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Fourth Sunday in Lent

Numbers 21:4–9; John 3:14–21

James T. Batchelor

Fourth Sunday in Lent
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  
Hoopeston, IL

view DOC file

Sun, Mar 15, 2015 

Most people dont like snakes.  Some people are deathly afraid of snakes.  Even people who dont mind snakes are startled when they see a stick lying in their path and it suddenly moves. Its hard to remember that most snakes are beneficial predators that help control the rodent population.  Its hard to remember that most snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them.

Of course, the fact that the devil used a serpent to tempt Adam and Eve doesnt help their reputation.  It also doesnt help that the Bible refers to the devil as the ancient serpent (Revelation 12:9; 20:2).  Todays reading from the Old Testament also contributes to our bad attitude toward snakes.

Todays reading is from Numbers.  Numbers is the account of the Children of Israel after they leave Mount Sinai.  Exodus tells us that before the Children of Israel arrived at Sinai they were a ragtag mob of slaves.  While they were at Sinai, God organized them.  He put the moral law into the words we know as the Ten Commandments.  In the last half of Exodus, all of Leviticus, and the first half of Numbers, God gave Israel the civil law for governing themselves as a nation.  He also gave them the ceremonial law of offerings and feasts that were the shadow that pointed forward to the Messiah.  When the Children of Israel left Sinai, they were an organized nation headed for the Promised Land.

God disciplined the people differently before and after Sinai.  Before Sinai, the people grumbled and God fed them with manna.  He sent quail into their camp for meat.  He gave them water.  God recognized their ignorance and disciplined them gently.  This all changed after they left Sinai.

When Israel left Sinai, God expected His people to know better than to grumble.  They had seen the plagues in Egypt.  They had seen the water of the Red Sea part for them and drown the Egyptians.  God had given them the Tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant as tangible reminders that He was with them.  God was more stern with them than before.

So now we come to the Old Testament reading for today.  Once again, the Children of Israel 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. Notice the contradiction in their complaint.  They say that there is no food, but then they go on to say that they loathe the food.  How can they loathe the food if they dont have any food?

Of course, the food they loathe is the miracle food of manna that God gives them every morning.  So they have judged Gods food and found it to be worthless.  This is serious indeed especially when we hear Jesus compare Himself to the manna as the Bread of Life from Heaven (John 6:25ff).

One might say that God disciplined His people by bringing their complaints to life.  Deadly serpents invaded the camp.  Their bite began killing many in the camp.  Sadly, the people wouldnt listen to God when He merely spoke to them.  He had to allow death to enter their camp in order to get their attention.

The people finally confessed their sin and asked God to take away the serpents.  God heard their prayer, but gave them an answer that they did not expect.  Instead of removing the serpents, He gave them salvation from the serpents.

God ordered Moses to duplicate one of the serpents in bronze and place the bronze serpent on a pole.  Moses did as God commanded and everyone who looked at the serpent on the pole survived the snake bite.

Now, just so you dont get a false picture of this situation, remember that Israel had a population of about 600,000 men of military age.  If you multiply that by wives and children, it doesnt take long to estimate a population of 2.5 million people not to mention livestock and luggage.  This meant that the Israeli camp covered many square miles.  You didnt just poke your head out of tent flap and glance at the serpent on the stick.  It was a long walk to the bronze serpent on the pole.

The healing powers of the bronze serpent did not depend on the quality of the bronze that Moses used.  It did not depend on the quality of the wood used in the pole.  Instead, the healing power of the bronze serpent depended entirely on the promise of God.

In a way, the bronze serpent is like all the means that the Holy Spirit uses to bring salvation.  Whether we consider hearing the Word of God, Confession and Absolution, Holy Baptism, or the Lords Supper, they all depend on the promise of God for their effectiveness.  As Martin Luther says in his explanation of baptism, Without God's word the water is plain water and no Baptism.  But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit. (Small Cat.: art. iv, par. 710) It was the promise of God working through the bronze serpent that healed the snake bite.

Jesus used this Old Testament event to point to Himself.  In todays Gospel, He compared Himself to the bronze serpent in the wilderness.  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.  With these words, Jesus gives the promise of eternal life to all who believe in Him as He is lifted up.  The promise of God healed the Israelite when he looked upon the bronze serpent.  In a similar way, the promise of God in Jesus Christ heals and gives eternal life to the sinner.

Jesus then expanded on the meaning of this comparison with one of the most famous verses in the Bible: God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  The word Whoever means that this promise is for all people.  As the bronze serpent hung on a pole in order to save Israelites from poisonous serpents, so Jesus hung on a cross in order to save the entire world from sin.

If God allowed our sins to turn into snakes, our infestation would dwarf the problem Israel had in the desert.  Sadly, our sin is more subtle than that.  Once in a while, we recognize our sins, but most of the time, they are like the serpent in Eden, crafty crawling into our lives in ways we dont recognize.  Some of the sins we know.  Most of our sins are known only to God.  Jesus knows all of our sins whether we know them or not.  He has taken all these sins to Himself.  He has taken them to the cross.  There on the cross, Jesus battled for us.  It was a battle to the death.

Who won?  Well, a few days later, Jesus came back to life.  He rose up from the grave.  He was the victor of the battle on the cross.  He defeated sin, death, and the power of the devil with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.  That ancient serpent who is called the devil and Satan has a sure and certain future a sure and certain future in hell not as its lord, but as a prisoner.

On the other hand, those who belong to the victor, Jesus Christ, have an eternal future of celebration with Jesus.  Those who have the Holy Spirits gift of faith in Jesus Christ will live forever with the victor.  They will forever enjoy the eternal reward of Christs victory over the serpent of sin.

God does not turn our sins into snakes.  Instead, He forgives them for the sake of His sons innocent suffering and death.  For the sake of Jesus, He makes us His own that we may live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  We shall rise from the dead just as Jesus rose from the dead.  We shall reign forever with Jesus.  For we have the promise of Jesus, For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. Amen

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