✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Several years ago when my family was out in Wyoming camping, my son Philip came upon a rattlesnake. It wasn’t a big one; just a couple of rattles on its tail. But it was still a threat. We got hold of one of the ranch hands working there, and with the sharp blade of a shovel he took care of the threat. But imagine if you were camping and there were hundreds of rattlesnakes everywhere you turned. That’s what the Israelites were facing in today’s Old Testament reading. Still in the middle of their wilderness wanderings, the people of Israel found themselves surrounded by poisonous snakes wherever they went, even in their tents. There was no escape. The whole community was infested with these creatures, so that it wasn’t long before a great many of the Israelites had died.
The reason this happened is clear. It was Israel’s sinful grumbling and complaining against the Lord. Numbers 21 says, “The people spoke against God and against Moses: ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?’” The people became thankless towards their God, who miraculously delivered them from their slavery to the Egyptians through the Red Sea. When things got a little difficult, they turned against the Lord. And on top of that, they failed to acknowledge that they were the cause of their own difficulty. God had already brought them to the borders of the Promised Land of Canaan by this time. Moses had led the people there and had sent spies into the land to bring back a report, so that Israel could prepare to enter the land and conquer those who dwelt there as God commanded. But when the people heard about the Canaanites and how strong they were, they became afraid. They didn’t trust that God would give them victory over these people. They refused to enter the Promised Land, and so the Lord caused them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.
Still God provided for Israel each day, sending them bread from heaven in the morning, which they called “manna.” But they came to despise even this blessing, saying, “our soul loathes this worthless bread.” You can see why God’s anger was kindled against them to send these serpents among them.
Do we ever behave like the Israelites did here? Have you ever become blase’ about how Christ saved you from your slavery to sin and death? Have you ever taken for granted how He brought you through the Red Sea of baptism and made you His own people? Do you ever grow tired of the gifts of divine service and skip out on them rather than seeing them as the greatest blessing? When things start to go badly in your lives, you also may be tempted to grumble against God and blame Him for your difficulties; we, too, are often full of ingratitude. Like Israel, we tend to forget the terrible state of affairs from which God has rescued us. And, like Israel, we tend to forget that the cause of our difficulties in this wilderness world is not God but our own stubborn, self-absorbed rebellion against Him and His Word.
Yet God provides for us each and every day, giving us all that we need to support this body and life. But even then we still sometimes become bored with the same old job, the same old roof over our head, the same old people to live with, the same old husband or wife, the same old groceries on the table. How often haven’t we or our families complained about what was for dinner or about not having anything enjoyable to do. Boredom with God’s gifts is a sign of creeping unbelief. We wish for something better, something different, something more. Like Israel, we can despise the abundant blessing God has given us and incur His wrath. Beware of wishing for something new. You might get it, and it might be something along the lines of fiery serpents.
Those deadly snakes in the Old Testament reading are a reminder to us that our root problem can be traced back to the snake of Eden, Satan. The serpent’s fangs sank into our first parents with his poisonous lies. That lethal venom still courses through our veins, causing all of humanity to convulse with reminders of our terminal condition.
The judgment that Israel experienced brought them to repentance, which is the ultimate purpose of the judgment of the Law for us all. The people turned to the Lord and prayed for deliverance. And the Lord showed them great mercy. He provided them with a solution to their problem. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it up on a pole, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.’” By looking to this lifted-up snake and trusting God’s words, the people were saved.
Now if you think about it, this solution really seems sort of odd. Why of all things a snake? Hadn’t they seen enough serpents already? Why not something, for instance, that would be a better symbol of God? The answer to that question lies in the fact that God fights fire with fire. The solution He provides is of the same stuff as the problem. Fiery snakes were the trouble; a fiery snake is the answer. The serpent on the pole had the dual function of calling to mind the cause of the crisis, Satan and their sin, as well as showing the incredible love that God had for Israel in providing for their rescue from otherwise certain death.
Of course, the full weight of this passage hits home for us when we understand that the snake corresponds to Jesus Christ. John chapter 3 says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man (Jesus) must be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” In His unfailing mercy God has also provided us with a solution to our problem. The lifted-up snake in the Old Testament reading was a living prophecy of what Christ was to come and do in being lifted up on the cross. Looking to the crucified Christ and trusting God’s words of forgiveness, the venom of sin is cleansed from our blood and we are restored to a right relationship with God. The problem is focusing inwards and being self-absorbed; the solution is focusing outwards to the cross and being absorbed in Christ. For in Him our punishment was executed. By the cross our sins are canceled, and we are restored to God.
And don’t gloss over the fact that the snake and Jesus are parallel in this instance. For that is precisely where the heart of the Gospel is. That wonderful passage, 2 Corinthians 5 says, “God made Jesus who knew no sin to be sin for us, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Also in our situation, God fights fire with fire. The solution is of the same stuff as the problem. The terminal trouble is our sin, the healing solution is sin on a pole, Jesus on the cross. He was actually made to be the problem so that we would be freed from the problem. God treated Jesus as if He were the devilish serpent himself on the cross, so that you would be treated as His beloved child. Jesus put Himself on the level of the devil for you. It almost sounds blasphemous to call Jesus sin. For He was certainly without sin of Himself. But because He made our sin His own, His death now means that our sin is dead, powerless to do us any eternal harm. By dying and rising again, Jesus crushed the serpent’s head.
You might compare it to the true story of the hunter who was out with his friend in a wide-open area of land in southeastern Georgia. Far away on the horizon he noticed a cloud of smoke. Soon they could hear the sound of crackling. A wind came up, and he realized the terrible truth: a brushfire was advancing their way. It was moving so fast that he and his friend could not outrun it. The hunter began to rifle through his pockets. He soon found what he was looking for–a book of matches. To his friend’s amazement, he pulled out a match and struck it. He lit a fire in the grassy brush. Soon there was a fairly large area of blackened earth downwind. They stepped into this large smoldering area where the grass had already burned up, waiting for the firestorm to come. They did not have to wait long. They covered their mouths with their handkerchiefs and braced themselves. The fire came near–and swept around them and right by them. But they were completely unhurt; they weren’t even touched. For the fire would not burn where the fire had already been.
The judgment of the Law is like the brushfire. We cannot escape it. But if we stand in the burned-over place, where the Law has already burned its way through, then we won’t be hurt. The death of Christ is the burned-over place. The Law already burned its full judgment there on the cross. There we huddle, hardly believing we’re safe there, yet relieved that it is true. The Law is powerless against us; Christ’s death has disarmed it. (Zahl, “Who Will Deliver Us?” p. 42)
This is why we have no problem displaying crosses with the body of Christ on them. For there we see where the fire has already burned. There we see our safe place and our refuge; there we take our stand. We preach Christ crucified, so that looking to Him in faith we may live, relieved and joyful.
And finally, what better way is there for you to look to Christ in the midst of all the fiery serpents of this world than to receive the holy supper of His body and blood for your forgiveness with prayerful faith. As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes. Here is the antivenin that undoes sin’s toxin; here is the medicine of immortality, given and shed for you.
Trust then in these words of Christ from the Gospel and know that they are true for you, “In the world you will have tribulation”–no way around it–“But be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.”
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠