Talking Animals

Bible Text: Numbers 22:21-39, Genesis 3:1-15 | Preacher: Rev.M. | Series: Wait…That’s in the Bible? | This morning we are continuing in our January sermon series, “Wait…That’s in the Bible?” where we are looking at some of the lesser-known and, in some cases, stranger stories that we find in Scripture. As I mentioned last week, the Bible is full of some amazing, inspiring, and powerful messages ever recorded. But it also contains some stories that are sometimes hard to wrestle with and reconcile, like the story from second Kings about mocking prophets that led to some serious consequences.

And one of the primary ways we discover these stories, other than going to Google, is to read through the Bible. Whether you use a reading plan, as I also mentioned last week, or you just take it at a random pace that works best for you, reading through the entire Bible is a great way to grow in your faith and in God’s grace. It can lead to enlightening discussions with others and even challenge us in ways that not only strengthen our relationship with God but also with each other.

When I was younger, as a family, we would watch some of the shows on “Nick-At-Night” before bedtime. I came to love “Car 54, Where Are You?”, whose theme song always runs through my head when I see one of the Michigan state police cars, along with other shows like “Dragnet,” “My Three Sons,” “The Munsters,” “Bewitched,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Green Acres,” and so many more. But one that comes to mind the most this morning for me is “Mister Ed.”

Throughout some one hundred and forty-three episodes, the audience got to know the talking horse Mister Ed, his owner, Wilbur, and Wilbur’s wife, Carol. The show actually featured some rather impressive guest stars over the years too including Mae West, Clint Eastwood, George Burns, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and many more. George Burns even financed the original pilot for Mister Ed, and Jack Benny was involved behind the scenes too.

One thing that always stuck out to me about this show was that Mister Ed’s ability to talk was never really explained throughout the run of the show. In fact, it didn’t seem to be contemplated all that much in the episodes either. But, in the very first episode, Wilbur does express an inability to understand the situation, and Mister Ed does offer the show’s only real remark on this phenomenon. Mister Ed simply remarks regarding Wilbur’s struggle to understand, “Don’t try. It’s bigger than both of us!” In a way, that’s pretty deep for a sitcom you have to admit.

So, what does a talking horse have to do with the Bible? Well, remember we just heard the story from the twenty-second chapter of the book of Numbers about a talking donkey. Let’s go back to that reading and look a little deeper, shall we? I have to admit this was one of those stories that I had either forgotten about, or maybe somehow skipped over, or something because it was not a story that I remembered hearing ever before until I started reading through the Bible each year and planning this sermon series in more depth.

So, in our story, Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet, heads out on his donkey with the officials of Moab one morning, and this makes God angry. A little bit of back story here, Balaam was being asked to curse Israel by an opposing ruler who feared the army of Israel and what they might do. God does tell Balaam to go meet with this ruler, but to only do what God tells him to do. So, God is not angry with Balaam necessarily, but with the situation and the opposing ruler and his people.

So, as they are going along, Balaam riding on his donkey, the creature sees the angel of the Lord standing in the road they are traveling on, and the angel has a sword drawn in its hand. The donkey realizes that this is a potentially dangerous situation and turns off the road into a field to avoid the angel. Balaam, apparently not seeing the angel, strikes the donkey, trying to get it back on the road and out of the field.

As they continue on, they come up to a narrow path between some vineyards, and again, the donkey sees the angel of the Lord. The path has walls on either side of it, and in attempting to avoid the angel, the donkey scrapes up against one of the walls and ends up scraping Balaam’s foot.

Balaam getting annoyed, strikes the donkey once again. They keep going, and this time the angel of the Lord goes into a narrower passage where there is no way to get around it. The donkey sees this and lays down on the ground with Balaam still on its back. And this makes Balaam extremely angry, and he strikes the donkey again, this time with his staff, so you have to figure it hurt more than the last two times. And then something amazing happens…

“Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’” Now I don’t know about you, but I feel like if an animal not known for talking began talking to me, I would be awestruck or, at the very least, hesitate in my response. But not Balaam. I don’t know if he was used to this kind of thing as a prophet, or just so caught up in the situation and his anger that he immediately responds.

“Balaam said to the donkey, ‘Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!’” Nice guy, right? Now I am sure this can be chalked up to people expecting animals to just do what we want, or at least the types of animals like donkeys or horses that we have domesticated, or maybe even some level of arrogance coming from being a prophet. But Balaam still sounds like a real jerk here to me.

The donkey then answers him back, saying, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” That’s a mic drop moment right there. This response actually makes me kind of laugh as I feel like I can hear the frustration in the donkey’s words that Balaam is missing the obvious attempt of the donkey to help protect him.

So, then we are told that the Lord opens Balaam’s eyes, and he can see the angel of the Lord, and he drops down bowing before it. The following exchange happens beginning with the angel asking Balaam, “’Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me.

The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live.’ Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, ‘I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home.’ The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, ‘Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.’ So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak.”

Now you can absolutely make the case that this story is mostly about God’s authority and a prophet’s need to follow God’s commands. I don’t think that would be out of line by any means. But, like almost all of Scripture, I think there is another lesson here of value for us. And there’s a talking donkey, how awesome is that? I kind of want a talking donkey…well, maybe a talking penguin. Those are my favorite animals and might not make as big a mess as a donkey.

Now we are not told why Balaam did not see the angel of the Lord and why God had to open his eyes to finally see it. It is not indicated that God intentionally hid the angel from Balaam, so it could have just been he was distracted or not paying attention to God in those moments. We don’t really know. But rather than have the angel appear right away and begin speaking to him, God uses the donkey to reach out to the prophet.

I have said for several years now that I believe that God speaks to people in different ways, in the ways that we are most likely to hear God. I have known people who believe that they have audibly heard the voice of God speaking to them. I cannot say I have had that experience, but then, it might not be the way that I would be most likely to really hear God. I personally tend to hear the voice of God through the words of other people.

I shared with you back in June when I first arrived here my call story. How, at least as I remember it when I said I felt like quitting my job and becoming a pastor, Sarah said, “So, why don’t you?” At that moment, I heard not just her, but I heard God. I had been running from my call, making excuses for many years why I just could not answer this call that God had placed on my life. And at that moment, I heard God saying to me, “So, why don’t you? Why don’t you go, become a pastor, and answer this call I have placed on your life? Why don’t you finally follow the path that I have made for you?”
So, I guess I didn’t need a talking animal to get my attention, but I did need something more to finally get through to me what God was trying to tell me. I needed the voice of the person I loved more than any other, the one who makes me want to be a better person every day, the one who continues to have faith in me and stands by me in life. Balaam needed a talking donkey, a creature that had served him so faithfully for many years and one that he should have trusted.

The United Church of Christ uses the tagline, “God is still speaking,” like how we use the “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” And I really like that. God is still speaking. I believe that more and more every single day. In the Old Testament, we have stories of God speaking through burning bushes and talking donkeys. And while I cannot say that I have heard of similar incidents lately, maybe that is not how we would best hear what God is trying to tell us.

Maybe for some of us, it comes through the words of another person. Maybe for some of us, it is an audible voice from the sky or through a car stereo that isn’t powered on. That happened to a good friend of mine from seminary. Maybe for some of us, it comes through wind blowing through the trees in a forest. My point is that God is still speaking to us, but we have to be willing to listen. We have to be willing to put aside our skepticism sometimes, at least at some level, and listen for God speaking.

John Wesley spoke and wrote about having a transformational moment where his heart was strangely warmed. I think that was God speaking. In July of 1505, Martin Luther was returning to university on horseback after a trip home, and a lightning bolt struck very close to him during a thunderstorm. He would later tell his father that he was terrified of death and divine judgment and he even cried out, “Help! Saint Anna, I will become a monk!” I’ll be honest, I think that too was God speaking.

But whether through a strange feeling, a life-altering event, the words of a loved one, a talking animal, or some other situation, we need to listen for God. God is still speaking to us. God is still trying to reach out, to build those relationships with us. God has not given up on us. No matter how many times we fail, we get tripped up, or we turn away, God never gives up on us. Amen.