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The prepared text of today’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York, is below.  The sermon audio is available at this link.  I would encourage you to both read it and listen to it.  I, for one, am glad that the election season is over–because it means I won’t get pamphlets promoting various politicians left on my vehicle for a while.  If you are the kind of person who doesn’t like to have politics discussed in church, this sermon is for you too.  After all, the sermon isn’t really about politics–nor is it even about this politician prophet in Numbers 22–it is about something many Christians wonder sometimes.  For there are times when Christians will wonder if they are cursed.  If you are looking for further reading, I would suggest my commentary that includes this portion of Numbers.  That commentary is available at this link.  Next Sunday we will look at Numbers 22:22-41, where the politician-prophet Balaam beats his donkey…

politician

Balaam and the Ass, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1626, one of many paintings of the famous scene we will look at next Sunday in Numbers 22

Less than two weeks ago we had elections here in America. I myself have followed American politics closely since the fifth grade. That’s no exaggeration. It was my favorite subject in school and it was something that I followed at home like the way that some people follow sports. I’ve even studied American politics both as a history major and as a political science major in college. I’ve even volunteered at a major political party convention and did an internship during college in the office of a U.S. Senator. I must admit, however, that because I haven’t had a television subscription for most of the Trump presidency I’m not following politics as closely these days as I did in the past. That’s probably a good thing. It seems that being a political observer today is more stressful than it used to be. Some of that is the rhetoric. I’ve seen enough leading up to the midterm elections this month to know that it was an election of catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is when we irrationally think that something is far worse than it actually is. We can make a catastrophe out of our present situation and we can imagine a future situation as a catastrophe. Israel did that when they grumbled. They only saw the negative in the present and made it sound worse than it really was and they couldn’t imagine a future for their people. That’s catastrophizing. The political solution that the people sought to these “catastrophes” was to elect a leader to take them back to their slavery in Egypt. The Sunday before the election I said that we need to remember that the government cannot save us—no politician can be a Messiah for us—only Jesus saves and God is in control. I actually sat down to write my first draft of today’s sermon before the election. Yet, even then, I was confident that I would be able to say that no matter what the outcome of that election might have been, the doomsday predictions about what would happen if the other side won have proven to be much overstated. We aren’t living in Nazi Germany. In our passage Balak also was catastrophizing. The people of Israel weren’t there to conquer Moab. But Balak saw what the people of Israel had done to the Amorites—including kings Sihon and Og—and he feared the worst. So he called upon a “politician prophet” named Balaam. Balaam is your traditional politician and he makes his money from speaking engagements. You don’t need a degree in political science in order to understand this passage. But if you’re going to understand this passage you do need to listen to Balaam like you would approach listening to a typical professional politician in a debate. Listen to what Balaam says and what he doesn’t say. And listen to Balaam’s nice soundbites and compare those to his actions because what he says and what he does are not always in sync.

Numbers 22:1-21 

  1. No politician has the power to prophetically curse those whom YHWH blesses, but some will say or not say whatever they are able to say or not say in order to profit financially.

    1. Balaam badly wanted those speaking fees. Like many politicians, Balaam knew how to play the God card. He told the elders from Moab and Midian that he would have to check with YHWH. Yes, Balaam actually used the personal name of the God of Israel. Balaam didn’t have to explain who he meant by YHWH to the Moabite and Midianite elders. They were polytheists who primarily worshiped the Baal gods, but they were related to Israel and thus had heard the name YHWH before. Polytheists in the ANE often thought that the gods had territorial boundaries and that nations had patron gods. Thus if Balaam wanted to curse Israel, he would have to get YHWH to do it. Indeed, he would have to manipulate YHWH—the God of Israel—into doing it. Those speaking fees the text calls “fees for divination.” False religions in the ANE practiced divination—by which they attempted to manipulate the gods. In other words, what I’m encouraging you to do is to interpret what Balaam says in these verses cynically like you might do with many politicians. Keep that in mind when Balaam later calls Him, “YHWH my God.” This is not a profession of genuine faith. Balaam would have had no problem adding YHWH to his pantheon of gods—most of whom were the Baal gods. Indeed, the chief of the Baal gods was known as Baalzebul, or Beelzebul, or Beelzebub—who the Jewish people, including Jesus, later equated with Satan (Matt 10:25, 12:24, 27; Mar 3:22, Luke 11:15, 18, 19). But the only reason Balaam calls Him, “YHWH my God” is to try and curry some favor with YHWH. Now let’s go back to the first time Balaam heard from YHWH. Balaam’s told the elders from Midian and Moab that he will have to check with YHWH, so he invited the elders to spend the night. After all, the gods usually reveal their will in dreams. So Balaam goes to bed and God came to him asking, “Who are these men with you?” Of course God knows who they are. But Balaam’s answer is most revealing not for what he says but what he doesn’t say. Balak’s message in Num 22:5-6 said a new people has come out of Egypt, they cover the face of the earth, they are dwelling opposite me, he asked for them to be cursed since they are too mighty for me, perhaps then he would be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, and then Balak flattered Balaam saying, “for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” But Balaam took that message and carefully edited it. He left out the part about them dwelling opposite me. That part makes it too obvious that Balak was not acting in self defense—Israel hadn’t attacked him. And, of course, Balaam left out Balak’s flattery because Balaam wasn’t the one who could curse Israel—it had to be their God. But YHWH answered Balaam with a clear and firm “No!” “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Num 22:12). Then in the morning, Balaam told the messengers from Balak to go home because YHWH refused to let him go with them. Again, Balaam left out the second part. He didn’t tell them, YHWH wouldn’t let him curse the people for they are blessed. He didn’t tell them, ‘I don’t want to curse Israel.’ Essentially Balaam told the elders, ‘I wish I could help you, but YHWH won’t let me go with you.’ When the elders get home, they just said that Balaam refused to come along with them. So Balak thought that Balaam was just angling for better pay. So he offered more reward and he sent a delegation consisting of more important people than the first one. No doubt Balaam hoped that this would happen. And Balaam said to them, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of YHWH my God to do less or more. So you, too please stay here tonight, that I may know what more YHWH will say to me” (Num 22:18-19). Balaam is being very incredibly manipulative here. He sounds pious and righteous like a lot of politicians—he even called YHWH “my God” as I mentioned earlier—He is pulling out all of the stops to get YHWH to release him to go do what they want so that he can get a generous honorarium for speaking curses on Israel. And he again invited the delegation to spend the night to hear “what more YHWH will say to me.” YHWH already had given Balaam a clear answer of ‘No!’ But Balaam didn’t like that answer and was hoping this might persuade YHWH to change His mind. Now God came to him in a dream again but this time God said, “If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you.” It is a conditional sentence, “if…then.” We know that the men have come to call Balaam, so why does YHWH say this? Why does He say this if the condition has already been met? Well the condition hadn’t been met. YHWH said it for the same reason He asked Balaam earlier, “Who are these men?” He is challenging Balaam—Are they the ones summoning you? Or do you serve YHWH? Who can call you to speak blessing or cursing on Israel? Balaam probably hears this as, ‘If the money is really more important to you than obeying me, then go ahead with these princes but you still won’t be able to curse Israel.’ And Balaam badly wanted those speaking fees, so in the morning he got up and went with the princes. Of course, notice what Balaam once again didn’t say to them—by getting up and going with them he was giving them the impression that YHWH was now good with it and willing to let him curse Israel. After all, he could have told them in the interest of full disclosure, ‘Well I can come, but I can only do what YHWH says and He is clear on the subject that Israel is blessed and not cursed.’ But Balaam didn’t say it. Balaam was willing to say or not say anything in order to profit financially, but he wouldn’t be able to prophetically curse those YHWH blesses.

    2. And the same is still true today. Some politicians will say or not say anything in order to profit financially and collect those speaking fees. Some will say or not say anything in order to win an election. Too often there is a disconnect between what politicians say and what they do. Some will say things that are good and even pious-sounding soundbites, like Balaam saying, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of YHWH my God to do less or more.” It is still common to play the God card in this country even among politicians who aren’t believers. However, no politician has the power to prophetically curse those whom YHWH blesses. They may utter curses against Christians from their positions of power, like some do in other nations where Christians are persecuted for their faith. These are powerless and empty curses because Jesus is Lord. But they are powerless to prophetically curse those that God has blessed in Christ Jesus. God cannot be manipulated into cursing His people. (It was true in Numbers and it is made even clearer at the cross of Jesus Christ.)

  2. Jesus willingly went to the cross to take the curse we deserve so that we would instead experience God’s blessing and be a blessing to others.

    1. Jesus experienced the curse of God on the cross so that He could bless us with every Spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. He felt and bore the weight of God’s wrath, laid down His life as an offering for sin, enduring the painful, shameful, and cursed death of the cross, so that we would escape the wrath and curse of God and so escape from death itself and escape from the pains of hell forever. But Jesus didn’t give us just the absence of God’s curse—He gave us the presence of God’s blessing. Jesus has prophetically blessed us with water so that we are never thirsty. He has prophetically blessed us with bread so that we are never hungry. He has prophetically blessed us with victory over our enemies—including death and Satan. Jesus has even prophetically blessed us with the gift of the Holy Spirit—a downpayment on our future inheritance of the new creation. He has blessed us Spiritually in every way for God will always look upon those who trust in Jesus Christ with favor. People may take away our water, they may take away our food, and they may take away our lives, if God lets them, but they cannot take away any of our prophetic blessings. Our hearts are no longer thirsty and hungry and far from God, Jesus experienced the curse of God for us so that we would experience these blessings.

    2. And we experience these blessings in order to be a blessing to others. Despite what Balaam said, Balaam loved money. He was motivated by greed (cf. 2 Pet 2:15). Jesus has given us His Spirit so that we can lay down our idols, including Mammon (money and possessions), and serve God (cf. Matt 6:24). He has broken the power of our idols and changed our hearts. Jesus has given us His Spirit so that we can say what we mean and mean what we say and we can say what we believe and do it. In other words, His Spirit allows us to be authentic. Indeed, God has blessed us as Christians to be fruitful and multiply—both by having children that we raise to know Jesus as well as by reaching out to those who don’t know Jesus in the world. Thanks be to God.

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