Apr 29, 2014


1 Corinthians 1:26-31:
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

Numbers 22:21-35:
Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat it to get it back on the road.

Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat the donkey again.

Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”

The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”

No,” he said.

Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell face down.

The angel of the Lord asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared it.”

Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.”

The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.” So Balaam went with Balak’s officials.”


So Dahmon and I are starting a new sermon series at our church titled “The Unexpected”. This church recently went though an unexpected pastoral change. We as people go through unexpected things all of the time. The Bible is full of unexpected things.

I've often heard people say they don't read the Bible because it is a “musty old book full of old rules & regulations that are hardly relevant to today”. Few things could be further from the truth! The Bible is full of weirdos & their interesting stories. Weird people. Weird events. Weird miracles. Weird stories. Since we've heard some of these stories so much, it is easy to forget how weird they sound: Jonah in the belly of a whale, a baby born of a virgin, that same baby eventually dying & resurrecting, etc.

Today we are going to look at one such weird story. We are going to consider its context, what happened, why what happened mattered then, and one way it applies to us.

I'm talking about the talking donkey. As we just heard, there is a talking donkey in the Bible. In understanding the donkey, however, we must look at its rider. To do so, we must consider the passage we just read in context. Yanking this particular story out of context does a complete injustice to everything that is happening here.

The Israelites were coming! The Isrealites were coming! At this point in history, the Israelites, were nearing the end of their long voyage in the wilderness. They had been brought out of Egypt and were finally coming near the Promised Land that God had prepared for them. In order to do so, however, they had to go through a few other countries first. They tried to travel across some of these countries peacefully, but the Bible tells how rulers of other countries had this nasty habit of trying to conquer them. Well, God had a habit of being on the Israelites' side, and so countries that dared make war on the Israelites were the ones conquered. The Israelites developed a reputation. They were God's favorite. They were the ones that no one could defeat.

At this point, their path was about to take them across the country of Moab. Balak was king of Moab at the time, and he and his officials were freaked. The Israelites' reputation had preceded them, and Balak feared his country and his rule was in danger. But he was crafty. He had heard how might and war did not win against these people. God was on their side. So he decided to try something else.

Enter Balaam, stage left. Now, Balaam is one of those rather ambiguous fellows in the Bible. Given what we know from the text, it isn't real clear if he is a good guy or a bad guy. He is noted in one verse as being one of God's prophets, but Numbers 24 also notes that he practiced divination...not a practice of the Lord, and in fact something that God specifically told the people not to do. Balak apparently knew of Balaam's history with divination and such, and sent his officials to fetch Balaam to curse the Israelites. Maybe a curse would weaken the Israelites enough that Moab would not be conquered.

When the officials first reach Balaam, he consults with the Lord, who tells him he cannot curse the Israelite people because they are blessed. Balaam sends the officials away, heeding the word of the Lord. Then Numbers 22 says that Balak then sent officials of even higher standing with promises of great rewards if Balaam would come back with them and curse the Israelites.

When the officials ask for the second time to hire Balaam, he says he can't do it, not for all of the gold and silver in the world. But despite this, and despite knowing God has already said the Israelite people cannot be cursed because they are blessed, he goes back and asks God again. Maybe God will change his mind and Balaam can get the riches the officials have promised. It is important to note here that Balaam was not an Israelite himself, so it wasn't like he would be cursing his own people.

Sound familiar? How many times do we do this? How many times are we not happy with an answer we may have received to a prayer, and we go back to God again and demand a different answer, the answer we want?

Anyway, God this time says that Balaam can go with the men back to Balak, but Balaam must do only what God tells him to do. And now we have arrived at our Scripture for today.

Balaam is on his way back to Balak with Balak's officials. Scripture says that God was very angry when Balaam went, and so an angel went to stand in his path to oppose him.

Why? Why was God angry at Balaam for apparently doing exactly what he had just said that he could do? I'll be honest with you – when I read these verses, my brain immediately went “nope, I'm not preaching on this. It doesn't make sense, I can't do it.” Then I sought the Lord through prayer to see what he might say.

It seems that Balaam's history and his desire for worldly riches were causing a problem. You see, God as the God who knows everything knew all about Balaam's past practicing divination, and probably other things that grieved the Lord. He also knew what was in Balaam's heart. This was a man, after all, who at the prospect of getting great riches went back to see if God would change his mind about letting him curse the Israelites.

When Balaam was sitting on the donkey riding with Balak's officials, we know from what Scripture says that he had heard God warn him to say exactly what God told him to say...but here's a fact – we do not know what was going on in Balaam's heart. Only God knows that. Perhaps that morning when he was saddling up the donkey, Balaam was figuring out ways in his heart of hearts to keep doing whatever he could to get those riches, to do whatever he could to figure out a way to curse the Israelites. Scripture would seem to give some support to this theory. In fact, Numbers 31:16 blames Balaam for bringing a plague upon the Israelites. Here Moses is mad that after his warriors did later conquer Moab, they left the women alive. After all:

They were the ones who followed Balaam's advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord's people.”

Here Moses is apparently referencing that after the donkey incident, Balaam suggested to Balak that the women of Moab should seduce the Israelite men to get them to stray from Yahweh. Numbers 25 states that in doing so, the women and men who slept with them caused a plague that killed over 24,000 people. It would make some sense that God would be angry with Balaam if he knew that Balaam was still trying to figure out a way to have his cake by technically doing what God told him to do, but have that cake iced with riches from finding a sneaky way to give Balak what he wanted.

Hence an angel in the middle of the road ready to oppose Balaam. Balaam's donkey becomes rebellious. First turns off into a field. Then it crushes Balaam's foot against a wall. Then it lays down in the middle of the road. After each of these incidents, Balaam beats it to get it to behave. Finally, Scripture says that the Lord opened the donkey's mouth and it asked him in human language why Balaam was beating him. And Balaam talks back as if he were talking to a person!

I am floored by this! Not sure about you, but if I were riding a horse and it started talking to me, I'd either start looking for cameras or I'd freak out and run the opposite direction! But Balaam talks back to the donkey! Once he acknowledges that the donkey is not usually in the habit of being such a pain, the Lord opened Balam's eyes so he could see the angel.

The angel tells Balaam that the donkey has saved his life. It tells Balaam that his path is reckless. Balaam acknowledges that he has sinned, and is told to continue with the officials back to Balak, but to only speak what God tells him to speak. The God who just made the donkey speak. Balaam does so, and speaks blessing upon the Israelites instead of curse. In fact, he speaks a curse upon Moab!

Let's change gears for a moment. When I was a kid, we had a dog named Sheba and I'm 100% convinced she was an angel in dog form. She saved all of our lives several times over...especially mine. You see, when my family was first living in Alaska, we lived in a tiny little shack at the bottom of a hill. The rule was that I could explore as much as I wanted to outside, but I had was not allowed to go over the hill by myself. Over the hill meant that I would no longer be in sight of the cabin, and that was a no-no. Well, Sheba understood this rule better than I did. Often I would wait until my parents went into the cabin and then I'd toddle my way up the hill...I just had to see what was on the other side! When I was two and doing this, Sheba would run up the hill behind me, bite my diaper, and drag me back down the hill, where my parents would scoop my screaming self up and bring me back inside. 

Well, the next summer I was three years old. Just like I had the previous summer, I would wait until my parents had gone back inside, and then I'd turn and haul butt trying to get over the hill. When Sheba came to get me, I was ready for her! I'd turn around and kick and flail my little arms at her. She'd act all dejected and turn with her tail tucked to go back down the hill. Once she'd started to go back towards the cabin, I'd get all triumphant and start to go back over the hill. Sheba would wait long enough so that I was facing the other way, then she'd run back, body slam the back of my legs so I'd fall over, and then sit on me, effectively pinning me to the ground while she barked her head off until my parents came out and got me. It didn't take me long to learn that Sheba was not going to let me over that hill. It was a good thing she didn't. When I was a little older, my parents showed me the bear trail that was on the other side of the hill. They told me that sometimes they'd find impressions on the ground on the far side of the hill where the bears had been laying watching us. Sheba could smell the bears. I couldn't. She was protecting me, but I didn't understand that.

The donkey was protecting Balaam, but he didn't understand that at first. The donkey could see the angel that was ready to kill Balaam, but he couldn't see it at first. Balaam beat his donkey just as I kicked and flailed at Sheba, neither of us realizing that we were verbally and physically berating those who were just trying to protect us.

We do this all of the time. Verbally and/or physically berate the donkeys in our lives who are trying to protect us and are only after our good, in whatever form they take (parents, doctors, pastors) simply because we do not understand – we do not see the dangers that they see. Conversely, sometimes we are the donkey. The trick is remembering this question in the midst of situations like this: are our actions, are our behavioral corrections, are our responses to one another coming from a place of anger and control, or of love and understanding? God is in the middle of it all. He knows what is in each of our hearts, what motivates us whether we are Balaam or the donkey. Through it all I believe he desires that we communicate effectively. He opened the donkey's mouth so it could actually communicate with Balaam. There are still donkeys everywhere. We are the donkey for some people. God still speaks through donkey's to us. Are we listening? Are we truly obeying God, or are we going to go the way of Balaam, finding a loophole to fulfill our worldly desires, but in the end losing our life. Balaam, after all, was killed along with the Moabites when the Israelites conquered them.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

Apr 7, 2014

Humans make plans, life says....

Man makes plans.....
Reader Scripture – Jeremiah 29:11-13
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

Sermon Scripture – John 15:1-11
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

The Vine
The section for today talks about how Jesus is the vine and we, his followers are the branches. I've seen a million and two ways to approach this passage. I'm sure that many of you have likely heard it preached on before. I know that I have. Most of the messages I've heard about it have focused on the fruit that the vine and branches bear together, or on the fact that it says there is pruning. Those messages are wonderful and awesome, but I want to go a slightly different route today.

First, let's pick apart this scene. We have Jesus likening himself to a vine while we are the branches. There is the Father, who is called a gardener, who walks along the vine and tends the plant.

I have a good friend who became a Christian when we were both teenagers. Shortly afterwards, she was having a hard time, and said to me “I thought everything was going to get easier.” There is this idea that life as a Christian should be two things: Predictable and Easy, and somehow if life isn't that, then you are doing something wrong. Let's look at the first assumption:

Somehow we've got it into our heads that life should be predictable. We should do specific things at specific times in our life, and if we get the order off, well then there is something wrong with us, or we don't have enough faith, or whatever.


Jesus here says that he is the vine and we are the branches. Never in my entire life, in all of the places that I have been have I ever seen a vine growing in a straight, predictable line. As the vine grows, it turns in unexpected directions. Branches go in unexpected directions. People who cultivate vines put them up on racks to help them grow predictably, and they still end up with plants that are a bit squirrley.

Human beings like predictable things. Predictability equals less anxiety. There's an animated movie about cavemen that came out recently called “The Croods”. In this movie, they treat anything new and unpredictable as if it is going to end their lives. Their motto is “never not be afraid” and “new is bad”. If they encounter something new, they are going to DIE!

We laugh at this exaggeration, but how many of us live our lives like this? As though deviation from the predictable path means we will financially, emotionally, socially, or physically die? We like predictability. The problem is that reading the Bible shows us a Jesus who refuses to do the predictable thing. He ate with the socially excluded. He defied religious pompousness in favor of showing true love. He was constantly pushing people to grow in their faith, to grow in community, to grow in service to one another. Growth is unpredictable. The vine grew, and continues to grow, in unexpected ways. So do the branches.

Let's talk for a moment about the other idea, that somehow living as a Christian is easy, that somehow we will be spared the devastation that life throws our way simply because we are God's children.

There are a whole slew of Biblical figures who would laugh at this idea. Moses – a man born in Egypt as a Hebrew slave, grew up as a Egyptian prince, led the Hebrew people out of Egypt in the face of much adversity. Or let's think about Jonah (eaten by a whale), or King David (hunted most of his life by people who wanted to kill him), or Paul (poisoned, bitten by snake, beaten, thrown in prison, shipwrecked). These were not easy things! And all of these men are lifted up as heroes of the Bible.

We have this lie in our culture that if bad things happen to us as Christians, then we did something wrong. There is something wrong with us, God is mad at us, we don't have enough faith, we didn't pray hard enough, we can never measure up to the Biblical heroes, etc.


These are major and devastating lies. A major danger of this way of thinking is that it dumps shame on having hard times, when having hard times are part of living. It means that people are shamed or afraid of reaching out for community, for help, in fear of being condemned rather than loved. In Ecclesiastes it says “for time and chance happen to them all.”

This is hard stuff! But we cannot forget the Gardener. I've often found that when the image of the vine and branches is discussed, the Gardener rarely comes up. Jesus says plainly that the Father is the gardener, walking alongside the vine and helping it to grow and bear fruit. The promise is not that we will have a predictable and easy path, but that the Gardener will always be present, always walking with us, helping us to grow, being present in the difficulty, tending us through droughts, storms, fierce weather, snow in April. : )

Human beings make plans. Life, time, and chance happen to us all and change those plans. God says, “I will be with you in the midst of the chaos.”

As people, we want God walking alongside us to be big and dramatic. I want a seven foot buff guy walking with me to protect me from bullies. I want God's voice to ring out in lightening and thunderclaps when my voice is too small. We want these things, but we serve a God who often walks alongside of us in unexpected ways. We hear him in unexpected, unpredictable ways. A kind word from a stranger. A friend's hug. Money showing up when we most need it. Someone inviting us over for a meal when food is hard to come by. A comforting word from a friend when life is going to pot. God does not have to be huge and dramatic to let us know that he is walking with us.

This past week, Dahmon and I received a call from someone here in Lake City who has had life kick in their teeth despite the fact that they are doing absolutely everything right. Dahmon has spent some time with this family, which includes small children, & heard their stories, listened to everything they are doing to make things right, heard everything that has gone wrong. He heard from this family because they need help with their rent. Either their rent is paid tomorrow, or they are evicted from their home despite the fact that there are small children involved. They have nowhere to go.

I was with Drexel playing with him on the slide in our backyard when Dahmon came up to me and explained the situation. He asked if we could afford to help this family with rent. My next question? “How much do they need?” The amount he gave me made me inhale sharply. It is not a small amount. Immediately my need for predictability and a straight path came in and I said “no, they have to find another way.” They I looked at Drexel in all of his cuteness sitting on top of the slide, trying to work up the gumption to go down the slide by himself. For him, that slide is a scary thing. From his perspective, it is big and scary, and he's not quite sure what is going to happen when he reaches the bottom, if he reaches the bottom intact. He will hem and haw at the top of the slide about how he's going to go down, oh wait – he won't, its too scary. Eventually he will reach out to me and say “hold Momma's hands” and he'll zoom down the slide so quickly you would never think he'd ever hesitated.

In that moment, I felt myself at the top of this slide, hemming and hawing about all the reasons that we couldn't afford to help this family. In my mind's eye, I could almost see the slide. And then I remembered that they have several small children, one of them around Drexel's age. Those children having a home on Tuesday is more important to me than my desire for financial predictability. And I held my hands out to God and said “hold Abba's hands”.

Dahmon and I have committed to this family that their rent will be covered. We are working with them to figure out programs and such, but no matter what, either programs or Dahmon and I will cover their rent this month. If you are interested in coming alongside us & helping this family, come & talk to me.

Being a branch on the vine does not mean that we have a predictable, easy path. It does not mean that we get to choose where and how we grow. As the vine grows, as we grow in our faith and our journey with God, heck – as we live, our lives will go in unexpected directions and we will take unexpected journeys – some of them easy, some of them hard. The promise is that the Gardener is right there, tending us in the midst of it all, and he will never, ever leave us.