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Celebrating the Asses in Our Lives

A sermon based on the story of Balaam's Ass, Numbers 22-24
Copyright © 1997, 2005 Rev. Peter Sawtell

This sermon includes a telling of the story of Balaam's ass from the perspective of Balaam. That large section of the sermon is essentially a monlogue, with some help from the "narrator" -- the preacher. The role of Balaam was read by a rather flamboyant actor who is a member of the congregation.

The Bible is full of remarkable stories, some of them are even rather bizarre. Take the story of Balaam.

I first encountered this part of the Bible in the summer of 1969. I was a youth visitor to the United Church of Christ General Synod (national convention) that was held in Boston. Every morning, a humorous and opinionated newsletter was distributed to the delegates with the name of "Balaam's Ass."

As a high school student, I thought "Balaam's Ass" was a pretty nifty name for a newsletter at a national church gathering. I had to ask what the name referred to, and then I had to look up the story in the book of Numbers. I was disappointed to find out that it was about a donkey.

Today, instead of just reading the story from the Bible, I'd like to bring in Balaam himself, to tell the story personally.
Narrator:Welcome, Balaam. It is good to have you with us today!
Balaam:Thanks. It's good to be here.
Narrator:To help these folk understand what you have to tell us, let me point out that you come from what we call the Middle East at the time of the end of the Exodus.

Can you tell us what has been going on in your area?

Balaam:The thing that has really been stirring folk up is the Israelites moving in. Lots of them. They packed up and left Egypt years ago, and now they've decided to settle in to our neck of the woods. They've been waging wars against our neighboring cities. It's not a pretty sight.
Narrator:I understand that you were contacted by the King of Moab about this.
Balaam:That's right.
Narrator:Why would the king call on you?
Balaam:I have an unusual profession. I do blessings and curses. Usually it is nothing big -- people hire me to curse their business competition or their mother-in-law, or to bless their daughter's marriage -- the usual stuff. I've built up quite a reputation, and make a comfortable living.

This was my big break. The King of Moab (Balak, the son of Zippor) sent some of his folk clear over to where I live in Pethor -- that's near the Euphrates, a long trip -- to get me to curse the Israelites. When you've got an important job like cursing a whole army, you know, it pays to get the best!

Narrator:Why don't you just tell us the whole story?
Balaam:Well, like I said, Balak sent some of his servants over to Pethor, begging for me to come and deliver a curse. You see, there were more Israelites than Moabites. Those servants were really persuasive, babbling about how "the horde of Israelites will soon destroy everything around us, like a bull eating the grass in a pasture."

Now, I didn't want to appear to eager for the job, so I said to them, "Let me sleep on it."

That night, I had a dream, and the Lord appeared to me. The Lord said to me, "Who are these men who are staying with you?"

So, I filled in the Lord on the whole political situation, and how they wanted me to come and deliver a curse on the Israelites.

Then the Lord says to me in the dream, "Do not go with these men, and do not put a curse on the people of Israel, because they have my blessing."

Well, I was not real pleased with that. This was going to be my big break into the world of international-level cursing. But I could really ruin my reputation trying to curse an army that God has already blessed. So, I told the servants of Balak that the Lord refused to let me go with them, and sent them on their way back home.

Well, I guess old Balak really was desperate. He sent his top-level ambassadors right back over to see me. And they told me, "Please don't let anything prevent you from coming to see me! I will reward you richly and do anything you say. Please come and curse these people for me."

Now, that was really flattering, and the talk of being "richly rewarded" did catch my attention. I didn't want them to get their hopes up, though, so I told them, "Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not disobey the command of the Lord my God in even the smallest matter. But please spend the night, as the others did, so that I may learn whether or not the Lord has something else to tell me."

Well, I spent a pretty sleepless night, worrying about whether I could turn down a contract like that, or whether I could take it knowing about how God didn't want me to curse those folk. Finally, I got to sleep, and had another dream. This time, God seemed to know what the situation was. God says to me in the dream, "If these men have come to ask you to go with them, get ready and go, but do only what I tell you."

I don't know about you, but it sounds to me like God is having a change of heart. So, I tell the Moabites that we might have a deal. I saddle up my donkey and we hit the road for Moab.

While I'm riding along, I get to thinking about how things are really going well for me. First God says "no" and then backs off to a "maybe." And here I am riding along with all these big-name ambassadors, thinking about how much I can charge for a curse that wins them a war. It is my big chance. I can drop the whole nickel-and-dime mother-in-law business.

Narrator:But it turns out that you did not quite understand what God meant in that second dream?
Balaam:It's not my fault, you know. God didn't let me in on the whole plan. What was I to think? These ambassadors begging for a curse, and God says, "OK, go with them, but do only what I tell you." How was I supposed to know it was a trick?
Narrator:I think we're all on your side here, Balaam. How did you find out that God had other plans?
Balaam:God is not one to just come out and tell you what's going on, you know? So here's what happened. I'm on my donkey, headed to Moab with the ambassadors. And all of a sudden the damn ass starts braying its head off and goes careening into the fields. Scared me half to death, and the ambassadors think I can't even control my donkey.
Narrator:[aside, to congregation] What Balaam did not know is that Balaam's ass had seen an angel of the Lord standing in the middle of the road, holding a sword.
Balaam:Right. And just how was I supposed to know that?

Well, I give my ass a couple of good whacks, and get it back on the road, and we keep riding. And we get to a place where the road goes between two vineyards, and there are stone walls right up against the side of the road. And that invisible angel stands in the middle of the road again. And the donkey presses clear over to one side of the road, to try and get past the angel and his sword, and crushes my foot against the wall.

Well, I let that ass know what I thought about that little trick, and beat it 'till it knew who was in charge. And those ambassadors almost fell off their horses they were laughing so hard. I could see my credibility going right down the drain. After all, if I can't control my own donkey, what can I do about the armies of Israel?

We finally get under way again, and come up to a place where the road goes between two big rocks -- just a little tiny notch where you have to go single-file. My donkey starts dancing around again, and gets right up to the notch, and lies down in the middle of the road. Won't get up. The ambassadors are hooting and laughing. So I take my stick and start beating the donkey, cursing up a storm.

And then the donkey turns around, and talks to me plain as day, and says, "What have I done to you? Why have you beaten me these three times?"

Well, I was so angry that I didn't stop to think about the way my donkey was talking to me, and I just answered it: "I'm beating you because you have made a fool of me! If I had a sword, I'd kill you."

The donkey replied: "Am I not the same donkey on which you have ridden all of your life? Have I ever treated you like this before?"

Well, I thought about that for a bit. And I started to mull over the fact that my donkey was now carrying on a conversation with me, and that something unusual did seem to be going on. So, I finally said to the donkey, "No, you have never treated me like this before."

And then, only then, only when I had made a complete and total ass of myself, does the Lord let me see the angel standing in the road with his sword. So, I throw myself on the ground and grovel.

And the angel says to me, "Why have you beaten your donkey three times? I have come to bar your way, because you should not be making this journey. You were told to go to Moab, and listen for God's instructions, but you have been hoping to strike it rich by cursing the Israelites. Your donkey saw me, and turned aside three times. If it had not, I would have killed you and spared the donkey."

Well, at that point, I told the angel that I understood just fine, and I would go right home, thank you very much. But the angel says, "No, go on with these men, BUT SAY ONLY WHAT I TELL YOU TO SAY."

Narrator:To make a very long story as short as possible, can you tell us what happened when you got to Moab?
Balaam:All anybody wants to hear about is that damn taking ass and the invisible angel.
Narrator:No, the rest of the story is important, too. Just try to keep it short.
Balaam:OK - I get to Moab. Balak the King meets me, and makes a snippish little comment about "Why didn't you come the first time -- didn't you think I could pay you well enough?" So I say, "I came, didn't I? But, look, I can only say what God tells me to say."

Balak takes me out near where the Israelite army is camped. And he offers sacrifices and builds alters to his god. And I tell the king, "You stay here, I'm going to go see what the Lord tells me to do."

And the upshot of the whole thing, when I have the king of Moab eating out of my hand, is that God tells me to bless the army of Israel. That was the whole scam. God says, "don't go" and then God says "OK, go" just as a way of getting me there to give the blessing.

So I do it. I stand on the hill and bless Israel, and then I go back and tell Balak what God has told me to do. As you can guess, Balak was not pleased. He brings me to curse Israel because he knows that my blessings and curses work, and then I turn around and bless the Israelite army. Not just once, but three times.

And, surprise, surprise, I didn't get paid -- not by Balak, and not by God or the Israelites.

Narrator:But you did the right thing, Balaam, and we respect you for that. Thank you for sharing your story with us today.

What is the story about? There are many answers to that, on a variety of different levels. That the promises of God to Israel will not be forgotten. That God works in very mysterious ways. There are themes about the authentic word of prophecy, and the power of blessings and curses. There is even a celebration of Balaam's faithful actions -- eventually.

But there is a sub-theme here, almost an assumption, that needs to be pointed out. The story of Balaam's Ass depends -- rather obviously -- on the ass. God's will is revealed through the actions of a donkey, that trustworthy, reliable donkey with years of service.

The reliable, plodding donkey is an instrument of revelation. The donkey sees the danger, and communicates by acting differently. Balaam's ass does not understand who the angel of the Lord is, or why the angel of the Lord is there, but Balaam's ass is clear-headed enough not to walk headlong into this angry looking angel with a sword.

Balaam got it all wrong by beating the donkey. The right thing to do is say, "What is going on? Why is my donkey acting like this?" Maybe, if he would have opened his eyes, Balaam could have seen the angel right off the bat.

Today, having enjoyed the story of Balaam, I want us to celebrate the asses in our lives. I want us to celebrate those who unwittingly, unknowingly, frustratingly point out to us warning messages that we have not been able to see.

When something happens that is out of the ordinary, it may be an occasion of revelation. When something that has been utterly predictable stops being predictable, we should look for deeper meanings -- and not beat the messenger.

Now, we won't always find deeper meanings. If the reliable old car won't start, it just may be out of gas. And if your normally pleasant kid becomes a teenager and starts getting surley, well, that is to be expected.

But, in the spirit of Balaam and his ass, we need to be open to revelation and insights. When the predictable suddenly changes, let's start looking for an angel of the Lord.

There's a school of thought in psychology and counseling called "family systems theory." One of the principles of that school of thought is that stress within a whole family often pops out in the actions and feelings of one family member. Changes in one person's behavior may speak to a much larger issue:

In our families, sudden changes in ordinary behaviors might just be something totally personal. But those sudden changes from the routine and predictable might be revealing something else.

Balaam beat his donkey three times for acting unpredictably, when the donkey was doing the very best that it could do.

Maybe the family member whose behavior changes is turning aside from something worse. Maybe the angel of the Lord is there to speak to us, saying that something larger is wrong.

Balaam's ass broke out of its docile routine because the angel of the Lord said, "Stop!" Maybe, in our families, a sudden break from predictable behaviors is an act of revelation. The behavior change is a dramatic sign of far larger stresses and disfunctions. And, like Balaam, we should look for the angel to gain understanding, and not beat the donkey for misbehaving.

That is not to belittle school problems, or problem drinking, or depression, or the other issues that crop up in families. Those are serious problems, and change is certainly needed. But family systems theory, and the story of Balaam, say that the problems will not be solved by dealing only with the symptoms.

And, so, too, in our society. Frightening changes in routine social behaviors should cause us to look for the angel of the Lord. It seems almost common sense:

Well, I've been ranging pretty far from the story. Let's get back to Balaam and the ass, where animal behavior speaks of hidden angels. We do see a fairly close parallel in today's environmental situation. The reliable animals are letting us know that something is deeply wrong.

It is not just one animal speaking to us, but countless ones. When the populations of migrating songbirds plummet, they are speaking to us about habitat destruction and toxic chemicals. When the rate of extinction is running about 1,000 times higher than reliable, long-standing rates, the dying species are are calling out to us. When we see increasing conflicts between humans and predators -- the species whose habitats we are moving into -- there is a message that we need to hear.

And the forces of nature are also speaking to us. Global climate change -- driven by the carbon dioxide that modern society produces from burning fossil fuels -- is an indicator of how we're doing the wrong things, going the wrong way.

The natural world is speaking to us. The predictable, eons-old patterns of nature have changed. There is a message.

The ass said: "Am I not your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Was I ever accustomed to do so you you?"

What is going on? God has placed angels in our path, and nature is not to blame for collapsing under us.

As I have told the story of Balaam this morning, Balaam's self-interest blinded him to the prsence of God. His eagerness to gain wealth from serving the King of Moab kept him from understanding what God had in mind.

The animals of our world are proclaiming to us that our way of living in this world is not God's way. The rest of creation, in crisis and collapse, is calling our to us to be attentive to God. Those voices from nature are joined by most of the scientific community.

Unfortunately, the leaders of our own country have not heard and understood. Political and business leaders from the US have been far less willing to listen to the warning that nature is giving to us. The US has refused to make the firm commitments that are necessary to slow the destruction of the planet.

The voices of nature are speaking to us more clearly and more vividly than Balaam's ass. When our so-called leaders won't listen, it seems that we must be the ones to hear that message, translate it into blatant political language, and deliver it persistently to those in positions of power.

The angel stood in the road because Balaam -- who did have God's OK to go to Moab -- was not attentive to doing God's will. He thought that going to Moab could only mean cursing the army of Israel. God had to intervene with a message of new possibilities.

Balaam should have listened in the first place, and been attentive to the possibility of revelation. But the good news is, that when we miss the point, God can and will intervene to remind us and redirect us, and to open us to new possibilities.

In families -- in society -- in nature -- be attentive! When the predictable becomes unpredictable, don't lash out and don't assume that you know best about where we should be going. Instead, look deeply. Look for hidden dangers, look for what God wants in the world, and look for new possibilies.

Let us celebrate the asses in our lives. Celebrate those who, like Balaam's donkey, reveal God's will to us when we are too blind to see how we've done it wrong.

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