Summary: God wants us to approach him with confidence that we are receiving his Son's body and blood with the bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins.
Do you remember the restaurant scene from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? The snooty manager wasn’t going to let Ferris and his friends have a table because they didn’t have a reservation. No reservation at that fancy restaurant meant no service. With the help of his friends and some fancy phone work, however, Ferris managed to talk his way in by pretending to be someone he was not. The easier way of course would have simply been to make a reservation. But securing a table at a really good restaurant may mean placing a reservation and a down payment months in advance. There is a little sushi restaurant in Tokyo where you have to do just that, but only after you have met with the owner so that he can eyeball you and decide whether or not he wants you as a customer.
Is that what you had to do for the meal that is being offered here this evening? Did you have to put in a reservation and forward me a down payment for the bread and wine of Holy Communion? Of course not! In fact when it comes to Holy Communion, no reservations are allowed. Martin Luther explains what I mean when he wrote: “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training [for Holy Communion]. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe.” Sure you can make a reservation by telling me that you’re coming to Holy Communion. But you should have no reservations about what is being offered in this holy meal. To find out more, let’s turn to our sermon text from Numbers 21.
What does the bronze snake incident have to do with Holy Communion? Well let’s get our bearings first before we answer that question. Moses and the Israelites had been trudging through the wilderness for close to 40 years. The end of their journey was near, but the challenges continued. The Israelites had hoped to take a short cut through Edom, but the king there would not allow it. This forced the Israelites to travel through a hot, dry, wilderness known as the Arabah. Even today the Arabah is not a place you venture into lightly. Not long after they arrived there the Israelites began to complain about the lack of water. But God miraculously provided water by causing it to gush forth from a rock that Moses struck (though he was supposed to speak to the rock, not strike it).
Although their thirst had been quenched, they soon had another complaint: lousy food. They were talking about manna—that bread-like substance God rained down from heaven every morning. They used words like “light,” as in not very filling, and “detestable” to describe God’s gift. You can understand the Israelites’ frustration can’t you? If you had to eat manna or even pizza every day for 40 years, you’d get sick of it too. That’s only normal.
But wait, from God’s response we see that complaining about his gracious gifts is not “normal,” it’s abnormal. It’s sinful. Likewise the world may think that the death of thousands of babies a year through abortion is normal, it isn’t. Just as same-sex marriage is now seen by many as normal but isn’t. And neither is it normal for husband and wife to break their vows to one another, or for children to talk back to their parents. These things may be common, but they are not normal, not according to God’s holiness. And so we should never get comfortable with sin any more than we ever get comfortable with someone running a red light. For sin is just as dangerous to ourselves and to others.
To emphasize this truth with the Israelites in the wilderness God sent poisonous snakes in their midst. God let the Israelites suffer in this way not so much as a punishment, but as a call to repentance. God wanted the Israelites to realize just how dangerous and harmful their sin was. You can’t repeatedly run red lights and think you’ll be fine. Sooner or later your life is going to end in a tragic crash that could have been avoided. The snakes then were like the police who chase down red light runners—not because they enjoy handing out tickets, but because they want to stop behavior that would have lasting harmful effects.
And it worked! The Israelites confessed to Moses: “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us” (Numbers 21:7). And Moses did just that. He prayed on their behalf even though if I had been Moses, I would have been a bit skeptical of this confession. Were they truly sorry, or were they only repenting because they were in a lot of pain? But Moses sets the example that we are to follow. He took their confession at face value, forgave, and pleaded on their behalf. May we be as quick to forgive as Moses was, refusing to hold a grudge against those who have harmed or spoken against us.