“There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”
If one cries out for a healing balm, it is because they are hurting. One can suffer alone or as a community. Sharing pain in community may seem better, but it means that there is more suffering. For Jeremiah, it is both personal and corporate, which is what makes his take on the history of his people, the great tragedies of his day, and his own personal loss so profound. This is reflected in his Book of Lamentations:
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.”
Everything about Jeremiah’s ministry centers on the destruction of Jerusalem, Judah, and before, Israel. He mourns the loss of his ‘messiah’, Josiah, the king who did everything God asked him to do. He watches as his people are carried off to Babylon and then he is whisked away to Egypt. Like the trail of tears experienced by our own Native Americans, it is pain too great to carry in a lifetime, a generation, or throughout eternity. The oppressor may say “get over it”, but you can’t. Ask survivors of the holocaust and their children’s children. It doesn’t work that way. This Sunday “The Balm”, coming from Jeremiah 8:18-22 looks at the inseparable issue of suffering and healing in the series “Jeremiah Was Not a Bullfrog.”
So where is there healing? Can it be found in the Truth Commissions of South Africa? There are many who say yes, it is. There is the confessional, the apology, the compensation, all of which are more than the verdict. But where was God when it was all happening in the first place? ‘How’ (the principle word in Lamentations) could God allow this to happen? What is startling in Jeremiah and Lamentations is that the destruction at hand was God’s plan!
What got Jeremiah in trouble was this notion that God is not with us, but is against us. It may have been his device to convey that there is nothing you can do about the Babylonians at the gate, but it is entirely within his theological world view that God uses suffering to get our attention. There may be a balm in Gilead, but there is also a God who is not pleased with our faithless ways, our pursuit after other ‘gods’, and the way we treat others, particularly the weak and vulnerable. Jeremiah was charged with a failure of patriotism, giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and speaking falsely concerning God. History revealed that he was right, and they were wrong.
This is all that a prophet can rely upon; that God is speaking through this ministry that was thrust upon him and that eventually, history will reveal the truth of it all. An age does not go by without this witness being present, whether we recognize it or not. As always, God is with us, but it is always on God’s terms.