Preaching: Pastor Rebecca A. Henry
Date Presented: Sunday, August 21, 2016
Scripture Reference: Numbers 22:22-35, 23:5-12
Sermon: Lost Treasures Week One
No one does expect a horse, of course, to be able to speak. It is that fact that led to many of the laughs on the Mr. Ed show as neighbors and friends couldn’t figure out who Wilbur was talking to. Only it was this talking horse that was able to offer wise counsel to Wilbur.
As funny and as strange as it may be, we have just heard another such story. Maybe it served even as some inspiration for Mr. Ed. I mean, who expects to hear about a talking donkey when coming to church, but it is one of those treasured passages that shows us God will go to great lengths to get our attention, to guide us in what we need to be doing.
Balaam was not that different from us in many ways. He wanted to be faithful to God, to do what was pleasing to God. And like many of us he experienced a lot of pressure to go a different route, to make different choices. We have the best of intentions to worship regularly, but there are sports tournaments, work hours, special events that demand our attention. We say we are going to chance certain behaviors, but then we hang with the wrong crowd again, we make excuses for one more time. It is as Paul wrote in Romans 7: we don’t do the good we want to do; instead we do the evil we don’t want to do. (Romans 7:19). Well, Balaam also experienced great pressure from King Balak to come and curse the Israelites. Over and over he made promises, extravagant offers to Balaam to persuade him, but Balaam responded, “even if you gave me all your gold and silver I could not disobey God.” Only he ends up hearing God say he can go.
Balaam is certain he has God’s blessing and understanding, that this is what God wants. Only today’s reading begs to differ. God is angry. God does not want Balaam to go. It is hard to make sense, to explain verses 21 and 22. Maybe it was just what Balaam wanted to hear and he convinced himself it was true. Maybe this is the editing and combining of two different authors into one account as so often happens. We can only guess, but what is clear is there is tension. Balaam is focused, is determined to see King Balak and God is determined to stop him.
Only Balaam is slow to pay attention, to see the signs. God’s angel stands there with a sword; he appears at a very narrow passageway, not once but twice. Balaam is so focused on what he thinks needs to be happening, he just believes this faithful donkey is being obstinate. But God does not give up. God tries again, and this time, when the donkey talks, Balaam listens. He hears what God wants him to do, and he goes on to bless the Israelites, not curse them, as King Balak asks. In the end Balaam is faithful, but it was hard for him to see beyond his own ideas and to hear God’s guidance.
This is true for more than Balaam, but for all of us. We say we want God’s guidance, but how many times do we perhaps miss the signs, dismissing them with our own explanations? Is it more that we look for signs that God approves what we have determined to be the answer? It probably happens a lot, but the assurance we hear today is that God won’t give us reaching out to us until we get the message.
When I was in high school one of my homework assignments for religion class was to plan a prayer service. I was working on it one weekend, and I knew exactly what I wanted it to be about, but I was struggling to pull together the different pieces. So I decided to sleep on it. The next morning I woke up remembering a dream I had; there were the words “lean on me” and I knew that had to be the theme for the prayer service. Only then I remembered there were other words, too – a bright marquee sign with neon lights flashing “ministry.” What was that all about? Was God calling me into ministry?
I thought about it, and it made some sense. I was really involved in the church. I had been doing some preaching. I liked planning worship services to the point that I would be critical of some of my dad’s services. I heard what God was saying and I really wrestled with it. My parents can tell you: when I was in college we had many conversations about whether I was being called into ministry. Friends would tell me I was the one to turn to for questions for faith; Jill for math; Pam for science. They saw it in me. Only when I graduated I had determined I was to do something else.
I applied to college campuses and high schools to do work with peer mediation, or service learning. The problem was I wasn’t getting any responses. Finally, a mentor suggested I look at youth ministry. Desperate for a job, I did, and soon I had multiple churches calling me. It was when I was down in North Carolina on the first of several interviews that I got it. I was lying in bed, thinking and preparing for the interview the next day, when I started laughing. God got my attention. The signs, the messages had been there; they just kept coming. God wanted me in the church. All the other paths and opportunities were closing until I finally heard God.
I’m not the only one to experience it either. Last night I was visiting with Jim and Laura Brill, who shared with me about their son Dylan. He was looking to go on in his schooling for physical therapy. He had applied to three schools, and two of them had turned him down. At a loss about what to do, if this was the right path for him, he decided to go out to California to be with his brother. Laura was really concerned about this for him, but wanting to give him his independence, she held back from saying much. Instead she asked questions like, “What about Cincinnati? When did they say they would get back to you? Have you tried calling them?” Nevertheless, Dylan thought the best thing to do was pack up his car and head west.
Only first he went down to Indianapolis to see his grandmother. While he was talking to her his phone rang. It was an unknown number, and for some reason this time he decided to answer. It was Cincinnati offering him a place in their program.
It happens so often. We think we know what needs to happen, that this is the right job for me, or this is what I am supposed to do in the church. Maybe it’s how to handle different situations and we end up disappointed or frustrated like Balaam because things aren’t going the way we want.
Or maybe other times we don’t know what we should be doing. We want to do the right thing, but we feel unsure. We want some sign, some indication, but we don’t see them.
The good news we hear today is not to lose faith. God will guide us. God finds all different ways to communicate with us – in dreams, in scripture, in questions and insights from people, in closed or opening of opportunities, in stories we read, quiet reflections and journaling, just to name a few. God is speaking to us, but we have to slow down enough, be open enough to recognize God’s messages. And when we don’t, when we miss it, don’t panic. God doesn’t give up. God will try again and again. God will go to great lengths to reach you. Who knows, maybe there is even a talking donkey in your future. Just be ready because God is talking.