“Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from Numbers, the twenty-first chapter. Dear friends in Christ, as most of you know, I come from Nebraska, which is just a bit west of here. I would guess that fewer of you know that the land I live on, that great expanse of prairie running through the middle of our country, was called by an interesting name when explorers first arrived. Many called it the “Great American Desert,” a term that seemed very appropriate for a treeless, dry land that had little evidence of ever becoming fertile. Of course, the story ends with Nebraska and her sister states becoming some of the most productive agricultural states in the union, and so when I am home I can look out over fields of green corn and beans and remind myself that I am standing in the ‘Great American Desert.’ I would think that deserts are something that many people in New York probably have little direct experience with. It is hard to imagine what the Israelites had to go through in our text when we look at all the bounty that our land can produce, with our beautiful tree-covered hills and fertile valleys. Because of this, we can often look down on the Israelites when we read texts like our Old Testament lesson for today. We don’t realize that Israel had been walking in circles for decades, Miriam and Aaron had just died, and they had been refused passage by a nation that should be a brother, the people of Edom. And now they looked forward to traveling around Edom in a punishing desert, where food and water would be scarce.
Our text for today tells us: “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. 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.’” When we see this text in the context of what Israel had been through lately, we can perhaps understand why they became impatient and complained. In fact, those reasons are quite major compared to the things that drive us to complain. We are a part of a culture that is increasingly impatient and negative. I think all you have to do to realize that is to drive on the highway sometime. Everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere, and we often don’t care who we push out of our way. Even if you are not a rude driver, you must admit that impatience creeps into your thoughts and words and you drive, I know they do for me. And even when we arrive at our destination, we can create an atmosphere of complaining and negativity that colors everything we do. Humans love to complain, and we love to complain in groups. We want a sympathetic ear, someone to share our misery with us. Just as Jesus says in Matthew: “Wherever two or three are gathered, there will be complaining.” Oh, I don’t think that’s the right quotation, but I think you understand what I mean. We complain about the weather, too hot, too cold. We complain about work, too many hours, too little pay. We complain about our family, friends, neighbors, and classmates. We have this remarkable talent for turning anything into a negative, and we do this very, very well. My favorite one, and this is one that I fall into very often, is to complain about negative people. How much more hypocritical can we get! Perhaps some of you even fell into that trap as I talked about complainers- “Go get, ‘em, Vicar! I hate complainers!”
The bottom line on complaining and impatience is that when we do this, we are forgetting all the good things that God has blessed us with. If Israel had much more to complain about than us, they also had much more to thank God for. They had been delivered from the tyranny of the Egyptians, freed from the bonds of slavery through the mighty acts of God. He had preserved them, given to them His Law as His own chosen people, and fed them in the desert. Why would He abandon them now? God is a provider, and He had quite a track-record of supplying His children throughout their desert journey. The last time that Israel had complained, God had simply provided, bringing water from a rock. This time, however, God’s anger and wrath overflowed. “Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” They received their punishment in the terror of a plague of snakes, something that makes our skin crawl. But this was not the only punishment they deserved. Israel only was an example of the sin and rebellion that all of our complaining and impatience demonstrates. We rejected God’s good gifts of a beautiful creation and a life lived in communion with Him. Instead we chose the path of rebellion, and the story is played out in every generation since Adam and Eve- God gives His good gifts and we complain. Our complaint is simply the surface result of a much deeper rebellion against God, a rebellion that only deserves death, not only temporal death, but eternal death.
Faced with this terrible verdict, what are we to do? We cannot see our punishment coming at us as an Israelite saw the viper before it struck, but we still know that it is all we deserve. We can only cry out with Israel: “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.” This is called repentance, when we acknowledge our sinful rebellion and beg for forgiveness. God is calling you to repentance today for all of your complaining despite all of His good gifts to you. But being sorry is not enough- we need restoration and salvation. Fortunately for us, as in our text for today, God did not only provide the punishment, He also provided the means of restoration, of salvation.
“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.” God did not choose serpents to punish and restore Israel on a whim, simply because He had used spiders last week. Serpents are used in the Scriptures to describe Israel’s enemies, or as a picture of judgment. Why is this? Because it was the serpent that Satan chose as his instrument to entice Adam and Eve into sin. From that point on, serpents have had a sinister character, and whenever they appear, trouble comes with them. We could say that the serpent is the embodiment of sin, bringing with it a reminder of how humanity lost all the good things God gave to it in creation. God sent this very embodiment of sin to punish His chosen people, but now the serpent became the instrument of salvation and restoration. The very embodiment of sin was lifted up and displayed above them. Sin was lifted high, and in looking at it, the Israelites had healing. But even if the serpent on a pole could remove the scourge of the fiery serpents, it could not remove the scourge of sin. For that Israel and all of creation would have to wait. But when the time had fully come, sin was once again lifted high, and because sin was lifted high, all people have forgiveness and salvation. When Jesus Christ stepped forth from the waters of the Jordan River, having been baptized in a river where people washed away their sins, He rose up as THE sinner, the true embodiment of sin here on earth. As He walked the dusty roads of Palestine, He continued to take on our sins, our weaknesses, our diseases. Even though He had no sin of His own, He became THE sinner because He took on all of your sin, taking to the cross. As the bronze serpent, that embodiment of sin, was raised high over the Israelites, so Christ, the true and perfect embodiment of all your sin, was raised high over a sinful world. As Jesus said in our Gospel lesson, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Moses followed the Lord’s instructions, and God worked through the serpent placed on a pole, just as He had promised. “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.” The Israelites who faced the just punishment for their sins simply looked toward the embodiment of sin lifted high, and they lived. Healing and restoration came to them through the means that God appointed, and He kept His promise. But this would only be a foretaste of the restoration to come. Our Gospel text for this morning begins with some Greeks asking the disciples, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Jesus goes on throughout the text to tell them that they will only truly see Him when He is accomplishing salvation on the cross. As the Israelites looked to the bronze snake for salvation, so we look to Christ on the cross for our salvation, because it is there that God Himself provided the payment to satisfy His own wrath over your sin, especially your rebellion and complaining despite all of His good gifts. Through the cross, God has promised to forgive and restore you, and the proof of that came on Easter Sunday, when He raised Christ from the dead, just as He will raise you someday. Look to the cross for your comfort, look to the cross for your assurance, look to the cross for your salvation! For there you see Jesus, the embodiment of your sin paying the price that you owed to God. We rejoice this day and every day that God’s love sent Christ to the cross!
It is especially on this day, Holy Cross Day, that we focus on that instrument through which Christ accomplished our salvation. In our Gradual for this morning, we heard God say, “Behold, I will lift up my hand to the nations, and raise my signal to the peoples, So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life.” It is on the cross that Christ won the victory, conquering all that held us captive. This is the sign by which we and all people are delivered, but because it is a sign of weakness, of death, the world rejects it. As Paul said in our Epistle lesson for today: “For the word off the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” May you glory in the foolishness and weakness of God, the message of the cross, because it is only through the cross that you have salvation, Amen.