The sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church was based upon the third expensive oracle of Balaam. If you read it, you’ll see the text in strike-through is there for organizational purposes. The sermon audio is available at this link. If you were wondering about the cost increases for “The 12 Days of Christmas” this year, we’ve got the expensive highlights in this message. You can find more details at The PNC Christmas Price Index website. If you haven’t read my commentary on this part of Numbers yet, here’s the link for easy cross-reference.
The true love is going to have to spend more money this year than last year. Luckily the price of gold is down so the five gold rings will cost you nine percent less this year. But for the first time since 2014, the price of geese-a-laying is up. It isn’t a small increase either. The six geese-a-laying are 8.3% more expensive and they don’t even lay golden eggs. Labor costs are also up—so the Lords-a-leaping, pipers piping, and the drummers drumming are also going to require a little more money. The PNC Financial Services Group, which keeps track of these numbers, tells us the “True Cost of Christmas” for the true love is $170,609.46. The “True Cost of Christmas” is the cost of all of the gifts in “The 12 Days of Christmas” when you buy all 364 gifts because you repeated the gifts with each verse. That amount is $781.94 more than last year. If you are an online shopper, it will cost you even more. For some historical perspective, it is worth noting that the cost of those 364 gifts is up $66,813.45 from 1984. A dollar used to go a lot farther than it does today. Indeed, the cost for the true love to purchase the gifts for “The 12 Days of Christmas” has always been expensive and that is part of the point. Our passage today is the third of three very expensive rituals. Each time they built seven altars and one each one they sacrificed a bull and a ram. The bull and the ram were the most expensive of the sacrificial animals. The high cost of these rituals is part of the point. This cost doesn’t even include how much it took to send envoys to Balaam twice or how expensive the feast would have been when Balaam arrived. This cost didn’t even include how much Balaam had been promised to make these pronouncements—and Balaam wasn’t cheap. No, we’re just talking about the great expense of these rituals. And as we saw last Sunday, Balaam wasn’t sure that seven altars with seven bulls and seven rams would even be enough. But Balak thinks that maybe the third time’s the charm:
YHWH is our true love who holds back no blessing from us.
Balak’s third attempt to bribe God wasn’t the charm. Like the last two attempts, the third attempt was counterproductive; Balaam didn’t just fail to curse Israel, Balaam blessed Israel. He blessed Israel as he looked down from that mountain and saw their encampment with their tents arranged by tribe around the tabernacle. He blessed Israel with metaphors of fruitfulness like a garden beside a river or a cedar tree beside the waters. He blessed their king—even though Israel didn’t even have a human king at the time—saying, he “shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.” (Within the Hebrew Scriptures, we could say that this specific blessing was fulfilled in the time of King David but there are at least hints here that Balaam’s prophetic vision saw beyond the time of David.) This third oracle of Balaam says that God brought Israel out of Egypt and fights for Israel. The second oracle said the same thing if you compare Numbers 23:22 to Numbers 24:8a: “God brings them/him out of Egypt and is for them/him like the horns of the wild ox.” But the emphasis in this third oracle is on the way that God would one day make all nations to submit to the king of Israel. In other words, this oracle goes further in blessing Israel than the last one did. Then it quotes from Jacob’s prophetic blessing upon the tribe of Judah in Genesis 49:9, “He crouched…as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?” and alludes to God’s blessing upon Abram in Genesis 12:3, saying, “Blessed are those who bless you, and cursed are those who curse you” (Numbers 24:9). Thus all of the great expense that Balak spent trying to curse Israel was worse than for nothing. This expensive oracle leaves no room for doubt that Israel is blessed. (Nor do we have any cause to doubt the Lord’s love for us.)
We know that our true love holds back no blessing from us. He convinces us of this as we meditate on His word day and night (cf. Psalm 1:2f). Together we are a garden beside a river or a grove of cedar trees by the waters for we believe that Christ sits on the throne and that there will be no end of the increase of His government and of shalom (cf. Isa 9:7). Indeed, as the apostle Paul said to the Christians at Rome, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” (Rom 8:31f). Adding a few verses later, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38f). We could not manipulate God into blessing us nor bribe Him to bless us but neither can someone spend enough to cause Him to curse us. He cannot be bought. But He delights to bless His people. He freely gives us showers of abundant blessing. He honors us better than if we had Balak’s house full of silver and gold. Indeed, He gave us the greatest gift ever when He sent us Christ Jesus.
The true cost of Christmas is priceless.
The Father has given us Jesus Himself—our true love—to be our wedding gift. We cannot put a price on Jesus like we can a bull or a ram but His sacrifice has paid for us forever. He is a gift given to us out of love. He is a gift that is one of a kind. He is a gift that we actually need in order to live. He is a gift for which there is an ample supply that will never run out. He is a gift that is one size fits all so there is never any need for returns. He is a gift that will last forever. He is a gift that we receive by faith alone for we are like little children who have nothing to give to our Father in return. (These are the reasons…)
Christians don’t hold back from blessing others—including our enemies. First and foremost, we freely share the priceless gift of Jesus Christ. We forgive others as we have been forgiven. We pray for God’s blessing on those who persecute Christians as well as on those who have no idea what Christmas is about. We even speak prophetic words of blessing upon them and hold back from cursing them. These aren’t empty words—for we share of our time, talents, and treasures with all who are in need. We don’t do this in order to receive the honor and rewards of men like Balak. Nor do we do these things as if we could bribe God to save or exalt us. I’m simply describing how blessed people are a blessing to others for Jesus is the gift that keeps on giving. Thanks be to God. Amen.