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The Fourth Sunday in Lent – Series B

Text: Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-17

Title: “Of Snakes and Crosses”

Date: Sunday, March 11, 2018

Pastor Steve Bocklage

         Criticism and complaints. Words from angry and upset people soon create a heated argument. Angry words are like painful, sharp darts intended to hurt and wound. When angry words are spoken, trust and respect for others diminish.

         This scenario could easily be a personal interaction you have had with a family member, friend, coworker, or even a brother or sister in Christ. This scenario is also what is happening in our Old Testament reading. Forty years of wandering in the wilderness or desert is coming to an end for the Israelites. Or so it seems. They are in sight of the Promised Land and fully expect to enter and take possession of it. But for no apparent reason, the king of Edom refuses to let Israel travel through his country. So what are they to do now? They have to turn back and return to the wilderness to make their way around Edom. Their journey was almost over and now it will be much longer. They become testy. The patience of the people grows short. Israel wants deliverance and wants God to fulfill His promise…now! Instead of thanking God for all He has done for them, they begin to complain and rage about their situation.

         In the book titled, “Becoming Strong Again,” (1998) author Gregory Jantz tells about a group of pioneers on the Oregon Trail who suffered for weeks from a scarcity of water and grass for their animals. Most of the wagons had broken down, causing endless delays in the stifling heat. A feeling of futility and frustration prevailed. Optimism and joy were gone. Courage was in limited supply.

         One night, the leaders called a meeting to air out their complaints. When they gathered around the campfire, one man stood up and said, "Before we begin, don't you think we should at least first thank God. He has brought us this far with no loss of life, with no serious trouble from the Indians, and we have enough strength left to finish our journey."

         The other settlers agreed. After the brief prayer, all that could be heard was stone silence around the campfire, because no one had any grievances they felt were important enough to voice. They suddenly realized if they could not be satisfied with what they had received, they could at least be thankful for what they had escaped. Thankfulness allowed them to see the mercies of God they had been overlooking.

Griping and complaining are symptoms of refusing to trust God’s love, mercy, and care. Grumbling and whining never honors God. His chosen people focus on themselves and on what they want. Long forgotten by the Israelites are the numerous miracles by God, including their exodus from slavery in Egypt. It is bad enough to hurl ungrateful words to another person…but these desert wanderers hurl their ungrateful words directly against God. (v.4-5) And their sinful actions have consequences. The Lord’s discipline is drastic and swift. “…[T]he Lord [sends poisonous, fiery] snakes among [the people]” and many wind-up dying. (v. 6) Clearly, the Lord sends a message to His people that their rebellion is causing them to suffer. Many of them are going to their graves because of their transgressions.

Are you and I much different than these ungrateful children of Israel? Who among us does not think from time-to-time that we deserve more things and better opportunities out of this life? After all, the world preaches that the only way to be happy is to be found in materialism and have lots of stuff. That is why the world offers all kinds of get-rich schemes like lotteries and casinos. That is why you look around and grumble and complain about those who seem better off than you. In his letter, St. James writes: "You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God." (James 4:4)
         Recall the way sin entered the world in the Garden of Eden. God put a warning label on sin that read, "Do not eat from this tree for you shall surely die." But our enemy, the serpent, switched labels. The label Satan attached to sin read, "Looks good. Tastes great. Is desirable to make one wise." That first sin was a sin of rebellion…a disobedience of God. That first sin brought death…ushered into the world by Satan in the form of a serpent. That is why the rebellious, God criticizing, desert wandering people are again being sent to early graves through the work of other serpents.
         So in their agony, God’s people finally own up to their sin. They cry out to God through Moses, saying, “We sinned… take the snakes from among us.” (v. 7) Moses prays for them. God, in His mercy, hears Moses prayer and provides a way for them to be saved from death. God’s answer to the snake problem is somewhat unconventional. He instructs Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole (v. 8) so that anyone snake-bitten “can look at it and live.” (v. 9)

Sure enough, those having faith to trust in God’s words and promise look at the bronze snake on the pole and live. How is this possible? What God says is powerful and His words make things happen. Do not underestimate the Word of God. God’s promise and assurance to the Israelites reminds you and me of the power of God’s Word in the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Martin Luther states in the Small Catechism: “For without the Word of God the water is plain water and not a baptism, but with the Word of God it is a baptism, that is, a grace-filled water of life.” Likewise, Luther says, “[The words] “given for you” and “shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” when accompanied by the physical eating and drinking, are the essential thing in the sacrament, and whoever believes these very words has what they declare and state, namely, “forgiveness of sins.””

While the Word of God provides healing and wholeness to the Israelites, notice that God does not remove the snakes from the camp. The consequences of sin remain with them. They are bitten and feel the fiery poison. What God does provide is salvation from death. He allows the Israelites who trust Him to avoid perishing as a result of their sin. God’s cure or solution is a reminder that He is awesome and does awesome things. He says “look at it and live.” God does not provide sophisticated snake serum. He does not enable the healers to develop an amazing cure. The LORD does not create a special liturgy or ceremony that the priests can use to save those who are bitten. God’s cure is to obey His commands…faithfully listen to and trust in the Word of God.

That is why St. Paul writes in our Epistle reading: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (Eph. 2:8) That is why in our Gospel reading Jesus makes this point saying: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:14-15) The Israelites are saved from the poison of the snakes when they look, in faith, toward the bronze snake. For you and me, we look in faith to the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, who saved us from the spiritual poison of sin. Jesus promises eternal life to those who trust in God’s living Word. (cf. Jn. 3:17) In God’s pure loving nature, He loves a world that is filled with sinners. (cf. 1 Jn. 4:16; Rom. 5:8) He wants you to lift up your sinful, rebellious heart to Him. He wants you to be up-front and forthright with Him by confessing your sins. Then as you face your sins, God wants you to repent. He will then turn you away from your sins and turn you back toward Him and His love, mercy, and forgiveness.

         So just as the bronze snake reminded the griping, grumbling desert wanderers of the profound depth of their depravity and of God’s mercy and love…the cross of Christ does the same for you. In the LORD’s love for you, only almighty God has the power to cure you of your rebellion against Him. Never withdraw from the cross of Christ. Your sins are carried to it by Jesus and buried with Him in the grave. And never forget as God’s child, Christ’s resurrection victory assures you of your eternal destiny in heaven. Amen.

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