First Mennonite Church
August 3, 2014
A Healing Serpent and a Life-giving Cross
Text: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3: 14-20
When children become bored, because they cannot watch TV, surf the internet, or eat junk food, they begin to grumble about everything else. Their world seems to consist of these three things they do not have access to. Grumbling eats out patience fast. Ask any parent, especially parents of teenagers.
The other day, after an elderly lady finished her phone conversation with her husband while she was in the store, she asked the young woman who was at the front desk, “Do you want him?” The young woman asked, “Who?” “My grumpy husband”, the lady replied. “I already have a hard time with mine,” they younger woman interjected.
Grumbling and grumpiness are hard to bear for a long time. Moses had a long time dealing with that problem multiplied by the thousands. The passage for today is one of Israel’s last grumblings against Moses. While Moses remained amazingly patient to the point of interceding once again, God was swift in his punishment as well as in giving a second chance to those who responded to his offer of healing and forgiveness.
Chapters 20 and 21 of the book of Numbers cover a transitional period in the life of Israel during their wilderness journey. It was the period when the first generation of those who left Egypt came to an end and the second generation began to look forward to their entrance into the Promised Land. The incident in our passage today seems to show that even at the very end of that first generation, grumbling against Moses continued. We will see another characteristic of that first generation next Sunday. That is their inclination to remember and desire for the things they were used to in Egypt.
Israel’s complaint was a little incoherent. They had no bread and still they were complaining about their “miserable food.”
Here is the lesson about complaining: when people get tired of something, complaints and murmuring are just around the corner. It does not take much for people to complain when there is something that has been nagging them for a long time. In the case of the Israelite, there were quite a few reasons why their complaint was easy to come by.
They had been in the wilderness for a whole generation; I mean forty long years!
They could not call home any place they had lived in for the past forty years.
They had been eating the same kind of food, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They had gotten tired of manna regardless of all the recipes they had invented. It was the same old manna! They wanted onions, garlic; they wanted something the desert could not grow.
The Israelite has suffered great losses along the way. God had stricken many of them because of their complaints and yet those who had survived kept complaining.
They had been rationing their water, I mean not only from May to November as we do, but for all those many years.
They had borne the heat during the day and the cold during the night.
What is more, their journey seemed unending. Arrival to the Promised Land seemed taking forever.
But at this time for the Israelites to complain about their “miserable food” when they had no bread was incoherent. It only highlights their long suppressed frustration finding any way to vent it out. You cannot blame them. People get tired, period! And the Israelite were extremely tired.
We should be able to understand the Israelite situation somehow. It’s been a hot week. Isn’t it? It has been dry, extremely dry. And there are more to these two reasons to make us want for something different. There are wars in faraway lands, but nonetheless, come to our attention and make us worry as to where the world is heading. There are unending political fights, which make us wonder what will be of our society. There is human movement that breaches not only matters of borders and legality, but also raises issues of morality and consciousness. And more closely we have home and family concerns. Prices at the grocery stores and department stores seem to have discovered a new way to go higher every day. Children will soon be going back to school. And everything they need is more expensive.
Still even closer, for those of us here, there are issues of church. Talk of church growth, talk of church needs! The conversation, if not complaints, can be unending too.
I might have already started complaining! But the point here is to show that the Israelite’s experience and consequent easiness to complain against Moses and God are not too far beyond our own experiences. And Yahweh showed consistency to his nature and promise. His nature is to remain faithful and his promise was to bring them to a land that flows with milk and honey. But among the many promises God made to the Israelites one is found in Exodus 15, verse 26. At this point the Israelite had just made her first complaint about water and had also seen the first deliverance from the Lord. God said to them: “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight. And give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you.”
The fiery snakes came as a swift punishment from Yahweh. Although it was the Israelite’s last complaint recorded, it was serious enough to move God to bring a painful and deadly punishment. Yahweh did not tolerate even this last complaint. God did not say, “Oh poor things, they are just tired; that is why they are complaining again.” God did not say, “I will just suffer this one; they will soon stop once they enter the land.” God was and is a consistent God and would not overlook when his commandments were transgressed. Verse 6 reads: Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The Hebrew word for snake is “nehas” and the adjective used to describe the type of snakes that came is fiery, some other translations either use the word venomous or poisonous. The Hebrew word is “seraph”—it is the base word for a kind of angels mentioned in Isaiah 6, called seraphim—the six winged burning ones/beings before the throne of God. God sent venomous snakes and these were killing many in the camp. And the people implored Moses to intercede on their behalf because of their sin. And God instructed Moses what to do.
Just imagine a huge campground of more than a million campers. It was spread out pretty wide. At the center of this campground Moses erected a pole and hung a bronze snake on it. And people from all directions desperately came to give it a pleading look because they did not want to die. They came limping or dragging one leg or holding a swollen arm with the other hand. They all had been bitten by the fiery snakes because they had grumbled against God and Moses. They all had grumbled and the snakes had bitten them. They all had to come to the same place where the bronze snake hung. The very fact that they have to come to this place was an open admission to their wrong doing. And all they need to do to be cured and restored is to look at the bronze snake. By simply looking at the bronze snake, Israel was reminded of the words: I am the Lord who heals you.
That was the point Jesus was highlighting to Nicodemus when he said, “Just 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.” Remember that Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of darkness. He did not want to be seen coming to the Lord. But Jesus shows that everyone who comes to the light receives the righteousness of God. Everyone who wants to be healed from the sting of death needs to openly come and believe in Jesus, who was sent by God as the means for our salvation. The sole purpose of the bronze snake was to give healing and life. And so was Jesus’ reason to come. He did not come to condemn but to redeem. But there is another parallel. The poisonous snakes gave deadly bite, but the bronze snake gave healing. So was the cross. The cross was an instrument of death, but God transformed it into an emblem of healing and life.
Every Sunday when we gather in the presence of the exalted Christ, we must remember that implicitly in our gathering is our public confession that we are sinners in need. Every Sunday when we come together we tell the world where to go to get healed and restored from the sting of death. Jesus is indeed God’s healer and life-giver lifted up for everyone.
Here we are this morning before our Healer. He wants not only clean us from our mistakes and sins, but he also offers us healing in our mind and body. He heals us from our brokenness and restores in us the joy of his salvation. In the name of the Lord, be healed. Be restored. Be filled with the joy of Christ our Lord who hung on the cross and there he took away the poison of the sting of sin and death. Amen!