s032^96 Pentecost Somerton Park 26/5/96
"The word God puts in my mouth, that is what I must say ..." Numbers 22.38
I draw your attention to the notice in the insert of the Pew Bulletin to the Special Vestry Meeting next Sunday - the 2nd of June at 10.45am regarding the purchase of the dearer of the models of Rodgers organs as recommended by the Parish Council.
The readings for morning prayer during this last week have been the story of the blessing of the tribes of Israel by Balaam son of Beor, quite contrary to the wishes of the King of Moab, and a curious incident as Balaam rode on his ass seemingly at the behest of God - all from Numbers chapter 22 to 24.
It is particularly appropriate on this feast of Pentecost to have these readings as a prelude; for they make it quite plain what the gift of the Holy Spirit is about, and hence what the Church is about. Pentecost is sometimes referred to as the birthday of the Church. It was when the gift of the Holy Spirit came on the disciples, causing them to become apostles - those sent out that the Church really began. The background of this cycle of readings from the book of Numbers gives us the reason for being sent out.
It is important that we get this message because blessing (or cursing) we put in the realm of the spiritual. Balaam was procured by the King of Moab to curse the tribes of Israel, but God only allowed him to bless them.
The background to the blessing of the people of Israel is a story which is still ever so familiar even to this day. The tribes of Israel were passing through the kingdom of Moab. From the King of Moab's point of view they were trespassing; from the tribes of Israel's point of view they were being lead by their God. How many of this world's wars are caused by scenarios similar to this? This is my land, how dare anyone infringe on my territory! On Tuesday we saw the partial lifting of sanctions by the UN against Iraq - a move resisted (so we are told) by Saddam Hussein for the last five years because the conditions attached were considered to infringe on his sovereignity. But we do not have to look far past our own back yard to find territorial disputes. Only this last week I was told of a serious case of trespass, and the hurt and distress it caused.
Anyway, the King of Moab, fearful of these invading tribes, summons Balaam to curse the Israelites. Refused once as God directed, the King offers Balaam riches and honour. Initially it seems God relents, but only provided Balaam speaks only what God says.
All of the themes of who is right and who is wrong immediately surface. How can we get God to be on our side? Can we pay for someone who has influence to alter the situation in our favour? Are Christians right to expect to be blessed and those who are not Christians expect only to be cursed?
There follows the incident with the ass and the angel of God, as Balaam travels to meet the King of Moab. It is a quaint yet powerful story. The ass, not noted for it's intelligence nor eloquence, can see the angel of the Lord standing and blocking the way whereas Balaam: "the man whose eye is clear ... who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty ..." can't. The ass avoids the angel three times and each time gets beaten by Balaam. Finally the Lord enables the ass to speak, most eloquently it seems, and enables Balaam to see the angel. Balaam is brought to the realisation that the ass had saved him from being slain by the angel on each of the three times. Balaam must bless the people of Israel not curse them. Neither must he beat his ass.
We are not to curse - we are not to beat. Spiritual "weapons" are no different from physical weapons. The message is that we are bidden to bless.
So no matter how "spiritual" we think our gifts might be, unless we use them as God would wish, they are no more desirable than sticks and stones, swords, guns, mortars and bombs.
All the oxen and sheep we sacrifice, house fulls of silver and gold, make no difference what so ever. God sends his rain on the just and the unjust.
So spiritual gifts can be equally misused as physical gifts. One cannot have the possibility of a blessing, without having the possibility of cursing. Jesus said: "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (John 20.23) But the message is that we are commanded to bless, indeed God stands in Balaam's way to slay him lest he think otherwise. If we don't who else will?
So just because a gift is spiritual does not mean that it can be used in any way the person given it chooses. God means his gifts to be used for blessing. Just because a gift is spiritual does not confer an inherent legitimacy for it's misuse.
It is true that in his fourth oracle Balaam predicts that "a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the borderlands of Moab, and the territory of all the Shethites" - lending legitimacy to the conquests of King David much later. Just as death awaited Balaam if he failed to bless, so too defeat awaited those who sought to curse.
So the existence of the gifts of the Spirit in particular persons does not mean that those persons have any higher standing in the economy of God.
Of course this doesn't say anything about those whose territory is invaded by others. The feelings of hurt and anger, it would be inhuman to suggest they should be denied.
As Christians therefore we are bidden to bless. However the characteristic of many revivalist movements "of the Spirit" over many many years has been to splinter off and magnify the number of divisions within Christianity - to bless only those who believed the correct doctrines or had experienced the same correct conversion experience. Restricting God's blessing is the characteristic of sectarianism. The opposite, blessing each and everyone, is the true gift of the Spirit.
This Pentecost as we bid God fill us anew with his Holy Spirit, we will be filled - as we seek to bless all with whom we come in contact. We bless those with whom we come in contact when we seek to see God at work in their lives, and point it out to them, not when we try to make them into carbon copies of ourselves.
"The word God puts in my mouth, that is what I must say ..." is not a pious prayer but a divine imperative, as powerful as the imperative which sent Jonah to Nineveh. If we fail to see God's Holy Spirit as work in the world, it is because we are not looking, or not looking wide enough. The Holy Spirit of God is sent that we might bless one and all. As we look we will see, and rejoice to see God at work in all sorts and conditions of people, and be able to bless them, and God who still has the whole world in his hands.
Links to other sites on the Web:
About the author and links.
To a Lectionary Index of Archived Sermons.
To a Scriptural Index of Archived Sermons.
Back to a sermon for next Sunday.