Like most nations on earth, Israel at times experienced very harsh days and suffering, and most Biblical witnesses felt that all that distress, all that suffering was caused by the nation’s idolatry and unfaithfulness. For prophet Jeremiah, for instance, some 600 years before Christ, these two words – idolatry and unfaithfulness — helped him explain whatever went wrong with Israel. Today we don’t talk much about idolatry and unfaithfulness to explain our personal, national, or global misfortunes – unless, of course, our theological perspective is extremely “conservative,” or “fundamentalist.”
In this Old Testament passage Jeremiah watches with eyes wide open and a broken heart how his nation walks blindly towards its own self-destruction. What has happened? What’s happening there? According to Jeremiah, Israel has flirted for a long time with the gods and behaviors of the pagan nations around, quite often trusting more those alien gods than their own Almighty and Gracious Yahve. So now God is ready to punish Israel, and the prophet laments that his own nation’s days are numbered.
Jeremiah somehow foretells that Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Babylonians, will soon invade Israel and destroy their cities and steal their cattle and take everybody prisoner to a far away land where they will have to live and work as slaves the way their ancestors did centuries earlier in Egypt.
For how long? Jeremiah has no calendar in hand, yet he believes his people will be exiled until that day when God is convinced that they have atoned for their unfaithfulness and are spiritually fit to return. Jeremiah recognizes God’s hand in all that is happening and is going to happen, yet he cannot but wonder how come God’s grace has spread so thin among his own people. Geee! God must be quite mad at us!
Now, would it not be possible to persuade God to give his people one more chance to turn around to avoid such a collapse? You can sense Jeremiah’s anguish and distress as he confronts God with one of the most dramatic questions anyone could ever ask from God – “Is there no more balm in Gilead? Is there no physician here? God, aren’t you here anymore? Have you walked away from us, God? How could you do that to us?”
Let’s stop for a moment to check out this word – balm. As you know, a balm is a healing ointment. And in this passage Jeremiah is referring to the well-known lotion made from the gum of the balsam poplar, a tree so abundant in the region of Gilead, or Galahad, east of the Jordan River. Also known as myrrh in Biblical times – do you remember one of the three presents the wise men from the Orient brought to babe Jesus? Gold, frankincense, and myrrh!
Balm – or myrrh — was often used as metaphor for God’s healing. So, “Is there no more balm here in Gilead?” literally meant, “No more divine healing and forgiveness around here?” Jeremiah can’t believe God’s anger! God’s disappointment and frustration are so real, so intense, not even traces of divine healing will soon be seen anywhere around his land.
Let’s pretend for a moment that one of these Lenten Sundays our own Bishop stops by, and aware of our unfaithfulness, stands by this pulpit, and raising her arms to heavens cries out in disbelief — “Come on God, are you telling us that this is the end for us here in Buckeystown, that you are just turning the lights and the heat off and walking away from us?”
Here we are today, so comfortably snuggled up in this beautiful, cozy church where we can worship God and hug each other without fear and share crackers and cold cuts and cookies and pies and coffee every Sunday. Despite our own issues, not matter how big our problems may be, we don’t remotely feel like the end is at hand!
So, the whole idea of having to watch our bishop intercede and plead in vain for us — “Come on, God, give my folks a break? Are you walking away from us?” — well, it seems rather weird – doesn’t it? Yet it wouldn’t have seemed weird to that pariah of the Gospel with a “withered” hand.
Certainly poor, undervalued, underappreciated, a huge financial burden to his family and community, and on top of that, a “sinner,” for illness was usually considered evidence of a sinful heart. Jeremiah’s lament was also this man’s daily lament — “No more balm for me? No forgiving and healing for me, God?”
Luke doesn’t tell us whether this man ‘s hand was withered from birth, or by a later onset of paralysis, or by some tragic accident in his work. This man was doubly withered – physically, indeed. Also, emotionally and spiritually, and by his own spiritual leaders, the scribes and pharisees in this incident. So full of themselves, so arrogant and judgmental, both scribes and pharisees believed that all they needed to do “to please” God was to be as religious as possible, by mastering as many commandments, rules, and rituals as possible. They were missing the point!
For “pleasing God” is as simply as saying a prayer like this: “Dear God, there is in our midst a dear brother with a useless hand — bless him and do whatever you can do; heal it if possible, but do something for him! In the meantime, may we be with this our brother and help him meet his needs.” No! They could not see the child of God in that cripple.
But there is something else in this incident that meets the eye –let me explain. For scribes and pharisees, that cripple was only bait, a bait to try to catch, to trap Jesus. Would Jesus dare break the law and heal on the Sabbath day, a day when everybody, even doctors and healers, should do no work? For them, healing was work – and all kinds of work and healing were prohibited on the Sabbath, except for emergencies — but this was no emergency –let him wait till maňana!
But Jesus sees things in such a different way! God will never wait till manana! So that same day, the Sabbath day, the crippled man walks away from the synagogue totally healed. Chances are, praying in his heart with such a blessed assurance — “There’s still plenty of balm here in Gilead!”
As you know, God’s balm did not diminish or disappear from Jeremiah’s land even though that might have been Jeremiah’s first impression. Eventually the prophet would come to terms with the truth that even our harshest, most challenging crosses also happen to God, that grace never abates, certainly not when God is around. As for that cripple man, I can imagine his gratitude, his joy the moment he recovered his hand and his dignity.
I want to believe that he too left everything behind to follow Jesus the moment he experienced the healing and forgiving love of God, something the scribes and pharisees then and today would not see. For you don’t love God by being more religious, rather by being more humane.
A young pastor who was in his church office working hard one Saturday night – he had announced a sermon on Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd . . .”.
An elderly janitor was still walking around, making sure everything was ready for the many activities next day. This janitor had spent many years in that church, so he could tell when a pastor was in trouble with his sermon! He approached the pastor and said, “Pastor, is there anything I can do to help you prepare?” The young pastor politely declined — after all, what could a janitor have to teach him that he didn’t already know?
About an hour passed and the janitor returned, but this time a bit more insistent – “Pastor, I’d really like to help you prepare your sermon on Psalm 23.”
The pastor asked, “Why? Is there something I don’t know?
The janitor said, “Actually, yes. You see, pastor, you know the psalm, but I know the Shepherd.”
The biblical image of the “balm of Gilead” inspired a powerful African American spiritual during the ugly times of slavery here in this nation. Overwhelmed by so much distress and hopelessness, worshiping slaves would sing songs of hope, like this one. The song leader would sing softly: “Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain. But you know, People of God? The Holy Spirit revives my soul again.” To which the congregation would respond in a louder voice: “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.”
The song leader would go on: “If you can’t preach like Peter, if you can’t preach like Paul. But you know, people of God? Just tell the love of Jesus, and say he died for all.” To which the congregation would respond again:
“There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.”
Friends, we are on a journey with Jesus towards a wooden cross, and at some point, or another we may ask ourselves, “Why all this nonsense had to happen to him?” Quite simply — his ministry knew no boundaries, and that is something that can make many folks uncomfortable, to say the least.
May our Lenten journey help us re-discover what it means to be disciples of the Risen Christ – men and women whom God has called to be not more religious, rather more humane.
We can certainly answer God’s call, for we know the Shepherd!
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