In the beautiful hymn we’ve just sung, “There is a Balm in Gilead,” we hear words of comfort and encouragement. It is an odd counterpoint to the origin of that phrase “Balm in Gilead” heard in today’s passage from the prophet Jeremiah. In the Old Testament reading, there is no comfort or encouragement. Jeremiah is crying out in pain “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”
Jeremiah had reason to cry out. God’s people had, once again, gone astray.
The story of Jeremiah begins when Josiah was king of Israel and the Assyrians were not actively harassing the Israelites. In the early days of Jeremiah’s work, because the Assyrians were not really paying attention to what was going on in Israel, King Josiah and the prophet worked on restoring the temple and the old laws of Moses. The Assyrian gods and pagan worship were ended, and the Israelites once again began to focus their worship on the one true God.
This was a good thing, of course, but like most human endeavors, it didn’t take long before the people started to do bad things, to not be true to the law in honoring God through worship and sacrifice. The priests of the local temples got sloppy or decided that they wanted to change things a bit so that they would get more offerings of meat or flour or coins. The people took their relationship with God for granted. Some even began to worship the pagan gods again, a way of hedging their bets if the one true God wasn’t who he said he was. And in the midst of this, the good king Josiah died and a weak king, Jehoiakim, took the throne. Jehoiakim didn’t advocate for the reforms Jeremiah had been implementing. Things went from bad to worse and the Israelites fell further and further away from the right way of worship to the one true God.
So Jeremiah, being a prophet, did what all prophets do: he warned the Israelites that if they didn’t change their ways, they would be punished. The verses that precede this reading are full of predictions of the horrible things that will happen if the people don’t get their act together.
Now the irony of this, and of that phrase “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” is that the very people to whom the people would normally go for healing in that world were the priests in the temple. In the ancient world, it was the priests who were the healers…and the priests in the temple in Jeremiah’s time were not guiding the Israelites properly in their relationship with God. They were as false to the covenant with God as the people were. And the balm, a famous one that was reputed to close wounds and prevent infection, seemed missing in this place. The people who were intended to be the healers of people’s broken relationship with God were the ones who kept that wound open, infected, not healing. Jeremiah was crying out in pain for God’s people, because they wouldn’t listen to God’s words, and because the people who were supposed to be helping them were making matters worse.
Is there no balm in Gilead to heal these people? Is there no one – other than Jeremiah – who can help them in their brokenness, in their sinfulness?
What will end this illness of the soul? What will bring God’s people back into a loving and faithful relationship with him?
I was visiting a parishioner in the hospital the other day. One of the medical problems that had caused her to be admitted was a wound on her leg that would not heal. So she was given medications to fight infection and the wound was cleaned and freshly dressed every day. And with diligent and faithful care, the wound was slowly healing. Had the physicians and nurses who attended her not followed the treatment plan so strictly and faithfully, the wound would not have healed. Had the doctors said, “well, we’ll give her some medicine sometimes, but not the full dose every four hours,” the wound would not have healed. If the nurses said, “I’m too busy to change the dressing today. I’ll get around to it tomorrow,” the wound would not have healed.
That is the gospel of good medicine: you use the right medication and other therapies in the right doses, you take care to watch for symptoms of bad reactions, you do these things on schedule, and you listen to what the patient tells you to see if the treatment is doing what it is supposed to be doing.
And there is, of course, a gospel that tells us about our relationship with our God. Jesus talks about it in today’s parable: the one whom you should love is God, not the things of earth. For us, the illness that requires a balm may be our obsession with the things of earth, with material wealth or success. That’s certainly Jesus’ point in today’s gospel.
And the linking of these two readings from Jeremiah and from Luke cause me to think of some of the preachers I’ve heard every now and again, on the radio and on television.
They preach a “prosperity gospel,” saying that if you are the right kind of Christian, and if you send in money in support of their ministry, God will shower you with wealth.
It’s not a new phenomenon. There was a radio pastor named Reverend Ike when I was a child who preached this way. “Close your eyes and see green! Money up to your armpits, a roomful of money and there you are, just tossing around in it like a swimming pool.” He said “You deserve the best!” His obituary in the New York Times said:
“In return for spiritual inspiration, he requested cash donations from his parishioners, from his television and radio audiences, and from the recipients of his extensive mailings — preferably in paper currency, not coins. (“Change makes your minister nervous in the service,” he would tell his congregation.) 
What would his contributors get in return for their donation? A prayer cloth. With his picture on it.
Not for him the words of Jesus in today’s gospel: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” In recent years, it has been put forth by televangelists like Oral Roberts, Joel Osteen, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn and the unfortunately but perhaps accurately named Creflo Dollar. Send in your money, all these preachers have said! Buy my book. Support my ministry (and me) and God will reward you. They will quote John 10: 10 - "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly,” saying that this proves their theological point. And they say it from their multimillion dollar megachurches as their Gulfstream private jet awaits them to take them to the next book tour, as they wear their thousand dollar suits.
They live an abundant life, but not the abundant life that Jesus promised us. Like the priests in Jeremiah’s time, they have been corrupted, turned to a way that is not of the one true God. They have turned to a way that serves themselves,
What is the abundant life that is promised to believers? It’s not about money. Jesus talks extensively about money in the gospels, more than just about any other topic. And every time he does so, he says that material wealth is not what he is about, not what the kingdom is about. For Christians, money is a tool. It is an appropriate tool to provide oneself and one’s family food and shelter. It is an appropriate tool to help the work of God’s church, to share the gospel and to care for those in need. It is not about power or status. It is not about having more than the next guy. It is not about proving anything, not even to yourself. It is a tool, and like many tools, it is dangerous if it is misused.
And these false priests, these folks who prey on people and tell them to send in their money to get on a prayer chain or to purchase a book that will give them the ten easy steps to Christian prosperity, cause us to cry out as Jeremiah did, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician here?”
But there is a balm. There is a physician. It is Christ the Lord. His message is very clear and unambiguous. “Don’t listen to the false priests. Don’t think that I am about you getting all the money you want here on earth. Follow the commandment I set out for you – love God and worship him, love your neighbor and care for her. Know that when you are broken in body, mind or spirit, I will be your balm in Gilead. You don’t get that from the false priests. You get that from me. Be faithful, and don’t be distracted. You will be healed, if you believe in me.”
In a few weeks, we will begin our stewardship drive here at Epiphany. As we approach this drive, I would ask you to pray that you take a look at how you look at money in your life. Has it become an end unto itself, an idol in your life, a distraction? Is an appropriate portion of it being put to the good use of the church, to help others know Christ and to help those in need? If you have little money, has the lack of it made you angry or bitter? Or have you thanked God for what you have, even though it may not be enough?
Money is not a god. It can be a tool for God, if used carefully. I urge you to pray about your relationship with money and think about whether it is helping your relationship with God or getting in the way of it. Money is not the balm we seek to heal our souls. Only Jesus is.