In our Lenten journey this year, the RCL has been focusing on the theme of God’s covenant—with Noah and all creation, with Abraham and his descendants, with Israel at Sinai, and next week with the world as promised through Jeremiah’s words to the Exiles. In our reading for today, we have a vivid picture of covenant broken by Israel and restored by an angry but gracious God.
This text is deeply appropriate for Lent, because it gives us opportunity to reflect on our stubborn rebellion against God and on God’s strong (and strange) redemption. If preached in all its peculiarity, this story should move us to genuine repentance and renewed faith in the saving power of God’s grace in Christ.
But that result won’t be automatic, because we are so much like Israel. The introductory comments to the entire book of Numbers in my old NIV Study Bible describe ancient Israel in terms that might describe any one of us. “Those whom God had redeemed from slavery in Egypt and with whom he had made a covenant at Mount Sinai responded not with faith, gratitude and obedience but with unbelief, ingratitude and repeated acts of rebellion, which came to extreme expression in their refusal to undertake the conquest of Canaan (Num. 14).”
For their refusal, they were sentenced to spend the next 38 years wandering in the wilderness, until the last of those unbelieving, ungrateful, and rebellious people had died. Such people could not inherit the Promised Land. In our text, we meet them in the third stage of their winding journey, the final leg from Kadesh to the plains of Moab. Their path has just been blocked by their brothers (descendants of Esau) in Edom and they have just defeated the King of Arad.
So, frustrated and elated, they are champing at the bit to head directly to the Promised Land. Instead, “they travelled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea to go around Edom.” Yet another detour, one of many in a seemingly endless and endlessly difficult journey! And they snapped. They had had enough. “They grew impatient on the way….”
That’s understandable. We know a bit about impatience in our current cultural climate. But they took their impatience to a dangerous next step; “they spoke against God and against Moses….” It would be one thing to speak only against their human leader, even though he was so clearly God’s appointed representative. It was quite another to speak against God—not just to God in complaint or lament or argument, but directly against God in rebellion and rejection.
What they said explains why God responded as he did. They challenged the great redemptive act of God by which they had become free. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert?” That isn’t what God had done at all. He had liberated them so they could live in the land of milk and honey. Their death in the wilderness was the result of their sin and unbelief. And they hadn’t died yet, because even in that dry and barren land, God had provided bread and water. But they complain that there is no bread and water, directly contradicting the reality of the gracious gifts God had given them. And to top it off, they say that they “detest” the gift of manna from heaven, calling it “miserable food.”
In no uncertain terms, Israel is rejecting the grace of God in all its forms—his great redemptive acts on their behalf and his daily provision for their lives. Anything and everything God had done for them in his gracious love is spurned by an impatient, unbelieving, ungrateful and rebellious people.
This isn’t the first time they had done something like this, but this is a particularly egregious rejection of grace. So instead of waiting for Moses to intercede for Israel (as he so often did), God snapped. He came to the end of his famous patience (cf. Exodus 34:6,7) and immediately punished their sin with a plague of poisonous snakes.
Now I am well aware that this kind of story often turns people away from the Faith. We want nothing to do with an angry God. This is the kind of story that led Marcion and countless others to reject the Old Testament and its angry God and focus on the New Testament and the love of God in Christ. But before we turn away from this story, let’s think a bit deeper about it.
The fact is that the Bible (both OT and NT) does talk about the burning anger of God. And that is especially so when people absolutely spurn his grace, as Israel does here. God has done everything for them, but they completely turn their backs on God. Why wouldn’t God be angry—not just sad or heartbroken or disappointed, but downright angry? What human parent wouldn’t feel the same?
But parents don’t kill their children. Well, some do. And we put them in jail or mental institutions. How can we justify what God did here? On one level, we don’t have to—God is the Judge, not us. And on another level, maybe this awful feature of this story is designed to teach us a terribly important lesson. An absolute rejection of the grace of God will put us in mortal danger. Grace is our only hope and if we turn our back on God’s outstretched hand, we might very well die. And that makes God angry, because he doesn’t want us to die. He wants us to live abundantly and eternally. His anger is simply his love expressed in fire.
We know that because of what happens next in the story. In response to Moses’ intercession, God’s grace yet again provides salvation from sin and punishment. True, salvation doesn’t come in the form Israel requested. But there was a very good reason for that. They asked Moses to pray that “the Lord will take the snakes away from us!” Instead, God told Moses to make a snake of bronze or brass (a “fiery serpent” in the image of the fiery serpents that were killing them). Put it on a pole and “anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” Moses did just that and, sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.
There is a world of gospel wisdom in that ending to the story. Note that God did not answer the people’s request to “take away the snakes.” Why? Because simply taking away the snakes would leave the people stuck in their sins, or as the Epistolary reading for today says, “dead in sin (Eph. 2).” Instead of changing their situation, which is all Israel wanted, God knew that they needed to be changed in themselves.
These people who had rejected God’s amazing grace needed to learn to accept it again. They had turned away from the God who had saved them in multiple ways. They needed to turn toward that God again and look at his saving work. The snakes remained so that they would learn to look at The Snake on a pole. The snakes weren’t the main problem; their rejection of God’s grace was. That way leads to death of the worst sort. So, Moses calls them to accept God’s grace by believing the Word of God and looking at the Snake on a pole.
Even a blind person can see the connection to the Christian Gospel here. But because we often are blind, Jesus makes it perfectly clear in John 3:14-15, where he compares himself to this Serpent. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” What follows, of course, is the most perfect statement of the Gospel in Scripture in verse 16.
That tells us that this whole story, especially the most unpleasant part, is about the love of God for the world. God takes the world so seriously that he must respond strongly to sin. Our lives depend on it. If he lets us simply go on in our unbelief, there is nothing but “perishing” in our future. So, he intervenes in many ways, some frightening, some strange, but all loving.
We may wonder why God chose a snake to cure snake bite. The answer, I suspect, lies in the story of Jesus, who was made just like us sinners, except he never sinned. Paul put it even stronger when he said in II Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Science often uses the cause of a disease as a cure for the disease. Many vaccines are composed of dead viruses or parts of viruses. Anti-venom is made by taking a bit of the venom and inserting it in an animal which then creates the anti-venom which will cure the person who is bitten by the poisonous snake.
In my comments above, I alluded to the widespread impatience in our society. Part of the reason for the raging spread of the coronavirus is that people have become impatient with the length of our journey through this wilderness of COVID and with all the restrictions and hardships imposed on us by the disease. So, we reject the very measures that will help conquer this pandemic, from wearing masks to getting vaccinated. Our impatience may be the very thing that kills many people, as was the case with Israel.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 14, 2021
Numbers 21:4-9 Commentary