A Balm in Gilead


Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Preached by Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
Peter Cartwight Memorial Sermon
Peter Cartwright UMC, Pleasant Plains, IL
September 22, 2013

Some of you remember the famous Bible story of Sodom and Gomorrah. God rains down sulfur and fire from heaven destroying everything, the people, the animal kingdom, houses and magnificent buildings that etch the skyline of the cities. Why? Because wickedness and evil are the order of the day in Sodom and Gomorrah. Because time and again Sodom and Gomorrah ignores every prophet God sends warning them to change their ways; to do God’s will, to embrace right and righteousness. All was not lost when destruction hits the cities. Lot, his wife and two daughters escape. Unfortunately, Lot’s wife looks back and instantly turns into a pillar of salt.

Sodom and Gomorrah could have been saved. Abraham had made a bargain with God. If 10 righteous persons could be found. God promised not to destroy the cities. Ten was a reduced number. Initially, God had decided to destroy the cities if 50 persons could be identified before Abraham successfully asked for a reduced number. Alas, not even ten righteous persons could be found in Sodom and Gomorrah. Hence, they were destroyed.

Jeremiah found himself in the same position. God asked him to inform Judah and Israel of his disappointment with their behavior. God’s chosen people were wrapped up, tied up and tangled up with idolatry, i.e., every god in the book. None of these gods had brought them out of Egypt and out of the house of bondage. None of these gods sustained them during a 40-year sojourn in the desert with food, drink and longevity. None of these gods delivered God’s chosen people to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. To repeat, they had turned on their first love Yahweh and God insisted they turn back or face the consequences. No matter what Jeremiah said; God’s chosen people ignored him.

Given Peter Cartwright’s frontier reputation for confronting people with their sin, one wonders if his preaching to Judah and Israel would have made any difference. The question is based on an encounter Peter Cartwright had with a President of the United States nicknamed “Old Hickory.” Cartwright made it plain. “I understand that President Andrew Jackson is here this morning. I have been requested to be very guarded in my remarks. Let me say this, Andrew Jackson will go to hell if he doesn’t repent of his sin.” Alas, Jeremiah was not a Peter Cartwright. The impending doom of his people made him heartsick. And so Jeremiah raised the famous question “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”


Jeremiah is disconsolate. That is the first thing we recognize in our text for today. His joy is gone. He cries for his people. Metaphorically speaking, “the harvest is past, the summer is gone.” People choose not to do what God says. They love the gods of other nations not God. Yahweh seems to be a party pooper. Have it your way is not his mantra. Instead, thou shalt not do this and thou shalt not do that are the guidelines. More importantly, Israel and Judah enjoy a distinction that no other people or nation possesses. They are God’s chosen. God is on their side. Hence, Israel and Judah convince themselves that Yahweh would never bring down the harshest punishment on them. Maybe they receive a slap on the wrist occasionally. But nothing like the fate Jeremiah writes about in the first chapter of his book, the fall, destruction and the captivity of Jerusalem. According to the prophet, Israel and Judah will run out of second and third chances. Avoiding God’s judgment, negative consequences, doom, and unnecessary tough times for turning away from God is not possible. For instance, on every pack of cigarettes, a similar warning is written. “Cigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide. Too much of it, kills quickly. Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, Emphysema and may complicate pregnancy.” Too much of it kills but not so quickly. Avoiding negative consequences to the human body and life itself is impossible if one smokes.

What makes Jeremiah most heartsick is the refusal to take God’s message seriously. His people could care less. They were too wrapped up in their own lives. Are we modern Christians like that? Of course, we are. Like Judah and Israel, like the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah or the people who talked about Moses for building an Ark claiming it was going rain for forty day and forty nights, we ignore or fail to put front and center what God requires of us. All too often, we miss the boat.


Even though the people of God ignore Jeremiah, what is Jeremiah after? It is this: Jeremiah wants people to repent of their sins, just like the hearers of John the Baptist. In other words, pay more attention to what pleases God than God’s people. If we truly believe John 3:16; we would conclude that the Holocaust, American Slavery, The Trail of Tears experienced by Native Americans, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, the devastation of the Twin Towers and loss of lives during 911 did not please God. We serve a God who loves the world, every part of it. “Whosoever believes in me shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Jesus says. “Whosoever means Whosoever!” On the other hand, we may believe God has some satisfaction over nations of the world including Uncle Sam pressing Syria’s President Assad “to eliminate all his chemical weapons in less than a year.” No bombing in Syria means a few more days or years of life for women and children, grandmothers and grandfathers, soldiers here and military folk there. Is this temporary and tenuous truce a balm in Gilead? Yes it is. To be sure, what pleases God does not always please humankind.

I read two stories that illustrate this dilemma. First, it is said that frontier evangelist Peter Cartwright “traveled circuits in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.” Peter received 10,000 members into the Methodist Church, baptized 12,000, conducted 500 funerals, and preached more than 15,000 sermons by the time God called him home at four score years and seven. By any standard, it was a magnificent achievement yet. Everybody wasn’t happy with Peter. For example, two men threatened to horsewhip Peter because their wives did the jerks in response to his preaching. Undaunted, Peter Cartwright confronted them. When Peter threatened to give them the jerks as well, the two turned tail and ran. Another man confronted Peter. So, Peter invited him into the woods to settle it. When the preacher leaped a fence and landed on his foot badly, he cried out in pain holding his leg and side. Caught off guard, the bully screamed that the preacher was going for a dagger and ran away. Finally, a group of men decided to gang up on the preacher. Cartwright ran toward them yelling for imaginary allies to jump in and help him. Yep, those troublemakers turned tail and ran. Pleasing God often displeases man. The people of God are no exception. In Peter Cartwright’s quest to please God, God brought him through “many dangers, toils and snares.”

Rick and Kay Warren were interviewed on CNN this week by Piers Morgan. Rick Warren is the famous pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California. Reportedly, 20,000 worshipers attend his services every week plus 36 million copies of his book The Purpose Driven Life have been sold. Morgan interviewed the Warrens because one of their sons took his own life six months ago. Kay Warren shared one conversation that emphasized the difficulty of serving God and her beloved son. Matthew was a patient grappling with mental illness. Because his medical history, no one would sell him a firearm. So Matthew asked his mother to help him secure a firearm. She refused, disappointing her beloved son. “I will do anything to help you live, but I will not help you take your life,” Kay said. Not to be denied, Matthew secured a firearm illegally and took his own life. The actions of Cartwright, Kay Warren and Jeremiah had to do with challenging the people of God to please God rather than themselves. Do we please God or ourselves when we go to church? Go to school? Get a job? Make money? Enjoy life? Buy a house? Get married? Have kids? Enjoy life? Raise children? Educate them? Empty the nest? Retire? “Enjoy life and die without fully becoming disciples of Jesus Christ.” Pleasing God and being obedient to God is not always the easiest thing to do. Again Jeremiah‘s question begs for an answer. The people of God are seriously wounded by their refusal to let “God be God” even when they know it’ll be the death of them. Upset, burned out and disgusted, a frustrated Jeremiah cries out “Is there no Balm in Gilead?& Is there no physician there?


Jeremiah posed a strange question. Balm in Gilead lay within the boundaries of Judah and Israel. Balm in Gilead was the popular prescription for eczema, sunburn, sprains, rashes and bruises. Furthermore, it killed pain associated with arthritis, bursitis and tendonitis. However, the people of God required healing from sprains, bruises and rashes caused by sin against God and each other. They needed a Balm in Gilead to come from God. Only God’s salve, when applied, could turn their hearts to the right. Only God’s balm could save them from Babylonian captivity prophesied by Jeremiah on God’s behalf.

If the balm in Gilead required for the people of God wasn’t the healing ointment from a special tree or shrub in the Holy Land, what was it?  Kay Warren, mother of Matthew Warren who took his own life, tipped us off with a testimony. Even though Kay Warren failed to keep her son’s life from ending tragically, Kay said “there’s hope…it’s so important that people know, no matter how desperate their despair, there is hope, and not to give up.” Hope is a Balm in Gilead even if those around you have lost theirs. If nothing else, the dying thief ought to teach us about hope. Seemingly lost forever, he does ask that our Lord remember him. Surprise, surprise, our Lord carries the dying thief with him to paradise.

The ministry of Peter Cartwright was a Balm in Gilead for the folks on the American frontier.If the West was won militarily, Peter Cartwright helped to win it spiritually. People responded to his ministry by the thousands. In short, Peter Cartwright called for repentance. And he spoke about God’s forgiveness and amazing grace. Repentance and divine forgiveness represent the healing and restorative power of a Balm in Gilead.

Personally, Peter Cartwright knew about Balm in Gilead. Weighted down by his own sin and a life not well lived, God answered Peter’s prayer in a powerful conversion experience. Cartwright recalled God’s voice in these words “Thy sins are all forgiven thee.” Lights flashed. Joy rose in his soul. Everything looked new. His praying mother raised a shout. His Christian friends joined him in praising God. From that day till the end of his ministry, Cartwright said he never doubted that the Lord “did, then and there, forgive me of my sins and give me religion.” There is power. There is healing in God’s forgiveness. Some call them A Balm in Gilead.

And yet, the healing experienced by Kay Warren and Peter Cartwright leaves us with a big fat question about Jeremiah. He has the reputation of a weeping prophet and limited success. How can you really know and feel the healing of the Balm in Gilead when God makes your life nothing but a cross? Let me explain. God calls Jeremiah into ministry as a boy. He will be God’s prophet to the “kingdoms and nations.” Although Jeremiah protests that he is too young, God calls him anyway. Accepting the call means Jeremiah will not have a fun-filled childhood like many people. That’s painful. Second, God informs Jeremiah that he can never marry or have children. His entire life will be in God’s service. Third, God gives Jeremiah the task of preaching to nations and kingdoms that constantly reject what he prophesies. Their rejection takes on many forms, namely shunning, beatings, whips, slaps, the stocks, jail, prison, constant death threats, virtually no friends and protracted bouts of sadness. That is suffering extraordinaire. More importantly, God will not allow the cup to pass from Jeremiah.

Maybe you are getting the point of Jeremiah’s life. Maybe Jeremiah’s suffering reveals the ultimate genesis of God’s healing in his life. Jeremiah is one of the Christ figures in the Old Testament. Like Jesus, he is “despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.” Like so many others and Christ who came generations after, Jeremiah engaged in redemptive suffering on behalf of the people of God. He was like a good shepherd who lies down his life for the sheep. In that faithfulness, he found his joy and peace.

That is why another long suffering community could answer Jeremiah’s question. In their protracted suffering, God saved them and gave them a song to sing. Through their redemptive suffering, they survived and birthed future generations of which I am an heir. Glory Hallelujah! My enslaved ancestor’s answered Jeremiah’s question with a word for those who feel eternally wounded in life. “There is a Balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole, there is a Balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick whole. Sometimes I feel discouraged and thing my work’s in vain. But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. There is a Balm in Gilead. If you can’t preach like Peter, if you can’t pray like Paul, just tell the love of Jesus and say he died for all. There is a Balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole. There is a Balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.” Amen.