Read Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
I want to take you back in time four decades or so. I am taking you to a time when football was played without gloves and without extra pads. It was a time when helmet to helmet contact was expected. It was a time when sports medicine equated to, “If it’s not a compound fracture, then give him another salt tab and send him back in.”
During my high school football days, I was the biggest guy on the team at 190 pounds. Actually, we had a guy who was over 300 pounds, but we had to call time out to give him enough time to get on the field and even then he could only defend the very place that he was standing.
I played mostly on the line or line backer. I could kick an extra point but the only guy on the team who could hold the football for me to kick was the only guy who could snap the ball to the holder.
During my senior year my coach wanted to give me a chance to score every once in a while. We gave up on kicking extra points so he let me run for the two point conversion. He said if you are not on the line, there is nobody to block for you, but I will let you see if you can drag five or six guys across the goal line without any blocking.
I scored a few points that year.
I also went through my high school football career with chunks of meat missing from my hands and occasionally some open wounds around my ankles and calves. If you weren’t bleeding; you weren’t playing.
Fortunately, there was this substance called Nitrotan.
It is described as a germicide spray. That wasn’t entirely accurate back in the 1970’s. It had some germ killing properties for sure, but only because it was made from radioactive waste.
You sprayed this stuff on your raw knuckles and it burned all the way to the bottom of your feet. Whatever pain you were experiencing due to chunks of flesh being ripped from your body gave way to the pain of the treatment.
But you weren’t done. After you applied the Nitrotan, you put some Tough Skin over the medicated wound while the Nitrotan was still burning through your soul. I don’t think they make this Tough Skin stuff anymore. It was essentially superglue in an aerosol can. But it hardened quickly and you could get back in the game.
Now the budget for Nitrotan and Tuff Skin must has been pretty tight, because it always ran out at half time during a game.
People would cry out, “Isn’t there any Nitrotan? Isn’t there any Tough Skin?”
Was there nothing that would bring healing and relief to these open wounds?
Now part of the problem with running out of Nitrotan was that during the practice week someone was always taking the can and spraying it on somebody’s jock strap while they were in the shower.
Not all of the hazards of high school football took place on the field.
But there was this sense of helplessness that you had when there was no Nitrotan and no Tough Skin left in the Locker room.
Balm or balsam was a sort of resin obtained from trees that grew throughout the Gilead area. The area we might call Gilead was the area along the Jordan, especially on the east side where the tribes of Gad and Reuben settled.
This balm was very aromatic and was said to have substantial healing properties.
So Jeremiah is crying out, “Is there nothing that will heal us?”
Jeremiah knows what will heal his people—rejecting the false gods that they worshiped and returning to the one true God. Jeremiah knows the balm that his people need is to repent and return to the Lord.
Jeremiah is crying out, “Is there nothing that will heal us?”
He is asking a question that we know the answer to, but so many continue to ask again and again. Can I not find salvation apart from the one true God?
Can I not find salvation within my comfort zone?
Can I not find salvation without giving up my false gods.
Can I not find salvation in the gods that I have made in my own image?
Can I not find salvation by continuing to do the things that I have always done?
Jeremiah knows the answer, but he phrases the question with empathy for his people—his people who have turned their backs on God knowing that judgment was at hand.
The scribes had mishandled the law. They continued to teach falsehoods even as disaster was unfolding before them.
They had underestimated their transgressions. They cry out, “Peace, Peace, when there is no peace.”
It is as if they are treating a victim with multiple compound fractures by putting Spiderman Band-Aids on these serious wounds.
And Jeremiah reveals his innermost condition as it is about to become his very evident condition, saying, “I’m about to faint. I can’t take this. I warned them what was coming. God told me to tell them but they would not listen. But I can’t be smug about this because these are my people perishing before my very eyes. I’m going to be sick. I am going to pass out.”
And Jeremiah’s pain and anguish is expressed in the words:
Since my people are crushed, I am crushed;
I mourn, and horror grips me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing
for the wound of my people?
The sad part is that there was healing available, but the people preferred to live with their open wounds.
There was a Physician. He was and is the Lord, God Almighty. But the people preferred their HMO that went by the name of Baal, or even worse, the walk in clinic of the falsehood with prophecies of those who pretended to speak for God.
Have you ever heard the expression, “Well, cry me a river?”
Jeremiah is trying to say, I am crying a river.
Oh, that my head were a spring of water
and my eyes a fountain of tears!
I would weep day and night
for the slain of my people.
Jeremiah is sometimes referred to as the weeping prophet, but here we see that he has much to cry about. Consider this passage as translated in The Message.
I drown in grief.
Oh, listen! Please listen! It’s the cry of my dear people
reverberating through the country.
Is God no longer in Zion?
Has the King gone away?
Can you tell me why they flaunt their plaything-gods,
their silly, imported no-gods before me?
The crops are in, the summer is over,
but for us nothing’s changed.
We’re still waiting to be rescued.
For my dear broken people, I’m heartbroken.
I weep, seized by grief.
Are there no healing ointments in Gilead?
Isn’t there a doctor in the house?
So why can’t something be done
to heal and save my dear, dear people?
It is hard to feel what Jeremiah was feeling. But let’s put things in the perspective of the last century.
If you had been an eye witness to the Jews being gassed by thousands each day, millions in all; your soul would cry out in anguish. You would know a hurt that few can imagine.
If you had witnessed the atrocities inflicted by Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, as a quarter of Cambodia’s population died from execution and forced labor and malnutrition, your soul would cry out to the Lord asking how this could happen.
If you had witnessed firsthand the thousands of Kurds killed by Saddam’s gas attacks, you would fall to your knees and a river of tears would flow in that desert sand where defenseless women and children convulsed until they died.
In 1991, I was walking through that part of the Kuwait City business district that was up and running. I was with a Soviet officer who had also been assigned to the United Nations. Suddenly, dozens of women in black attire began surrounding me and screaming. They were not giving my Soviet friend the same attention.
I was trained to deal with terrorists. I was not trained to deal with forty screaming women dressed in ninja suits. But the other officer spoke Arabic. He smiled and looked at me and said, “It’s the flag you have on your left shoulder. These are Kurds. They are thanking you.”
In an instant I realized that that symbol was balm in Gilead. It was relief from unthinkable violence, devastation, and death. It was healing to those who had suffered so much.
But in Jeremiah’s pain, pain that came from not only carrying the prophecies of the Lord to his people, but watching his own people ignore them, and then bearing witness to the disaster that came upon them, we see the anguish of the human soul that exists in the midst of those who reject God.
Jeremiah saw how hopeless his own people were and said, “I’m going to cry myself to death or go out and live in the middle of nowhere.”
How many of us look at the world around us and wish we could live in the middle of nowhere, well, as long as nowhere had WiFi and satellite television. How many of us wish we really could just get away from all of the world’s problems?
We are thankful that we didn’t live in Jeremiah’s time, or did not witness firsthand what happened to the Jews in World War II, or even the more recent atrocities in Iraq. There are other such atrocities that occur on smaller scales and go mostly unnoticed by the mainstream media.
But I am not so sure that we do not live in the middle of people going through the same sort of anguish in our own state and in our own community. We are surrounded by people who do not know peace. They do not know the Spirit that we call the Comforter.
They know there is a God and they have heard of Jesus, but like the people of Jeremiah’s day; the story has been distorted by people that they trust.
There are people on this earth, in this country, in our own communities that are going through hell. There may not be a fiery lake or a burning garbage dump; but there is day after day of hopelessness.
There are cries for help, but the people cry out to the powers and things of this world.
There is day after day of being separated from God. God is still right there for them, but people run away. People seek other things.
The newest phone.
The videogame that replaces reality.
A long courtship with self-pity.
An recurring affair with hopelessness.
While they have no peace; they are as comfortable with the emptiness they have come to know just as the people of Jeremiah’s time were with Baal and with false prophets.
And our hearts should ache for them as Jeremiah’s did for his people.
We should be moved to compassion as God desires none to perish.
But unlike Jeremiah, we should not long to seek refuge in the wilderness.
We do not cry a river of tears every day.
Our heartache and our compassion and our mercy should prompt us to action.
While God’s Chosen People went through a time where there was no healing; we live in a time when healing is moments away.
There may have been no balm in Gilead but there is balm in Burns Flat, and in Foss, and in Dill City, and in Canute, and in Cordell, and in Mangum, and in Eldoret, Kenya.
There is a doctor in the house!
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
There is a doctor in the house!
We celebrate our healing, ache for those who have no hope, but instead of crying a river of tears; we go person to person with a message of life.
We step into the middle of hurt, and tragedy, and suffering, and devastation; and we bring hope to the hopeless.
When Jeremiah cried out, “Is there no balm in Gilead,” this was a rhetorical question. For he knew the course—the painful course—that his own people had chosen and insisted upon following.
But when we hear others cry out, “Is there no balm in Gilead,” we say, “Yes, absolutely, yes there is.”
In fact, when people break out of their narcotic stupor of apathy and feel the real pain of rebelling against God and ask, “Is there no help anywhere?” then we have been invited to share the good news—the very best news that people can hear.
When the lost cry out for a doctor, we do not cry a river of tears but bring blessings of joy and life and life eternal.
In this world you will have trouble. Plan on it. We know this in advance but we also know hope.
When the hopeless and lost cry out for a doctor, we respond with hope.
We could wish really hard that the trouble would just go away or that we can could go away and hide from it; or we can seek the One who has overcome the world. We can follow the One who overcame the world. We can follow Jesus into this troubled, wounded world with good news and hope and healing.
We can take his message of hope and love and peace in hard times to those who are finally crying out for a real doctor.
I don’t pay too much attention to folks that tell me that Obama Care will be the best thing since sliced bread. I don’t pay too much attention to those who tell me that it will be the beginning of the end.
I think we should talk more about Messiah Care and Christ Care and the One who healed us by his wounds that even balm from Gilead wouldn’t help.
When the souls of those around us realize how serious their wounds are, we don’t bring a Snoopy bandage, or even Nitrotan, but the ultimate healing of body and soul that we know in Christ Jesus.
Jeremiah lived in the middle of the very anguish that he prophesied, and he cried.
We live in the middle of so many who have turned their backs on God. We live on the verge of like disasters and travail, but we stand ready with words of life.
We stand ready to shed tears of celebration as the people reject the false security of the world and seek the very Cornerstone that the world’s builders rejected.
Jeremiah cried out, “Is there no healing?”
Well, today and every day we answer, “Yes, there is!”
By the wounds of Jesus himself we are healed. By the blood of the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world, we take life, life abundant, and life eternal to this hurting and wounded world.
And in every life that is broken by the false promises of this world, we see our opportunity to be God’s light and his love and lead people to life.
We see the pain and distress and hurt and suffering and emptiness in the world and wait for the people to cry out: Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no healing? Isn’t there a doctor in the house?
We shall answer:
Yes, there is.
Yes, there is.
Yes, there is.