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Rethinking the Solution to Sin

Sermon Theme: What Should I Do About Suffering?

Based on Numbers 21:4-9, we see the same LORD who fed his people on their sojourn feeds you, too, not with manna and quail but with the body and blood that was pierced with nails and lifted up on the cross to make you whole. “How far will God go?”

Their hammers fell swiftly and purposefully. Every swing struck its mark, because they had a job to do, and quickly. Lives were at stake; until on that stake in the ground, salvation was put up. A bronze serpent, and right along with it, the promise of deliverance, healing, and rescue from the venomous snakes that surrounded them. But how did we get here? With an outstretched arm of perfect power, the LORD God had delivered his people from their slavery in Egypt. He marched them out and put their toes on the border of the Promised Land with a promise that it was all theirs. But the people weren’t so sure. Those Canaanites were pretty big; their fortified cities looked pretty fortified…and what’ve we got? Israel doubted God’s power to do what he promised to do, and so the LORD God did what every father threatens to do on a long road trip: he turned the car around – and that doubting generation of people would die off in the wilderness over the course of the next forty years. Fast forward four decades. With the exception of two people, an entire generation of Israelites had died and a new generation of Israelites had arisen. Faithful to his promise, the LORD once again led his people to the brink of the Promised Land. They were so close; they could practically smell the milk and honey. All they had to do was take the short cut through the nation of Edom and they’d be home free. But their neighboring nation of Edom proved to be not so neighborly, and they wouldn’t let Israel pass through their country. Setback, OK. But set off? Shouldn’t be. These people had been pounding sand for forty years! Would a few extra miles added to their four-decade trip really be that big of a deal? Apparently, that was the straw that broke the wandering camel’s back. Just like it is today, the smallest of things can set people off.

The people grew impatient on the way (literally, their spirits grew short; they were at the end of their rope); they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” If you need any proof that generational studies (that compare Boomers to Gen X to Gen Z, and tell us how to relate differently to all those groups) aren’t always super helpful, here it is! This was a whole new crop of Israelites grinding the same forty-year-old ax that their parents did! And just what were the people complaining about? Walking in the desert for forty years? OK. Lack of options on their daily menu? Sure. But boil that down – what was the crux of their complaint? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt? That God had the audacity to rescue them from slavery and provided for their needs. What upset them most was God’s grace and the miraculous way he took care of them even in the most impossible circumstances! What’s God ever done for me?! They fumed, even as the shackles of their slavery lay drowned in the Red Sea, and they were walking as free people. Yeah, if only God would show me at least a little that he’s looking out for me! They charged, even as their clothing and sandals somehow hadn’t worn out over the course of their near half century as meandering nomads in the desert sand and sun. If God really cared about me, he’d be taking care of me how I deserve to be taken care of! They shouted, as they stuffed their faces with bread they didn’t bake and meat they didn’t hunt and water that God brought, not from a babbling brook, but from a rock! God’s miraculous and marvelous providence was treated like nothing. The goodness and loving care of their God practically slapped them in the face every day, but they were looking for something else. They’d rather be slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt than chosen people of God on their way to the Promised Land. Like the ungrateful child, who opens a refrigerator full of food and the only report that comes back is, “There’s nothing to eat around here!”

Tell me that doesn’t sound familiar, and maybe it’s not the ungrateful child looking in the refrigerator, but the ungrateful sinner looking in the mirror. Isn’t it easy to focus entirely on what we don’t have, rather than what we do have? It’s more expedient and we feel at least a little justified looking at all the ways God hasn’t blessed us (at least the way we think he should) rather than at all the ways God has and does continue to shower his goodness on people who don’t deserve it – you and me. What is it for you? If you could add another zero to the end of your net worth, would that do the trick? Never mind the fact that you, yes even you, are wealthier than 99% of the people on this planet. Do you ever find yourself wishing that things would just look a little more impressive or glamorous in your work, your family, or your church – kind of like those people next door? Never mind the fact that God’s given you the ability to work and a job to do, a family to love, and a country in which to worship him freely. But it’s never quite good enough, is it? The grass is greener over there; and frighteningly it gets to the point where the green grass of the Promised Land doesn’t look all that appealing anymore. The Joneses need to be kept up with. And so we can’t see, or we refuse to see, the majesty that lies behind our current little bit of “misery.” But those are just symptoms of a deeper problem. You’ve been set free in Christ – truly free as his chosen people – from slavery to sin, from death in hell, from the tyrannical power of the devil, but sometimes we look longingly back at our slavery to sin, or maybe take a field trip back there to lay our hands on some forbidden fruit God’s told us to avoid. What’s at the root of all this? A fundamental distrust that God actually does know what’s best for me and has the ability to provide it. And so, here comes the temptation to the one and only sin that begets all others: I know better than God. We find ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder with our ancestors of Israel, thinking and acting as if slavery were better than true freedom.

There’s an unstated question that runs through the entire story of the Exodus and, really, the whole narrative of Scripture: how far will God go? How far will God go to rescue his people? How far will he go to bring them back? From the plagues in Egypt, culminating in the death of the first born to the crossing of the Red Sea to the forty years of non-stop giving to grumbling people to the snakes. Yes, that’s right, the snakes. Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. Come on! That hardly seems fair! Talk about an unpredictable response to very predictable behavior – the Israelites had reached the end of their rope and, at first glance, it seemed God had, too! What do you do when God seems to be the one attacking you? What’s the deal with the snakes? I submit to you, if the LORD wanted to be rid of the whole nation of Israel, he could’ve found more expeditious ways to make that happen. Most obviously, he could’ve simply withheld his providence and protection for a couple/three days and sat back to watch what would happen. Starvation would set in. Foreign armies would swoop in and attack. All in all, the whole nation could’ve been efficiently wiped off the map before next Sabbath rolled around. But the LORD didn’t do that. This, I think, helps us zero in on God’s purpose in sending those venomous snakes upon his people: not to wallop them in retribution, but to work in them repentance. How far will God go to bring his people back? That unstated question that is woven throughout Scripture is founded on the one story Scripture knows how to tell – God wants all his children home again, and will stop at nothing until he does.

Still, this is a gruesome scene. Could you even imagine the screams of a mother as she watched a poisonous snake latch onto the still cute and chubby leg of her toddler? Wishing she could rescue her baby from the painful death that awaited, but was completely powerless to; needing now to look away from the fallen ones and focus on getting myself out of harm’s way? You can’t unsee that image or unhear those screams. This is graphic, but this shows us what the LORD thinks of sin. And, maybe so we’re clear, we should revisit the nature of Israel’s sin. This wasn’t a little bit of good-natured mumbling and grumbling; this was blasphemy. They had spit in the face of their God, who provided everything they needed for body and life. This is serious. Serious sin demands a serious solution. “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. Their hammers fell swiftly and purposefully. Every swing struck its mark. Lives were at stake until on that stake in the ground salvation was put up – a bronze serpent, and right along with it the promise of deliverance, healing, and rescue from the venomous snakes that surrounded them. Moses prayed to the LORD for deliverance, and the LORD could have simply said, “OK,” and all the serpents would slither their circuitous route through the sand, and all the venom coursing through Israelite veins would do no violence and everyone would get up and go about their way. But the LORD doesn’t do that. Moses prayed for deliverance from the venomous snakes, and the snakes stayed. The LORD didn’t take away the problem. Instead, he brings salvation by calling attention to the problem itself; he puts his promised rescue into this very strange place. Imagine it – you’re one of the Israelites army crawling away from these snakes, and one nabs you on the ankle. You’re a goner, you feel the fiery venom start coursing through your veins, and then you hear it, “The LORD has come to the aid of his people! Look!” And you look up, and what do you hope to see? A giant syringe filled with antivenom, but instead you see the problem itself. What is that? The LORD calls attention to the problem itself, puts his promised deliverance there, and becomes the curse himself.

This is foolishness. This is offensive. This is Lent in the Old Testament. The very thing we’re trying to escape is precisely where God directs our focus. This is where we find ourselves – ours is not a good-natured grumbling, or a harmless murmuring, but outright rebellion against God, too. We’re trying to get away from the wrath of God; we want to avoid death at all costs, and God is so intent that we see it, because the whole promise of this Lenten season is that the wrath of God that should be yours and the death of hell forever that you have earned with your sin is going to be scooped up and placed entirely on another, a Substitute. So, he’ll send someone; not snakes, but his Son. Jesus is the One who embodied the problem; our problem, becoming sin for us; to be overcome by the venom of our sin, and in the process, crush the serpent’s head. This is what it looks like when the poison becomes the cure, as Jesus takes what was only death-dealing and transforms it into something life-giving. Do you see how far God will go? How far he has to go? Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Their hammers fell swiftly and purposefully. Every swing struck its mark, because they had a job to do. The life of the world was at stake until on that cross Salvation was lifted up. Jesus is the One who embodied our brokenness, became our sin, and so put up on a cross he placed himself under the wrath of God for you. Do you see how far God will go, how far he has to go? God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. You know the verse, and we think that sending his Son is just one of the ways God loved the world, and that’s true, but I don’t think that’s precisely the point. The sending of Jesus is the love of God. This might seem like a distinction without a difference, but let’s get this straight, this matters, because this is about as clean as the gospel gets – God loves you…you, right now, not what he’s going to make of you eventually. God loves you, so that he sent his Son. Does he think you’re worth bothering with? Look at the serpent Savior; not a snake on a pole, but God on a cross for you. God’s still in the business of killing to make alive.

And here’s where the rubber meets the road. God’s love for you is not an abstract thing. People talk about the “love” of God or the fact that God is loving, but always kind of hazy, ethereal ways – as though it’s out there somewhere, but maybe it’ll vanish at a moment’s notice, or for that matter, maybe it never actually showed up to be seen. God’s love for you is not an abstraction, but it is so concrete, so fleshy, so sacramental, that his Love for you can be betrayed for silver, stripped of clothes, and pierced with nails. God loves this world and you in it that he’ll stop at nothing until he has you back – even taking on himself everything that is wrong with us, absorbing our death so as to deliver his life. So, where do we go from here? How do we face hardships in life as we make our way to the land that God has promised us? The snakes in the wilderness aren’t properly speaking a metaphor for tough things that come our way in life – they were death-dealing venomous vipers; not a metaphor. But we can make an application, it’s OK. Think of how that whole situation played out: the venomous snakes, the prayer for deliverance, and God’s answer. Sometimes the answer to our prayer is not the immediate removal of the problem, the hardship, or the challenge. Sometimes, dare I say oftentimes, the answer to our prayer is the strength to endure the hardship, or really better, the Spirit-given faith not to look down in despair, but to look up and see your Deliverer hanging on a cross for you. And as you make your journey to the Promised Land, the LORD has seen fit to bring you through water – not the parted waves of the Red Sea, but the waters of his Holy Baptism, where he cemented you to Jesus. The same LORD who fed his people on their sojourn feeds you, too, not with manna and quail but with the body and blood that was pierced with nails and lifted up on the cross to make you whole. Do you see how far God will go? How far he has to go? Your Salvation named Jesus doesn’t just remove your death, but fills you with his life. How far will God go? All the way to a cross and through an empty tomb and all the way to that font, this altar, and a pulpit right here to deliver his life to you. How far will God go? In Christ, all the way to you. Amen.

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