Dr. Darria Gillespie, professor in the Emory University School of Medicine’s Department of Emergency Medicine tells how she and her husband were flying to Boston when they heard a flight attendant ask, ‘Is there a doctor on board?’
Dr. Gillespie stood and saw a gentleman having a grand mal seizure when she announced she was a doctor. With the help of a paramedic also on board, Dr. Gillespie was able to stabilize the patient, and together kept him stable until the plane landed in Boston where the man was whisked off to a waiting ambulance.
Gillespie says, “The man was doing well by this time, and didn’t want to go to the hospital. I told him he needed to go so he could be evaluated by a doctor. As he was being wheeled away, he flashed me a peace sign and said, ‘I don’t need to see a doctor. You’re my doctor.’”
When we read our text for today, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” the prophet Jeremiah is calling for a doctor. But in Gilead, apparently no doctor can be found. It’s not that someone near him is having a medical crisis. The patient’s not even a person. It’s a nation— his own nation of Judah.
Jeremiah’s heart is breaking because of his people’s unfaithfulness. Chaos ensues all around him. The people of God are backsliding from their faith; they’re worshiping foreign gods and falling into all manner of immorality.
But this is not the most alarming thing. The armies of Babylonian have assembled, and an invasion is looming on the horizon—Jeremiah can almost see the Chaldean banners fluttering in the breeze, while the corrupt king, Jehoiakim, seems not to notice— too busy partying in the palace.
And the people of Judah, they’re not much better. They don’t see what the prophet sees. They don’t share his expansive vision. They can’t see beyond their own petty problems and pleasures.
It is a hard and difficult time to say the least—and it’s only going to get worse. And all of it makes Jeremiah weep. He weeps with remorse, with distress, with anxiety. He weeps with a deep, deep sadness for all that is about to be lost. His tears flow, and he cries out for a healing balm. Only he doesn’t realize that the tears he cries bring the remedy he seeks. A healing balm of grace.
When Jeremiah asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” he’s referring to a famous resin harvested from the trunks of balsam pine trees that grew in the Gilead region. The fragrant ointment refined from the pine sap was good for all kinds of ailments.
You could say it was the Vicks Vapo-Rub of the day— with its menthol aroma that helps you breathe again—the balm of Gilead was something similar.
Jeremiah regards the corruption of his people— their cluelessness, their lack of a future— and cries out: “Is there no balm, no medicine that can help? Is there no doctor in the house, no one who can bring true healing to this wayward and ailing people?”
And what are they ailing from? The very simple, yet exceedingly pervasive disease of sin.
Jeremiah is addressing the situation using a medical model, which makes it quite striking because for once the prophet is not blasting the people for their immoral acts, but instead speaks of them with an undertone of compassion and empathy, crying out for them to be healed of this sin disease by an outside power.
Now this little word “sin” has fallen out of favor in our society. When used today there are likely to be one of two reactions. Either dismissed as pious drivel from some old-fashioned, out-of-touch busybody; or as something perversely attractive—like the chocolate cake advertised as “sinfully good”.
Take your pick of uses, and it doesn’t change the necessity sin creates. A healing balm is still needed. Jeremiah— who is prophet as well as pastor— gazes out on a society that has degenerated into massive, systemic sin.
He was once was angry about it, but now he’s world-weary and filled with despair. His pastor’s heart reaches out with compassion and empathy. These people are ill, so very ill— and no doctor’s on the case. The pharmacy shelves are bare. And as a result, Jeremiah weeps. But the tears he weeps are more than just remnants of his emotions.
Sin, as we know, is not without its consequences. The Las Vegas tourist board aside, sin is not some spicy delight that “happens in Vegas, [but] stays in Vegas.” It never stays in Vegas.
Sin infects the souls of those who believe they can step onto a plane and take a vacation from morality for a few days. But to be perfectly accurate, sin never originates in Vegas. The seeds of immoral behavior are already planted long before they get to baggage claim.
Jeremiah’s whole point is that sin is not just a collection of disconnected, immoral behaviors. He never pretends the solution to sin is just exercising a little willpower. “Just say no” is no answer. Jeremiah’s a realist. He knows the problem runs much deeper. Sin is a deadly malady that can’t simply be managed. Rather it needs to be healed.
There’s a telling phrase coined by Christian philosopher Dallas Willard. In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Willard speaks out against a distorted form of the Christian message he calls the “gospel of sin management.”
“The gospel of sin management”, he says, “is proclaimed by church leaders on both the right and the left. Whether it’s the collective social sins of tolerating poverty and homelessness, or the individual sins of adultery and stinginess, proponents of this stripped-down, incomplete version of the Gospel teach that being a Christian is all about managing sinful behaviors. Just stop sinning, this school of thought teaches— or, at least, cut down on it— and God will smile on you, bestowing upon you the gift of eternal life.”
The gospel of sin management, as it manifests itself within Christianity, is a hard ideal to live up to. Cutting out all sinful behaviors is not impossible. Yet, proponents of this way of thinking are quick to remind us that, while God may scrawl a bright red “F” on the top of our examination paper, Jesus is quick to counteract that negative judgment—saving us by giving an “A” for effort.
But it’s never that easy. It’s not that easy because sin is a fatal malady that gets’ hold of the human heart and never lets it go—at least not of its own accord. And Jeremiah knew this. He knew human beings could never heal themselves. And because he knew…he wept.
Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no doctor to prescribe and administer the miracle cure so sin is banished and spiritual health and wholeness restored? Jeremiah can name no such remedy— but he is confident one must exist. After all, he is a prophet of God.
There is, of course, such a cure. We know it in the Christian tradition as the grace of God found in Jesus Christ. Long before he came the prophets spoke of God’s plan to heal sin—and though they did not know its name, they knew for certain it was surely coming.
The African slaves of the American South knew it probably better than anyone.
Held captive and oppressed all their days, laboring under the lash of the overseer, they sang spiritual songs as they worked. One of them is the beloved hymn based on this very passage from Jeremiah, “There Is a Balm in Gilead”, its refrain saying,
There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.
This hymn answers the prophet’s lamenting cry. And what is this powerful, healing balm?
It’s something we carry within our own bodies, in reservoirs behind our eyes. Special ducts convey this salty solution when we need them most. Our eyes well up, and the droplets roll down our cheeks. They are, of course, tears. Tears of sorrow, tears of suffering, tears of heartfelt penitence.
The tears we cry are water, mostly— the principal ingredient in human tears. When we’re profoundly moved, our bodies supply water to run down our cheeks.
The slaves who sang this hymn had tears a-plenty, weeping as they sang of the precious remedy from far-off Gilead.
The healing balm we need, comes from within, set their by our Creator when we were formed in the womb—for when we weep, our bodies and souls are acknowledging the disease and its consequences, as if to say, “This is not what God intends.” And it’s with that realization, with that awareness, that we find within those tears: compassion and empathy—emotions Jeremiah felt too.
And when we weep in the midst of remorse, distress, anxiety, and deep, deep sadness for all that is happening that is not what God intends; when we weep tears of compassion and empathy, we discover we have not lost our sense that this is not the way it should be, and that only by the grace of God will anything be made better. And in such a discovery we find the healing balm of grace filled hope.
In a world that seems so determined to destroy itself, these words of the prophet Jeremiah likely seem more relevant than ever. We can relate to him and his cries: “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.”
But may we know that like Jeremiah we too can discover that there truly is a healing balm available. It will, however, require us to tap into our reservoirs of compassion and empathy, and begin to see as the prophet sees.
So let’s sit down with Jeremiah and weep with him. Let’s weep over opportunities lost. Let’s weep about our foolish rebellion and pettiness. Let’s weep in remorse for chasing after foreign gods, such as fleeting pleasures and vapid materialism. Let’s weep tears of repentance. Let’s weep tears of bitter realization.
And then let’s weep tears of joy. Let’s weep tears of delightful realization. Why? Because there is a balm in Gilead … it’s the balm of Golgotha … the balm of grace found in Christ Jesus.
And when this balm is applied, we recall not just the tears, but the waters of baptism— waters that literally flow down over our heads and upon our cheeks to heal our souls, and then empowers us to share with others, through compassion and empathy, the healing balm of grace— the only thing in this weary world that can cure the sin-sick soul. Amen.