Readings: Numbers 24:2-7, 15-17; Psalm 25; Matthew 21:23-27
One of the most striking things in the Sistine Chapel is the presence of the Sibyls among the Prophets of the Old Testament. At a certain level in the chapel, alternating with the long-bearded figures of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the others, we find the Sibyls of Libya, Delphi, and the rest. These are the pagan prophetesses or visionaries associated with different shrines of the ancient world. It is an expression in architecture and in art of a particular understanding of God's revelation which is in a unique way given to the Hebrews and through them to the world, but which is not without its witnesses also in all cultures and civilisations. The words of the Sibyls are regarded as 'messianic' also, like the poems of Virgil, texts in which are found hints, intimations, and premonitions of the Incarnation of the Word. Such sparks of revelation are to be found wherever human beings enter deeply into the pursuit of wisdom.
Balaam, a prophet of Moab, whose oracles we hear in the first reading today, stands between the pagan prophetesses of the Sistine Chapel and the greatest of the prophets, John the Baptist. He is a 'pagan' who seems nevertheless to be able to speak in the Lord's name. The Baptist is clearly intimately involved in the preaching and work of Jesus. The pagan prophetesses and prophets, even if from a great distance, are also somehow involved in the work of Christ. Balaam served his master Balak, the king of Moab. Threatened by the invading Hebrews, Balak asked Balaam to tell him what he saw regarding this people. Although he is a Moabite, it seems that Balaam believed in the Lord, the God of Israel. At least he has access to God's mind about the destiny of His people.
So we get these beautiful poems with some familiar Advent imagery - 'the king of Jacob shall rise higher, and his royalty shall be exalted' - and what we can only hear now as a prophecy of the One who is to come - 'I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: / A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel'. Like all the prophets Balaam says more than he realises. In God's perspective, the prophet does not really know what he is talking about. From our point of view this ancient pagan seer becomes a poet of the Incarnation.
What does it mean for our teaching and our preaching? Clearly there are established and authoritative channels along which the preaching of the gospel takes place, where we expect to find it. But it means that there are many other places where we can pick up hints, premonitions, glimpses of the truth about God and about God's dealings with the world. All of these people - prophets, pagans, priestesses - are children of God and so none of them is excluded from the possibility of being a channel of God's truth for others. It may be buried deep in what they have to say. It may be beyond their own understanding completely. But God can use any of us as instruments for communicating His presence and His wisdom.
John the Baptist is the greatest of the prophets. It does not mean that the least of them, even an enemy of Israel like Balaam, might not also be used by God for the sake of His work in the world.