Summary: Lent 4: The Lord has prescribed the method whereby we must be saved. It might seem odd - maybe crazy - like gazing at a snake on a pole... or a Savior on a Cross.
Folks were fussing and griping. They were angry and upset and - as is almost always the case under these circumstances - they began to criticize. Soon the words became heated. The harshness of the comments spoken was only thinly veiled. The angry words spoken were like painful, barbed darts – intended to hurt and wound. The outcome was predictable – there was offense created; harsh angry words were returned; trust and esteem for the other person diminished. People that were supposed to be close – brothers in Christ – felt uncomfortable in each other’s company.
As I wrote these words I was thinking of a very specific situation in the short life of this very ministry. But as I thought about it more and more – this drama is nothing new. It is lived out regularly in all our lives, isn’t it? This short account could be the description of many of our personal interactions with family, friends, coworkers and brothers and sisters in Christ. Fact of the matter is that conflict and disagreement with others is a common thread in the fabric of humanity. Griping and complaining are the symptoms for a much deeper problem.
The Old Testament Lesson speaks of a gripe session of a similar sort. The Israelites were wandering in the desert. Why were they wandering? - Because they refused to trust God’s leading. They had been led right to the border of the Promised Land, but they were afraid to enter. They didn’t believe God would usher them as victors into the land He had led them to. And so they wandered in the desert. And then they began to fuss and fume. Only problem – they picked the wrong person to criticize. Let’s read about it: [read Numbers 21:4-9 together]
The sin of the Israelites was to criticize God. Their spirits were not faithful to God. They refused to trust God’s love and care. They forgot the miracles God had done for them. In short, they were so focused on themselves and what they thought was best that they begin to grumble and speak words that wound – words that were harsh. It’s bad enough to do this to another person, but these desert wanderers directed their words against God.
And the consequences came upon them almost immediately. Our text says: “…the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people.” The KJV translation of the Bible says that the Lord sent “…fiery serpents among the people.” Perhaps this latter translation is a bit more descriptive. The implication is that the bite of these fiery serpents produced an extreme amount of pain. The text tells us that these serpents bit many of the people and they died.
It sure seems clear that the Lord was trying to send a message to the people. He wanted to show them that their rebellion was causing them to suffer. Many of them were going to early graves because of their transgressions. But God was also sending a subtle message here – it had to do with the serpents – the snakes. Do you remember the way that sin entered the world in the Garden of Eden? That first sin was a sin of rebellion – a disobedience of God that was ushered into the world by satan in the form of a serpent - and it brought death. And now the rebellious, God criticizing, desert wandering people were again being sent to early graves through the work of other serpents.
And so the people – in the throes of agony – recognized their sin. They called to God and said, “We sinned… take the snakes from among us.” And God in his mercy heard the people and provided a way for them to be saved from death. God’s answer to the problem of the snakes was rather odd. God told Moses to make a snake and put it on a pole. “Elevate it,” God said, “So that it can be seen by all the people in the camp.” God told them, “When anyone is bitten by a snake, have them look at the snake and they will live.” And sure enough, those who trusted in God were saved from death by looking at the bronze snake that Moses elevated on a pole in the midst of them.
I’d like to make a couple of observations about the goings on we’ve just discussed. First, I’d like for us to notice that God didn’t remove the snakes from the camp. The consequences of sin remained with the Israelites. They were still bitten – still felt the fiery poison. But what God did provide was salvation from death. He allowed the Israelites who trusted God to avoid perishing as a result of sin.
The second observation I’d like to make is that the solution God provided was, I think, a reminder. Think about it – the figure of a bronze snake on a wooden pole – look at it after a fiery serpent bites you and you will live! Sounds weird. God didn’t provide a sophisticated snake serum. He didn’t enable the healers to develop an amazing cure. He didn’t create a special liturgy or ceremony that the priests could use to save the snake bit. He just said, “Look at the bronze snake on the wooden pole.”