The prepared text of the sermon for the first Sunday of Advent this year at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York, is below. Next Sunday we will look at a similar passage: Numbers 23:13-26. The rest of Advent will be Numbers 23:27-24:13 and 24:14-25. Today’s sermon audio is available at this link. My commentary on this section of Numbers is available at this link.
Every year it seems like the season of Christmas starts earlier and earlier. As early as the mid 1980s people began speaking of Christmas creep. Christmas creep is a marketing practice where stores begin pushing Christmas-themed decorations before the traditional beginning of the holiday shopping season. The holiday shopping season begins in the United States on Black Friday—the day after Thanksgiving. And commercialism, like most religions, uses music to prepare our hearts for their products. Sirius satellite radio began broadcasting 16 stations with holiday music on November 1st. Here in Buffalo, Mix 96 began playing holiday music on November 5th. I would say that even starting the day after Thanksgiving is Christmas creep since Christmas isn’t until December 25th and for centuries December 25th was the earliest we began the season of Christmas. Only within our lifetimes has Christmas creep moved to the day after Thanksgiving. But this phenomenon isn’t limited to secular radio stations and businesses. A Christian radio station in Cincinnati started playing Christmas music this year, 24-hours-a-day, on November 1st. And often American churches today want to skip Advent and jump straight to Christmas too. Advent is a season of preparation. Starting four Sundays before Christmas we get ready to celebrate the season of Christmas and we often read passages of Scripture that talk about preparing for Jesus to come again. In the Hebrew Scriptures prophecies conflate the first and second comings of Christ; that is, some verses describe what later happened when Jesus came and some verses describe what will happen when Jesus returns. These prophecies are obvious choices for Advent. But in one sense the entire Hebrew Scriptures are Advent readings because it is all background and preparation for the coming of Christ. Likewise, we could say the first three poems in Numbers 23-24 were fulfilled even before the conception of Jesus in the womb of the virgin Mary. But, as we will see when we look at the first one today, these oracles encourage us to be prepared for Christ.
Balaam did learn his lesson that only YHWH can call him to powerfully and prophetically bless or curse God’s people, but unfortunately Balaam continued to be a politician-prophet and never became a true believer.
We see that Balaam learned his lesson in the structure of the four passages we’ll explore this Advent. Each passage begins with a narrative story, the climax of the passage is a prophetic poem also called an oracle, and each poem is followed by a short epilogue. The first three passages begin with Balak building seven altars and preparing seven bulls and seven rams for sacrifice and God comes to Balaam to give him the oracle, then we hear the actual oracle where Balaam blesses Israel, and then in the epilogues Balak gets upset that Balaam blessed Israel instead of cursing Israel and Balaam reminds him that he can only speak the words YHWH gives him to speak. So take our passage today: Balaam shows that he has learned his lesson because he says, “Perhaps YHWH will come to meet me, and whatever He shows me I will tell you” (Num 23:3). He told God that he arranged the seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on each altar but we don’t hear Balaam try to manipulate God (Num 23:4). Then YHWH put a word in Balaam’s mouth and told him to go back to Balak and say it (Num 23:5). The poetic oracle then is Num 23:7-10. And in the epilogue, Balaam reminds Balak, “Must I not take care to speak what YHWH puts in my mouth?” So he has learned his lesson that only YHWH can call him to bless or curse Israel and he spoke God’s blessing on Israel. (As an aside that will become more important as we get closer to Christmas, the whole Torah of Moses follows this pattern three times. The first time is in the first book of the Torah. After the prologue at the beginning of Genesis, most of the book is a narrative story, this comes to a climax with a poetic oracle, and then there is an epilogue. The structure of the last book of the Torah also follows the pattern of our passage. Most of Deuteronomy is a narrative story, then there is a poetic oracle, and it ends with an epilogue. In both books, the poetic oracle is the climax of the book. Our readings this Advent are the climax of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Most of Exodus, Leviticus, and now Numbers is a narrative story, our readings this Advent are the four poetic oracles, and the rest of the book is the epilogue to Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. What’s most curious is that Jacob is the one who gives the poetic oracle in Genesis and Moses is the one who gives the poetic oracle in Deuteronomy, but it is this Balaam who gives the poetic oracles in Numbers. The God of Israel gave these prophetic poetic oracles through Balaam, the pagan politician-prophet renowned throughout the ANE, who continued to be a typical politician whose words didn’t match his actions.)
Balaam spoke this prophetic blessing upon Israel and ends, saying, “Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his [Israel’s]” (Num 23:10b). Balaam said the words put in his mouth by YHWH, but Balaam didn’t truly believe them. We know that because Balaam didn’t try to abandon Balak and go join Israel. He wasn’t willing to forsake the riches of his wealthy patrons like Balak. He wasn’t willing to die the death of the righteous. Indeed, Balaam would not only continue to try and curry favor with Balak and the elders of Moab and Midian but he would ultimately die among his fellow Midianites when they opposed Israel and died by the sword in Numbers 31:8. Of course, the fact that these words were on the lips of an unbeliever is a warning that we can know the truth without having a saving relationship with God. These words from the mouth of Balaam are a reminder that we can say all of the right things without speaking from new hearts. But they are also an invitation for the nations. Gentiles, whom God called not only to bless Israel but to identify with Israel for their salvation, could say these words to powerful effect. These words were a model for Gentiles to profess faith in the God of Israel. Saving faith always says something like, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). (This passage was an invitation to the nations to identify themselves with the people that didn’t count themselves among the nations before the coming of Christ. And when Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, it was an invitation for the wise men of the world to come place their gifts before Jesus, the true Israel of God. And until Christ comes again, it is an invitation for the people of the world—both Jews and Gentiles—to trust in Him.)
God blesses all those with a saving faith in Jesus Christ because Jesus Christ endured the curse of God for us.
The upright Jesus Christ died the death of the cursed. Deuteronomy describes death by crucifixion saying that the person who dies in such a way is cursed by God (Deut 21:23). But Jesus is the only one who ever lived who was always upright. He is the only one among us without sin. But He identified Himself with us by dying in our place on that cursed cross in order to save all those who belong to Him. That was the function of the sacrifices of those seven bulls and seven rams. No doubt those bulls and rams were without blemish or defect and there were seven—a number also associated with perfection. When sacrifices were offered in faith, the worshiper was asking God to identify that perfect animal with themselves. Thus the perfect animal died in the place of the sinful worshiper. Of course, the blood of bulls and rams doesn’t take away sins. Only human life can atone for human life. But if one offered sacrifices in faith, they were trusting God would provide a solution. Thus the perfect Jesus died as a sacrifice for His people. Now in our passage these sacrifices offered by Balak and Balaam were not offered in faith. Balak wanted YHWH to curse Jacob and denounce Israel (Deut 23:7). Indeed, God did curse Jesus and publicly denounce Jesus. Balaam only said, “Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his.” However, Jesus died the death of the cursed even though he was upright in every way. Yet that wasn’t the end. Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. Therefore, we can die the death of the upright and our end can be like His. No one will be able to count the dust of Jesus or number the fourth part of His church. (But knowing all of these things have been fulfilled or will come to pass doesn’t mean you’re prepared for Christ to come again. I’ve proven to you that it wasn’t enough for Balaam. It isn’t enough to take care to speak only what YHWH puts in your mouth.)
We are only saved by faith alone. Of course, that faith won’t be alone—that is, that faith changes our desires and leads us to identify ourselves with Jesus and His people and to begin to do everything He has commanded. Not least among those commands is that we observe the Lord’s Supper until He comes. Nor is the least among those commands that we make disciples of all nations. But we are saved by faith in Christ Jesus. Listen as God calls you today. Again, this is an invitation not just to learn the lesson that you can only speak prophetic blessings upon God’s people if called by God to do so like Balaam. It is an invitation to trust in the Lord for your salvation and therefore it is an invitation for you to identify yourself with God’s people by joining the church. Christmas creep may get a little earlier every year, but Christ can come again at any time now. Believe in Him for your salvation. It isn’t too late to begin to do so right now.