As the children of Israel traveled north with Moses toward the Promised Land, they came to the land of Edom. Now, God had not promised them the land of Edom, and strictly commanded them not to attack them since they were kindred through their ancestor Esau. When Israel asked to travel through Edom, the Edomites told them that they could not enter their land at all. In addition, an Edomite army came out to face Israel. So Moses led the people away from Edom, and they headed south, to go around Edom the long way.
At this point, some of the people became impatient. They had been roughing it in the wilderness for a long time, and eager to get to the land God had promised them. Now they could not help but notice that they were going the wrong way! Instead of heading toward the land of Canaan, they were going the opposite direction, back toward the Red Sea.
We can understand their impatience. It is a purely human emotion. When our lives feel like they are going the wrong direction, we become frustrated. Instead of forward progress, we may be sliding backwards.
The people of Israel began to speak against God and Moses, and to complain about the supposed lack of water and food, and the quality of the food. But here they were really complaining against the miraculous and heavenly providence of the Lord. He had given them food in the form of quail as well as manna, the bread from heaven. He provided water from a rock so they would not die of thirst. How could they complain against these wonderful manifestations of God’s love?
Once people get started with impatience, it does not stop there. Impatience leads to frustration, mistrust, complaint, and looking for even more reasons to complain. These attitudes will start to find fault with nearly everything, including the gracious and heavenly things of God.
The root problem was that the children of Israel were not trusting God to provide. They stopped believing that He was in control, and that He would get them to the land of Canaan as He promised. Their eyes became fixed upon what they saw as a lack of progress.
This is how the sinful human heart wants to think. First of all, we become impatient, because our journey seems so long and hard. We are promised a new Earth, the home of righteousness, yet we must travel a long time before we get there. How easy it is to forget the promises when the long journey wears us down.
Along the way, God provides fantastic blessings of all kinds for us, but instead our eyes become fixed upon the negative things. Look at the hostile wilderness all around us! Look at the poor quality of our food! We may even complain about the gifts of God in worship. Woe to us if that becomes the case, because then we show that we mistrust the grace of God.
We want to say that we would never do that. But we do. We find ways to speaks against the things of God. It is in our nature, ever since Adam and Eve were not satisfied with the wonderful gifts provided by God in Eden, but wanted that other fruit.
In Eden, the serpent who tempted Eve was the manifestation of the greatest evil. In the wilderness, the serpents that the Lord sent to punish the children of Israel became symbols of death because of their venomous bites. Yet God chose the serpent to be the icon, the image and banner and symbol, for healing. Israel was to look to the bronze serpent that Moses made to be healed. How odd and strange that God used that kind of slithering reptile, in which satan had concealed himself, to work healing and life for Israel! More on that later.
For now, I want you to notice that the people of Israel did the right thing at last. They sinned by their impatience, complaining, and mistrust, yet they eventually admitted their sin. We may mock them for only confessing that they were in the wrong after the serpents came and killed some of them. But that did not have to be the case. Nowadays, there are people who live a sinful lifestyle and God warns them with hardship to turn away from their sin, but they do not repent. Instead, they become even more angry towards God and more entrenched in their stubborn disbelief.
In the same way, the children of Israel might have said, “First God detours us in the wrong direction. We might be stuck in this wilderness till we die! Now He sends poisonous serpents among us! What a mean, wicked God!”
Instead, the people said to Moses, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” This is a good and pious response, and may we do the same.
But notice that God did not take the snakes away. Instead, He set up the bronze serpent for their healing. Why did He do that? Jesus through Saint John tells us why. “As Moses lifted the serpent in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” The bronze serpent became an icon or image of Christ upon the Cross.
So with even greater irony, the image of a serpent (the same reptile in which satan hid himself, and the same that afflicted Israel with venom and death) became an image pointing to Christ. For He has taken our evil and death on Himself on Calvary. Not that He is evil. Instead, Christ is the anti-satan. Instead of accusing, He justifies. Instead of poisoning mankind with lies, He heals with the Word of truth.
Christ has been lifted up so we can look at Him. He was suspended between earth and heaven on the Cross so that the death and poison of sin could fall upon Him, not us. If we look upon Him with the looking that is faith, then we have eternal life. All that the ancient serpent has done to harm mankind will be erased from us.
But we must be patient. The final erasure of satan’s harm is not yet here. We have eternal life as our possession now, yet it does not look like it. The Promised Land of the new heaven and the new earth is ours even though our eyes cannot see it.
The Spirit give us His gift of patience and trust so that our eyes remain firmly fixed upon our Savior, hung upon the Cross. Amen.
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