October 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
Oct 14, 2012 Be here now Numbers 22:21-33, Ephesians 4:29-30
This morning is the first sermon I’m doing in a three part series we’re calling “Grow Where You’re Planted”.
It’s rooted in a desire to challenge the ongoing temptations many of us feel to spread ourselves too thinly across the many commitments we make that demand our time and attention.
Technology allows us easily, cheaply, and instantly transcend time and space in ways that were once impossible for the human race…and now they’re considered routine ways of relating to the world.
For example, the car is a piece of technology that we pretty much take for granted today.
Do you remember your first car?
Mine was a white 1984 Ford Tempo. I bought it from my cousin for $600 in 1994.
It lost its muffler soon after I got it, it was rusted through in various places, the radio didn’t work, and I remember one particular adventure where I drove it home from school with no brakes (I went real slow on back-roads and used the emergency brake when I needed to slow down or stop)!
But for all it’s shortcomings, my first car fundamentally changed the way I lived my life.
I no longer had to live by the same rules of time or space…I could drive the 7 miles to my job, or the five miles to school, within minutes, with no effort, and very little cost.
Those assumptions…that I can travel as far as I want to, quickly, cheaply, and easily…those are assumptions I still have.
I could drive home to Iowa this afternoon if I wanted to.
But that doesn’t mean I should.
Because if I’m driving to Iowa, or if I’m in Iowa…it means I’m not here.
No matter how much technology we acquire…we can still only be in one place at one time.
Be. Here. Now.
A car is a good example to use, because obviously if I’m talking about driving a car, I’m talking about physical presence. You can’t physically be in two places at the same time.
But the same is true of things like emotional, mental, or spiritual ‘presence’.
Where are you this morning?
Be. Here. Now.
This morning we’re looking at the story of Balaam.
It’s a story that might be familiar to many of us for one of two reasons.
Either, like me, you heard it as a child in Sunday school, complete with the flannelgraph figures of the angel and the donkey and Balaam and it was just so odd that it stuck in your head…or like Christine, you learned it in the form of a children’s song, and thus had it stick in your head as children’s songs tend to do. (And unless Sara is planning to have us sing the song as a congregation, I’m sure Christine would sing it for you after the service if you asked real nice!)
What I’m trying to say is, this story about Balaam and his talking donkey…for many of us, it’s hard to take seriously.
We might recognize that there’s some good stuff in it…but for the most part we might think it’s remedial, odd, or even irrelevant.
We don’t use donkeys to get around anymore, and talking animals belong in a C.S. Lewis book; not in our holy scriptures.
Besides that, it’s a pretty violent story. The angel of God is poised to kill Balaam for nothing more than obeying God! (In verse 20, God tells Balaam to go, and in verse 33, we learn that the angel would have killed him if it wasn’t for the donkey!)
That doesn’t quite square with what we believe about obedience, does it?
But what’s always bothered me the most, ever since I was little, was the issue of animal rights.
Three times Balaam beats this poor donkey, and even goes so far as to threaten it’s life!
And yet we treat the whole episode as a children’s story.
We’ve done ourselves no favors by relegating Balaam and his donkey to the flannelgraph, or teaching our kids to follow his example.
What I remember from my childhood was that Balaam was the hero.
And certainly, when we read the passage that we’ve read this morning, you can come away with that understanding. He listens to God, he’s obedient even when it gets dangerous, and he’s God’s instrument to bless the people instead of cursing them.
But there’s another side to Balaam that we don’t teach the kids.
You can find a hint of it in Numbers chapter 31:16, just a little ways after the passage we’re looking at.
In that chapter, we read that Israel goes to war against Midian, they kill five kings of Midian, and they also kill Balaam.
Then we find out why. The officers of the army bring back all the women of Midian, and Moses says “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. “
And what happened at Peor was that the Israelite men were having relations with the Midianite women, and bowing down to their gods as part of it.
In other words, even though God would not let Balaam openly curse His people, Balaam figured out a way to do it.
Tradition holds that Balaam snuck away after blessing the people, and explained to these kings that the women in their country could seduce the people of Israel away from their God.
That’s exactly what happened at Peor.
And that’s why the rest of the Bible holds a pretty negative view of Balaam.
(Deut 23:4-5, 2 Peter 2:15ff, Revelation 2:14)
So the first lesson I’d like you to take this morning is this.
Beware the hero-complex.
I don’t know what it is about us as people…but I know that we love to take these stories (especially the biblical stories) in all their complexity, ambiguity, and mystery…and we love to boil them down until they turn into a story about a hero and a villain.
We love to take stories and turn them into “good versus evil”, or “us versus them”.
And that’s what I’m calling the hero complex. Beware of it, especially when you approach the Bible and issues of faith…because the truth of any story is more complex than we wish it was.
Now, there are a couple of things about Balaam that are worth mentioning.
He’s known as a prophet, or a “seer” and yet He’s not an Israelite.
He speaks the words of God, he seems to have a special relationship with the God of Israel…and yet he’s not part of the chosen people.
Yet he is well-known for this gift that he has, to the point that the king of Moab sends for him to curse his enemies, which in this case happens to be Israel.
In the words of Balak the king of Moab, “I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.”
Now, here’s what we can take from this. (there are two things actually)
If Balaam’s words had the power to bless and curse…this guy who was not part of God’s people, this guy who was somehow devious enough to sneak around God’s back to lead Israel astray, if his words were as powerful as the Bible says they were…then how much more power must our words carry; as beloved children adopted by the One. True. God, whose spirit dwells within us?
This goes above and beyond simply being respectful of other’s opinions or communicating yourself clearly.
This is the power to bless and to curse!
Our words have power.
Our words bless or curse the people who hear them…so take speaking seriously!!
When you open your mouth, there is much on the line, for out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks…may the Holy Spirit of God be known through our use of language.
The other lesson that goes along with that is this: God is not bound to our notions of who ‘gets it’ and who ‘doesn’t’.
He chose the people of Israel to be his holy people, his set-apart people…they’re like his ‘test plot’ for the kingdom of God.
But this story suggests he also chose Balaam to work with; a foreigner is given access and power to pronounce the blessings and curses of the One True God.
This isn’t the only place where God reveals Himself to foreigners.
The book of Ruth demonstrates the same thing, that foreigners are welcome at God’s table.
Jesus meeting the woman at the well opens up that invitation even more…that foreigners are welcome toenter the kingdom of God.
God works where he will, with whom He will, in ways we will not often understand.
I’ve said a lot about Balaam so far…but not about his adventure on the donkey.
I’ve painted a portrait of a man who had an incredible gift; he spoke the very words of God even though he was not part of the chosen people…yet he had more sinister motives than we sometimes give him credit for.
But there’s more to it than that.
Balaam isn’t a role model, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from him.
He uses a donkey to go with the messengers that Balak sends.
And how does he treat that donkey?
He treats it poorly.
He beats it. He tries to force it’s course…not just once, but three times.
That, to me, speaks volumes about the condition of Balaam’s heart.
He was so interested in where he was going, that the slightest deviation from his course caused him to fly off in a fit of rage and abuse the creature that was taking him there.
Never trust someone who abuses a beast of burden.
Actually, never trust anyone who abuses anything. It’s a sign they’re headed towards an angry God.
But that’s not the main message I wanted to share this morning.
Balaam wasn’t present to the donkey, and he wasn’t present to God…because he wasn’t present to himself. He was so focused on where he was going, that he abused his means of getting there.
Be Here Now.
The way we live our lives today, it’s like we think we can do it all, say it all, and relate to everyone.
Because we are not God.
And our attempts to spread ourselves out using all available means…all it really does is dilute our souls until they are weak and ineffective, apt to lash out when instead we need to listen and practice the art of presence.
Be here now.
And in the words of Paul, Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs (their needs…not your needs), that it may benefit those who listen.
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly beloved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
For you were bought with a price, adopted as children of God in heaven whose kingdom knows no boundaries and whose reign extends to the gates of hell.
Our words carry the power of God, and if that doesn’t humble you, light your fire, and leave you half-scared to exercise the amazing ability to speak…then I don’t know what to tell you.
Maybe the best advice is just not to speak if you have nothing to say.
For there is no better way to practice being present…than in silence.