be moved by God.  Close your eyes if you like.  Gaze at the cross if that helps.  Slow down and find your way to trusting that God is the ground beneath your feet, the air surrounding and embracing you, and the heart that steadily beats inside of you.  Let us rest in God’s presence ….

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain,
but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.

If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul,
you can tell the love of Jesus, and say “He died for all.”

Don’t ever feel discouraged, for Jesus is your friend;
and if you lack for knowledge he’ll ne’er refuse to lend.

 


[1] Dwight Lundgren in Feasting on the Word: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1.

[2] Malinda Elizabeth Berry in Living the Word at Sojourners.net

[3] Dwight Lundgren in Feasting on the Word: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1.

[4] Malinda Elizabeth Berry in Living the Word at Sojourners.net

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