Numbers 21:4-9 (4th Sunday in Lent—Series B)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
March 18, 2012
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text for today is the Old Testament lesson recorded in Numbers 21:
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
We are familiar with phrases like, “shortness of breath,” “short temper,” or “shortness of life.” But what about “shortness of the soul”? That’s what the people of Israel suffered from as they traveled in the wilderness from Mount Hor by the way to the Red Sea. The people of Israel became utterly discouraged, impatient, vexed, and grieved with God and Moses. They spoke against them both, “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness. For there is no bread and there is no water and our souls loathe this worthless bread,” meaning the manna which God gave them every morning.
The people of Israel were fed up with God’s way of doing things. They wanted “real” bread, not this manna-stuff. They were tired of the quail with which God fed them every evening. The people were no longer satisfied to let God provide them with water as He had faithfully done. Israel spoke against God and His servant, Moses. The Israelites had the audacity to accuse God and Moses of bringing them out of Egypt in order to kill them, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. They rebelled against God by failing to trust in Him as their God and Savior. They despised the gifts which the Lord had provided for their care and health. In the words of one of the Early Church Fathers, “Although they were there nourished with divine supplies, nevertheless [they] were more mindful of their belly and their gullet than of God.”
Is that not often true of us, as well? We tend to put a whole lot of stock into what we believe is best for “me.” While we are more than willing to trust God with our care up to a point, we often set limits. We know what God asks of us in His commandments, yet we speak against God and rebel against His Word by ignoring His commandments. We do what feels good to our sinful natures. We satisfy our sinful passions and desires. We fill our soul’s needs with things that do not last and cannot provide for us in the long term instead of the heavenly treasures of the Holy Spirit given to us in Word and Sacrament.
You and I ought to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. But we often love the world and become oblivious to loving Him. We often sin willingly and forget to fear Him. In difficult situations our hearts often waver, and we nervously and anxiously doubt God’s fatherly care. We are all so very much like the people of Israel in our text. Our stubborn flesh often opposes our intentions to obey the Lord. The glory of a quiet mind is disturbed by conceited and impure thoughts. Our minds wander while praying. We, at times, become negligent in prayer. Like Israel, we sometimes forget the kindness God shows to us every day, lavishly pouring His gifts out to us, while we do not pour forth thanks to Him. We weary of being kind to others; our flesh rouses us to anger, hatred, jealousy, and contention. We do not always live modestly and in moderation as the love of drunkenness and promiscuity take our souls captive to sin. We often seek our own advantage through unjust means. We make rash judgments against others. Like a spring continually overflows with gushing water, our hearts boil continually with depraved desires. In our words, and thoughts, desires and actions, we speak against God.
And we know all too well the bite of that ancient serpent, the devil. We know his poisoned venom of sin, guilt, death, and hell. But we don’t go to Moses in order to ask him to intercede for us with God like Israel did. “And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against Yahweh and against you. Pray to Yahweh, that he take away the serpents from us.’ And Moses prayed on behalf of the people.” (Numbers 21:7) To whom then do we turn for help as the deadly poison of sin, death, and the devil courses through our veins to bring us to our eternal death and condemnation? We turn in prayer to one greater than Moses.
The Lord promised in Deuteronomy 18:18, “I will raise up for them a prophet like [Moses] from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” Who then is this prophet like Moses, and yet is greater than Moses? Listen to what the apostle Peter preached in Acts 3, “Men of Israel, . . . The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. . . . But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you.’” (Acts 3:12-26)
The greater Moses is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Son of Man. He is the One to whom we go in order to be saved from Satan’s deadly poison. Jesus is the object of our faith, the Person to whom we cling in faith, trusting that we are redeemed, forgiven, and restored. As Jesus told Nicodemus in our Gospel lesson from John 3, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)
Having confessed their sins to Moses and having asked him to deliver them from the plague of fiery serpents through his intercession with Yahweh, God, in His mercy and grace, acted for the people of Israel. The Lord helped His people, but He did it in such a way that His help was received only through the faith of the people. “’Make a fiery serpent and set it on a signal pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he see it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a signal pole. And if a serpent bit anyone and he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.” It was not the mere looking that did anything to save a person bitten by the fiery serpents. The act of looking didn’t bring salvation. Trust in God’s promise that whoever looks at the bronze serpent would live is what saved the Israelite. Faith alone saves. If a person looked at the bronze serpent just to see it that did not save them. The person bitten had to look at that bronze serpent with faith that God would keep His promise to heal and to save. Again, Israel had to trust that God would provide health and life, even as they had to trust that He would provide them with food and water in the wilderness.
So it is for you and me who suffer from the poisonous bite of the devil, sin, and death. We turn in faith to the prophet like Moses whom the Lord has raised up for us, Jesus Christ. We turn in faith to behold Jesus Christ lifted up on a cross, shedding His blood and giving up His life into death to win our everlasting life and the forgiveness of all our sins. The Son of God becomes like the bronze serpent on a pole in order to heal and to save all the people of the world.
It’s hard for me to picture Jesus personified as a snake. I hate snakes. But it was Satan who first took the form of a serpent in the Garden of Eden to destroy mankind, God’s crown of creation. Visually, Jesus then becomes a serpent lifted up on a pole, but without poison and altogether harmless. It is as St. Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, “For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Jesus took on human flesh, yet without sin. He suffered what sinners suffer, endured the hurts that sinners endure. Then out of His great love for you and me, poisoned with our sin and death, He took our sins from us, carried them to the cross, bled and died to win our forgiveness, to purchase our cure, to give us eternal life.
Forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation are ours by faith in Christ alone. There is no anti-venom pill that we can swallow, no I-V drip we can take. We simply look to Christ and believe that His death on the cross and resurrection from the dead did win our forgiveness and salvation from sin, Satan, and death. It is by faith in Jesus, once lifted up on the cross, that you and I are saved from the devil’s poison, just as the Israelites were saved from the poison of fiery serpents by faith as they looked to the bronze serpent on a pole.
Come then again in faith to the foot of the cross of your Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. He takes the poison of your sin from you. He restores you to spiritual health and life, rescuing you from death and the devil’s power. He covers you with His life-saving blood and forgives you all your sin. Amen.