Sunday, January 25, 2015

Say What? Series: Hearing God Speak Through . . . a Donkey? (Numbers 22:22b-31)

While [Balaam] was riding on his donkey accompanied by his two servants, the Lord’s messenger stood in the road as his adversary. 23 The donkey saw the Lord’s messenger standing in the road with his sword drawn in his hand, so the donkey turned from the road and went into the field. Balaam struck the donkey in order to turn him back onto the road. 24 Then the Lord’s messenger stood in the narrow path between vineyards with a stone wall on each side. 25 When the donkey saw the Lord’s messenger, it leaned against the wall and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the wall, so he continued to beat it. 26 The Lord’s messenger persisted and crossed over and stood in a narrow place, where it wasn’t possible to turn either right or left. 27 The donkey saw the Lord’s messenger and lay down underneath Balaam. Balaam became angry and beat the donkey with the rod. 28 Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you’ve beaten me these three times?”

29 Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you’ve tormented me. If I had a sword in my hand, I’d kill you now.”

30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on whom you’ve often ridden to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”

Balaam said, “No.”

31 Then the Lord uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and Balaam saw the Lord’s messenger standing in the road with his sword drawn in his hand. Then he bowed low and worshipped.


Martin Luther is undoubtedly best-known as the father of the Protestant Reformation.  He protested against what he perceived to be the excesses and missteps of the Catholic Church of his day, and his work eventually caused the division we still see today between Catholic and Protestant Christians, though, thankfully, relations between the two are warmer today than they were in his day.


What many people don’t know is that Martin Luther also had a sense of humor that was, perhaps, bawdier than what you might expect from a great church leader.  In particular, he had a great affinity for jokes and one-liners about flatulence, making him just as suited to be a middle school boys’ youth pastor as a great theologian.


Even in his own day, many people thought him vulgar and inappropriate, but Luther was quick to respond, “God once spoke through the mouth of an ass,” and the implication was clear: God could also speak through one like him.


What we have just read is one of the stranger and more peculiar stories found in Scripture.  To even begin understanding it, we desperately need some context.


The people of Israel have been on the move, and they are now encamped across from the kingdom of Moab.  The king of Moab is threatened by their presence, fearful that his kingdom will be overtaken.  He is looking for any advantage he can gain over them, and he decides to enlist the services of Balaam, the man we just read about.


Balaam is an entrepreneur of sorts, and what he sells are blessings and curses.  He’s not particularly religious himself, but is apparently well-studied and good at his job, because his blessings and curses seem to work whenever he invokes them.  The king of Moab, looking for some supernatural help, summons for Balaam to come and curse the people of Israel so they won’t overtake his kingdom, and offers a high price for Balaam’s service.


Initially, Balaam declines the contract, because God has appeared to him and told him not to go and curse the people of Israel.  But the king of Moab is persistent, he sends another delegation with a higher offer, and the deal is apparently too sweet for Balaam to resist – after all, business is business, money talks and his donkey walks, as it were – and so off he goes.


En route, an angel from God appears on the road with a sword drawn, visible only to the donkey.  Not once, but three times the donkey tries to change course – veering first into the field, then into a stone wall, crushing Balaam’s foot, and then finally, when there was nowhere else to go, lays down on the road and refuses to go further.


Each time, the donkey is rewarded with a beating from Balaam.  The donkey has had enough, and opens his mouth to speak.  I apologize in advance for not having a good Eddie Murphy impression so you could hear the voice of the donkey in its original form, so please forgive me.  The donkey says, “Dude!  (It doesn’t say, “Dude,” in the English, but it’s pretty close in the Hebrew)  Why do you keep beating me?  Have I not carried you for years?  Have I ever done this sort of thing before – no, I haven’t – and so maybe there’s a reason I keep changing course, and it might do you some good to find out why!”


Friends, that is one smart ass.


I used that word in a sermon in my last church, talking about Jesus riding that animal into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  One lady was quite perturbed by my use of that particular word, even when I told her that that word’s meaning is determined by the context in which it is used, and she just said, “Well, that word refers to a beast of burden and NOT to a particular part of the body!” and I just smiled and said, “You bet your beast of burden it does!”


Let’s go ahead and name the donkey in the room.  In our culture, the word, “donkey,” is often used as a euphemism for that other term that’s a little less polite.  There is no way to know if the word, “donkey,” had the same connotations as it does for us today, but there seems a certain fitness that sometimes it takes a donkey for us to realize what we’re doing, especially when we’re on the wrong path and need to change course.


When we are doggedly pursuing a project, and something comes along that is an interruption, an annoyance, a detour, or a roadblock altogether, we aren’t that pleased, either.  We will likely experience anything or anyone that stands in the way or delays our progress as a pain in the proverbial.


But I wonder how often we, like Balaam, find ourselves on a road we shouldn’t be on in the first place, and what seems like an interruption or a distraction or a detour is actually there for our benefit. 


I am a person who loves to find backroads and shortcuts.  I love to be on the road less travelled – perhaps to find a way that’s just a bit quicker than the beaten path, perhaps to feel like I have some sort of inside knowledge, I’m not sure.  When I lived in Boone, someone told me about an old road that led outside of town to the area where I lived.  I knew roughly where both ends of the road were, and decided I was going to try to find it one day.  I turned off the main road, and then off the side road, and then onto a windy, one-lane mud path.


I was sure I had found it – the secret, hidden road no one else travelled!  Today was the day I was going to conquer it!  I soon discovered why no one else travelled this particular road.  I pushed my Pontiac Vibe up the side of this mountain until I came to a place where a rockslide had covered the road, making it impassible, and I had a particular, colorful thought as I thought about what a pain that was!


I got out of the car and climbed over the rocks and walked a little further up the road, and as I went around a curve that started steeply back down, I saw down at the bottom of the slick, muddy incline that the road was washed away completely.  I realized, had the rocks not been there, I wouldn’t have stopped back there, and would have come around this curve and started down that muddy hill with probably no way to stop before I got to the spot where the road was washed out, and would have careened several hundred feet to the bottom of the mountain below.


When I first encountered those rocks, I thought, “What a pain in the proverbial.”  But those rocks kept me from going any further down the road toward something that was infinitely more dangerous.  It was an additional pain in the proverbial to back the car several hundred yards down that windy road to a spot where it was wide enough for me to turn around and return from whence I had come, but I’d rather have that frustration than what would have awaited me had I been able to keep going.


When it comes to what we experience as donkey-like people and situations, maybe that circumstance or that person is there to help put us on a different path, or at least to slow us down enough to think through what we’re doing and whether or not it’s a project worth pursuing.  Maybe we’re on a path of our desire and have given little regard to what God might want.  Maybe we’re on a road that goes nowhere, or is a dead-end, maybe even a road that leads to destruction.


Other times, it takes a donkey in our lives, someone or some situation who is an absolute pain in the proverbial, for us to realize how much a donkey we are making of ourselves.  For Balaam, it took his now-famous talking beast for him to realize how stubborn he was being, how headstrong and intent he was on his own plans rather than God’s, pursuing profit for himself while ignoring the directive of God.  By the end of it, Balaam has come to realize that he, not the beast, is the bigger donkey in the story.


Yes, it’s annoying when someone or something comes along that interrupts our plans, but if we’re on the wrong road to begin with, then maybe that pain in the proverbial is actually a blessing in disguise.


Remember, blessings and curses were Balaam’s business, and business was good.  Being called in by the King of Moab was likely one of the biggest contracts he had ever landed.  After Balaam’s donkey starts talking to him and he, too, sees the angel of the Lord on the road, he has a change of heart about offering blessings and curses on the spot for the highest bidder.


If you read on, you’ll see that he continues on to meet the King of Moab, but does not agree to curse the people of Israel, agreeing instead to only say what God permits him to say.  The King of Moab takes him to the top of four different mountains and orders him to curse the Israelites below.  Four times, Balaam refuses, only speaking oracles about God’s favor and blessing on the people.  The king sends Balaam home, furious that he has blessed the people rather than cursed them.


How many times have we found ourselves cursing others, when God has called us to bless others? 

In reality, what does it profit us when we make decisions out of our own greed and ignore God’s interest in the good of all?  How many times have we tried to bend God’s ways to suit our ways, asking God to bless the road we’re already on and what we’ve already made up our minds to do?  How many times have we put the bottom line ahead of common decency, to the point that the term “business ethics” is treated like an oxymoron?


From time to time, we all find ourselves on a road we probably don’t need to be on, and the correcting word of a friend or stranger – even who seems like a pain in the proverbial – might be what we need to realize what a donkey’s hind end we are being ourselves, and get ourselves on a better path.


As Martin Luther said, “God once spoke through an ass,” and the implication is clear: God can use and speak through anything and anyone – including us.  That reality doesn’t give us license to act like jerks, but neither should we be surprised when God shows up in unexpected ways and people and places.  If God could speak through Balaam’s donkey, God can certainly speak through ones like you and like me.


Let us pray.

God, we can get way too caught up in ourselves sometimes.  We are so interested in our desires, our plans, our hopes, that we lose sight of what you want.  We experience every distraction and detour as a real pain in the behind, and are often blind to the ways we’re acting like big old donkeys ourselves.  We pursue profit rather than you.  We put our ways ahead of yours.  We stick to our own path rather than seeking out yours.  We curse others rather than bless them.  Put your messengers on the road we travel, help us to see where we are in error, so we can better turn toward you.  Thank you for your many blessings in disguise.  Amen.

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