Will you join your hearts with mine in prayer—Almighty God, you have brought us to this place, to be among these people, to worship you, to learn from you, to serve you. Open our ears to hear your word as it comes fresh to us this morning, open our hearts to receive your grace in our lives. Allow these moments to bring us closer to you, to know you, to serve you, to love you more. And now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O Lord our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
This morning Steve and I are continuing our Lenten sermon series called Encountering God. During this series we’re looking at biblical stories that tell of times when people have direct, intimate, personal encounters with God, in looking at these stories we are considering how they reacted, how these encounters shaped their lives, how this dramatic encounter in some way left the characters altered, shaped, or changed. In these encounters how do the characters see God, how do they react to being in the presence of God, how do these stories shape them. As we look at these stories, let us consider how they shape us, how they in some way affect the way we encounter God or the way we look for our encounters with God.
This week we are looking in to the familiar story of Balaam and the Donkey, sorry, did I say familiar story of Balaam and the Donkey? I meant the not so familiar story of Balaam and the Donkey. The not-so-familiar story of Balaam and the Donkey appears in the book of Numbers chapter 22 verses 21-35. Now, before we read this story, I have a confession. A few years ago while in seminary I took an Exegesis of the Old Testament class, and I showed up to class one Friday morning at 8:30 not having done the reading for class that day. Our professor broke us into small groups, a nightmare for any unprepared and under caffeinated student. We broke into groups and were told to compare the two stories from the reading, again, a nightmare for any unprepared student. I quickly flipped to the two stories we read the week before and started skimming (mind you, I’m not reading very fast because this reading was also assigned in HEBREW) So as I’m reading I find myself in the middle of this story about a man and a talking Donkey and I look to my friend and say “this is in the Bible?- did you know that?”
There are a lot of biblical stories we are unfamiliar with and let me tell you, some of them are totally wild. So having confessed that even in the middle of my seminary career, I did not know the story of Balaam and the Donkey, I’m going to assume and hope that there are a few more out there who are unfamiliar with this story. So, before we read the story from Numbers, let me put some context on this story, and as I do so forgive me as you’ll notice this feels a little more like a re-cap of last week’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy, but bear with me as we play catch up on this unfamiliar story.
We’re in the book of Numbers and the Israelites have fled oppression in Egypt and are living in the wilderness, not having yet reached the promised land. While living in the wilderness they are in the land of many other groups of people, and in this story we focus on the Moabites. The Moabites become worried about the Israelites coming into their land and overcoming them. King Balak summons a diviner, Balaam, who is thought to be especially able to speak to God, to curse the people of Israel. So Balak showers Balaam with gifts to convince him to curse the Israelites, YHWH tells Balaam not to curse the people, to which Balaam goes and asks again. God says, “if the men summon you, go with them but say only what I tell you to say.” And then our story begins, listen now to the story of Balaam the diviner riding his donkey on his way to curse the people of Israel.
A few weeks ago I sat on the steps of our sanctuary with our Weekday School for Weekday School chapel. After a stretch prayer and a few adorable comments by our weekday school students, I asked them a question while holding up a halo. I held a halo from our Christmas pageant up to the students and asked them, “what is this?” “who wears this?” and they of course knew, “it’s a halo, Pastor Grace, angels wear halos.”
Of course, that’s right. Then I asked them to tell me a little more about angels, what do angels look like? What do angels do? Well they quickly told me, angels are tiny, they have wings, they fly and wear white dresses. Again, of course, that’s right, that’s the image of angels we all have plastered in our heads, the image of a tiny fairy like doll, with a white dress, a halo, wings and flying around. But, I’m going to challenge you with the same thing I challenged the weekday school students with, “what do angels do?” “What do angels say?”
I told the students that the word for angels, malak, can also mean messenger, that the angels we hear about in the Bible are also known as messengers of God, people who tell about who God is, who comfort people who are scared, who tell that Jesus is coming, who tell about God’s love. And as I told them about angels, about how angels are people who tell us about God, who show us how to meet God, as I told them this, I held a box on my lap. A box that was inexplicably shaking and making noise, because, as I told the students, the box was full of angels, angels that couldn’t wait to meet the students. And when I asked the students if they were ready to meet the angels that were making all this noise in the box, they eagerly screamed out YES, YES, YES.
So I slowly peeled back the flaps of the box on my lap, half expecting myself a box full of fairies to come flying out, as I peeled the flaps back I pulled out what was in that box and I held it up to the students, revealing who these angels were. As I held that mirror up to the angels, I asked them who the angels were that were making all that noise, and they told me, “my friend, Jack, my friend Zoe, its me! Its us! We’re the angels.”
Balaam the diviner, the one who is understood as super-able to communicate with God, that diviner is incapable of recognizing the angel that not only stands in the middle of his way, but who follows him to a narrow street and then corners him. Balaam becomes unable to see that angel in his midst, so set on his road.
How often are our eyes closed to the angels that surround us in our midst, so often recognizing them as a nuisance, as an obstacle, not even realizing they are there. What angels in our midst have we ignored as Balaam did? What angels in our midst have we been unable to see, just as Balaam did? What ways has God been speaking to us that we have been unable to recognize, just as Balaam did? Have we been so busy waiting for flying fairies in angel wings and halos to recognize that an angel has come in to our midst, that God has sent a messenger to speak with us? Balaam, the diviner, the one who is known to be especially prone to speaking and listening to God, this diviner is incapable of recognizing the angel on the road. As it is with us, we often miss the angel in our midst, miss the angel God has put in the middle of our road.
Balaam missed it, he missed the whole thing, from the beginning of this odd tale to the end, he missed it- he missed the mark when God told him the first time, “do not curse the people of Israel, for they are blessed.” He missed it, and he went back and asked God again, in hopes that God might change God’s mind so that Balaam would get what he wanted. He missed the mark when the angel stood in the middle of the road to stop him, he missed it when the angel followed him to the narrow street to stop him, he missed it when the angel cornered him. Over and over again, Balaam misses the ways God is speaking to him, what God is asking Balaam to do. When Balaam confesses his sin in verse 34, the Hebrew verb he uses, the verb, hata, does not simply mean to sin, it means to miss the way, to miss the mark, to miss something. Balaam missed it.
There is a familiar story of a man who stood in his living room on the day of a big flood. He stood in his living room as the rains began to pour, telling those who told him to go with them that he need not worry because God will take care of him, he trusted in God who would take care of him. As the waters rose, a police car drove by and offered to escort him to a safe place to which the man told the police officers, “I trust in God, I trust that god will take care of me.” The waters kept coming and the man moved to the second floor of his house, and the water kept coming and he was forced to the roof of his house and while the rains fell down and he sat on his roof a boat came by and offered to take him to safety, to which again the man replied “its ok, God will take care of me, I trust in God.” And then as the waters rose till the man stood on the tips of his toes, a helicopter came by to rescue the man and again the man called out, “it’s ok, God will take care of me, I trust in God.” And the man cried out to God, “God I trust in you to take care of me.” To which God, of course replied, I sent a police car, I sent a boat, I sent a helicopter.
Over and over again, we miss it, over and over again, we miss the way God answers our prayers, over and over again we miss the way God sends glimpses of God’s glory to us, over and over again we miss the ways God sends angels into our lives, over and over again we are too busy to recognize Jesus on the streets, over and over again we are too preoccupied to recognize the love that God is placing in our lives.
We’ve all missed the angels in our midst, we have, we’ve missed the angelic smiles of children because we’re busy texting on our phones, we’ve missed conversations with strangers because we’re too scared, we’ve missed the friendship of our elderly neighbors because its too inconvenient, we’ve missed these angels speaking to us. What are those angels in our midst that we have been too blind to see?
But here’s some good news — when we miss the angel, when we miss the angel in the road, God sends talking donkeys.
God won’t let us miss God’s grace and love, God sends talking donkeys to make sure we don’t. God opens the mouths of our children to sing beautiful songs that force us to look up and recognize these angels in our midst, God opens the doors of our church for programs like Room In the Inn to bring the strangers into our church and give us the beauty of those conversations and friendships. God puts donkeys in our lives, donkeys that stop us dead in our tracks and force us to see the angel. What donkeys are talking in your life?
So my friends, if you miss the angel in your midst, don’t miss the donkey too.
Balaam misses God, misses the angel, misses it over and over again but God simply will not let him miss it. Because as frustrated as God gets with us, as frustrated with Balaam God was, God goes after Balaam relentlessly sending angels that corner him, sending donkeys that talk to him.
Just so, God goes after us, relentlessly, relentlessly refusing to let us miss the angels in our midst, relentlessly refusing to let us go.
Before I was born, my Dad and then 8-year old brother went to the New York Auto show together at the Jacob Javitts center in New York City, one of the biggest convention centers in the city, filled with people looking at cars. They went around as Dads and sons do and looked at all the different car displays, I remember when I was older loving doing the same thing with my Dad—stopping at each car, getting in, pretending to drive, walking around the car and looking at each inch of it. While they’re standing at one of the car displays they walk around looking at each inch of the car inspecting it all and then when my Dad looks up, he looks around and around but doesn’t see my brother. He walks around the display looking for Ben, still unable to find him, so he walks to the security guards who tell him there is nothing they can do to help. He panics, runs around the center, looking for Ben, calling his name, retracing steps, looking in each corner. For 3 hours he ran around the Jacob Javitts center in search of his little boy, incapable of finding him, incapable of not looking for him, incapable of giving up.
Just as any father or parent would do, relentlessly looking for their child, God relentlessly looks for us. Relentlessly will not let us go, will not give up on finding us.
Balaam leaves this story changed, he leaves this bizarre encounter with God fully committed to the word of God, fully committed to doing what God tells him to do, fully committed to God’s work. He leaves this story changed because in it he realizes that God simply will have it no other way, God will not leave our selfish selves alone, God will not forsake our narrow-minded selves, God will not give up on our absent-minded selves, God will not let us go.
In the name of God our Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 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.