God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. 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 struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. 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. 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. 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. 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?” Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now.” 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.”
This morning starts the beginning of our three-part sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture. For the next three Sundays we will be looking at those wonderful moments from the bible that they never talked about in Sunday school. These are the passages that make us blush, raise our eyebrows, and leave us scratching our heads.
Many of us are familiar with the well-known stories of Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness, we know all about King David and his kingdom, we can recall the miracles of Jesus, but the bible is also full of tales that are just begging to be used in worship and our daily lives. Our first story is from the book of Numbers regarding the prophet Balaam and his donkey.
(Put on the prophet costume) My name is Balaam and have I got a story for you. All these preachers try to explain what happened and make sense of my life, but they never get it right. Even some of the writers from the bible got real nasty and used me as an example:
Peter said “They have left the straight road and gone astray, following the road of Balaam, who loved the wages of doing wrong, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.” (2 Peter 2.15)
Jude wrote “Woe to the people who are wrong, for they go the way of Cain, and abandon themselves to Balaam’s error for the sake of gain.” (Jude 1:11)
And even the guy your church is named after had something to say: “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam and eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication.” (Revelation 2.14)
The truth is, I had a good gig, and I made the best out of it. I was a prophet of prophets, blessed with the powers of divination. I got lucky at the beginning, made a few good choices, used my words the right way, and stories about my powers began to spread.
Going through a dry-spell? For an affordable rate I would come out to your field and pray for the heavens to open up and the rain to pour forth: half due up front, and the other half on delivery.
Frustrated with your in-laws? With a reasonable down-payment I would travel to your relatives house and pray over their domicile for clear-heads and harmonious perspectives. Satisfaction NOT guaranteed.
Unsure of your future? With an easy set of monthly installments I would read your palms and tell you what was coming. I see an argument that remains unsettled… I predict days of joy and days of sorrow… You will be very cold in the winter and very warm in the summer… You will not get what you want for your birthday… Your wife will insist that you help with housework… Your husband will forget your anniversary…
I had a good gig and word spread quickly. Frankly, back in those days, people were willing to pay whatever I asked if they thought it could work. They were looking for cheap miracles at a high price, and I was the man to get the job done.
That’s when the King of Moab, a guy named Balak, entered my life. He had heard about this nation that had escaped Egypt, they called themselves the Israelites, and he wanted me to curse them. Now I wasn’t much for curses, but for the right price I would do anything.
We struck up a contract but before I signed the dotted line, the Lord appeared to me in a dream and told me not to curse God’s people, so I called the whole thing off.
But the king’s men came back and they offered me even more money, houses full of silver and gold. The Lord appeared again in a dream, telling me to go, but only to do and speak as he told me to.
When it came time to go, the money was speaking louder than the Lord so I set off on my trusted donkey, with dreams of swimming pools filled with gold and rooms covered in silver. Ready to say and do whatever it took to get my reward.
Time-out. (Remove prophet costume, and put on donkey costume)
What an idiot! Can you believe he called himself a prophet of prophets? More like a prophet of profit. I loved Balaam, I carried him everywhere he needed to go, but he was an idiot. Do you know how many times his false promises got us in trouble? I never knew anyone that could smile with such confidence knowing that he was selling hypocrisy. He was like all those televangelists wrapped up in one, and the people couldn’t get enough of it. It never made any sense to me.
What an idiot! The Lord finally gave him permission to go, but Balaam was far more concerned with what he wanted, than what the Lord wanted. (Remove donkey costume, and put on prophet costume).
With the donkey carrying me steadily along toward the king of Moab, I started preparing my plan of attack. For a curse of locusts and famine was a fixed rate, but I could throw in a flood for an extra 15%. I mean, when the king asks you to curse, he surely would have the means to pay for the big stuff.
But as I started tallying up the totals, the dumb donkey turned off the road and started walking into a field! So I picked up my switch and I let him have it.
Later on the journey, when I had finally got the curse prepared with all sorts of big and made-up words, the donkey scraped my foot against a wall! That fool really felt it when I hit him that time.
And finally, when we were close to our destination, the donkey laid down in the middle of the road and just sat there! I was furious, I was Balaam the prophet, so I picked up my switch and hit him for a third time. (Remove prophet costume, and put on donkey costume)
What an idiot. God was so angry with Balaam that he sent an angel of the Lord to kill him on the path, but he was so blinded by his love of money that he saw nothing. I knew that if I did not go into the field, or run us into the wall, or fall down in the path, that the angel of the Lord would surely kill my master.
But after Balaam hit me for the third time, something incredible happened. The Lord opened my mouth and I said to Balaam: “What have I done to you, that you have struck me three times? Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden your whole life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?”
Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, ready to kill him. Oh I wish you could’ve been there to see him fall straight to the ground, shaking and quaking in fear. That self-centered prophet of profit saw the error of his ways, and prayed for forgiveness from the Lord. (Remove donkey costume, and put on prophet costume.)
And would you believe it? The Lord told me to get up and say what he told me to say, and do what he told me to do. I met with King Balak, he showed me all the riches I was about to receive, and then he led me out to the Israelites. He told me to curse them, but when I went out to open my arms for the prayer, the Lord told me to bless them. So I did. (remove costume)
Balaam was supposed to be a prophet, someone who sees more than most, someone attuned to the will of God, and yet his donkey saw more than he did. Without that persistent reminder from the donkey carrying him on the road, Balaam would have been killed by his love of money and would have missed the opportunity for transformation.
I know a man who made a lot of money doing what he did, and spent more hours than most glued to his phone for work. One afternoon he came home and his son asked if they could play catch in the backyard. “No, no, no,” he said, “I’ve got too much work to do.” About a month later the son asked if his dad would pick him up from baseball practice to meet some of his friends, but the father had a business commitment so he said no. At the end of the season the son asked his father to come to his final baseball game to see him play, but a emergency happened at work, so the son played without his father in the stands.
Sometime later the family was getting ready to go on vacation and the father was fretting about whether or not his business would be alright without him and he spent the evening frantically packing whatever he could grab. When he turned around from the closet he saw his son stand in the door way holding an envelope. The young boy walked up to his father, and with the slightest quiver in his lip he handed him the envelope and said, “Dad, I’ve saved all my allowance from the last few months all the money I got for my birthday and I want to give it to you.” The father stood there in stunned silence as the boy finished: “but only if you promise to leave your phone at home when we leave for vacation.”
There are many donkeys in our lives, hoping to redirect our attention to the path in front of us. Be it a son vying for our attention, a sermon that strikes at our hearts, or a simple remark from a friend, the donkeys are there.
The good news is the fact that we get these little reminders at all! That rather than leaving us to our own devices, the Lord is active and alive in our midst. In our prayers we remember the world is much bigger than just ourselves. In the words of scripture we see faint reflections of ourselves and we are transformed by God’s grace. And in the bread and wine at this table we experience the one who gave his life for us, so that we might give our lives for others. Amen.