Advent III Midweek (Numbers 24:1-3-9, 15-19 )

“Israel will overcome all hostility and in the latter days,

God will raise up a Ruler who will let His kingdom come”

We’ve heard from God’s unlikely mouthpiece two times now, and today a third and fourth time.  From the beginning, Balaam has been an eccentric figure who is more of a soothsayer for hire than a called and ordained prophet of the Lord.  These two times, God has put His word in Balaam’s mouth in spite of Balak or Balaam’s unfaithful intentions.

But there’s something different about these last two prophecies, because there’s a change in Balaam.  He is changed from being a mere mouthpiece to being a prophet of the Lord. But it’s not a result of his efforts; it is the Lord’s decision and the Lord’s work.  Listen to how his 3rd discourse begins:

And the Spirit of God came upon him, and he took up his discourse and said,

“The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, 

the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, 

the oracle of him who hears the words of God, 

who sees the vision of the Almighty, 

falling down with his eyes uncovered: 

It begins not with Balaam, but with God’s Spirit.  The result is that his eyes are opened to see what cannot be seen by human reason and strength.  His ears too are opened because he hears the words of God. His eyes behold what only the faithful are allowed to see—a vision of the Almighty (Gen. 15:1)

Overwhelmed by the surpassing greatness of this, he falls down with eyes uncovered, recalling the words of the Psalmist David, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Ps. 119:18)  Now with this Spirit-enabled vision, what does Balaam see?

First, he sees God’s people as God sees them (vv. 5-7).  If you read the rest of Numbers, it doesn’t seem like he’s describing the same people who ten times put the Lord to the test (Num. 14:22).  But this is how God sees them: holy and blameless, redeemed of the Lord with hands freed from the basket of slavery.

This is the same kind of description Paul gives in Ephesians 5, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:25-27)  It’s not that He erases their sins out of existence; He purposely erases them from His sight and memory.

So what could have this power that the Lord could look at foolish, beaten, and guilty people, and see nothing but a pleasant garden?  It’s because of the Lamb of God, who preceded their departure from Egypt, the blood which covered their doorposts saved them from death.  It’s on account of the blood of the Lamb that God looks upon each of us today and does not count our sins against us. “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)  He has not swept your sins under the rug; He has forgiven them, released them, disavowing Himself of the right of visiting their guilt upon you. They have been borne by another: the Lamb of God.

What comes next is a description of kingdoms at war.  One of the things which turns people off from reading the Old Testament is all the war and bloodshed.  They’re offended to think that God could sanction such violence. Yet He did, and how are we to understand that?  God was executing judgement on those nations because of their man-made religion and vile practices. They had taken His creation and turned nearly every aspect of humanity and religion upside down.  They said it was good to devote themselves to heavenly bodies like the Sun, Moon, and stars; and that by carving statues you were brining a deities’ help into your home. They were told if you want to appease the anger of God, you need to sacrifice your children in a fire to Molech.  If you want fertility for your family and your field, you should go to a temple prostitute. This creation belongs to GOd, and He would not tolerate such things for long (Gen. 6:3-7).

The warfare is also a manifestation of an unseen conflict which is the background to the history of fallen man.  It is a battle between God and the fallen angel Satan. Standing behind every description of the human enemies of God’s human people is the work of the devil.  Since the beginning, he has been a liar and a murderer, bent on the destruction of God’s creation and our damnation along with him.

So, the warfare is twofold: that God has judged Satan and will throw him and all his host into hell forever, and it’s a warning that God will judge the ungodly and those who are allied with Satan will forever suffer hell, the “outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 22:13)  As for God, His Kingdom is greater than any of men.  Even if one should dare to call himself ‘Agag,’ the High One, God’s King is higher than the highest.  His Kingdom will come, and neither man nor devil will be able to overthrow it.  And He brings us into this Kingdom not by our own decision, but according to His mercy and Him calling us by His Spirit.

In His final oracle, Balaam is given a vision from afar of God’s King out of Jacob: 

17  I see him, but not now; 

I behold him, but not near: 

a star shall come out of Jacob, 

and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; 

[he] shall crush the forehead of Moab 

and break down all the sons of Sheth. 

18  Edom shall be dispossessed; 

Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed. 

Israel is doing valiantly. 

19  And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion 

and destroy the survivors of cities!” 

From afar off, some 1,500 years, God gives a vision of the coming King.  This is the prophecy which brought the Magi to the infant Jesus, as they followed the star back to Jacob (Matt. 2:1-2).  This is the promise made to Judah by Jacob before he died (Gen. 49:10). The King will triumph over God’s enemies. He will crush the forehead of Moab—representing the ancient serpent (Gen. 3:15).  He will, as a Stronger Man, come and plunder Satan’s claim over us (Mark 3:23-27). He will rule over His people, and on the Last Day over all creation, and be honored as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Our King fights for and defends us against all enemies and evil.  He reigns supreme to bring His gracious salvation to all. For all this, because His Spirit has come upon us, we thank and praise and gladly call Him Lord—even the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  Amen.

Advent 3 Midweek (Isaiah 40:1-8)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Advent 3 Midweek – December 20, 2017
Text: Isaiah 40:1-8
Who doesn’t like to feel comfortable?  It sure is nice to not be annoyed, or hungry, or sleepy.  Your favorite chair, your favorite room in the house, your favorite food and the people around you. That’s what we’re all hoping Christmas will be like—even though for some of us we know that’s not going to be the case.
Often times, we believe that God promises like will be comfortable.  When things are good, we bless the Lord because He is good.  But when suffering is appointed for us—especially when health and finance problems pile up—we start question God’s motives.  “Can’t I just get a break?” we complain.
Perhaps the answer from God is “No, you can’t yet.  I still have more to teach you.  Take up your cross daily and follow Jesus.”[1]  That’s because God doesn’t promise that we will be comfortable in this life, but that we will be comforted.  But in order to know that comfort, we must also know hard service.
1Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1–2)
What sort of comfort is our God speaking to us?  Is it a financial windfall at just the right time?  Is it a miraculous recovery after illness?  Maybe the return and reconciliation of an estranged family member?  While all of these things are a relief, they are only symptoms of the bigger cause of our hardships.  When God seeks to comfort His people, He doesn’t scratch at the surface, but instead He goes to the root of all our tears—sin.
It is because of a broken relationship with God that our lives are so filled with misery.  It’s the sin of people around us—evil, insensitive, hurtful things that people say and do—which tear apart our dreams for a peaceful, fulfilled life.  It’s parents who act like babies and drive their children to counseling, bosses who unjustly favor your vindictive coworker over you, pastors who mistreat their flocks, elected officials who vote against the needs of their constituents.
Oh, how we love to be the victim and point the finger.  But there is no favoritism with God, and each of us must confess how our own sins bring trouble.  It was us who answered their hurtful words with still more, it was us who lost our temper and acted rashly, it was us who squandered our employer’s time with idle conversation, and it was us who started spending too much time with a special friend because things were hard at home.  The Word of God shows not just other people’s sins, but that we have lived as if God did not matter and as if we mattered most.  We have not honored our Lord’s Name, our worship and prayers have faltered.  Our love has been cold for God and for our neighbor.
That’s when we are ready for words of comfort.  In the light of our confession, God speaks tenderly to His faith-filled people (identified here as Jerusalem): “Your hard service is ended.  Your iniquity is pardoned.  In place of the justly-deserved anger of God and being abandoned by Him, you have received a double portion of blessing so that God even says, “You are my beloved child.  I will never leave you or forsake you.”[2]
From the Lord’s nail-pierced hands, you have received grace upon grace.  You have received a comfort that brings new light to our temporal life.
It is a comfort that you can’t but share with those in your life.
[1] Luke 9:23
[2] Isaiah 64:8-9; Joshua 1:5