Number 21; John 3 (Please Read)
You all know I work at a prison (actually two prisons, one male, one female) as the Facility Chaplain. I face issues all day long, mostly from the women… sorry but true. At the prison on a regular basis, the girls were fussing and griping in the pod (dayroom) about missing a program; then one girl started saying nasty things to another. They were angry and upset and – as is almost always the case under these circumstances – they began to criticize. Soon the words became heated. The harshness of the comments spoken was only thinly veiled. The angry words spoken were like painful, barbed darts – intended to hurt and wound. The outcome was predictable – there was an offense created; harsh angry words were returned; trust and esteem for the other person diminished. People that were supposed to be close – sisters in Christ – felt uncomfortable in each other’s company. Eventually, a fight even occurred and some women ended up in an area within the prison call “Administration Segregation” or “Ad Seg.”
As I wrote these words I was thinking of a very specific situation in the eight years of my chaplaincy in the prison. But as I thought about it more and more – I realized that this drama is nothing new. It is lived out regularly in all our lives, isn’t it? This short account could be the description of many of your personal interactions with friends, family, business associates, pastors, me. Fact of the matter is that conflict and disagreement with others is a common thread in the fabric of humanity, yes, our community where you live, everywhere. Griping and complaining are the symptoms for a much deeper problem.
Our Old Testament Lesson from Numbers 21 speaks of a gripe session of a similar kind. The Israelites were wandering in the desert. Why were they wandering? – Because they refused to trust God’s leading. They had been led right to the border of the Promised Land, but they were afraid to enter. They didn’t believe God would usher them victoriously into the land He had led them to. And so they wandered in the desert. And then they began to fuss and fume. Only problem – they picked the wrong person to criticize. Read Numbers 21:4-9.
The sin of the Israelites was to criticize God. Their spirits were not faithful to God. They refused to trust God’s love and care. They forgot the miracles God had done for them. In short, they were so focused on themselves and what they thought was best for them that they began to grumble and speak words that hurt and wound – words that were harsh. It’s bad enough to do this to another person, but these desert wanderers directed their words against God.
And the consequences came upon them almost immediately. Our text says: “…the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people.” The KJ translation of the Bible says that the Lord sent “…fiery serpents among the people.” Perhaps this latter translation is a bit more descriptive. The implication was that the bite of these fiery serpents produced an extreme amount of pain. The text tells us that these serpents bit many of the people, and they died a painful death.
It sure seems clear that the Lord was trying to send a message to the people. He wanted to show them that their rebellion was causing them to suffer. Many of them were going to early graves because of their transgressions. But God was also sending a subtle message here – it had to do with the serpents – the snakes. Do you remember the way that sin entered the world in the Garden of Eden? That first sin was a sin of rebellion – disobedience of God that was ushered into the world by satan in the form of a serpent – and it brought death. And now the rebellious, God criticizing, desert wandering people were again being sent to early graves through the work of serpents.
And so the people – in the throws of agony – recognized their sin. And as usual, they called to God and said, “We sinned… take the snakes from among us.”
And God in his ever-loving mercy heard the people and provided a way for them to be saved from death.
God’s answer to the problem of the snakes was rather odd. God told Moses to make a snake out of bronze and put it on a pole. “Elevate it,” God said, “So that it can be seen by all the people in the camp.” God told them, “When anyone is bitten by a snake, have them look at the snake and they will live.” And sure enough, those who trusted in God were saved from death by looking at the bronze snake that Moses elevated on a pole in the midst of them.
I’d like to make a couple of observations about what we’ve just discussed. First, I’d like for us to notice that God didn’t remove the snakes from the camp. The consequences of sin remained with the Israelites. They were still bitten – still felt the fiery poison. But what God did provide was salvation from death. He allowed the Israelites who trusted God to avoid perishing as a result of sin.
The second observation I’d like to make is that the solution God provided was, I think, a reminder. Think about it – the figure of a bronze snake on a wooden pole – look at it after a fiery serpent bites you and you will live!
Sounds weird. God didn’t provide a sophisticated snake serum. He didn’t enable the healers to develop an amazing cure. He didn’t create a special liturgy or ceremony that the priests and pastors could use to save those who were snake bit. He just said, “Look at the bronze snake on the wooden pole.”
Why a snake, I wonder? Was God trying to cast a shadow back to the original problem – the serpent in the Garden? Was God trying to force people to look at and confess the root of the problem – sin? You see, it sure is easy to focus on the symptoms – the little white lies, the sinful desires, the lusts, the laziness, the judgmental-ness. Focusing on the symptom – the snake bite – the rebellion in our hearts – tempts us to try to find a solution in a self-help book. Maybe we could use leggings to avoid the snake bites; we could carry an anti-venom kit. We could exercise so that our reflexes could allow us to out jump the snake. But none of those things will do the trick. That’s why Paul wrote in our New Testament Lesson from Ephesians 2: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God so that no one can boast.”
Self-help does not cut it – and so God asks us to lift up the problem – our sin – our rebellion – our untrusting and unloving hearts. He asks us to be up-front with this aspect of our lives. Look at the snake – remember the rebellion and sin in the Garden; remember the rebellion and sin in the desert; remember the rebellion and sin in your life. He asks us to come right up to Him as we face our sin – and He will heal us and forgive us. He will set us free, as many of us enjoyed the visualization of that Thursday night.
Now, let’s fast-forward about 1500 years… Jesus applied this well-known event to his own lifting up on the cross. He said, “As Moses lifted up the snake on a pole in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up”. Then,” said Jesus, “Everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.” This was why Jesus came into the world – to become the real salvation of the people – to be raised between heaven and earth on a cross.
By dying this way, He would draw all people to himself. And just like God promised salvation to those who looked at the bronze snake on the pole – Jesus promises eternal life/salvation to those who trust in God’s Word and look to the cross for their salvation.
My sisters and brothers, never shrink from the Cross of Christ – it is the power of God leading to salvation for those who believe. John Fischer, in his book On a Hill Too Far Away, tells about church in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. There is a one-of-a- kind cross in that church. It’s not that the cross is overly unique. What’s really strange is where the Cross is positioned in the sanctuary. This cross isn’t behind or above the altar. The cross in this church is bolted down into the concrete floor – right in the middle of the aisle. It’s between the pews and the altar. It’s an obstruction. The pastor’s words have to pass through it. The congregation’s eyes always have it somewhere in view. It is a sturdy wooden cross, 10 feet tall, made of raw, untreated wood. “Pretty” is not a word that would aptly describe it. We’re not used to that kind of Cross – one that’s always there to remind us of what happened to our Savior on it.
The bronze snake reminded the wandering Israelites of the profound depth of their depravity, their sinfulness, and of God’s mercy and love. The Cross is there to do the same for us. We need to have the Cross in our midst. It reminds us that through the Cross – an instrument of execution – our Savior lived out his undying love for us by dying on it for our salvation. Our sins were carried to the Cross by Jesus, buried with Him in the grave – and His Resurrection Victory assures us of our eternal destiny as God’s children. Let us each keep the Cross in our minds and in our hearts as we prepare for our Easter celebration in just about 5 weeks. Then let’s keep the Cross always in our mind’s eye – right in front of us always.
Pray with me, please.
Lord, we ask that You help us keep our eyes on the cross, help us to always be looking up at it as we follow our path to You and Your Righteousness. Amen.