From the pulpit: There is a balm in Gilead
Rev. Dr. Glenn E. Porter
September 9, 2021
“Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?” — Jeremiah 8:22
Referring to Jeremiah 8:22, the late Dr. Gardner C. Taylor said, “If we know nothing else about the prophet Jeremiah than these words, we would mark him as a person of the most sensitive makeup and as belonging to that rare and wonderful breed of human beings who feels the sorrow and heartbreaks of their fellows and associates as their very own.”[i]
There are times when we find ourselves in crippling conditions and sad situations, and we’re looking for a solution.
The coronavirus has come along, thrusting the world into a pandemic of biblical proportions. According to the latest data, Norfolk, VA — where I minister — is now considered to be an area of substantial transmission for COVID-19. Face coverings are now required in all Norfolk City buildings, regardless of vaccination status. Cases are up and deaths are up in Virginia; 64.7% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated (5,522,487).[ii] Sadly, our nation is now averaging over 160,000 new cases a day.[iii] Globally, there have been there have been 220,563,227 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 4,565,483 deaths, reported to the World Health Organization.[iv]
The New York Times reports that government documents leaked to the media have painted a grim picture of the Delta variant (which now accounts for the vast majority of the coronavirus cases in the U.S.) as more contagious, more likely to cause severe illness and more able to break through vaccines than other known versions of the virus.
The coronavirus has exposed so many heartbreaking, grievous and glaring disparities in America. A recent Pew Research Center survey concluded, “Black Americans stand out from other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. for their high levels of concern about the coronavirus pandemic, with 81% considering the outbreak a major threat to public health and about half (49%) seeing it as a major threat to their personal health.” The Center survey also reported that 78% of Black adultspersonally know someone who has been hospitalized or who died as a result of having COVID-19.
So how do we find any healing in the midst of this current crisis? I believe we can learn from the life of the prophet Jeremiah.
The prophet Jeremiah faces an unthinkable crisis of his own, in his time. Here we have a preacher’s kid whom God called while he was just a teenager. God said:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5).
For 40 years, we see Jeremiah passionately preaching prophetically in the midst of personal and communal crises. He is known as the “weeping prophet” because of the passion and pathos he demonstrates for God’s people. He endures hardship. He is rejected by his neighbors, family, and friends. Through it all, Jeremiah stands alone, a truth-teller declaring God’s messages. To be sure, these are messages of doom because God’s people have turned from God.
The sickening circumstances compels the prophet to cry out God’s plea:
“Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?”
The prophet is crying out for a solution to the problem the people confront, just as we cry out and seek a solution for the coronavirus crisis.
What are we to do for our coronavirus healing?
First, cleansing is needed. Jeremiah does understand a cleansing is necessary. The people have defiled their relationship with God. They fail to remember it was God — Yahweh — who delivered them from the ignominious clutches of slavery in Egyptian captivity. Their idolatry polluted what God had given them.
They needed a cleansing. The people needed what the psalmist spoke of when he said:
“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:2-3)
“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was correct: “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[v]
There is a balm in our current coronavirus situation: cleansing, covering, community mitigation, and vaccination. Let me connect the scientific with the spiritual. Congregations prayed for a vaccine; that’s spiritual. God gave us a vaccine; that’s God working through science.
In order to move toward healing for all of us, we, too, need to demonstrate a cleansing. I’m referring to basic cleaning. We need to wash our hands. I know it sounds basic but in order for us to get beyond this coronavirus, we’ve got to get clean.
I can remember as a kid, we’d play outside, touching everything on the playground: the swings, the seesaw, the slides, fitness equipment, basketballs, baseballs, and footballs, picking up frogs and fish, and then run inside the house. We’d start doing the dance. Dash into the bathroom. And then try to make it to the refrigerator or in the pantry for snacks and my mother would have a fit. “You need to wash your hands before you do anything.”
It’s that basic.
Let’s admit that sometimes the most basic solutions are disregarded. Washing your hands correctly (or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer) is the most effective thing you can do to protect yourself against a number of infectious diseases, such as influenza (the “flu”), the common cold, and the coronavirus.
Look at the story of Naaman in the Old Testament (2 Kings 5). He was the great general who also had leprosy. He was under the impression that prophets are in control of their prophetic gift and could use it as they choose, and that they had a responsibility to please their political superiors. He expects immediate attention when he goes to meet the prophet Elisha. But Elisha doesn’t even come out; he sends word to Naaman, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your skin will be restored. You shall be clean.” Naaman couldn’t believe it was that basic. Wash in the Jordan. Not in the better rivers of Damascus…but in the Jordan. It was that basic, but it resulted in his healing.
Wash and be clean, your healing will come.
Jesus extended his hands for us; we ought to be able to wash our hands for one another!
Second, covering is needed. To get to the healing there must be a covering.
The prophet raises the question, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” My Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines balm of Gilead as a small evergreen African and Asian tree with aromatic leaves; an agency that soothes, relieves, or heals.[vi]Balm is a healing agent, but in order for it to work, you’ve got to put it on. You’ve got to cover your body with the “balm.”
For our global neighborhood in 2021, that covering balm can very well be a face covering. You’ve got to put it on if you want to get healed. Wear your mask! It can help save lives.
“We are not defenseless against COVID-19,” said then-CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield in 2020. “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”
The face coverings are uncomfortable but can save lives. Healing agents aren’t always comfortable. As a kid, we’d fall and get a cut and my parents would cover the cut with iodine. It wasn’t comfortable but it worked!
Be like Moses: he wore a face covering (Exodus 34). When he came down from the mountaintop, he puts on a face covering, after having been in the presence of God. If Moses could wear a face covering, certainly you and I can do the same. Let it be a silent testimony of your having spent time with the Master. It’s about saving lives. If you love your neighbor as yourself, mask up!
Now we’re hearing the stories of persons on their death beds — COVID-19 deniers, skeptics — pleading for the vaccination and teary-eyed doctors and nurses having to tell them: “It’s too late.”
Third, “community mitigation strategy” is needed — in other words, we need to practice social distancing.
God purposed it so that Jeremiah did this. He was thrown into a dark prison; that’s social distancing. He was tossed into a well; that’s social distancing. He was apprehended and taken into Egypt; that’s social distancing.
Jesus practiced social distancing all the time. As much as he was with the crowd, he also separated himself from the crowd. Jesus calls his disciples away — to socially distance themselves — from the crowd. Jesus puts people out of the room — socially distances them — in order to heal.
According to the CDC, one of the most effective ways to thwart the proliferation of the virus is to practice “social distancing.” This means keeping a safe space between yourself and other individuals who do not share your household. In both indoor and outdoor spaces, that safe distance is about 6 feet.
By putting social distancing into practice — and staying away from groups of other people — you put the health and safety of others before your desire to be social, which can curb the number of COVID-19 cases and ensure hospitals and other facilities aren’t overwhelmed.
I know it feels foreign to us, but, again, the practice of social distancing was demonstrated by Jesus.
Matthew 5:1 tells us, “When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him.” They separated from the crowd.
Matthew 8:18 (NASB) tells us, “Now when Jesus saw a crowd around Him, He gave orders to depart to the other side of the sea.” Separated from the crowd.
Matthew 14:22 (NASB) tells us, “Immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He sent the crowds away.”
There’s enough evidence to suggest that the Lord can work with us when we’re socially distanced from the crowd.
And fourth, and finally, we must move from community mitigation strategy to vaccination. Get vaccinated! Everyone needs to get vaccinated.
The prophet Jeremiah asked these questions, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” God’s people had turned away from the Lord and had completely ignored repeated warnings of judgment. Really, it was not a medical balm that was needed; it was spiritual. And spiritual balm, God’s salvation, and healing, was available; however, the people were not seeking God.
Jeremiah asked the question, but it was really rhetorical because the “balm” — the remedy, the cure — was available but God’s people did not access it. All they really had to do was return to God. They ignored what they needed. Unfortunately, when it comes to this deadly coronavirus — too many of us are doing the same thing.
I’ve heard people justify their vaccine reluctance because of the Tuskegee Study that began in 1932 and lasted 40 years. That’s no excuse not to get vaccinated. The tragedy of the Tuskegee study is not that the government gave Black men something to get them sick… In fact, it’s just the opposite. The government held back the medicine the Black brothers needed to get well. There was a balm — but the government withheld it.
Well, we have a “balm” today. We need to use it. You may not trust government. But you can either stand on someone’s conspiracy theories or you can stand on your own Christian theology. Which one is it going to be? Countless communities have been blessed by African American churches that have been in the forefront of COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinics.
I get the hesitancy, but you can trust God! Our school-aged children have to get vaccines against Hepatitis A, Meningitis and Rotavirus. We’re vaccinated against polio, chickenpox, and rubella. Every time we take a Claritin pill for allergies, Tylenol for pain, Robitussin for a cough and chest congestion, or One-A-Day as a multiple vitamin supplement — do we always know what’s in it? God is sovereign and can operate through science. It’s a miracle to us but it’s God being God.
Last year, many people of faith fasted and prayed for a miracle — for a safe vaccine by the end of 2020. And look at God! God heard our prayers! He honored our prayers! He’s healing the land. If you prayed, you’ve got to trust your prayers! You’ve got to trust God! You’ve got to take him at his word!
Vaccines are effective against the worst outcomes of infection, even with the variant. You might get sick, but you are much less likely to die from the virus if you get vaccinated.
If we don’t do what we need to do, we’ll face more death, sickness and possibly another lock-down. It’ll be a rerun of what happened last year.
It’s not political. It’s medical science. It’s not blue, red, or purple. It’s medical science. It’s not about advancing an economic agenda. It’s medical science. We cannot afford to close our eyes to the remedy or bury our heads in the sand or turn a deaf ear or blind eye. There is a balm: cleansing, covering, community mitigation, and vaccination.
Let me connect the scientific with the spiritual. Congregations prayed for a vaccine; that’s spiritual. God gave us a vaccine; that’s God working through science.
In the Jeremiah passage, the prophet raises a rhetorical question: Is there no balm in Gilead? It’s rhetorical because in this passage, no answer is really expected. It’s a literary device meant to speak directly to the reader, to us. It allows us a moment to ponder the question. Yahweh is speaking through the prophet to the people, giving pause to consider the problematic predicament that is plaguing them and the possible solution to their sickening situation. “Is there no balm in Gilead?”
They really needed medicine for a sin-sick soul. There was no prescription that could be filled at the local pharmacy. Is there no balm in Gilead?
Their sickness was sin and what they needed was salvation. “Is there no balm in Gilead?”
Yes, Jeremiah. There is a balm. It’s the precious blood that Jesus shed for humanity — for you and me. That blood has no expiration date. It’s universal and can be given to anybody. Through his blood, we have forgiveness. His blood takes away the sin of the world.
It took our enslaved ancestors to respond to the question. Rising up from the cotton fields of the deep South, women and men who knew and trusted in salvation and healing despite their harsh conditions on earth were able to answer the critical question. They’re the ones who offered a resounding response to the prophet’s rhetorical question:
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.[vii]
The balm is Jesus.
Sometimes I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.[viii]
The balm is Jesus!
The Rev. Dr. Glenn E. Porter Sr. is senior pastor at Queen Street Baptist Church, Norfolk, Va.; adjunct professor of Religious Studies at Tidewater Community College; and volunteer chaplain with the City of Norfolk Police Department. He is author of “Journey With Jesus Through Lent” (Judson Press, 2017). This article is based on a sermon preached from the Queen Street Baptist Church, Norfolk, VA pulpit Aug. 8, 2021, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost.
[i] Gardner C. Taylor and Edward L. Taylor, The Words of Gardner C. Taylor, Vol. 3, Quintessential Classics 1980-Present, “Balm in Gilead,” (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2000), 29.
[ii] COVID-19 in Virginia: Vaccine Summary, Virginia Department of Health, https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/covid-19-vaccine-summary/.
[iii] Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/us/covid-cases.html.
[iv] WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard, .
[v] Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington (New York: Harper & Row Publishers), 254.
[vi] Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1993), 88.
[vii] “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” Negro Spiritual, The Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press, 1991), 269.