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Moving to a new town and a new home can be exciting, and frightening. When you’re young, it’s mostly exciting. The older you get the more frightening it becomes. Young or old, once moving day finally comes and you make the final break from where you have lived, you are anxious to get to your new home where you will live.
Just imagine then that you’ve set out for your new home, and a month later you’re still driving around the country looking for it. And two months later you’re still on the road. And a year later you’re still living out of a suitcase and your destination isn’t any closer than when you first left. And by this time you’ve eaten at every McDonald’s and Burger King there is and had so many Big Macs and Whoppers that you swear you’d rather starve than eat another one. And two years later you’re still on the road and still living out of the same suitcase and still eating burgers and fries, burgers and fries, burgers and fries.
When we get to Numbers, chapter 21, Israel has been on the road, moving to their new home for 38 years. They left Egypt and set out to a new home in a “Promised Land” that was said to be flowing with milk and honey. But 38 years later, they’re still moving. Everyday, eating the same manna and quail, manna and quail, manna and quail. They’ve had it every way you can make it. Quaildogs, quailburgers, quail-nuggets for the children. Mana-bagels, mana-pancakes and bamana-muffins and bamana-bread.
“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea to go around the land of Edom.” We can’t appreciate what comes next until we appreciate the geographical details that Moses includes right here.
They had gotten as far as the outskirts of Palestine, the Promised Land. And Moses sent the spies to check it out and bring back a report. And some of them said, ‘as nice as it is, there are big people living there and we doubt that they’ll leave without a fight and we don’t think we will be able to take them.’ And against the objections of Joshua, all the people said, ‘let’s go back.’ All of this, while the Lord God Almighty was standing right in front of them in the pillar of cloud with His hand raised saying, ‘pardon me, but I AM WITH YOU.’
So when Moses says, “they set out by way of the Red Sea,” something clicks. That’s where this whole journey began. At the Red Sea where God had parted the waters and they left Egypt on dry ground and where Pharaoh’s army was wiped out. They’re right back where they began.
“And the people became IMPATIENT on the way. Literally it reads, “And short the soul of the people.”
“And the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?’” Their impatience gives way to protest. And their protest is against both Moses and God. “Why have you…” – 2nd person plural. “You both.” Why have you and God – you two, brought us up out of Egypt? To die in the wilderness?
No. To live in the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. But you said you didn’t want to enter it. You could be dining on milk and honey, but instead you’re still eating manna and quail.
But rather than blaming themselves for their ridiculous situation, they blame God and His servant Moses. “There is NO FOOD and NO WATER, and we loathe this worthless food.” Literally, “and our soul abhors this contemptible food.” So which is it? “No food” or “worthless food?” It’s like when the kids go to the fridge that’s packed with food and after standing with door open for five minutes complain, “there’s never anything around here to eat.” It’s not that they were starving to death. It’s not that they were hungry or thirsty. They just didn’t like the food that God was providing day in and day out.
It shouldn’t be too hard for us to identify with ancient Israel here. How easily we too become impatient with God, short- souled. We too get impatient with God; the way He supplies us; the direction He is leading us. And you know, if you say that fast enough, you can easily miss the fact that HE IS SUPPLYING US, and HE IS LEADING US.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but the opposite of ‘impatience’ is ‘contentment.’ If “impatience” is dissatisfaction with what we do not have and where we are not, then “contentment” is satisfaction with what we do have and with where we are, if for no other reason, than that it is HE WHO IS SUPPLYING US and HE WHO IS LEADING US and we believe we will reach the end of our journey in due time, in God’s time, and the joy of arriving will outweigh all of the suffering of the journey.
Granted there are strong forces that are working against us. We are bombarded with ‘marketing’ that is very skilled at creating in us all kinds of desires for what we DO NOT HAVE and where we SHOULD BE.
In fact, wasn’t it just this approach that the serpent in the garden used with Adam and Eve? Talk about two people who should have been content with where they were and what they had. But the serpent showed them something that they DID NOT HAVE and created in them the desire for it.
If only they had been CONTENT with what they had and where they were. If only we would be content with all that God has given us and where He has put us. Then, rather than complaining, we might give thanks to God for all that we have and do the job and live the life we’ve been given right where we are, not as a way to get ahead and move up, but as faithful servants who take pleasure in serving and caring for the place where God has put us.
Thankfully, God is not short souled. He is long souled. He is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression…” (Numbers14:18). He won’t give up on us AND He won’t give us what we deserve. But He won’t stand by while we make a mockery of His commandments – thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shall not covet thy neighbor.
“Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people so that many of Israel died.” The Lord sent them. The Lord orders a snake stampede on His own people and these fiery serpents become His servants of judgment and punishment and correction. Contrary to popular opinion, this is how the Lord works: HE KILLS IN ORDER TO MAKE ALIVE.
It wasn’t that these serpents were on fire. But when they sunk their fangs into Israelite flesh, it burned like fire. They complained about the food and so God gave them a taste of hell. HE BURIES IN ORDER TO RAISE.
“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.”
And that quickly, the snakes have done their job. Suffering and death have accomplished their good and holy purpose. “We have sinned,” they say. That’s confession. “We have spoken against the Lord and against you.” Or as we like to say it, “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto you all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended you and justly deserved your temporal and eternal punishment.” That’s the sound of repentance. That’s the sound that a sinner makes when God turns him inside out. No excuses, no explaining, no justifying. “We have sinned.”
“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.” Look and live. Believe and live.
See how God delivers us from our sins. He makes the object of our deliverance and salvation the very object as our suffering and death. The object that heals you looks just like the object that kills you. There on the pole hangs the hideous object that brings fiery death. And by that same object on the pole, God gives life to all who look at it as the object of our death and of our life.
Jesus says to Nicodemus, ‘if you want to know something about me and who I am and what I am doing, here is your answer. “For 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).
There on the cross hangs that which kills you – your sin. And there on the cross hangs that which saves you – your Savior. “For our sake, God made Him TO BE SIN who knew no so, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21). “GOD MADE HIM TO BE SIN.” Your sin.
As Moses hung a likeness of a fiery serpent on the pole, God hung the likeness of our sinful flesh on the cross. “By sending his own Son IN THE LIKENESS OF SINFUL FLESH AND FOR SIN, he condemned sin in the flesh in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.” (Rom.8:3).
“He Himself BORE OUR WIN IN HIS BODY ON THE TREE, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed.” (1Peter 2:24). He has put His lips to your bite and sucked the venom out of you. He has drank the cup of the Father’s wrath to its dregs. He tastes hell-fire so that you would not taste it. He is burning up so that you might never burn.
And not a word of complaint from His lips to His Father. He is perfectly content with the cup that He has been given to drink and with the place where God has led Him. He is the new Israel. He is the faithful servant of the Lord.
The One who became sin and death for us has become forgiveness and life for us. To all who complain about this miserable food God gives us along this journey that He has set us on, He is gracious and merciful and LONGSUFFERING and comes to us, with the the body and blood of His Son. “Look and live,” has now become “take and eat,” “take and drink”; the true antivenin for your sin. Put your lips to His wounds and eat and drink the milk and honey He offers you, a foretaste of the Promised Land that lies ahead.
As we said, this episode occurs after Israel has been in the desert for 38 years. If it’s hard for us to understand Israel’s impatience and complaining at this point in their journey, it’s only because we know more than they did. We already know that Israel is in the desert for 40 years. We see how close to the end they are, but they don’t see it. We know that they have accomplished 95% of the journey and that there is only 5% left. What if they had not repented and confessed and received the grace to continue on when they were that close?
It’s like that for us too. We can’t see how far along on the journey we are and how close to the end that we are. God sees it, but we can’t see it. And so we are not to live as though this journey is never going to end. But rather we live as though the end were very, very near. Rather, the time to repent is now. The time to believe is now. This is no time for impatience but for patience not for complaining, but for “doing what is true and coming into the light so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:21).