Sunday, March 26, 2006

Sermon - Numbers 21:4-9 - Lent 4

Lent 4 – March 26, 2006
Numbers 21:4-9

I. Introduction –
Snakes. Creepy, crawly, slithery, snakes. I don’t know about fear, but it seems safe to say most people don’t like snakes. Perhaps it’s the look of them. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing. Or maybe it’s something more than that.

Snakes should remind us of the Ancient Serpent, the tempter, who first led Adam & Eve into sin. The Devil. And maybe that’s why so many revile the snake, because of its associations with evil.

Today we read an account from Numbers 21, near the end of the 40 year wanderings of Israel. As the people are about to enter the promised land, they grow impatient, and begin complaining. In judgment, God sends venomous snakes into the camp. But then God also shows mercy. And we don’t have to look too hard to find Christ in the story either. Put aside your heebie jeebies this morning, and meditate with me on Numbers 21 and “Snakes!”

II. Venomous Complaints
The people of Israel had become venomous in their complaints against Moses, and against God.

Particularly Blasphemous is their ingratitude for the merciful gifts God has been giving them – freeing them from slavery, feeding them with heavenly bread for 40 years, protecting them from enemies, not to mention the blessings of the tabernacle and the sacrificial system.

Sinful man has a way of spitting his venom at God. And we are just the same. We despise the gifts God gives. We speak careless, thoughtless, hurtful words with forked tongues. We speak against the good, and praise the evil. We gossip. We slander. We lie. Sinful speech of all kinds which makes each of us as much a snake in the grass as all the other sinners. We confess, we have sinned in thought, deed, and word!

And so the punishment fit the crime. Sin always brings death, but here in Numbers the link is so directly seen. The venomous complainers are stricken by a just God with venomous snakes. And many die.

III. The Antidote
So often it takes a shake-up to bring people to their senses. Here the suffering prompts an attitude adjustment – we call it, “repentance”. The people turn from their sinful complaining, confess their sin, and ask for a reprieve from the snakes. And merciful God gives them that, and much more.

Many of you have seen the common symbols on medical building (actually taken from Greek mythology): a serpent on a pole, or two winged serpents on a pole. They are the signs of the modern practice of medicine. But the Israelites needed more than just some doctor’s anti-venom for their bites. The real problem was God’s wrath. The snakebites were only outward signs of the anger and judgment of God over sin. And this, no doctor can cure.

But merciful God provides the cure. The serpent on Moses’ staff is the only antidote for their suffering. Simply look on it, and live, God said. And they did.

Likewise, only God has the cure for the venom of sin pulsing through our veins. A venom which we ourselves have caused and deserved. That venom which paralyzes and destroys us cannot be removed – except by Jesus Christ. We have only to look to him, and live.

IV. Look…and Live

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” So Jesus told Nicodemus during their evening chat. So Jesus interprets these Old Testament events for us in our Gospel reading for today. He says it’s really about him!

The Israelites were complaining about the mana God gave them to eat – bread from heaven. Jesus Christ is the bread from heaven that sustains us. He even gives his true body with the bread of the sacrament, But like the Israelites we often despise such heavenly bread – and the blessings it brings. Yet still God promises blessings.

Jesus is the intercessor between God and Man. Like Moses, who pleaded with God on behalf of the People, so Jesus takes our side, “Father forgive them” he prays.

And just as the serpent was lifted high on Moses’ staff to bring life to all who saw it, so Jesus is lifted high on the cross to bring eternal life to all who believe. Why a serpent? Because Jesus becomes the embodiment of all our sin. He becomes – sin – for us, and the object of all God’s wrath. He takes the fatal blow, he bears the venom, he faces the punishment for our sins.

And so the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, that the seed of the woman, the one offspring that is, crushes the head of the serpent, though the serpent bites his heel. Jesus crushes the Devil at Calvary, and though fatally wounded himself – death has no power over Jesus. He rises victorious.

The people had prayed that God would take away the snakes. But notice, God didn’t actually take away the snakes, or their bites. Even after his forgiveness some people got bit. But the bites had no sting for those who turned in faith toward God’s promise of life.

Likewise, God does not make us sin-free in the way we might expect. He declares us free of sin. He forgives us. He doesn’t consider us sinful now that we are in Christ. But we are still bitten by sin and death. Even those belonging to Christ still face the grave. We still suffer by our sin and the sin of the world around us. Even the Serpent is allowed to assail us in this world. But there is something more going on .

Jesus said, “He who believes in me will live, even though he die, and he who lives and believes in me shall never die”.

Paul says that at the last day the “saying that is written will come true: ‘Where oh death is your victory? Where oh death is your sting? The sting of death sin and the power of sin is the law, but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”.

That victory, that life – is the eternal, spiritual AND physical life that God promises to all believers in Jesus Christ. That we shall rise again, and in our flesh, see God. That life begins at the baptismal font – and it continues throughout our wanderings in this desert – and in finds fulfillment in the new heaven and earth which have been promised.

Jesus rose from the dead, and crushed the head of the serpent. We will rise from the dead, as sin and serpent have no power over us who trust in Christ. Snakes? Ha! Look to the cross, and don’t be afraid of snakes. For you will live, in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

V. Conclusion
The Bronze Snake of Moses points to Jesus who was “lifted up” for us. Though sinful venom would poison us, we have only to look to the Cross of Christ and live!

1 comment:

Happy in the Middle said...

Terrific summary of this reading! I lead prayer services for our upper grade students, 5th-8th, and I always look for age-appropriate reflections. Yours was right on! Thanks, and God bless!