Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. Our text for this morning is the Old Testament reading from Numbers 21:4-9. It’s this strange, short episode that occurs in the middle of two of the most important moments in the book of Numbers. In chapter 20, Moses infamously rebells against God at Meribah by disobeying the Lord’s command. Then in chapter 22, the incident involving Balaam and his talking donkey is told, which is, in a lot of ways, the climactic moment of the book of Numbers. But here, in the middle of chapter 21 is a small story of rebellion that would be easy to overlook. But there’s something incredible that happens in this story as God’s justice is transformed into a source of life. Let me show you what I mean.
2. Our text begins with a journey. After having just won a battle, the Israelites set out to go around the land of Edom as they make their way closer and closer to the Promised Land. The trouble is, because they had to avoid the land of Edom, they weren’t exactly taking the most direct route to get to where they were going. It reminds me of a moment in my childhood. We were living in Kansas City, Missouri and were traveling to visit my Grandparents in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The most direct way to get there was to drive through Chicago…but who wants to drive through Chicago? So my Dad decided to take a “shortcut.” Notice that I call it a “shortcut” rather than a shortcut. We took a “shortcut” through Iowa. Needless to say, it wasn’t a shortcut. It took forever and and it didn’t take long for us to grow impatient and to start grumbling. That’s what happens for the Israelites—they got grumpy while they were taking the “shortcut” around Edom and they started to find anything and everything to complain about. When are we going to get there? This is taking too long? Why did we even bother? I’m hungry…can we just pull over at the next gas station to get some snacks! Oh wait, I’m supposed to be talking about the Bible, not my painful childhood memories… But in all seriousness, this is basically what the Israelites were complaining about. They actually say, “We loathe this worthless food!” Keep in mind, the “worthless” food they were complaining about was the mana that God had provided for them out of nothing. But here’s the thing, the Israelites were grumbling against God because what he had provided for them wasn’t good enough. They were impatient and failed to trust God to truly provide for them. They thought they knew better than God.
3. Does that remind you of anyone else you know? No, I’m not just talking about cranky kids on a long car trip, I’m talking about all of us. How often do we act just like those Israelites, grumbling because the things that God has given us aren’t good enough? How often do we act like spoiled brats who are impatient and unwilling to truly trust God to provide for us? The truth is, we really are a lot like those Israelites. We think that we know better than God too.
4. But back to the story. So, how does the Lord deal with whiney, impatient, ungrateful people? Well, frankly, he gives them what they deserve. If you don’t want to live under God’s grace and benefit from all of the blessings that he so graciously gives, then God is content to grant you your wish. And that’s exactly what he does for the Israelites. He sends fiery serpents among the people to punish them. Why fiery serpents? God’s not above using wild animal to punish people. He uses lions or bears or large fish at various times to punish people. So why serpents? Perhaps God allows the people of Israel to be overcome by serpents because they had already given into the serpent. I’m talking, of course, about that serpent from Genesis 3. The people of Israel had already been poisoned by the serpent’s lies. They had given into that same lie the serpent told to Eve: “Did God really say…”, which, of course, is just another way of saying, “Does God really have your best interests in mind? Does God really love you?”
5. And so, in sending these fiery serpents, God makes visible the sin which had already been committed. Because anytime we are impatient and fail to truly trust in God above all things, we have been poisoned by the serpent. In a lot of ways, the most gracious thing that God can do in those moments is to show us our sin—to show us that we’ve been poisoned and we need someone to heal and save us. Until we recognize the poison of the serpent, we’re doomed to die by it. But once the Lord reveals our mortal wound to us, we can look to him for salvation.
6. That’s precisely what happens next. The people repent and ask Moses to plead with the Lord to save them, which he has been waiting to do. So the Lord commands Moses to make a bronze fiery serpent, put in on a pole, and hold it up high so that anyone who has been poisoned by the serpent can look to it and live. And that’s where the story ends. The Israelites move on to the next place and the story continues with other things. And all the while we’re left asking ourselves, what just happened? Why in the world did God command Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole for people to look at? That doesn’t make any sense? Why would God have Moses make an image of the very thing that was killing God’s people to save them by it?
7. The fact of the matter is, the story doesn’t explain any of this to us. In fact, in the entire Old Testament no answer to this question is given. It’s not until many many generations later that we get an answer to these questions. One night Jesus was having a conversations with a man named Nicodemus. And as is the case with a lot of people who talked to Jesus, Nicodemus was completely confused by the things Jesus was saying. “You must be born again…what in the world does that mean?” But in the midst of this fascinating conversation, Jesus says this: Just 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. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish by have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:14-17). So what Jesus is saying is that this whole story of Israel in the wilderness with the bronze serpent that was lifted up to save God’s people was really pointing to Jesus.
8. Here’s what all of this means for you and me. Jesus entered this world by taking on the sinful, serpent-like form of a human to die on our behalf. Or, in the words of the church father Irenaeus, “Men can be saved in no other way from the old wound of the serpent than by believing in Him who, in the likeness of sinful flesh, is lifted up from the earth up the tree of martyrdom, and draws all things to Himself.” Jesus saved us from the poison of the serpent so that eternal life can be ours. And now he invites us to look to him and to patiently trust in him to provide for all of our earthly needs as we await his return and the eternal joys that he will bring.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.