Monday, June 17, 2013

Balaam and the Donkey

Bible Characters You've Never Met Like This:
Balaam and the Talking Donkey
Sermon:  June 16, 2013
"Unusual Characters of the Bible" Series

We've decided to spend the summer looking at some Bible characters that you may have never heard of before...  Maybe somewhat "odd" stories...  The stories that make you wonder, "why on earth is that in the Bible?"

Well...  If the Bible is meant as a way for God to speak to us about who God is - and who we are - and who we are in relation to God....  Then there might as well be some odd stories, right?!  Let's face it...  We've all got our own brand of "odd" going on.  So, yes, even as we look at the story of a pagan - or unbelieving - seer...  One who has an interesting story with his donkey who spoke to him...  It is possible to see glimpses of ourselves...  We just might have to look a little closer than usual.

Have any of you ever heard of the Christian musician Rich Mullins, write of "Awesome God"?  He was hitting his stride in the late '80s and '90s - a wonderful singer/songwriter!  (Unfortunately, he died a tragic death in a car accident in 1997...  Way too soon.)  But one thing he liked to say, is that the Bible is full of "weirdoes." 

He liked to point out that the Bible is full of odd characters and odd events.  And because of them being "odd" - we tend to just skip over them and pretend they're not there.  We go onto the stories that seem familiar and somewhat normal...  But really?  Think of the most well-known stories in the Bible - the Christmas story for instance.  It seems normal to us, because we tell it over and over and over.  But it was anything BUT normal when it was first told!  The same with the Good Samaritan.  The word "samaritan" had exactly the opposite meaning in Jesus' day - but now it's always linked to "good."

Interesting stuff, right?  Well, as we continue our summer quest of looking at some of the weirder stories and characters in the Bible...  Today we'll meet one that may make you scratch your head and wonder why on earth God works the way God does sometimes...  Because, like I said, I think there's a lot to learn from even these ordinary, messed up, sometimes odd people in scripture because it helps us to realize that even when we are ordinary, messed up, and little odd- God can work in our lives, too.  Just like God worked in theirs.  So welcome today, to the world of Balaam and his donkey!

In the book of Numbers, chapter 22, we begin the story of Balaam and his donkey - and without the context and what led to this incident, it may seem like a tall tale, a fable, or folklore...  So let's take a look at what has brought us to this story...

Basically, you have the people of Israel, who have been wandering in the wilderness, through the desert for 40 years - and now they are starting to approach the Promised Land.  Their wandering is coming to an end...  Finally!  But they have a few countries left to travel through, first.  Edom, Ammon, and Moab.  They tried to ask for peaceful passage through these places - but the nations were scared of such a large nation of people and made war on them instead.  But scripture tells us, that God was with God's people and helped them defeat these nations and conquer their lands.  (Take that, you who don't want to cooperate with God's chosen people!)

Well, one of these countries was Moab - just on the other side of the Jordan River from the Promised Land...  So close, yet so far!  The king of Moab was a man named Balak - a man a little wiser than the other kings.  He knew the Israelites victories weren't from their own strength - and that he would need something more to defeat them...  So he sent for a prophet, Balaam, to come and help him.

Now Balaam, himself, is an interesting kind of guy.  He wasn't one of the Israelites - so not a follower of God...  Yet, he did act as a prophet of God.  It's always interesting to me when we find these people in the scriptures that were not God's people - yet God was able to work through them and change their hearts to God's ways - one of my favorites is Rahab...  People who God spoke to in their unbelief and in the midst of lives and settings that were anything but loyal to God - and God was still able to speak truth to them. This could be our first lesson from this story:  There is always hope for us, no matter where we may find ourselves on the spectrum of belief.  God can speak to us, and others, wherever we may find ourselves - no matter the setting or circumstance!

But back to Balaam...  Balaam received Balak's messengers, heard their request, and his answer?  I have to check with God first about whether I should go or not.  Interesting...  So he went off and prayed, and when he received his answer, he came back to the messengers and replied that he could not go.  So, they went on their way - and that was the end of the story.

Right?  Nope...  Balak was a stubborn man and knew his best chance at cursing the Israelites was with Balaam's help.  So he sent his messengers back to Balaam - with the promise of a great reward if he comes.  This gets Balaam thinking...  And he agrees to ask God again. 

(And this is when things start to go awry for poor Balaam!  He had asked God.  God said no.  But like a little kid, with hopes of reward, he decides to ask again...  Don't we all do that when we don't like the answer we are given?  I know I do!  Ask my husband, Mike!  How many times do we find ourselves bargaining with God - hoping to get our own way?  Or how many times do we find ourselves ignoring the answer we're given - because it's not the answer we wanted?  We don't like it!  Lesson number two - watch how this works out for Balaam...)

God doesn't want Balaam to go...  God's made this clear.  But after the second request, God decides to let him go.  With one condition - Balaam must do exactly as God says.

Woohoo!  Balaam's looking forward to his reward and gets started on his journey...  And this is where we will pick up scripture today.  We'll be reading Numbers 22:22-35.  (Found in your pew Bible on page 140.)

22 God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary. (Not a pretty, ethereal, beautiful angel the way we think of them...  They never were in this context.  This angel was fierce and ready to strike Balaam down if he disobeyed God!)  Now Balaam was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23 The donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam (who could not see the angel) struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road. 24 Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. 25 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck it again. 26 Then the angel of the Lord went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff.

Here again, you might find yourself in the story...  How often have you punished someone for doing something that was actually good for you?  Maybe they were warning you?  How often have you - in your own stubbornness (and I may be the queen of this), refused to see what those around you see, and were unable to hear them or be open to their council in the midst of a situation?  We can learn from Balaam and his donkey, that sometimes it may be worth paying attention to those around us...  Even when we'd rather not.  Sometimes, they can see a situation more clearly than we can.  Sometimes, they may know something we don't.  Sometimes, God may be nudging them to warn us, teach us, guide us - God working in our lives...

Here is where the story gets a little fun... 

 28 Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” 29 Balaam said to the donkey, (he gets really mean now - now that he has someone who talks back!  First incident of road rage?!) “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!”  (Balaam had to be pretty upset that this was happening in front of Balak's messengers...  Sound familiar?  Have you ever found yourself treating strangers better than your own family?  Have you ever worried so much about what a stranger thinks of you, that you treat those who love you and know you best in a horrible way?  There's something a little messed up and odd about that way of being - isn't there?  Balaam was worried about his image - we worry about our image.  We worry about what people think...  And then those closest to us, get our exhausted, frustrated leftovers...  Lesson three from Balaam...  Don't let strangers get the best of you and loved ones get the worst.)

 30 But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And he said, “No.”  (Hmmm...  Good point, huh?)

31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face. 32 The angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse[b] before me. 33 The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live.” (And Balaam begins to see the whole picture...  What he thought was making him look foolish, was actually saving his life.  He quickly realizes his error - the danger he was in - and repents!)   34 Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home.” 35 The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.” So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak.

Lesson four from our oddball friend, Balaam:  Sometimes, the whole picture becomes clear - and God can use any number of ways to show us that big picture.  But when we recognize our messed up, crooked, foolish path - we know we don't have to stay on it.  We can choose to follow the path God has laid out for us instead.  Because isn't that what it's all about?  In the big, over-arching, story of God's love - God has proven to always be with us, for us, and loving us through it all.  In Balaam's smaller story - God led an unbeliever to do the right thing for God's chosen people.  And when Balaam thought there might be a better way - he asked again.  Yet, God still protected him - through the nudges offered by a donkey. 

God had a path for Balaam - just as God has a path for each of us.  We learn what that path is through following God - worshipping with other believers, reading the scriptures - even the crazy stories of the oddball characters - and learning about who God is and how God relates to little 'ol me.  We learn about God's path for us through paying attention to the often ignored "nudges" of the Holy Spirit present in each of our lives...  Through friends and family, through strangers...  who knows?  We may not have talking donkeys making things crystal clear for us - but we do know that God works in mysterious ways!

So, today we learned four important things from our oddball friend, Balaam:

1.  No matter where you are on the spectrum of belief, today, at this moment, right now...  No matter what the situation or where you may find yourself - God can always be there, seeing you through, speaking truth into your life.

2.  Sometimes, we receive an answer from God that we don't like.  I have - have you?  And we try to override it and think we know better.  In my life, that hasn't panned out so well.  It didn't for Balaam either.  Maybe we could all do a little better at following God's path, instead of our own...  A hard lesson to learn, I know!

3.  Pay attention when others try to warn, guide, or love you through a situation...  They may be attuned to what is happening more than you know...  They may see the situation clearer than your emotions allow you to...  God may be speaking through them!  (And don't put your image in front of strangers before your relationship with loved ones...  No one wants to be the donkey in the story!)

4.  And lastly, we never have to stay on a crooked path.  God is always there, ready to steer us back to the path of abundant life!  We just need to step back, see the big picture, open our eyes to where God is leading us - and take the next step.

Here's some questions that may help you to ponder the meaning of this story for your own life...  Feel free to pick one and pray about it this week...

1.  Where do you identify with Balaam the most?  (Do you tend to ignore God and go ahead with your own plans?  Put your own motives first - but with the best of intentions, of course!?  Is the path of difficulty the only way God can get your attention?  Is that the only way you recognize the holy in God?  Or are you willing to turn back when God says so?)

2.  How do you respond when life gives you a midcourse change in direction?  (Do you get mad at God?  Get defensive?  Lash out at others?  Beat up on yourself?  Or ask for forgiveness?)

3.  What could help you choose the path God hopes for you to follow?  (Read and learn about more of these characters that are more similar to me than I would have thought?  Trust in what I do know about God and my relationship with God?  Pay attention to God's nudges?  Pray more?

Remember that singer I was telling you about earlier?  Rich Mullins?  He used to say that we could learn something from Balaam's donkey.  He reminded us that God used a donkey to speak.  And God may still speak through "donkeys" today.  So when we feel that God is speaking through us - or to us - from the world us around us....  Pay attention.  They may not be what or who we would hope to be teaching us, guiding us, showing us the path...  But Balaam certainly didn't expect a donkey to set him straight, either!

You just never know what oddball way God might work in your life today!

Let us pray:

Gracious, and surprising God, we thank you for all the ways you break into our lives when we least expect it!  We thank you that we are blessed in knowing that you are with us no matter how far away we may feel - no matter how hard-to-reach we may seem...  That you never give up on giving us the abundant life that you see for us.  We ask you, Lord, for the courage and the strength to see you in the world around us - to discern when it is you leading us and guiding us towards the path of life - and for the wisdom to know when to follow and when to take a different road.  We ask for blessings on those relationships that are loving and healing and forgiving - that we strive to treat them with love and respect and always put them before the "image" we create for others.  Help us, Heavenly Parent, to be the people you see we can be.  Help us to listen, to notice, to follow, to guide.  Help us to be your voice in the world...  Sometimes unexpected...  But always in love.  Thank you, God.  Amen.