Disease, Death, and Christ our Cure
Numbers 21:4-9 (Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21)
Lent 4 – Series B
Numbers 21:4-9 (ESV)
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way.
5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”
6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.
7 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.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 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.”
9 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.
I greatly appreciate the readings appointed for today. In them we hear about disease, death, and cure. Ok, technically it is poison, death, and cure, but the imagery holds true. A terminal condition exists, and the cure is as simple as it is radical. Die to live.
As Moses records the Israelites were dying left and right. Bitten by fiery serpents. Poisoned. You see, as was their habit, they were once again grumbling against God and complaining about His love and grace. They had been wandering through the Sinai wilderness with no food or water except for manna and that rock which Moses struck with his staff to bring forth water. But rather than giving thanks to God for providing and sustaining, they chose to grumble against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loath this worthless food.” Well, which was it. Was there no food, or simply that they wanted more than what God was giving to them?
The Bible tells us that God gave them manna everyday except the Sabbath, and He gave twice as much the day before the Sabbath so they wouldn’t be hungry. Yes, I can understand that it isn’t very fun eating the same thing day after day after day. But on the bright side they didn’t have to do much to prepare it. Simply gather it up and you are good to go. No tilling, planting, cultivating, worrying, cooking, etc. Just receiving the good gifts that God gives. They were living by the love and mercy of God. And that, I think, lies at the heart of the problem.
You see, ever since the fall into sin, we humans quite simple do not trust or love God. That was one of the arguments that the crafty serpent, Satan, used. ‘Eve, God is holding something back. He is not to be trusted. That’s why He told you not to eat the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. Go ahead and see for yourself.’
In a way, Satan was right. God was holding something back. He was holding back the poison that instantly infected all of creation when Adam and Eve listened to Satan. The poison of sin which made it so that “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.”
The poison of sin infects every person conceived ever since. And the evidence is seen by the wages of sin, suffering, death, and discontentment with the gifts that God gives. This brings us to the grumbling against God and Moses. You see the food was really just the pretext. What they were really saying is that they were tired of relying on God for everything. They wanted to take control. They wanted to be responsible. They wanted to live by their own two hands and not by the love and grace of God. Of course this attitude overlooks that fact that even those things we receive by the sweat of our brow and the labor of our hands are a gracious gift from God. After all who gave us our brow and hands and opportunities to labor? Still, they didn’t want to rely on God, because they did not trust Him despite everything they had seen and had been promised. Perhaps you remember their earlier pledge? “All that the Lord has commanded we will do.”
This grumbling, this lack of trust was a poison to their faith in God and His gracious promises. It was a poison that threatened to return them to the slavery to sin and death that God had rescued them from. So He sent an illustration so that they could learn. “Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” The poison of the snakes killed them just as surely as the poison of their sin and rebellion would. It just did it in a much more obvious and speedy way.
We learn here, from this seemingly cruel and overly harsh punishment just how serious sin is. It is deadly, just like a poison that doesn’t just affect a small part of you. It affects every last bit of you, and if left untreated, it will kill your body and keep you soul dead as well. We should also see what the Israelites quickly saw. We need an outside agent to rescue us because there is nothing that we can do on our own. One who is dead is quite incapable of doing anything, especially administering the cure which gives life.
The result? Lesson learned. They were brought to repentance. They cried out to the Lord through the one whom God had appointed as His spokesman. “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.’ So Moses prayed for the people.”
So Moses prayed. He too knew that the cure for the poison wouldn’t come from anything that he did, but from the one that we are to rely on for everything, our Creator, the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The one who our sinful nature does not trust, but who still gives and calls us to Him with His healing gifts that we might live in Him and for Him.
“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.” As I said at the beginning, a cure that is as simple as it is radical.
Dying from a serpent bite? Get to a place where you can see the bronze serpent on the pole, look at it and you will live. Sound crazy? Certainly. Sound simple? You bet. Sound effective? Not at all, but it was. For this cure wasn’t found in the pole, or the bronze serpent, or in the act of looking, but in the Word of God that was attached to the serpent on the pole which He commanded you to look at in faith. God promised that when you looked at that bronze serpent, the poison of the fiery serpent would not kill you. And as is true of every promise of God, it is most certainly true. “And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”
Now as good Lutheran’s you know exactly where I am going next. For while there has been poison, death, and rescue, that is Law and Gospel. The Gospel of Christ crucified and risen for our salvation so far hasn’t been overtly proclaimed. Thus, so far I have not given what I would consider a Christian sermon, and thus, so far have not yet done that which I am called to do.
Fortunately this is easily corrected. Jesus Himself, when talking with Nicodemus spells out the connection and John records it for us. “Jesus said: ‘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.’”
The reason that the Israelites were saved by looking upon the bronze serpent, was because it pointed ahead to the promised Messiah, the Son of Man, Christ Jesus who would come to take away the sins of the world. The bronze serpent, lifted upon a cross foreshadowed the lifting up of Jesus on the cross bearing our sins, drawing it out of us like the poison it is, and suffering its full effects, death and separation from God the Father, for us. The blessed result is that we are cured from the poison and death of sin. Cured by the love and mercy of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Given all that we need to live eternally. Taught to rely upon Jesus for everything as Paul writes through the Spirit. For it is by grace that you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
In Christ’s love and mercy we are cured from sin’s poison through His cross and resurrection. That cure is applied to us as we are washed clean through the life giving waters of Holy Baptism. The waters that drown the old Adam in us and draw out the poison of sin because God’s sure and certain promise is attached. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”
This same promise leads us to daily repentance as Jesus comes to us in His Holy Word to assure us of our forgiveness and salvation in Him. Recreating us daily to live a life of love and forgiveness for one another as we respond to the love and forgiveness that Christ Jesus gives to us along with all of the good and gracious gifts that He provides to us in all aspects of our lives. As Paul says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” In these good works, whatever form they may take in our various vocations in life, we show Christ Jesus to our neighbor, that they also may be brought to know the benefits of Christ being lifted up on the cross.
Now we all know from painful experience that more often than not we will be like the Israelites. Grumbling, complaining, not trusting in Christ Jesus or wanting to rely on Him for all things. And from time to time, God will send object lessons our way as well. They may not be pleasant, they may even be severe, but they do not mean that Jesus no longer loves us. Rather the opposite. They show His love for us is so great that He is willing to use the sufferings of this life to drive us to repentance, looking to Jesus and His cross with the eyes of faith, that we might know the joys of sins forgiven and life eternal with Him. So we use the crucifix or cross, not as an idol or object of worship, but as a visual reminder that God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For Christ Jesus died on the cross in our place, taking the poison of sin from us into Himself, that just as He was raised from the dead we may be raised to live forever with Him in heaven. Amen.