God (and Donkeys)
05 Oct 14
This is a useful tool for small group discussion, personal reflection or in a one-on-one conversation. We believe that if the Sunday teaching is discussed outside the morning services, it will be an opportunity to go deeper and build community because God's Word needs to be discussed in community.
“God in 30 minutes.” That’s essentially this Sunday’s sermon, although that’s not the exact title. It sounds downright irreverent, but God is, nevertheless, the topic this week in our series on Core Strength, sermons on foundational truths.
So try “God on one page, double-sided”. That’s essentially this week’s Touching Base. Read on.
The Bible itself gives several summaries of God: who He is, what He’s up to generally, and His plans for humankind.
Read Acts 7 where Stephen, his face shining like an angel, gives a short history lesson to a Jewish audience of God’s acts for the previous 2000 years (some of the most eloquent and profound last words). Read Acts 17:22-34 where Paul, standing on Athens’ Areopagus, gives a short philosophy lesson on God’s nature to a Gentile audience. Need it shorter? Read Hebrews 1:1-3.
Less than 150 words so far. We could stop now. Just read the above passages or go for the whole Bible. You will find out about God.
But if you want something in between the little speeches of Acts and the whole Genesis-Revelation package, we’ll keep going.
And talk about donkeys.
Back near the beginning of the Bible in Numbers 22-24, the Israelites have been wandering around the desert for years. They’ve been spectacularly unbelieving and even their leader, Moses, has sinned and won’t be allowed to enter the Promised Land.
But the Israelites forge ahead and gather to travel through Moab. The King of Moab is terrified because he sees how many Israelites there are. So he resorts to a very ancient practice and summons a famous diviner named Balaam to come (possibly a long way and for a handsome reward) to curse the threatening Israelites and so bring defeat upon them.
Balaam rides his old donkey on his way to carry out this mercenary curse-for-hire. If you’re not familiar with the story or don’t hear the sermon, read Numbers 22:22-35. It’s a good read, and unexpected. After the donkey annoys Balaam three times with Balaam responding angrily, Yahweh opens the donkey’s mouth and it says, “What have I done to you to deserve these beatings?”
“You have made a fool of me!” Balaam shoots back.
“Haven’t I been a faithful old ass? Do I usually do this kind of thing?” asks the donkey rhetorically.
“You have, and no,” Balaam admits.
Then he, too, sees the angel of Yahweh.
When Balaam arrives in Moab, God then opens Balaam’s mouth – and out come blessings, over and over, on God’s people. The King of Moab who hired Balaam isn’t impressed, but on the blessings go anyway. Finally, the King, exasperated, tells Balaam to just stop – “don’t curse them or bless them at all!” – and then to go home. He then adds, not surprisingly, “Yahweh has kept you from being rewarded.”
The God Who Acts:
The Old Testament isn’t the story of Adam, or Abraham, or Joseph, or Moses, or David. It is the story of Yahweh. He is the central character and it is His character that is developed.
In this story, God is not abstract. The story doesn’t go about attempting to prove the existence of Yahweh to the pagan diviner, Balaam, by proofs and argument. Instead, Balaam sees God’s actions and is forced to shout, “What hath God wrought!” or “See what God has done!” This God acts – donkeys speak – and acts for his own – God protects them from temporal armies and from the curses of the spirit world.
Question: What attributes of God does this story illustrate?
Powerful… frightening… having a sense of humour…? Perhaps.
Sovereign… incomparable… unchanging? Certainly.
All of the above quickly come to mind (not quite accurately) as “Old Testament” attributes of God. Would the adjectives “Loving” and “Triune” jump to mind?
If you read through Genesis – that part of Scripture we tend to think of as rife with wise old bearded men with a God to match – you will find that the history is full of Yahweh as loving and extraordinarily merciful.
The pagan, Balaam, with little previous knowledge of Yahweh before meeting Him in the road, extols the attributes of Yahweh without full understanding. I picture him listening to himself as he opens his mouth and emits the poetic blessings and marveling at who this God is with whom he is unwittingly tangling far from home while overlooking the wilderness.
“The Lord their God is with them; the shout of the King is among them,” Balaam proclaims of the Israelites. The One who is giving him the oracles is actually among the people down below in the plain; He is on their side. “See,” Balaam shouts for anyone listening, “what God has done!”
Read Deuteronomy 23:5
Later, in the midst of lists of Jewish Laws in Deuteronomy, a reflection on the story of Balaam once again illuminates God: “The Lord your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you” (emphasis mine). This verse is an important explanatory footnote. It is the backstory you cannot help but infer when reading about Balaam, but it’s still comforting to get it in writing – and literally in a legal document as well. It couldn’t be plainer.
Read Numbers 24:2-4 and 17
“Triune” means “three in one”. We often think of God the Father as the default position of God, the God of the Old Testament who created everything, called Abraham out of Haran, and gave Moses the Ten Commandments. But that is quite one-sided (just one of three sides, actually).
When Balaam is about to proclaim his third oracle, “the Spirit of God came upon Balaam…” (24:2). The Spirit Himself comes upon the pagan diviner and it is then that he can refer to himself as one whose “eye is opened,” one who “hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty,” whose eyes are “uncovered”.
And a little later: “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (24:17). Many commentators, including Irenaeus, a Church Father as early as the 2nd century, thought this prophecy referred to Jesus, the Messiah, God the Son.
It’s quite a view of God that a pagan from Pethor and his donkey were privileged with that day.
I must include one more brief donkey story to be complete.
Find and read Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in any of the four Gospels (or all of them, as they’re short).
It’s another story of a donkey doing the unexpected. The first one talked. This one is young and untamed and likely lively and skittish and yet lets a man ride on it while people shout loudly on either side and even throw coats and branches near it. The star of Jacob, the bright and morning star, the scepter of Israel, the King Himself comes riding in on this donkey.
No fiery angel blocked the way for that donkey that day. No, the angels were surely standing back watching history unfold before their eyes. No drawn sword blocked the way. The gates of Hell could not have barred the route from the Mount of Olives, though they undoubtedly tried. The donkey didn’t turn right or left or lie down. As it did in Numbers 22, it obeyed God, but this time God was sitting on its back. The King whose shout among His people so astonished Balaam, the God of power and incomparability and sovereignty that protected the Israelites from their enemies was now quiet, “humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden” (Matthew 21:5). The only shouts came from the crowds lining the way: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
The Big Idea this week?: God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are active and loving. We will spend eternity trying to fathom each of those words.
Question: What attributes or names of God do you most associate with Him? Are there ones you’ve heard in Scripture but can’t understand or try to avoid?
Question: God is the main character of the Old and New Testaments, the one who acts, the one to be reckoned with, the one who protects His own, the one driving history with purpose moment-by-moment, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He reveals Himself in these stories by acting. In your story, do you know of Him in the abstract, or can you think of times when He has shown Himself to you by His actions?
Aside for discussion: Is a talking donkey hard to believe? Read 2 Peter 15-16, where Peter refers to the donkey’s speech. (How is it that the parts of the Old Testament that some find “fantastical” are cited in the New Testament, sometimes by Jesus Himself – the creation of Adam and Eve, Jonah and the whale, Balaam’s donkey?) Which is harder to believe? – a donkey that speaks plain donkey opinions, or a famous pagan diviner hired for pay to curse but who blesses?
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