Dr, Steve Lindsley
(Numbers 22: 21-35)

We continue our summer sermon series, “Bit Parts In The Bible,” where we’re looking at some of the lesser-known characters in our faith story who nevertheless made a big impact.  Last week we were introduced to Jethro who offered sage advice to his son-in-law Moses about not trying to go at it alone.  Today we find ourselves some number of years later.  The Israelites have completed their wilderness wandering, their 40-year sojourn to the Promised Land.  All said, it took close to a full century before the people of God were fully settled in their new home and getting acclimated to their new neighbors – one of whom were the Moabites, ruled by King Balak.

Now Balak is more than a little concerned with this mass of people who’ve moved in next door.  What’s the one thing an all-powerful king is most afraid of losing?  That very power, of course. And these Israelites represent, in his mind, an existential threat to that power.  So King Balak decides he’s going to wage war against the Israelites; and as he prepares for battle, he summons the services of a guy named Balaam.  Now Balaam is a “seer,” a diviner; and so King Balak directs Balaam to cast a curse on the Israelites so they’ll lose the war.  Kind of giving his troops an upper hand before the battle even begins.

Truth be told, Balaam isn’t crazy about the idea, but when the king orders you to do something, you best do it.  Someone else who is not crazy about the idea: God. Which is quite understandable, given the circumstances; and an important subtext for the story going forward. You’ve already heard that story this morning – you helped to tell it, in fact – but let’s do a quick recap.

It’s the following morning and Balaam begins his journey to the battlefield, making his way there on his trusted donkey – the one he’s had for a long time, the one who carries things here and there for him, the one who’s never let him down.  They’ve barely gotten down the street when, lo and behold, an angel appears in the middle of the road right in front of them, blocking their way.  And this is not some sweet, docile angel – this angel is a rather imposing figure, sword drawn. We don’t usually think of angels as intimidating, but this one was.

And here’s the catch: Balaam does not see the angel. The donkey, on the other hand, sees it clearly.

Now how’s that for irony?  Balaam, the great diviner, the great “seer,” does not see the angel.  Totally oblivious to his presence.  But his donkey sees it, and he stops dead in his tracks.

So just envision this scene unfolding, cause it really is remarkable.  The donkey stops at first, then turns off the road and heads into the field to avoid Mr. Buff Angel – the angel, once again, that Balaam cannot see!  From the donkey’s perspective, this is the only viable option, right?  But from Balaam’s point of view, his donkey has lost it; veering off a wide-open road for no reason at all.  Balaam gives his donkey a good whack to steer it back on track. No luck.

So now they’re traveling along the vineyard off the road, with walls on either side of this wide path.  Balaam’s still perplexed about what just happened when the angel appears in front of them a second time – and again, the donkey sees it; Balaam does not. So now the donkey moves to the side and rides up against one of the walls in an attempt to go around the angel. You can imagine how this was for Balaam – a wide corridor between vineyards, plenty of room; and yet his donkey is right up against the wall. He whacks the donkey again.

They continue as the corridor begins to narrow until there’s room just enough for the donkey to walk on. And guess who makes another appearance? Mr. Buff Angel stands once again in their way.  This time, with nowhere to go, the donkey lies down.  Which sets Balaam off. More whacks.

And that’s when the donkey starts talking!  That’s right, folks – a talking donkey in the Bible.  If you’re ever playing trivia and someone asks what animal in the Bible other than the serpent in the garden of Eden talks, well, now you know. We have a talking donkey.

This donkey turns his head back to Balaam and says, “Hey – scuse me!  What have I done to deserve this?”  It’s a perfectly reasonable question, if we can get beyond the fact that it’s a donkey who is asking it!  Balaam answers him– yet another element of humor in this story, talking to a donkey as if this is a normal thing.  He tells him that he is super-frustrated with his behavior.  At which point the donkey asks, “Am I not your trusted donkey on whom you’ve ridden for years?  Have I ever done anything like this before?”

Hmm.  The donkey makes an excellent point, Balaam realizes.  And so he says no, you’ve never done anything like this.

And it’s right there, in that moment, that Balaam’s eyes are opened; and he sees for the first time the angel in their way.  At which point it becomes all clear why his donkey had behaved the way he had; why he’d gone off the road and then up against the wall and then just sat down.  It all becomes clear.  But even more than that, Balaam now understands that, while his king wanted him to go curse the Israelites, the God he does not yet know does not.  And that is when his mission changes; that is when Balaam goes to the battle scene, but instead of cursing the Israelites, he blesses them.  And the Israelites go on to win the battle.

The story of Balaam and the donkey is a great story for lots of reasons; the talking donkey certainly being one of those.  It is almost as if this four-legged creature is the embodiment of Balaam’s conscience.  He may not have been totally convinced he was doing the right thing when he set out that morning.  And yet the end result – after the angel in the road he couldn’t see, after the donkey doing his thing – the end result is that what should’ve happened, happened.  Even though Balaam didn’t know the full extent of what was going on around him.  Even though his donkey did.

I mean, in a way that’s life, right?  Sometimes we’re cruising along, minding our business and doing our thing – and then the donkey starts talking!  Sometimes we make plans, and we like our plans and they are really good plans – until the donkey starts talking!  Sometimes, as the commercial says, “life comes at you fast” – and we react the best we can, not really sure what our next move should be.  And then the donkey starts talking!

Discernment is rarely an easy thing – would you agree?  Knowing the difference between right and wrong is one thing, but knowing the right “right” can be a little harder to figure out.  Someone once shared with me the story of three farmers out in the fields tending to their crops. They each look up in the sky and see two large clouds forming unmistakable letters “G” and letter “P.”  Each of them pauses to contemplate what it means.

The first farmer wipes his sweaty brow and gets back to work – after all, the letters obviously are telling him to Go Plow. 

The second leaves the fields, grabs a bat and ball and heads to the ballfield.  He was only doing what the clouds told him to: Go Play. 

And the third farmer grabs his Bible and heads to the busy street corner in town, where he shares how he gave his life to Jesus.  Because that’s what you do when the clouds themselves tell you to Go Preach.

 So which farmer discerned correctly?  Or were all three right – or all wrong?  Discernment is rarely an easy thing.

Tell me this, friends: how do you read the clouds?  What’s your “talking donkey” moment?  How do you best discern God’s will for your life?

Sometimes I wonder if we tend to understand discernment as a more passive endeavor – some obvious indicator falling in our lap, right in front of us, telling us unequivocally what to do.  It sure would be nice if it worked like that, right?  But the truth is that life rarely unfolds like that – and in fact, if all we ever do is wait for obvious signs, we wind up missing what is happening right in front of us.

There’s a story I know I’ve shared before but it bears repeating here.  There’s a terrible rain storm and a man right in the thick of it. It’s been raining for days, raining buckets – the waters are beginning to rise in the low areas.  Neighbors are driving by this man’s house, their trucks loaded with possessions as they seek higher ground. They invite him to come with them, to escape the rising waters that show no signs of stopping.  But the man declines, telling them that God will save him.

The waters continue to rise, now even with his front porch. Some local authorities come by in a small motorboat. Come with us, they call out through the rain, it’s getting dangerous here. The man answers: Thanks, but I’m staying.  God will save me.

The waters rise higher and higher, until it engulfs his entire house with only the pinnacle of the roof visible. And there the man sits, as threatening waters inch closer.  A helicopter flies overhead, lights flashing, megaphone screaming, Sir, you must come now! There isn’t any time!  And at the top of his lungs the man shouts back, NO! I am staying right here. God will save me!

Well, the rains keep coming, and those words turn out to be his last. He goes on to heaven and finds himself before God. Quite puzzled, to say the least.  When he gets up the nerve he asks God why God did not save him, why his faith was not rewarded, why his trust was not acknowledged?  To which God replies, What are you talking about?  I sent you a truck, a boat and a helicopter. What more did you want?!?

Sometimes we are so lost in our discernment that we miss the obvious right in front of us.  Just like Balaam.  Sometimes we are so set in our ways that we are less tuned in to what is really happening around us.  Sometimes we are so consumed by our own agenda that we are unaware of what God might prefer.

I keep going back in my mind to what that donkey said to Balaam right before his eyes were opened: Do you remember?  He said: Have I ever done anything like this before?  You know what the donkey was really asking?  Do you trust me?

We base our relationships on a host of things – love, work, faith, common interests, to name a few. But all of that means precious little if we do not have trust. Think about it. You’ve got to trust another person if you’re going to invest in a relationship with them. You’ve got to trust that they’re not going to take advantage of that relationship.   And ultimately, you’ve got to trust that they will reciprocate your love with love, or your friendship with friendship, or sharing your life with them sharing their own.

That is what it means to be part of a family; part of a community of faith.  And when that trust is present, what it means is that any moment – especially when we least expect it – any moment has the potential to be a moment when God speaks.  Maybe through a donkey, maybe through another person, maybe in that still small voice only we can hear.  And it’s our responsibility as people of faith to be tuned in to that voice when it comes.

A few Christmases ago my wife gave me a book called Small Miracles: Extraordinary Coincidences from Everyday Life. I thought of Balaam and the donkey when I read the following from the book’s preface. Listen:

Thousands of years ago, God spoke to us through the sublime miracles God performed on massive and grandiose scales. In modern times, we are bereft of that privilege. Today we wrestle with a God who no longer parts seas, stops the sun, or turns people into pillars of salt. Instead we have smaller, more personal, everyday miracles. For when one of these takes place, it is nothing more and nothing less than God tapping us on the shoulder, whispering, or at times even shouting: “I am here! I am with you!”[1]

Nothing is making much sense, and then the donkey starts talking.  May we keep our eyes open; may we keep our ears tuned in.  And may we trust in a God who loves us, who still speaks to us, and who continues to tap us on the shoulder, saying: I am here. I am with you!

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!



* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] Yitta Halberstam, Small Miracles: Extraordinary Coincidences from Everyday Life (Adams Media Corp, 1997).