Christ Centered Church Resource Site

Is There No Balm in Gilead?

Jeremiah 8:18 - 9:1
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Sun, September 20, 1998
Rev. Ed Searcy
"Is there no balm in Gilead?"

Out of the entire book of Jeremiah

perhaps this phrase is the most enduring:

Yet, like a famous line from Shakespeare

that has long since been taken out of context

so Jeremiah's grief stricken cry

has been transformed.

No doubt that is due to the power of the familiar spiritual

that proclaims:

"There is a balm in Gilead".

Jeremiah's question

has become a declaration.

"Is there no balm in Gilead?" he asks.

"There is a balm in Gilead!" we answer.

The balm from Gilead

was renowned in the ancient near east.

It was a famous healing ointment

made from the resin of a tree.

Perhaps it was produced in Gilead

or maybe Gilead was the major distribution centre

that sent the balm along distant trade routes.

Who knows?

What we do know is that Gilead is famous

for its healing balm.

Does something ail you ...

do you have aches and pains ...


There is a balm in Gilead!

Surely you recognize this pitch.

It's as old as the first snake-oil salesman ...

and as new as the latest advertising campaign.

Everyone has a remedy,

a cure,

something that is sure to provide healing.

We are submerged in a culture

whose anthem is:

'There is a balm in Gilead'.

Indeed North America markets itself as Gilead ...

The culture which distributes the 'cure'

throughout the world.

Did you happen to watch

the recent three-part documentary

that recounts the history of Coca-Cola?

Coca-Cola was created by a veteran of the Civil War

who was trying, like many others,

to quit his addiction to morphine

and to find a tonic for his pain.

Balm in Gilead ... well, in Atlanta actually.

One hundred years later, in the 1960's,

Coca-Cola markets itself to a world

that seems incurably addicted to violence, rioting and war,

through an interracial community

standing on a mountaintop and singing:

"I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony".

Coca-Cola is no longer sold simply as a cure for physical pain ...

it has become the spiritual cure of a culture as well.

'The real thing'.

The official drink of UBC.

Balm in Gilead.

Except, of course, we know otherwise.

We who live in Gilead know that it doesn't work.

The tonic is snake-oil.

This is the sordid reality at the heart

of Margaret Atwood's book 'The Handmaid's Tale'.

The story takes place in a nightmarish future.

Devastated by nuclear fallout,

the American democracy has crumbled

and been replaced by a 'Christian' theocratic state

named 'Gilead'.

Gilead promises healing for a devastated people.

Yet, through the eyes of a lowly oppressed handmaiden,

we soon discover that there is no balm in this Gilead.

Beneath the surface of everyday existence,

and behind the locked doors that shut out peering eyes,

the pain and the despair

is as devastating as any mushroom cloud.

It is devastation like this that breaks Jeremiah's heart:

"My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick."

There is no delight for Jeremiah

in witnessing the collapse of a culture.

He has seen it coming ...

he has warned them ...

but they have paid no heed to his warnings.

Instead, they keep singing their old hymns of assurance:

"Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?"

Surely God will protect Jerusalem from all its foes.

Surely God will be faithful ... sing it again:

'Great is thy faithfulness ... great is thy faithfulness'

The faith of Jeremiah's day

has become a cheap faith.

It is a faith that demands nothing of the people

and everything of God.

It simply assumes that God is always forgiving,

always healing,

always present

to those who seek God out.

But people are beginning to realize

that things have changed.

They had thought that they knew

how and when to find God.

They had gone to worship, sung the psalms,

listened to the scripture, meditated in prayer,

received the blessings ...

but nothing.


'Patience', they are told,

'have patience'.

So they wait ...

wait for the promised

arrival of God's healing presence.

But now the promised time come and goes

and still, nothing:

"The harvest is past,

the summer is ended,

and we are not saved."

Jeremiah looks out at an entire culture ...

a religious culture, a political culture, an economic culture ...

that has promised its people a cure

when it has no real cure to offer.

The advertisers still try to pitch their wares

with impossible promises:

'Volvo ... finally, a car that can save your soul'.

But slowly, ever so slowly,

it begins to dawn on people

that in spite of drinking cola and buying new cars

and 'doing our duty to God and the Queen'

"we are not saved".

Life is still hollow ...

empty ...


Surely there must be a prescription that will bring healing.

"Is there no balm in Gilead?

Is there no physician there?"

These are not questions that Jeremiah asks lightly.

These are not questions that we dare rush to answer.

To borrow a phrase from UBC President Martha Piper,

when faced with perplexing questions we can only:

'Think about it.'

Think about a student arriving for the first time at UBC

from a small town in the interior of the province.

The big city. The acclaimed university.

Gilead ... with all its promise of answers.

How long does it take for her to discover

that there is no balm in this place

for the pain that she carries within?

Think about a graduate student

who has invested years of work

and thousands of dollars

to become immersed in the complexities of his field of study.

A field of study that once seemed so promising,

so life giving ... so meaning full,

but that now is so painfully arid and infertile.

Hear his cry:

"Is there no balm in Gilead?"

Think about a student of theology

who dreams of discovering not only

transforming ideas

but also healing community

at the Gilead School of Theology.

Imagine that she, too,

asks Jeremiah's question:

"Is there no balm even here?"

And beyond the world of students ...

beyond the comfortable confines

of VST and UBC and University Hill ...

the cry of the wounded cannot be silenced.

It is everywhere.

It is the angry cry of the middle class

and the silent cry of the upper class

and the silenced cry of the underclass:

"Is there no balm in Gilead?"

As we speak a team of ten visitors

from the United Church General Council

is arriving at Vancouver Airport.

Tonight they travel to Port Alberni

to spend twenty-four hours

listening to the pain of the wounds

left by the Indian Residential School

which closed three decades ago ...

wounds which have not yet been healed.

One suspects that by the time that our guests

leave Vancouver on Wednesday they

will join in Jeremiah's lament:

"O that my head were a spring of water,

and my eyes a fountain of tears,

so that I might weep day and night

for the slain of my poor people!"

Truth is,

for all of our culture's protestations

and for all of our church's claims to the contrary

there is for most people, most of the time,

no balm in Gilead.

Perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea

to change the words of that old spiritual.

Maybe we too easily answer in the affirmative:

'Of course there's a balm in Gilead'

when, in fact, the answer is not easy to come by.

Too often we in the church ...

and especially we preachers ...

act as if it is self-evident.

As if there is a balm in Gilead

and we are the pharmacists

who will be only too happy to dish it out.

Take this week's news from Statistics Canada:

"Canadians who attend religious services every week

report having happier, less stressful lives

and happier relationships with their partners

than those who do not attend services at all."

It seems a natural sermon illustration ...

proof positive that there is, in fact,

balm in Gilead after all.

The prescribed dose seems self-evident:

"Mr & Mrs Smith ...

take one church service every week

and you should notice an immediate improvement".

But the balm which God provides

is not as painless to swallow as that.

That is the message of an unheralded but powerful movie

entitled 'The Spitfire Grill'.

It tells the story of Percy - Perchance - Talbot

who leaves prison seeking a fresh start

in the town of Gilead, Maine.

Percy comes to Gilead seeking healing ...

healing which is hard to come by once the town's folk

discover her checkered past.

But Percy sees things which they cannot see.

She sees the beauty of the town

which they imagine is not worth very much.

More than that, she reaches out to individuals

whose wounds have not healed.

She sees people worth loving

where they can only see 'damaged goods'.

Percy's own healing comes through

her life for others

and through her vulnerability to their hurt.

There is no minister in Gilead.

The church closed its doors when the mine shut down.

We soon realize that Percy, the ex-convict,

has become Gilead's minister.

Through her, people discover hope

and a community experiences reconciliation.

The one who came seeking balm in Gilead

herself becomes the balm that Gilead has longed for.

And when, in the movie's closing scenes,

Percy loses her life

in saving the life of Gilead's most damaged soul,

we cannot miss the metaphor.

We hear it echoed in today's reading from I Timothy:

"Christ Jesus, himself human,

who gave himself a ransom for all".

The balm in Gilead

is an ointment made from the sacrifice

of the One sent by God ...

One whose life for others

brings hope, healing and reconciliation

We have good news of great joy.

We have found balm in Gilead.

But it is not the kind of medicine we had expected.

It comes from a tree that we thought was poisonous ...

a tree of vulnerability and sacrifice,

a Cross of suffering.

Here is the awesome paradox that lies at the heart of the gospel:

through our participation in the suffering of Christ

we are anointed with the healing balm of Gilead.

'Think about it'

Think about finding the healing we long for

through embodying the suffering of Christ

in our own families and communities.

'Think about it'

Think about embarking on a path of sacrifice

rather than choosing a path of success.

'Think about it'

Think about being a church for others

rather than a church for us.

'Think about it'

'There is a balm in Gilead'.

It is intriguing that such an announcement emerges

not from the plantation owner's hymnals

but from the slaves singing in the fields.

Perhaps the gospel can really only take root

among a people who know

that there is no other healing balm

that can cure what ails us.

Only those who have given up all hope of being saved

by what they own and consume

or by their grade-point average

or by how high they rise through the corporate ranks

of academia or of business or of the church ...

only those who have learned that such pursuits

cannot cure

are open to discover

the healing balm of participation in the suffering of God.

Don't misunderstand.

The suffering of God is not abuse which must be endured ...

it is not pointless suffering or meaningless suffering ...

it is suffering for something of worth to God ...

it is suffering for someone who is beloved by God.

The suffering of God

is not suffering that traps and enslaves

but suffering that liberates and saves.

It is not suffering that brings discouragement

but suffering that encourages.

It is not suffering that grows out of despair

but suffering rooted in a deep and abiding hope.

In Jesus Christ we see the glory of God revealed ...

In Him we discover God's willingness to suffer so that our wounds,

and the sickness of the whole creation, can be healed.

In Jesus Christ we discover that:

"There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul".