Numbers 21:4-9 (Fourth Sunday in Lent—Series B)
“Judgment and Grace”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
March 11, 2018
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Our text is the Old Testament reading for today, recorded in Numbers 21:
4And they set out from Mt. Hor by the way of the Red Sea to go around the land of Edom, and the spirit of the people became impatient on the way. 5And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and there is no water and we loathe this worthless food.” 6And Yahweh sent against the people fiery serpents and they bit the people and many of the people of Israel died. 7And the people came to Moses and they said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against Yahweh and against you. Pray to Yahweh and let Him take away from us the serpents.” So Moses prayed on behalf of the people. 8And Yahweh said to Moses, “Make for yourself a fiery serpent and set it on a pole. And it will be that everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, he will live.” 9So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole and it was that if a serpent bit a person and he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.
Anyone who has ever watched a movie or a television show has no doubt celebrated when the “bad guy” gets what has been coming to him for the entire program. We react, “Yes, he got what he deserved!” Did any of you react that way about our text from Numbers 21?
Israel spoke against God and against Moses. The people were rebelling. They believed that God and Moses—the Lord’s right-hand-man—had nothing but evil intent for the Israelites in bringing the people out from Egypt. The people claimed that the reason that Yahweh had rescued them from Egypt was so that He might kill them off in the wilderness! (Doesn’t exactly make sense, but rebelliousness often doesn’t.) “There is no food and no water,” they cackled. “And we loathe this worthless food.” (They were referring to the manna and the quail which God provided for them every single day! How ungrateful!)
Well, that was that. The people were rebelling against the God who had saved them from slavery in Egypt. They were grumbling against the God who had saved them from sudden death at the Red Sea. They charged God and His servant Moses with evil intentions, even though the Lord cannot be tempted by evil nor does He do evil (James 1:13). Yahweh, the Savior of Israel, was placed in league with Israel’s enemies. And as a result, they would get what they deserved for their sins—punishment. “Yahweh sent against the people fiery serpents and they bit the people and many of the people of Israel died.”
But I don’t hear any celebration from you? I don’t see any fist-pumps, “Yes, Israel got what she deserved for her sins! Way to go, Lord!” God punished the evil-doers with poisonous snakes. The sinners were punished with death! God’s justice was done! The Israelites deserved punishment for their crimes and they got it! Why no rejoicing?
Could it be that you and I identify too closely with the people of Israel to celebrate their “getting what they deserved”? Do we perhaps see ourselves as the antagonists in the story?
You and I have certainly had times when we have grown impatient with God. “Caitlin was a 4-year-old and an only child. She really wanted to have a baby sister and kept pestering her mother asking when she could have one. One morning Caitlin told her mother, ‘Maybe if we both prayed out loud, God would hear us.’ So they prayed together. As soon as they finished, Caitlin asked, ‘What did he say?’ Her mother explained that it doesn’t work that way; sometimes it takes a long time to get an answer. Caitlin was indignant: ‘Do you mean we were praying to an answering machine?’ Caitlin wanted an answer from God. She didn’t want to be put off. She didn’t want to talk to some celestial answering machine. She didn’t want God to ‘get back to her’ some time. She wanted an answer NOW! And she was impatient because God didn’t seem to answer quickly enough. You know . . . you don’t have to be a 4-year-old to suffer from that kind of impatience.”
Israel was ungrateful for God’s gracious provision of bread and meat in the wilderness. They were unthankful for what God was giving them and discounted it. “There is no food and there is no water.” Which wasn’t true. God was providing. But they didn’t like what He gave. The Israelites were not satisfied with manna and quail. They loathed it! How satisfied are you with the “daily bread” God gives? Do you always receive what you have with thanksgiving to the Lord or do you loathe the fact that you do not have more or better? Many years ago, as the story is told, a devout king was disturbed by the ingratitude of his royal court. He prepared a large banquet for them. When the king and his royal guests were seated, by prearrangement, a beggar shuffled into the hall, sat down at the king’s table, and gorged himself with food. Without saying a word, he then left the room. The guests were furious and asked permission to seize the tramp and tear him limb from limb for his ingratitude. The king replied, “That beggar has done only once to an earthly king what each of you does three times each day to God. You sit there at the table and eat until you are satisfied. Then you walk away without recognizing God, or expressing one word of thanks to Him.”
And have there not been times when you, like the Israelites, have spoken against God, charging God with evil, or wrong-doing, or injustice? Have there not been moments when you spoke against God in favor of yourself and your wants and desires rather than what God has spoken in His Word as His will for you? That’s the very nature of sin, isn’t it? As sinners, you and I are always inclined to do evil, to put ourselves above all things, including the Lord. By nature, we are anti-God and anti-God’s Word. We want things our way, in our time, and in the right proportion. And so did the people of Israel.
Because of their sin, the Israelites deserved God’s punishment for their crimes and they got it! Yet, you and I do not rejoice over that fact because we see ourselves, our sins, as we consider the people of Israel. We know through God’s Law that we ought to be getting what we deserve, too. In the Small Catechism, there is a powerful sentence packed into the Explanation of the Fifth Petition. It reads simply, “For we daily sin much and indeed deserve nothing but punishment.”
We deserve what Israel deserved—death. That’s the punishment for sin. “The person who sins will die” and “the wages of sin is death” (Ezek. 18:20; Rom. 6:23 NASB). Physical and eternal death is the just and right punishment that we deserve because we are sinners. It was so from the beginning, “And to Adam [God] said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ . . . By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return’” (Gen. 3:17-19 ESV).
Those are the words that we heard on Ash Wednesday as the Season of Lent began: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But there is another word that we are also called upon to remember. We speak that word every Sunday from 1 John, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:8-9 ESV). It is God’s desire to save. “As I live, declares the Lord Yahweh, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” (Ezek. 33:11 ESV).
God, out of His perfect mercy, answered Moses’ prayer on behalf of the people of Israel. He gave them a Word of Promise that when anyone was bitten by the poisonous snakes and they looked to the bronze snake, the person would live. He provided salvation by grace through faith. God provided a means of grace to sinners. “This [bronze] serpent had God’s Word. . . . The people were to do no more than believe the word of Moses; the term which the Lord employs here for this believing is ‘look at.’ . . . But it was not the act of looking at the serpent that cured; it was the words, the faith in the words. In all probability those who believed declared: ‘Behold, Moses is a servant of God. God commanded him to do this; therefore it must be healing.’ Just looking at the serpent did not effect the cure; it was faith in the Word that did it. These people accepted the Word of God as a reliable promise of healing and deliverance from the poison.”
You, too, have this Word of Promise. But you do not look upon a bronze snake on a pole with faith in God’s Word. No, you look with faith upon the crucified Jesus Christ. It is as if Jesus had said to Nicodemus, “This is the bronze serpent; I, however, am the Son of man. Those people were asked to look at the serpent physically, but you must look at Me spiritually and in faith. Those people were cured of bodily poisoning; but you, through Me, will be delivered from eternal poison. They recovered from a physical ailment, but I bestow eternal life on those who believe in Me.”
Jesus Christ was lifted up on a cross so that He might bear your sins in His own body on the tree. His suffering and death, the shedding of His blood, purchased your forgiveness and eternal life. By grace through faith, you are saved from the poisonous bite of death through the sacrifice of Jesus, the Son of God. God gives you, by means of saving faith in Jesus, what you do not deserve—forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. That’s why it is by grace—the gift of God through the cross of Christ for all people who have fallen short of His glory and are sinners (Ephesians 2:8-9).
We are turned by grace 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 us all. It’s hard for me to picture Jesus personified as a snake. You know, 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 “bronze serpent” lifted up on a pole, but “without poison and altogether harmless.” It is as St. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5, “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 we sinners suffer. He 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, and bled and died to win our forgiveness, to purchase our cure, to give us eternal life.
God’s judgment and God’s grace; His Law and Gospel. We deserve death and hell. By grace through faith in God’s Word of Promise, we receive forgiveness and abundant life. 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 just as the Word and Promises of God declare.
Come then in faith to the foot of the cross of your Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, as you come to His Table to eat and drink of His true Body and Blood with the bread and the wine. Here is a means of grace for you today. For through this Sacrament, Christ takes the poison of your sin from you. He restores you to spiritual health and eternal life. He covers you with His life-saving blood and forgives you all your sin. Amen.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 22: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 22 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 338-339.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 22: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 22 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 339.