There’s Someone I’d Like You to Meet

(You should take a few minutes to read Numbers 22:1-38.)

A while back I read a couple of things that had me just shaking my head.  The first of these was a Gallup Poll from several years ago.  The folks at Gallup recognized that thanks to the widespread use of the internet information is both more widely and more quickly available.  But why then are people so gullible about the stuff that they read (“If it’s on the internet it must be true!”) And what about the “good, old-fashioned” general knowledge that people should be carrying around in their heads — do we still know the most basic facts about our history and our world?  To check out these questions they put together a poll to see how we Americans do when asked general knowledge questions.  They reported that most Americans did pretty well with their answers – although there were two categories in particular that made me just want to say “Come on man! – You got that one wrong?”   What were the two categories?

#1.  From what country did America gain its independence following the Revolutionary War?  24% or roughly 1 in 4 Americans could not answer that it was Great Britain.

#2.  In the category of General Science – does the earth revolved around the sun or does the sun revolve around the earth?  21% of Americans got it wrong.  How can that be?  Did they never have to build a model of our solar system during their own or their children’s school years? I’m pretty sure that I helped build four of those in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s (We’ve got four grown children.)

Now, if Americans didn’t know that Pluto is no longer considered a planet I would understand.  (The International Astronomical Union formally defined what it means to be a “planet” in 2006 and that definition excluded Pluto and reclassified it as a member of the new “dwarf planet” category.)  But how is it that there are people educated in American schools who do not know that the earth revolves around the Sun.

Perhaps even more upsetting to me were the results of the Pew Forum’s Religious Knowledge Survey.  It included 32 questions to ascertain who knows what about religion.  In this survey, people were allowed to self-identify themselves as to which religious group they belonged.

Which group knew the most about religion?  Ironically it was the Atheist/Agnostic group who on average got 20.9 answers correct or just over 65%.  Slightly behind them in 2nd place at 64% were those who identified themselves as Jews.  3rd place belonged to the Mormons who averaged 63%.  The average for all those who took the test was 16 right answers – or 50% correct.  Those who identified themselves as Christians averaged 49% correct on their answer sheet.  In other words, overall, we Christians came in, as a group, below the average – and way below the Atheists and Agnostics.

Back in the 1940’s Winston Churchill was heard to say that “the best argument against democracy is a 5 minute conversation with the average voter…”  I’m wondering if the best argument against Christianity isn’t a 5 minute conversation with the average Christian.”

Ouch!  That hurts doesn’t it?  Yet the fact remains that too much we Christians don’t know enough about what we believe – and why we believe it – and that this is especially true when it comes to our knowledge and understanding about the Bible.

Matt Brown had an article recently on the desiringGod website with the title, Don’t Say God is Silent When Your Bible is Closed.  He notes that, God is always ready to speak into our lives. We simply need to listen, tuning our ears and hearts to what he is saying in the book he inspired. When we open the Bible, we find more than 750,000 words breathed out by God himself for us. 

 It was A.W. Tozer who said, “The Bible is not only a book which was once spoken, but a book which is now speaking.”

So along with encouraging you to shake the dust off your Bible, what I plan to do today and over the next few Sundays is to take a look with you at some of the lesser known people in the Bible.  It’s not just the Paul and Peter or Moses and Noah that are important.  God, in His inspiration of the Scripture, had the accounts of these others included as well.  Why?  Just for filler?  Or is there purpose to these stories as well?

You know my answer don’t you?  Of course these accounts are important – in each one of them we find guidance from God as to who it is that He wants us to be and to how it is that He wants us to live.  If we are serious as people who say that Jesus Christ is both Savior and Lord – then we need to know and understand His word – and not just part of His word but all of it.

Today I would like to introduce you to a man named Balaam.  This is an old story – the events we read about in our Scripture passage happened some 3000-4000 years ago – and at points the account may seem a tad confusing when you first read it – so to set the stage – let me begin with some background.  Moses has led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt – and as a consequence of their disobedience they end up wandering about in the wilderness for 40 years before God allows them to enter the Promised Land.  But when they do – they hit the ground moving – and under the leadership of Joshua they begin to lay claim to the land which God has promised them.

As we come to our story – Balak – the King of Moab  – is looking down from a high spot in the hills as the people of Israel move in his direction – and there are so many of them that they look like a gigantic herd grazing their way up the valley – and Balak wonders “who could possibly stop them?”  Balak is more than a bit concerned by this – he does some quick calculations – and decides that if he and the people of Moab are to take on these newcomers he’s going to need some help – the kind that comes from a “higher power.”

Now there’s this guy named Balaam over at Pethor, near the river, who has a reputation at being pretty good with this “higher power” stuff.  It seems that if he comes and blesses you – things go well for you – but if he comes and curses you – you are in trouble big time.  Not only that – but he’s for hire – for a fee of course – he is sort of a Paladin of the old Middle East – “Have curse, will travel.”  (Anyone remember Paladin??)

King Balak sends off some of his dignitaries with an urgent message to Balaam – along with the usual fee.  King Balak, however, does not know is that there is a problem with all of this.  Balak and the folks in Moab don’t realize that this horde of people coming up the valley out of Egypt – are the people of Israel – God’s own people.  To be honest Balak and his people really could care less which god it is that Balaam works through – they don’t even ask.  You know what’s coming next don’t you?  Balaam’s God and the God of this horde – are one and the same.

So the dignitaries go to Balaam and he answers them something like this – “Listen fellas, spend the night –I’ll check it out and I’ll get back to you in the morning.”  Balaam asks God what he should do with Balak’s request and God says “there’s no way you can curse these people, because they are blessed – by me – they are mine.”  The next morning Balaam sends them on their way.

The dignitaries go back to their King without Balaam – they tell the king what has happened – but King Balak is not one to take “no” for an answer.  You can almost hear him thinking – “Why Balaam – you old camel trader you – didn’t offer you enough did we?  Didn’t spend enough time wooing you?”  So a second time Balak sends an entourage to Balaam – this time including some princes and even more important ambassadors of the King – along with a promise that Balaam will be rewarded “handsomely.”

Now this seems to have gotten Balaam’s attention – as he starts negotiating – and his first retort is, “Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold – of course I could not do anything beyond the command of the Lord my God.”  The princes and other emissaries of Moab must have replied, “Well, anything’s possible – we’ll talk and see you in the morning.”

Balaam talks with God that night – explains the situation again – verse 20 in many modern translations reads: “That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.”—but it means something more like – “Listen, if they come to you again in the morning – you can go – but you can only do what I tell you.”

Evidently – Balaam has only been half listening to God – he’s got $$ signs filling his eyes – he doesn’t wait for the folks from Moab to come again – instead he gets up – saddles his donkey and heads off for Moab – evidently out in front of the entourage of Moabites.

Now this is when the story gets to be fun for us to read – God is rather upset with Balaam – and there’s a lesson here for us – a lesson about listening to God – when we only half listen we get ourselves into trouble.  God wants our full attention when He’s talking – when we are studying His word – when we are considering what the Scripture is teaching us.

It might seem strange to us for Balaam to be riding a donkey – wouldn’t a camel be quicker? But a donkey was the appropriate mode of transportation of a “prophet-for-hire.”  Donkeys you see were believed to be clairvoyant – to have a special spiritual sensitivity and awareness – and in this case it proved to be true.  God sent an angel to stop Balaam.  Balaam was evidently too blinded by his own ambition and greed to see him – but there he was according to our passage — standing right in the middle of the road with a sword. But the donkey saw him – and having more good sense than her owner – she got off the road – until Balaam beat her into going back on the road again.

Three times God sent an angel – two times the donkey changes directions – the third time she just laid down in the middle of the road and stopped.  And here’s another lesson for us – there is nowhere that we can go – no direction that we can head – where God is unaware of where we are going and why.  Sometimes God goes ahead of us to cut a path for us – or perhaps he will act to stop us if we are headed in the wrong direction – he tries to warn us – to slow us down – to turn us in the right direction.  But often, we are just so stubborn – so stiff-necked – so sinful that we just don’t heed the warning.  Sound like anybody that you know??

Balaam was fortunate here – God gave his donkey a voice – “What is the matter with you?  Why do you keep beating on me?  Can’t you see the angel of the Lord who is standing in the middle of the road?”

“What angel?” And then his eyes are opened – “Oh that angel – Hi there Mr. Angel – how are you?  – nice sword – I’m in trouble here aren’t I?  I guess I got a bit a head of myself – didn’t I?”   “I have sinned – I will go back”

The angel then tells Balaam, “Go to Moab – but speak only what I tell you!!!”

The rest of the story tells how Balak tried to butter up Balaam – took him up to the high place – showed him the people of Israel that he was to curse – said, “go on now, get to work.” But Balaam blessed rather than cursed Israel.  No doubt the vision of God’s angel was still fresh in his mind.

Sadly, however, in the long term the Bible tells us, it did not last – Balaam came to the point where he gave in to his greed and eventually abandoned God because of it.  In 2 Peter 2:15 and in Jude 11 – it tells us that Balaam was ultimately destroyed because of it.

The story of Balaam is one of those stories where it is fun to read between the lines and to imagine the scene when the Donkey and his master have a conversation – or to see Balaam’s face when he sees the angel.  But this story is not included in the Bible for comic relief – it is a very serious account with some very sharp lessons for us.

Are you listening to God – or only half listening?  Are His priorities your priorities?   Is there something in your life which you have made so important that you cannot see clearly the path Christ has for you.  The wonder of the Scripture is that the vast majority of God’s commandments and guidelines for our lives are quite plain.  You don’t need some fancy degree to figure them out.  We may not understand all the “whys and wherefores” but the “whats and whos” are plain as can be.

And isn’t it a tremendous comfort to know that God is faithful – that He doesn’t just let us run off on our own way – that He again and again and again tries to warn us – and to turn us – and to drive us to repentance.

No doubt you have heard the saying – “The first rule of holes.  When you’re in one – stop digging!”  Some of us are in holes – but we haven’t stopped digging – and there is not always a talking donkey to get our attention and to warn us in such a dramatic way.

Perhaps it is time for you to begin taking your relationship with Jesus Christ more seriously than you ever have before.  Spend time in His word – and do those things you know He wants you to do – repent of those things that you know that He does not want you to do.

Maybe it’s time to stop for a minute and consider, just how well are you listening to God?