March 15, 2023
For Lent, some of the groups in our church have decided to focus on prayer. For its part, the Men's Group used its last breakfast meeting to engage in a discussion on the variety of ways, that we communicate with God.
For prayer to be most meaningful, as a mode of communication, however, we must not only be able to send messages to God, but must also recognize and accept the answers when they come back. When we pray to God and have some kind of request for something - a healing, perhaps - the answer is fairly straightforward. It either happened or it didn't. The answer was a simple, "Yes," or "No."
When we consider the full range of conversations that can be had between two personalities, however, very few of the interchanges are as simple as Yes or No. There is no reason to think that our conversations with God should be any different. But, when God wants to communicate something more involved than a simple Yes or No, how is that message delivered? If we look for Biblical examples, we see a wide variety of possibilities - everything from the burning bush of Moses (Ex 3:2), the whisper to Elijah (I Kings 19:11-12), the fleece of Gideon (Judges 6:39), the handwriting on the wall to Belshazzar (Daniel 5:5), and the blinding flash of light to Saul (Acts 9:3, 8), to the earthquake of Silas (Acts 16:26), the trance of Peter (Acts 10:10-11) and the vision of Cornelius (Acts 10:3). God has also spoken through angels as He did to Abraham (Gen 22:11), through the Holy Spiri,t as He did to Lucius of Cyrene (Acts 13:2), or through other people, as He did to Balack (Num 23:5). And there is also the strange case of Balaam, where God used a donkey.
Numbers 22: 28 Then the Lord opened the donkey's mouth and she said to Balaam ...
When we first encounter this verse, our first reaction is often to treat it like comic relief, the way Shakespeare would often put a funny scene in the midst of a tragedy to lessen the tension. That is not the case here. If you read the whole story, you will see that Balaam is in the process of disobeying a direct command of God. The donkey, under the prompting of God and His angel, acted and spoke in such a way as to protect Balaam from the consequences of his disobedience. God's message, as conveyed by the acts and words of the donkey, were in the best interests of Balaam.
And what was Balaam's response? Gratitude? No.
Numbers 22: 23, 27 ... Balaam beat her ... and he was angry and beat her with his staff.
The angel explained to Balaam, that his donkey had just saved him from a significant consequence,
Numbers 22: 33 The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her.
And Balaam's somewhat pathetic answer was,
Numbers 22: 34 Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, 'I have sinned, I did not realize ...'
He was disobeying God. He got a message he did not like - it was a message for his own good, in his best interest - and yet, he dismissed it. He pretended not to recognize it for what it was, he ignored it, and tried to shoot the messenger - or in this case, beat the donkey. Just because the message was delivered by a donkey (or an "ass" if you read it in the King James Version), does not mean it is wrong! And just because the message is not the one you wanted, or did not arrive the way you expected, does not mean that it is not for you. And it is not the messenger's fault! In ancient times - long before email and cell phones - messengers were sent to deliver official news; and these messengers sometimes incurred the wrath of the one receiving bad news. Sophocles had this line in his play, Antigone, written around 440 BC: "For no man delights in the bearer of bad news." In modern times, we seldom shoot the messenger anymore, but we do ignore them, challenge their legitimacy, or dismiss them when they deliver messages we do not want to hear. I had a neighbor once who begged her husband to stop smoking. He refused, dismissing her because, "she wasn't a doctor." He died of emphysema. He knew he was sick - his argument was not really with her - he was having a very hard time accepting the bad news. C. S. Lewis once wrote,
There is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes; you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him, you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all; it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.
I was in a church one time that had a member that had some cognitive impairment. He used to sit up front and every once in a while, he would interrupt the sermon and ask for clarification on some point the speaker was trying to make. He was having trouble following the thread of the speaker's message and needed help.
Now, some saw this as a disruption and dismissed it because of his cognitive issues. On closer examination, however, it turned out, there were many in the audience, that were also having trouble following the message, and this man just happened to be the only one with the courage to speak up and have the speaker rephrase the point more clearly. I recall a time in my career where I found myself in an organization, whose mission had been completed and was being disbanded. I needed to find another job in a different part of the company and I appealed to a friend of mine. I was extremely disappointed when he said he could not help me, but hugely relieved a few weeks later, when his organization, that I had tried to get a job in, announced massive layoffs numbering in the thousands. My prayers changed instantly from complaint to gratitude. Richard Wagner expressed an idea, that I think many of us share from time to time, in his book, Christian Prayer For Dummies, when he wrote
I sometimes wish God were more like Hercule Poirot, the master sleuth of the Agatha Christie mystery stories. When I read an Agatha Christie book, or watch the film adaptation, I know that after Poirot has pieced together all the clues of the crime, he invariably gathers all the suspects together in a room and takes them through a step-by-step account of what happened, and ultimately identifies the guilty party. In the same way, why doesn't God do the same thing: gather up everyone involved in a mysterious situation, and give a play-by-play account of what happened and why?
This all somehow reminds of an old joke that seems to apply to this conversation.
A fellow was stuck on his rooftop in a flood. He was praying to God for help. Soon a man in a rowboat came by and shouted up to the man on the roof, "Jump in, I can save you!" The stranded fellow shouted back, "No, it's OK, I'm praying to God and He is going to save me." So the rowboat went on to safety. Then as the waters rose a little more, a motorboat came by. The pilot of the motorboat also shouted up to the man on the roof, "Jump in, I can save you."
Again the stranded man replied, "No thanks, I am praying to God and He is going to save me. I have faith." And so the motorboat also went on in search of others to help. As the waters continued to rise further, a helicopter flew overhead. The pilot shouted down over a bullhorn that he would lower a rope to the man on the roof. "Grab onto the rope, and I will lift you to safety," he said. Once again, the stranded man stayed on the roof and shouted back, "No thanks. I am praying to God and I have faith that He is going to save me." So the helicopter reluctantly flew away in search of other survivors. The water, however, continued to rise and eventually overtook the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. Once arriving there, he asked God, "I had faith in You, but You did not save me; You let me drown. I do not understand why?" To this, God is said to have answered, "What is there not to understand? I sent you a rowboat, then I sent a motorboat, and finally I sent you a helicopter, what more did you expect?'
The message here is that God can and will use all sorts of people, animals, and situations to deliver a message. It is up to us to keep our ears clear of wax and other obstructions, and our minds clear of pre-conceived notions and expectations on how we think God should be responding to our requests, so that we can hear, recognize, and accept His answer when it comes.
And should God choose to deliver His answer to you through a donkey, a dog, a neighbor you do not even know, or even the odd fellow that sits in the front pew - test the answer as John instructs to make sure it is real,
I John 4: 1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
But, do not dismiss the message, just because you do not like its content ... and do not shoot the messenger, or beat the donkey!
Amen I invite each of you to leave a comment below, or share a related story of your own on how God touched your life. Your Brother in Christ, Warren Warren J. Ayer, Jr. Chairperson, Board of Deacons United Church of Colchester