Devotional for July 2020  

By Alexandra Anderson

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
So why has the healing of my dear people
not come about? Jeremiah 8:22

Our world is reeling from the shock-waves of an unprecedented global pandemic. Peoples’ lives have been turned upside down with jobs lost, schools and other public institutions closed, businesses and national economies ruined and the normal routines of everyday life disrupted perhaps for ever.

This whole situation has knocked the wind out of us and we feel helpless to do anything about it. The prophet Jeremiah spoke into a time when the people of Israel had had the wind knocked out of them too. Things had gone from bad to worse as people turned away from God and oppressed the poor and vulnerable amongst them. In the face of such blatant rebellion against God he says:

‘My joy is gone. Grief is upon me. My heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? ….Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? Oh 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! (Jeremiah 8:18-9:1)

But there is an affliction, a plague that is far more contagious and far more deadly than Covid 19 and that is the disease of self-centredness. The disease that causes people to see themselves and their needs, their wants and their interests as the centre of the universe to the detriment of other people and the environment.

On 25th May the world looked on in shock and disbelief as footage of the killing of George Floyd, an African-American by a white police officer in broad daylight was widely shared on social media. All the ghosts of racial intolerance, injustice, brutality, xenophobia and fear we thought were things of the past reared their ugly heads before our very eyes.

Years of complicit silence about systemic racism, xenophobia and religious intolerance exploded onto the streets of the world as people of every nation demonstrated that , ‘Black Lives Matter’. George Floyd’s cry of ‘I can’t breathe’ was their chant. A prophetic voice? Because a world that does nothing to stop such inhumane treatment of some people by other people, a world which turns the other way when blatant injustice is happening all around is a world without oxygen, a world that has had the life-breath knocked out of it. It is a world without God.

Things were not so different in the times of Jeremiah. The people seek to exalt themselves turning to things that will affirm and reinforce their own worldview and place themselves firmly on the throne of life completely ignoring God. And just like the people of Jeremiah’s time when things go wrong, we too start frantically searching about for answers. Jeremiah gives a voice to our lament.

Earlier in chapter 8, Jeremiah demands that the people must stop pretending that nothing is wrong, stop ignoring the voices of the wounded and oppressed, stop silencing those who testify to the wrongs that have been done to them. And to political and religious leaders, Jeremiah tells them to stop claiming they have the magic words or the special liturgies that will make everything better. They do not:

‘They (‘the false teachers) dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.’ (Jeremiah 8:11).

It is time to stop applying sticking plasters to the gaping wound of racial intolerance, systemic injustice and inequality that plagues western society. It’s time to face the horror and the ugliness of the world we have created.

It seems when things start going wrong everyone starts searching for answers. All of them are asking questions, and so is Jeremiah. Don’t we have resources? Don’t we have medicine? Don’t we already know what kind of radical change is needed, and how to bring it about? Haven’t we learned anything from our past? Why are we still suffering from the same sickness? The prophet, too, feels powerless, and in this moment can only weep.

It seems that the situation is hopeless. And yet, there is a promise of a cure. As our scientists across the globe race to find a vaccine to cure Covid 19 the words of the prophet remind us that we already have the cure for our greatest affliction - of human selfishness and greed. We already have the balm that will heal us.’ Is there no balm in Gilead?’ asks the prophet and this is a rhetorical question. Medicinal herbs used to cure many illnesses grew in the hills of Gilead in ancient biblical times and the implication is that there is indeed a balm in Gilead. But this sickness cannot be cured by herbs and the ingenuity of doctors and scientists. What is needed is a much more effective cure.

As we weep for the hundreds of thousands of people who have died of Corona virus across the world and we know there is no sticking plaster that will heal that wound. Jeremiah helps us to lament. He gives us words to express our hopelessness in the face of this pandemic and in the face of human evil such as we have witnessed in the inhumane way in which George Floyd was killed. It is right to weep and to mourn. But, as the old spiritual reminds us , ‘there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul’. Jesus Christ is that balm. Only the gospel truth will set us free from the endless cycle of human failure and evil. Jesus’ sacrificial love demonstrated on the cross is the cure. This is why it is so important to share the life-giving word of God with all we see. Only like this will the world be healed.