We’re reflecting today on “God is still speaking …” That’s something like a slogan in the United Church of Christ. “God is still speaking …” there is a lot to learn here about the ways we can hear God; the ways our hearing can evolve; how God can speak to us in surprising ways and how our assumptions can sometimes get in the way of us hearing. The sacred story we’ll hear first is about Balaam and his donkey. It’s known as one of the funnier and stranger stories in the Bible. So, feel free to see the humor in it. We don’t have to be totally serious in church all the time – only most of the time.
Here’s the set up for this story from the Hebrew Scriptures: This is in the time of Moses. God has freed the Israelites from enslavement in Egypt. God is leading the people through the wilderness to the promised land. But it’s taking a long time. In the meanwhile they’re a homeless people wandering in the wilderness, totally reliant on God and reliant on how well their leaders are listening to God. There’s plenty of doubt about that last part – there’s some griping, “Hey Moses, you sure your signal’s right? ‘cause it seems like you’re just dragging us around in circles through the desert.” The big question is how is God speaking and to whom? How do they know? How well do they hear and then heed? As we’ll see this isn’t a question just for the Israelites. At any rate, the Israelites come into the land of Moab, which is along the eastern side of the Dead Sea. The king of Moab is called Balak. He’s not happy that this foreign tribe has wandered into his territory. So he hires Balaam to curse them. That’s the first round of attack. Balaam’s curses are apparently powerful – he’s renowned for having spiritual power, he’s a diviner, somewhere between a holy man and a magician. Balak’s people go to Balaam and say, “We’ll give you a lot of money if you go to these Israelites and curse them.” Balaam says, “I’ll pray on it and get back to you.” He prays and God speaks to him. The message is clear: Do not curse the Israelites. So, Balaam tells Balak’s people, “Nope. Won’t do it.” But they persist and offer him more money and favors and in the end Balaam goes along with them.
Numbers 22:21-35 (The Message translation) Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went off with the noblemen from Moab. As he was going, though, God’s anger flared. The angel of God stood in the road to block his way. Balaam was riding his donkey, accompanied by his two servants. When the donkey saw the angel blocking the road and brandishing a sword, she veered off the road into the ditch. Balaam beat the donkey and got her back on the road. But as they were going through a vineyard, with a fence on either side, the donkey again saw God’s angel blocking the way and veered into the fence, crushing Balaam’s foot against the fence. Balaam hit her again. God’s angel blocked the way yet again—a very narrow passage this time; there was no getting through on the right or left. Seeing the angel, Balaam’s donkey sat down under him. Balaam lost his temper; he beat the donkey with his stick. Then God gave speech to the donkey. She said to Balaam: “What have I ever done to you that you have beat me these three times?” Balaam said, “Because you’ve been playing games with me! If I had a sword I would have killed you by now.” The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your trusty donkey on whom you’ve ridden for years right up until now? Have I ever done anything like this to you before? Have I?” He said, “No.” Then God helped Balaam see what was going on: He saw God’s angel blocking the way, brandishing a sword. Balaam fell to the ground, his face in the dirt. God’s angel said to him: “Why have you beaten your poor donkey these three times? I have come here to block your way because you’re getting way ahead of yourself. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she hadn’t, I would have killed you by this time, but not the donkey. I would have let her off.” Balaam said to God’s angel, “I have sinned. I had no idea you were standing in the road blocking my way. If you don’t like what I’m doing, I’ll head back.” But God’s angel said to Balaam, “Go ahead and go with them. But only say what I tell you to say—absolutely no other word.”
So that’s gotta be one of the more interesting ways God has gotten a message across to someone. It’s an illustration of how someone’s stubbornness can block them from hearing. Have you ever gone headlong into a bad decision, and then afterwards you look back and realize that you were getting all kinds of warnings? Turn back, you’re going to get hurt, other people are going to get hurt. But we forge on ahead. The same can be true in our relationship with God. God is still speaking. But… What can keep us from listening? We can assume that God is no longer speaking. That it’s just locked up in bible times. We can assume that we don’t have anything more to hear from God, that we know it all, we got it all figured out. We can stop listening to each other and stop listening to ourselves. We can stop listening to the trusty donkeys of our lives. That’s often the way God can get messages to us. Or we can be unhappy about what we hear so we just try to shut it out. That’s what Balaam first did when he got this clear message in prayer. He preferred to get some money and influence from the king rather than listening to God. He prayed, got an inconvenient message and ignored it. He may have also just liked the idea of cursing people. That can feel good, huh? But if we ignore a message we’re supposed to get, God can be persistent, even if that means letting us make some misery for ourselves. Balaam does finally pay attention and what he ends up doing is going to the Israelites and blessing them. He doesn’t curse them; he blesses them. He sees into their future and sees they are a great people who will be a blessing to others. So, he heeds God’s word, finally, even though it makes the king mad. The consequence is that Balaam blesses these strangers.
Alright, so onward to our Gospel reading. This is one place where Jesus has something to say about how God is still speaking. One note, in the interest in trying to hear the Word of scripture in a fresh way, I’ve left one word here untranslated. That is Abba. Jesus talked about the Holy One as Abba, which means “Papa.” No one had done this before. And the translation usually is “Father,” which is very formal, stilted. “Abba” is a term of endearment. Referring to God in such a close and intimate way is a surprise. Now, God is still speaking, and we know that it’s important how God can come to us as Mama-God, and we know that the full Reality of God blows past the horizons of human categories like gender, but I want to preserve for us the revelation and revolution that came with Jesus calling God “Abba.”
Gospel of John 14:23-27 “Whoever loves me,” Jesus said, “will keep my word. And my Abba will love them, and we will come them and abide with them. The person who does not love me will not keep my words. The message to which you are listening is not my own but comes from the Abba who sent me. I have told you all this while still with you, but the helper – the Holy Spirit whom the Abba will send in my name – will teach you all things and will recall to your minds all that I have said to you. Peace be with you. My own peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled or dismayed.” God is still speaking… as long as we are still listening, listening for the voice of the living God, listening in a way that is open to the fresh message and the fresh messenger that God may be offering.
“The message to which you are listening,” said Jesus, “is not my own but comes from the Abba who sent me.” What was that message, that Good Word, that revelation about God that came with Jesus?
This passage from the Gospel of John is from the last teaching Jesus gave to his friends – he stopped calling them “disciples” and started calling them “friends.” Jesus’ message to his friends is that the love they have for him and the love he has for them is part of this larger flow of love that circulates from the heart of the Creator: love flows from God to Jesus to his friends, and from his friends to Jesus to God … and Jesus is saying he’s going disappear from that picture, or you could say he’s going to become a clearer window, so that his friends can know in a more direct way that flow of Love to and from God. Jesus is preparing his friends for the fact that he’s going to die, be reborn transformed and then transform even more radically. Once he is gone, he tells his friends, there will come the Holy Spirit as a transparent connection between God and the community of friends. Jesus reminds them, “Keep my word.” The word here is that Love is the summation of all the ways God has spoken through the prophets. The greatest commandment is Love. Love God with everything we’ve got. Let this Love leads us to love our neighbors and even our enemies as we love ourselves. This means also, love yourself, and allow God to love you. Now Jesus is clear that this renewed focus on love may sound nice, but it’s not for the faint of heart. When we allow God’s love to work on us, prepare to get worked on. God’s love is going to start going into the fissures of our brokenness, it’s going to diagnose the soul sickness we suffer, it’s going to bring to the surface our demons, it’s going to expose our hypocrisy, it’s going to shatter the false gods we bow to … it’s also going to bring us to the core our being as beloved children of the living God, the core of our being as beautiful, broken beings whose need for the living God is deep. Abba! Amma!
The love of God works on us like this and turns our hearts to receive the healing and strength and peace that God offers us.
That Good Word came with Jesus. God was still speaking through Jesus. And in order for that Word to keep speaking, Jesus knew he had to get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit work directly through the community of faithful friends. Now, remember, all of this was and should still be a totally surprising claim. Claiming that the Christ was a crucified carpenter’s son of a colonized people is like claiming that God spoke through a donkey and told Balaam to bless strangers rather than curse them. The Gospel claim is surprising. And yet many of us have come to the conviction that this is true.
And in our church, in our larger community of Christians – the United Church of Christ – we also have the conviction that God is still speaking. The Spirit is still moving, a fresh new dimensions of the Word are being uncovered. There is still more for us to discover about God and about humanity and about this world. For that I give God thanks.
(Delivered July 22, 2018, at First Congregational church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)