Monday, March 19, 2012

Lent 4 of Series B (Numbers 21:4-9)

In the beginning, God created you. He formed you in the womb of your mother, He knit you together in secret, then brought you forth into this world that He had created for you. He gave you everything you needed: food, water, and shelter. Even the air you breathe is a gift from Him. He is the one who provided your family to bear you, to raise you and care for you; whether they realized it or not, they were His instruments of provision. Every good gift comes from God, but what God wants to give you isn’t enough. You want more, you want something different. You are impatient with His provision, because it doesn’t come the way you want it, and so you grumble and complain. “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!” God has given you every good gift, and yet you say, “we loathe this worthless food!” You want what is not yours; you aren’t satisfied with what God has given to you, and so you desire what others have. Your focus is on the stuff of this world- food, clothing, cars, houses, money, status in the eyes of others- rather than on the God who gives all of these things as He sees fit. Psalm 78 declares, “They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?’”

Why do you speak against God? Because you are sinful. And this sin can have only one penalty. “Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” Your grumbling and impatience has earned death. This is a reality that you cannot ignore, for you see it in your own body. Your very flesh is corrupted by sin; that is why you get sick, that is why your body wears out, that is why you die. Death is the result of sin; we die only because we are sinful. No person can escape the penalty of sin; whether you believe the Scriptures or not, the reality of corruption and death is apparent to all. You can’t explain away cancer or heart disease, much less death itself. Sin isn’t simply some spiritual affliction that only religious people have to deal with; it has very real physical consequences. 

But yet, the physical consequences of sin only point to the deeper spiritual problem. St. Paul writes, “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Your sin has made you a child of wrath; God’s wrath over your sin and rebellion. Your selfish desires for the things of this world over the God who gives them can only lead to separation from that God forever in eternal judgment, body and soul, in hell.

When you are faced with the stark reality of your sin and its penalty, you can do one of two things. First, you can try to ignore your sin and its penalty, pretending that you really don’t have sin and that hell doesn’t exist. But you can pretend that hell doesn’t exist all you want; the reality is, you can’t pretend that your body isn’t corrupt and broken, you can’t pretend that you won’t die. The path of denial is ultimately delusional and irrational, no matter how many of our world’s intellectuals and celebrities take it. No, the only real option is to cry out to the only one who can do something about it, the one who imposed the penalty, God Himself. “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.’” 

You come to God in humility, you come to God knowing that you have a problem that you cannot solve on your own; you come to God in sorrow over your rebellion and ingratitude for the gifts He has given to you. You come confessing your sin: “I have sinned, for I have spoken against the Lord.” God’s holy Law and the penalty that you can see in your very own body has exposed your sin, and so you bring it to Him. You come knowing that God doesn’t have to listen to you, that He doesn’t owe you anything, only wrath. But you come begging for His mercy. You call on the God who lovingly created you to save His creation; you call on the God who provided for all of your bodily needs to provide eternal deliverance. The penalty of your sin is too hard to bear; if it remains upon you, it will drag you down to eternal punishment. And so you pray, you confess, you plead- for deliverance, for forgiveness, for salvation.

Your plea doesn’t come to God’s holy throne alone, but instead you have an intercessor who is pleading for you before Him, begging Him to have mercy upon you. As Abraham stood between the wrath of God and his nephew Lot, as Moses stood between God’s punishment and the people of Israel, so the second person of the Trinity, the eternally begotten Son of God, intercedes for you before His Father. He pleads for your salvation, He pleads for mercy, for grace. He pleads for you, calling on God to remember His love for His Son and His love for you.

Your intercessor, the one who pleaded for your salvation, is called to the throne. “‘Go forth, my Son,’ the Father said, ‘And free my children from their dread of guilt and condemnation. The wrath and stripes are hard to bear, but by your passion they will share the fruit of your salvation.” God answers your cries, He provides deliverance in the person of His Son. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Our intercessor, our mediator, is called upon to bring salvation to us Himself, and He does this without hesitation. “Yes Father, yes, most willingly I’ll bear what you command me. My will conforms to your decree, I’ll do what you have asked me.” In love He stood before the Father’s throne for you; in love He will go forth to bring you the salvation He pleaded for.

“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.” Your sin is a sin of the body: the desire for the things of this world over the God who provides them. The penalty for your sin is a penalty of your body: the corruption that fills you, that leads to maladies, disease, and finally death. And so God makes His Son the image of your sin. He gives to Him your human flesh; the Son of God takes on a body and becomes man. He is the image and likeness of your sin. But more than that, He becomes sin itself, bearing your own sin in His flesh. He is sin incarnate, the very embodiment of sin, not because He has any sin of His own, but because He bears your sin.

The image of your sin is then placed high upon a pole, for all the world to see. “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 image of your sin is nailed to a cross, exalted in humiliation, exalted in suffering, exalted in order to die. When He is lifted up, He is exposed to ridicule, He is displayed as a condemned criminal, He is declared a traitor to Rome and His own people. But the image of your sin isn’t simply lifted up to receive ridicule from men; He is lifted up to pay the penalty for sin, He is lifted up to endure what you deserved, He is lifted up for your salvation. He is lifted up so that nothing stands between Him and God’s holy wrath, He is lifted up so that the full brunt of the penalty for your sin falls upon Him and not you. He is lifted up so that when you look to Him, you live.

“So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look to the bronze serpent and live.” You are sinful; you know it, for you have seen its penalty in the frailty of your body, in the death that stalks your steps. You have confessed your sin and then cried out to God for deliverance, for salvation, and His answer is His Son, made the image and embodiment of your sin, exalted high upon a pole. “O wondrous love, what have you done! The Father offers up His Son, desiring our salvation. O Love, how strong you are to save! You lay the one into the grave who built the earth’s foundation.” Your sin has been made man and put to death; its eternal penalty is removed. Look to Jesus, hanging high upon the tree, exalted upon the bloody throne of the cross, and you will live! You will live even though you die, for there sin’s power over you has been destroyed. Look to Jesus when you fall into grumbling and complaining against the good gifts of God, for only through His cross can you have forgiveness. Even now He stands before the Father’s throne, interceding for you, placing His cross between you and the penalty for your sin. He remains your mediator forever; look to His cross in repentance whenever you sin. Look to Jesus when your body falters and fails, for He will give you a new body in the new heavens and the new earth, one that will have none of the corruption that results from sin. Look to Jesus in the midst of this corrupted and dying world, for He is the only answer to sin and death. Look to Him this Lenten season, exalted high upon the pole for all the world to see. 

The cross is your most sacred treasure, for there the image and embodiment of your sin was exalted for your salvation. St. Paul writes, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Jesus was exalted upon the cross so that He would be exalted to the right hand of the throne of God; Jesus was exalted upon the cross so that He would exalt you to the glories of heaven. There you will dwell forever, receiving every good gift from the God who created you and acted to redeem you. In His holy and precious Name, Amen.

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