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The prepared text of today’s sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York, is below.  The sermon audio is available at this link.  Next Sunday we plan to explore the third oracle in Numbers 23:27-24:13 and then the fourth Sunday of Advent we plan to look at the fourth oracle in Numbers 24:14-25.  If you haven’t fully digested it yet, my commentary on this part of Numbers is still available at this link.  I’ve also begun to put together a service of readings and carols for the last Sunday of December.

second Sunday of Advent, another image of Balaam on the donkey

Balaam, the Angel and the Ass; Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. Israel was probably unaware of this scene at the time it was happening.

Although many will be unprepared, when Jesus Christ comes again the whole world will know it and see it. But until then, we can only see part of the picture when we are in the midst of it. Take, for example, the story of Balak and Balaam. The people of Israel wouldn’t have known at the time that Balak sent twice for Balaam. Nor would the people of Israel have known about the angel of YHWH standing in the road and making a fool of Balaam on his donkey. Balak certainly wouldn’t have wanted them to know that he was calling upon a world-famous prophet to curse the people of Israel so that he could attack them preemptively. That would ruin the element of surprise. A preemptive strike requires at least some surprise. The earliest that the people of Israel might have suspected that something was up would be seeing the smoke rise from the seven altars where Balak and Balaam offered a bull and a ram on each altar. But the text never says that the people of Israel heard what Balaam said. It is always possible that Israel sent some spies to see what was happening or that YHWH had told Moses what was going on across the border in Moab, but the text is silent about it. It is just as well that the people of Israel didn’t know what Balak was up to because the news that a renowned prophet was coming to Moab to curse them might have led the people of Israel to panic and grumble. The fact that the text doesn’t tell us the people heard about it and grumbled or that the people heard about it and, for once, didn’t grumble suggests that they didn’t know about it at all. I would imagine that this was also true when Christ came the first time. When those pagan wise men show up in Jerusalem asking about a baby boy born to be king of the Jews, Herod and all Jerusalem were troubled. Their reaction reported in the Gospel of Matthew suggests that they were completely unaware of the events we read about in the Gospel of Luke. The point being that sometimes we don’t have the full picture. In the case of Numbers, the people of Israel probably didn’t know that Balak was trying to get them cursed. Likewise, today, there are dangers that God neutralizes before we even know about them. But sometimes we are aware and we worry. And that’s the thing, even if Israel was aware of the things happening in these chapters at the time they were happening, they didn’t need to worry because God will turn all attempts to curse them into blessings. Here’s the second time He did this with Balaam:

Numbers 23:13-26 

  1. Unlike Moses and Jesus, Balaam wasn’t sure if he would even be able to get into contact with YHWH at the beginning of this passage.

    1. Balaam’s lack of confidence about being able to get in touch with YHWH is the reason they built seven altars and sacrificed a bull and a ram on each altar and then Balaam tells Balak to stand next to the offering while he goes to meet YHWH over there. Israel ever only needed one altar, but for each of the first three oracles Balak had to build seven. In the passage we looked at last week, Balaam said to Balak, “Stand beside your burnt offering, and I will go. Perhaps YHWH will come to meet me, and whatever He shows me I will tell you” and then he went to a bare height (Num 23:3, emphasis mine). Balaam is full of uncertainty. He doesn’t know if YHWH will even come to meet him—let alone if he will be able to somehow manipulate YHWH into cursing the people of Israel. Even the fact that he went to a bare height—in other words, to the top of a mountain—expresses his uncertainty about being able to reach YHWH. This time too, Balaam says something very similar, “Stand here beside your burnt offering, while I meet YHWH over there” (Num 23:15). The form of the Hebrew verb “to meet” in this verse indicates that he is going over there to make himself available to encounter YHWH. In other words, Balaam doesn’t know if YHWH is going to show up to speak to him or not. He’s still saying maybe. After doing this twice, we’ll see, if you look ahead to the text for next Sunday, that he is more confident about it than the first two times, “When Balaam saw that it pleased YHWH to bless Israel, he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but set his face toward the wilderness” (Num 24:1). In other words, the first two times Balaam went on the bare height and went “over there” to look for omens. He wasn’t sure that YHWH would meet him and not sure if he could manipulate God into saying a curse. By the third time, he is more confident that YHWH would meet him but knows that is because YHWH delights in blessing Israel. Thus while he is more confident YHWH will meet him he is even less confident that he can change YHWH’s mind. (We are meant to contrast Balaam with Moses and Jesus. Balaam is uncertain whether YHWH will even meet with him and even less confident that he can change YHWH’s mind from YHWH’s desire to bless Israel to want to curse Israel…)

    2. But Moses spoke with YHWH mouth to mouth and repeatedly changed YHWH’s mind when YHWH wanted to bring curses on Israel and whatever we say about Moses in this regard we can go even further for Jesus. The first generation of Israel wandered in the wilderness under God’s wrath and curse. They repeatedly grumbled against God and against His anointed ones. Then YHWH sought to destroy them for their sins, but relented when Moses interceded for them. When Moses was working to change YHWH’s mind, he often appealed to YHWH’s promises to Abraham and to the way these things would appear to the other nations around them. After all, when God called Abram he said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2-3). So when the people did some major transgression, Moses would fall on his face and remind God of such promises and God would change His mind about destroying the nation because He wanted to bless His people. Now the second generation of Israel is beginning to take the lead and unlike the first generation they are full of faith and God is blessing them and won’t change His mind. The contrast with Balaam couldn’t be any clearer. His objective was the opposite of Moses—for the prophet Moses sought to change God’s mind from cursing to blessing Israel and the prophet Balaam sought to change God’s mind from blessing to cursing Israel. But, even more importantly, the prophet Balaam couldn’t do what he wanted to do and the prophet Moses could because Moses spoke mouth to mouth with YHWH and Balaam couldn’t even expect to get a hearing let alone to change His mind. And this is to be expected because God intended ultimately to bless Israel and through Israel to bless all of the families of the earth, which He has done in Jesus Christ. We are no longer under God’s wrath and curse because Jesus died for us while we were under God’s wrath and curse and did so in our place. Jesus, the prophet greater than Moses, who never failed to intercede for His people before His death and who risen from the dead continues to intercede for us in heaven above, is always able to remind our Heavenly Father of what He did on the cross so that we would not live under wrath and curse but under grace and blessing. But Jesus doesn’t manipulate God into forgiving us—as Balaam sought to manipulate God into cursing Israel—for God is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. (In any case, this passage is incredibly relevant today because anyone who seeks to Spiritually harm us doesn’t even have any assurance that they can get an audience with our God. They don’t know if He will even listen to them when they seek to curse us. And sure enough, when we continue through this passage to the end, we see that He doesn’t do what they want.)

  2. Attempts to curse us prove to be counterproductive because such attempts God turns into blessing.

    1. Balak’s effort to curse Israel was so counterproductive that he told Balaam not to curse them at all and not to bless them at all. Balak was angry because his plan to get Israel cursed by their God was backfiring big-time. He knows it would be better if Balaam didn’t say anything than for Balaam to bless Israel. But Balaam didn’t have a choice. He had to do whatever God said to do. Thus Balaam blessed Israel. This blessing even says that God doesn’t change His mind. Of course, we have seen time and again in Numbers that Moses was able to change God’s mind. But even so, keep in mind that the narrative of Numbers describes what happened humanly. However, the poetic oracle is touching upon something far deeper. After all, Moses was only able to change God’s mind—speaking humanly—because God wanted Moses to do so. This poetic and prophetic oracle is able to transcend the way that we experience the story to speak of God who isn’t like us. That is, when God says something then He does it. And Numbers 23:21a says, “He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob, nor has He seen trouble in Israel.” I think that it is instructive to think of this in terms of Jeremiah 50:20, “In those days and in that time, declares YHWH, iniquity shall be sought in Israel, and there shall be none, and sin in Judah, and none shall be found, for I will pardon those whom I leave as a remnant.” Jeremiah is speaking of our time, but the point I’m making is that when Balaam says that God has not beheld misfortune in Jacob or seen trouble in Israel the poetic oracle isn’t saying that the people are without any sin but that God sees them as righteous, which we know that God sees them as righteous on account of their faith. (It is also fitting for us on this second Sunday of Advent to point out that the end of today’s oracle alludes to Genesis 49. In Genesis 49, Jacob pronounced a prophetic blessing on his children. In the part about the tribe of Judah, Gen 49:9 describes Judah like a lion and a lioness and Gen 49:10 speaks of the scepter and ruler’s staff of the king never departing from Judah. The oracle we’ll look at next Sunday even quotes from Gen 49:9 and the fourth oracle alludes to Gen 49:10. I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves today, but just to note that these point us to Jesus Christ.)

    2. In Jesus Christ, God turns all of the curses on His people into blessings. He died the cursed death of the cross so that we might enjoy all of the blessings in the heavenly places. The religious leaders of Israel thought that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ would be their victory. But their efforts were incredibly counterproductive. Time and again, our God turns curses upon His people into blessings for Jesus’ sake. Whether we are aware of what others are trying to do to get us cursed by God or we aren’t aware of what they are trying to do, we need not worry. Even if God hears what they say, even if they were to offer fourteen costly sacrifices on seven altars, He looks at Jesus Christ and the curses become blessings for those who are righteous-by-faith. Of this we can be confident. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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