Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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“THE HEAVENLY HUMOR OF BALAAM AND THE BEAST”

Text:  Numbers 22:21-31

           Proverbs 3:3-8

One Sunday morning, a twelve year-old boy was still adjusting to being too old to attend children’s

church anymore. He was now forced to endure the entire big people’s service.  On the way home

following worship, junior had a question:  “Mom, is it okay to laugh in church?” to which his father

answered with a snicker, “Just as long as Mrs. Gillie and the McCabe sisters don’t see you.” “But dad,

what if God sees me?”  His mother replied reassuringly:  “That’s okay.  God will probably be laughing

right along with you.”

      It seems to me that not only is it okay to laugh in church; it may even be a good thing.  It’s true

that down through history, church hasn’t exactly been a haven of joyful humor and mirth, nor a

place where one might feel comfortable letting out anything from a chuckle to a belly laugh.  A mini-

ster once said to the late Groucho Marx: “Groucho, I want to shake your hand for all the joy you

have brought into the world.”  Groucho responded in his usual cynical manner:  “Thank you.  I want

to shake your hand for all the joy you’ve taken out of the world.”

      Does it not only stand to reason that God has a sense of humor?  Otherwise, where did it come

from?  I believe God in God’s way weeps and mourns with us in our pain and suffering.  I am equally

convinced that God smiles and laughs with us in our joys and triumphs.  A Reverend Harold Kohn

once made this observation:  “While there is much terror and sordid ugliness in the world, there is

also a stream of health, cascading like a clear mountain rivulet of melted snow through human expe-

rience.  This steam is the flow of wholesome, spontaneous laughter – God’s gift for refreshing and

renewing our souls…….Laughter is an affirmation of God’s final triumph over the worst that can befall

us.”  The late and beloved cartoonist of Peanuts fame, Charles Shultz, once commented that “No one

would have been invited to dinner as often as Jesus was unless He was not only interesting and

inspiring, but also had a sense of humor, and could tell a good joke.”

      I’m convinced that if Christianity is going to be an effective and relevant witness in the face of

the cultural threats against it, it’s going to have to respond with – first and foremost – a radically in-

clusive love.  And one of the vehicles upon which that love will ride out are joy, wit, and humor.  I’m

not suggesting that the church be a comedy club.  A few years ago, there was a movement gaining

ground in the evangelical church called “holy laughter,” in which worshipers would sit for an hour or

longer and laugh hysterically; usually led by a standup comedian/evangelist like Louisiana preacher

Jesse Duplantis.  I have a problem with that.  Yet if our aim is to bring the joy of our gracious Creator

and Savior into people’s lives, then humor and laughter can serve as expressions of that joy.

     All that having been said, I’d like to call our collective attention to an Old Testament passage writ-

ten some four thousand years ago which brings us an important message today.  Yet the story – the

vehicle upon which the message is communicated – is a lighthearted and humorous, and somewhat

goofy tale about a clairvoyant named Balaam.  Hear now, and be not afraid to chuckle in response to,

this word inspired of God.

          (Read Numbers 22:21-31)

      In the entire Bible, this is only one of two instances where we encounter a talking animal.  The

first, you’ll remember, was a serpent.  This morning, we meet a talking jackass.  You may be thinking

to yourselves, “Yeah, I’ve met a few of those in real life.”

       Balaam was a Mesopotamian soothsayer – not an Israelite at all – who was asked by the King of

Moab to pronounce a curse on the nation of Israel.  You see, the Moabites feared the sheer number

of Jews who had come out of Egypt, passing through the plains of Moab on their way to the promise

land.  King Balak promised a sizeable reward to Balaam as compensation for this request recorded in

verse 6 of the 22nd chapter of Numbers:  “Come now, curse this people for me, since they are stron-

ger than I; perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land; for I know that

whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.”

      Even though Balaam was not an Israelite, he believed in God, and prayed to God, and the text

tells us that God spoke to him.  Balaam prayed to God, in fact, about this offer from King Balak.  In

response, God advised Balaam not to curse the people of Israel as they were specially chosen and

blessed.   Herein lies the first lesson in the story:  that God speaks to people, responds to people, even

works through people who are not part of the covenant community.  We Christians often like to think

we have a lock on God.  We often fancy that God’s Spirit can only legitimately live in, speak to, and

work through those who are just like us; who share our doctrines, our beliefs, our traditions, our

manner of worship and service.  But God’s providence is profoundly vast, and God’s means and

methods of reaching the human heart transcend every doctrine, or religion, or tradition.  As we’ve

discussed before, God is the one God over all people – Jews and Christians, Mesopotamians and

Moabites; Muslims, and Hindus, and Buddhists; even atheists who have not yet admitted that God is

there. 

      As the saga of Balaam unfolds, delegates of the king have asked him to accompany them to the

king’s court where Balaam would be highly honored.  At first, God doesn’t want Balaam to go.  But

eventually, God relents and grants permission; only warning as recorded in verse 20 that “If the

men have come to summon you, get up and go with them; but do only what I tell you to do.”

      The next morning, Balaam sets out for Moab.  Yet something wasn’t right.  We’re not told what

was on Balaam’s mind and heart.  I suspect that he was enticed and dazzled by the reward and honor

he expected to receive if he said and did all the right things by King Balak.  But for some unrevealed

reason, God withdrew approval of this journey.  So God sent an angel to block Balaam’s way.  The

second lesson in the story is that we’re not to be surprised if God places or permits some sort of

roadblock in our path if we’ve pledged to follow God’s lead, but find ourselves lured, and dazzled by,

and decide upon another direction outside God’s expressed will.  That roadblock is rarely an angel

with a drawn sword in its hand.  Instead, it may be an unexpected turn of events, or some unanticipa-

ted setback which hinders our taking the wrong road. A door may close in order that we seek another

which God has opened or will be opening wide.  A person or persons may come into our life situation

to somehow direct us along another path.  However God chooses, in the life of whomever God

chooses, we are reminded of those words from Proverbs:  “In all your ways, acknowledge (God), and

(God) will direct your paths.  Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.”

      Only one problem for Balaam.  He’s evidently so charmed by whatever is on his mind and heart

that he fails to see what’s been placed in his path to redirect him.  But his donkey does see the angel

of the Lord.  And we dare call them “dumb animals.”  Balaam’s beast responds to the roadblock by

first going off the edge of the path into a field.  Balaam beats the poor critter back onto the road. 

Then the donkey sees the angel again, and this time runs into a wall along a narrow part of the road,

crushing Balaam’s foot.  Again, Balaam whacks the frightened animal to get back on track.  Finally,

upon seeing the angel a third, time, the donkey did what any self-respecting donkey would do.  It

simply sits down in the middle of the road.  At this, Balaam is infuriated.  We imagine him flogging the

beast violently, at which point the donkey turns around and says in effect to Balaam:  “Yo bud, what’s

your major malfunction?  I’m just trying to get along here.  What did I do to you that is so bad that you beat me like this?”  Unlike Wilbur from Mr. Ed fame, Balaam doesn’t seem shocked by any of this.  In fact, he talks back to the animal that is making a jackass out of him“I wish I had a sword in my

hand!  Balaam threatens.  “I would kill you right now!”  The animal defends itself by reminding

Balaam of its years of faithful service to its master.

      While this conversation between man and beast is going on, the Lord suddenly opens Balaam’s

eyes to see the angel, and to recognize that he was – in his mind and heart – going against God’s di-

rective.  Eventually, Balaam goes to see King Balak, but ends up pronouncing a blessing rather than a

curse upon the Israelite people.  Balaam and his donkey were sent home safely, albeit without re-

ward, but knowing each other better than perhaps any man and his animal have known each other

before or since.

      So the third and final lesson is this:  God is full of surprises.  In getting us on the right track when

we’ve strayed – and we’ve all strayed – God may speak to us and open our eyes via the most unex-

pected and even miraculous events, things, and persons.  It is most unlikely that our donkey, or

Cocker Spaniel, or parakeet, or hamster will be the means by which God will redirect our paths.  If 

you are being so led, call me for an appointment at once.  More likely, God will surprise us by

speaking through a person we least expect to be an agent of divine revelation.  Or through circum-

stances like illness, or loss, or some other pain out of which we think nothing good could ever come,

God may astonish us. Let’s be open to the unexpected.  Because the Lord loves and cares for us so

much that He will attempt to reach us by any means necessary, even by the wondrous and amazing,

and the sometimes goofy.  And when we finally open our eyes and unplug our ears, let’s not question

God’s sometimes strange ways as Balaam did.  Instead, let’s just follow the instructions and be a bles-

sing.  May God who graces us with joy, humor, laughter and abundant life add blessing to the

proclamation of God’s holy word.

Lord, our God, we sing:  “Open my eyes, that I may see, Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me……Open

my ears, that I may hear, Voices of truth Thou sendest clear.”  Do that very thing for us, as we ask and

pray it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102