21 So Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the officials of Moab. 22 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. 23 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. 24 Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. 25 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. 26 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. 27 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. 28 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?” 29 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!” 30 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.”
31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face. 32 The angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse[a] before me. 33 The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live.” 34 Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home.” 35 The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.” So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak.”
Good morning! Today is the last week of our Weird Bible sermon series, where we are looking for God in some of the weirdest scriptures in the Bible. It’s been the perfect sermon series for 2020, which is probably the weirdest year I’ve ever lived through.
Like, did you hear about the evidence of voter fraud that came out this week? It’s quite scandalous, but there is now proof of election rigging in New Zealand’s “Bird of the Year” Competition! It seems that someone wanted the Spotted Kiwi Bird to win so badly that they submitted 1500 votes for that species!
Unfortunately for the Kiwi bird, those votes were all submitted from the same email address and have now been disqualified from the race. It looks like the fight for Bird of the Year will now be between the Kakapo, a rare nocturnal bird known for its owlish beak and yellow-green coloring and the only flightless parrot in the world and the Antipodean albatross, a critically endangered seabird. The voting closes today, so the world is waiting with bated breath to see who wins!
In other weird animal news, did you hear about the green puppy that was born in Italy last month? Apparently, it is very rare but occasionally pale puppies can turn green in the womb if they come in contact with a green pigment called bilviderin. I think it’s kind of sad that the green pigment isn’t permanent…but his owners have named him Pistachio so they will never forget that he started out his life bright green.
Speaking of puppies and dogs—I read this week that in Taiwan there appears to now be more pets in households than there are children under the age of 14. Taiwan credits the recent increase in pets to its focus on creating pet friendly accommodations at hotels, restaurants, and other public places. The city, with a population of about 2.7 million people, had more than 120 pet-oriented hospitality businesses as of last year, such as eateries that offer “gourmet” pet menus with human-grade ingredients.
2020 has been weird but we’ve been discovering together that as Christians, we are used to weird. We started this sermon series with the story of Jesus and the fig tree that he cursed because it didn’t have any fruit on it. Through that story, we learned that maybe even Jesus had moments that he wasn’t proud of—but he was able to redeem them and use them for good, and we can do the same thing.
Two weeks ago, we read the story of Elisha and the She-Bears, where the prophet cursed a bunch of kids who teased him for being bald. We learned that everything in the Bible was written within a specific culture, at a specific time, and to a specific group of people. So, the ancient Israelites learned not to disrespect the Prophets from it, and we learned to apply it to its ancient context rather than our contemporary one.
Last week, we read about that time that Jesus told his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood. We focused on the importance of communion to our faith, and that just because something is weird doesn’t mean it is bad or wrong. Sometimes, weird is exactly what we need!
You may have noticed that my weird news stories this week all had to do with animals. That’s because our final Bible story in this sermon series is about one of the most famous animals in the Bible—the talking donkey.
Context is important, so let’s back up a little bit and see why this donkey has to talk to its owner in the first place. Balaam and the donkey are from the book of Numbers in the Old Testament. The Israelites have come out of Egypt and wandered through the wilderness for 40 years, trying to find the Promised Land. Now, they have stopped wandering and settled in a region called Moab.
The ruler in Moab is King Balak, who is not at all excited that these Israelites have shown up in his land. He decides that he must go to battle with them to keep his hold on his property. So, he decides to do what any ruler would do in this situation—hire a seer to curse the Israelites so he will defeat them in battle. This seer is Balaam, the owner of the talking donkey.
I’ll take a slight detour here to tell you that Balaam is not seen as one of the “good guys” of the Bible. In fact, he is referenced 5 other times between the Old and New Testament and none of these mentions are favorable. For example, 2 Peter 2:14-16 references him in a rant against false prophets. It says,
“They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children!They have left the straight road and have gone astray, following the road of Balaam son of Bosor, 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.”
So, yeah. Balaam is not held up as a hero of the Israelites or the early Christians. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that decides to follow the king orders to curse Yahweh’s chosen people.
Scripture says he sets off on his trek to Moab on his donkey. As he’s going down the road, suddenly his donkey veers off the path! Balaam strikes him, trying to get him to go back to the road but the donkey refuses. Finally, the donkey lays down on the ground and will not move any farther. When Balaam goes to hit him again the donkey says, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”
Balaam doesn’t bat an eyelash at this…he seems totally unsurprised at his donkey talking to him and he responds to the donkey and says, “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 Balaam replies, “No.” and then his eyes are opened and he sees the angel that has been standing in his way brandishing a sword. He realizes that the donkey has actually been trying to save his life.
This is another one of those stories that aren’t in our lectionary. The sources that I frequently use to do research on scripture don’t address it. The writings that I have found tend to debate whether the donkey actually spoke out loud to Balaam or whether the story is just a folk tale. These are interesting questions, but they aren’t what stuck with me after reading the text. What I want to know is, if God can use a donkey to get Balaam’s attention, what else does God use to get our attention?
Have you heard of the Small Miracles books? They are a collection of true stories written up by writer and lecturer Yitta Halberstam and therapist Judith Leventhal. They’re sweet, heartwarming little books that point to how God is speaking to us today.
I love how they describe how God speaks to us in their book, “Small Miracles: Extraordinary Coincidences from Everyday Life.” It says,
“Thousands of years ago, God spoke to us through the sublime miracles God performed on massive and grandiose scales. In modern times, we are bereft of that privilege. Today we wrestle with a God who no longer parts seas, stops the sun, or turns people into pillars of salt. Instead we have coincidences – smaller, more personal, everyday miracles. For when one of these takes place, it is nothing more and nothing less than God tapping us on the shoulder, whispering, or at times even shouting: I am here! I am with you!”
We live busy lives and it’s easy to get so caught up in moving forward that we don’t pay attention to the moments where God’s still, small voice may be speaking to us.
So, if you take anything away from this Weird Bible sermon series, I hope it is this: God speaks to us through the weird and through the mundane. God uses fig trees and bears and bread and wine and donkeys—and maybe God also uses Netflix, and green puppy dogs, and exotic birds, and snow storms, and our neighbors.
Next week, we will begin the season of Advent. It is a season where we wait for Emmanuel—God with us. As we wait together, I invite you to also keep watch. I invite you to look for the donkeys that God has put in your path. I invite you to be open to seeing the places in your life where God is speaking to you, where the Spirit is nudging you forward, and where the Son is reminding you to follow his example.