The Covenants that Culminate in Christ – The Bronze Snake
Look and Live!
A sermon based on Numbers 21:4-9
Sunday, March 18, 2012 – Lent 4B
Take a look at this! It's life changing! So the infomercial claims. But that was literally true of what Moses brought forth in the wilderness. Take a look at this! It's life changing! One look at this piece of art I've made and you'll never be the same."
Of course it wasn't Moses' artistic abilities that made such a deep and profound impact on the souls of those who admired his work, but it was the promise of God given and the faith of those who believed it that rescued the Israelites from the certain death that the venomous snake bites would bring. They didn't have to do anything. Just "Look and live."
And "Look and live!" is true for us too. When we look to the cross, we find life, without effort of our own, but by faith alone. "Look and live!" Let's take a look at Numbers 21:4-9 that we might live...
4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!"
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us." So Moses prayed for the people.
8 The Lord said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.
"You want to complain? Then I'll give you something to complain about!" Mom was fed up with the whining and it was only the second day of Spring Break. J But in a sense that's how God responded to the Israelites. "You want to complain? Then I'll give you something to complain about!"
After he rescued them from slavery in Egypt with the miraculous plagues, after he delivered them from Pharaoh's army leading them through the Red Sea on dry ground, after drowning the enemies that pursued them, after giving them manna, bread from heaven, quail from the sky, and water from a rock… how did God's people respond? They whined and complained. They grumbled and they griped.
The people grew impatient… they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!"
They acted like a spoiled brat. They acted like a toddler in the grocery store that throws a tantrum when mom won't buy the candy bar. In short, they acted a lot like we do.
Let's face it, God has certainly blessed us. Though we may be struggling to various degrees, we all have food (and much more and a much better variety than manna and quail). We all have shelter (and much more comfortable than a tent in the dessert). We all have freedom from slavery (and freedom of religion and regular opportunities to read and hear God's Word every day). We have it even better than the Israelites ever did! But how do we respond?
Don't we too sometimes whine and complain? "I didn't get the job I really wanted! I wish I could have the blessings that other person has! How come my marriage isn't any better? How come my kids don't always behave? God, if only you'd give me…" and fill in the blank with whatever it is you feel God has shorted you and you have to admit, too often we act just like the Israelites with their whining and complaining.
"You want to complain? Then I'll give you something to complain about!" We deserve to hear God say that to us. We deserve to have him strip us of our blessings, to take away the gifts of health and wealth and food and clothes and house and home and family and kids. We deserve to have him take away his offer to bring us into his home, into the Promised Land of heaven he's given to us.
That's what we deserve. And if he left us to our own devises we'd head back to the slavery we were once in and miss out on the Promised Land, just as the Israelites would have headed back to Egypt. But God loves us too much to let us go our own way, just like he loved the Israelites.
God loved his people too much. He wouldn't let them grow up to be spoiled brats. So he'd discipline them. In love he said, "You want to complain? Then I'll give you something to complain about!"
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.
And God spanked his people in the form of "snakes on a plain." J But wait a second! Isn't that a pretty harsh spanking? After all, some of them died! And what was the big deal anyway? They just whined. It's not like they killed anyone.
But, consider the alternative. They would all die eventually. But if they died in impenitence—that is, not sorry for their grumbling and complaining against God—they would die eternally. That made their "small" sin of complaining a very big deal! Was God's punishment harsh? No doubt! But it was given in love.
And the spanking worked. As the snakes bit and some Israelites died, the people were led to repent. They had a sincere change of heart. 7 The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us."
And friends, we can thank God that he loves us enough to discipline us too. I believe there are six poisonous variety of snakes that live in North Carolina, a few of which I think I've seen in what was my back yard. So I was relieved to hear that there are no snakes in Alaska. (You can usually see bears or moose approach, and therefore can evade them more easily than spiders and snakes, so I like them more.) But nevertheless, though he may not use snakes here in Alaska, God still can and does have his ways of disciplining us and leading us to repentance.
He lets family strife remind us of our selfishness and unfaithfulness to him. He let's financial problems remind us of our covetousness and greed and mismanagement of his blessings. He lets health problems grow to remind us of how spiritually sick we are with out him. And he still lets death strike—a sober reminder of our mortality caused by sin. But these are not (strictly speaking) curses from God. They're meant to be blessings; great blessings that lead us to repent and turn to God, and thus, save our souls.
Repent of your sin, dear friends! It is NOT okay! It is a big deal! It's been said that small sins become great when they are thought of as small. That is, every sin is a big deal! When it's an impenitent sin—that is, one for which the sinner is not sorry—it's a damnable sin no matter how small it might seem: a few extra minutes to my break, a snappy comeback to mom or dad, just one drink when you're underage, or just having "a little fun" outside of marriage.
Repent before God sends his loving discipline and save yourselves a world full of "snakes." And then, when you do, be certain that God will be quick to forgive and restore, just like he was for the Israelites.
When the Israelites finally repented, God was very quick to forgive them…
Moses prayed for the people. 8 The Lord said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live."
In other Words, God said, "Take a look at this! It's life changing!" And it was… literally! Look up to this bronze snake that Moses had crafted and instantly the people were saved. They were rescued from the sudden death that would follow the venomous bites.
But… does that seem believable to you? I mean, come on! If the doctor told you that you had poison coursing through your veins—a deadly venom that killed all who had it in their system, but… that there was hope: "If you'd just look at the statue by the fountain on the way out to the parking lot, you'll be cured." Would you believe him? How ridiculous!
But it's not ridiculous when God speaks. God can send a cure to a deadly disease that makes no sense medically speaking, and have it work just fine every time. And if the people just looked at the statue Moses made, the venom was removed from their blood stream without any medical treatment. In other words, they were saved by faith—faith in God's gracious promises.
And it should be no surprise to us that God's promise rang true.
9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.
When God's people repented of their sin, and put their trust in his gracious promises, God rescued them and they lived. They didn't have to first right the wrong. They didn't have to go through rigorous procedures. They didn't have to do anything. They simply looked at the snake in trust and the lived.
Look and live. Sound familiar? It should. Because that's exactly how God deals with us. We, who have sinned against God by our grumbling and complaining, repent of our sinful behavior. We cry out to God for help and God doesn't prescribe a certain procedure we must go through. He doesn't tell us of a rare cure that can be found if we work hard enough. No. He tells us, "Look and live!"
Look at my Son and see what he has done for you. Look at the cross and believe my promises. And when you do, without any effort of your own, but by faith alone, you will live. Jesus said as much himself. Remember the Gospel lesson that we just read? He said, "4 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
We don't have to first right the wrong. We don't have to go through rigorous procedures. We don't have to do anything. We simply look at the cross in trust and live. Repent of your sin, dear friends. Then rejoice that when you do nothing but believe in God's promise of grace, you will look (at the cross) and live, in Jesus' name, amen.