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Most of us learned the story of the Bronze Snake in the wilderness when we were in Sunday school. At the time you might have been creeped out thinking about all the poisonous snakes slithering around and biting people. You were probably amazed that God cured people by having Moses put a metal snake up on a poll. But, you probably didn’t think about how this story so clearly pictures how we so often forget about God and whine and complain when things don’t go our way, and how God always has and always will provide salvation by grace through faith.
In order to understand this section of Scripture it helps to know where it fits in the history of Israel. The people involved are the second generation, the children of those who left Egypt and walked through the Red Sea. That first generation, their parents, had come to the border of the promised land, but when they heard the report of the spies that the Canaanites had large armies and walled cities and even giants, they refused to enter. Because they didn’t trust him, God said they would have to wander in the wilderness until everyone 20 and older had died, except for Joshua and Caleb. That means that the vast majority of these people had never lived anywhere else but in tents in the wilderness and their main diet had been manna every day for almost 40 years, and a little quail once in a while.
When God told them to pull up stakes because it was time for them to enter the Promised Land, they must have been extremely excited. Finally, they wouldn’t have to live in tents anymore. Finally, they could eat those beautiful grapes they had heard about, like the ones the spies had carried back on a poll because the cluster was too big and heavy to carry any other way. Finally, they could settle down in one place and stop moving around so often. But a problem arose. When they asked Edom, their relatives, descendants of Isaac’s son Esau, for permission to pass through their country, Edom said “No”, even though they promised to stay on the road and pay for anything that they or their animals might damage. That meant more walking, a longer journey, eating manna longer.
After being in the wilderness their whole lives, you might think that waiting a few more days, or a week, or however long it took to go around Edom, wouldn’t seem so bad. But they became impatient. Things didn’t go as they hoped or planned. Reality didn’t meet their expectations. And, instead of trusting God or asking him for help, they complained. They spoke against God, and against the leader God had appointed, Moses. They foolishly accused them of bringing them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness (if that was God’s purpose, they would have all died long ago). They complained about the manna, calling it worthless food, starvation rations, even though it seems that it must have been the perfect food, able to keep them healthy all through their wandering in the wilderness.
Does any of this sound familiar? Have you ever turned up your nose at what was set before you to eat? Have you ever stood in front of the cupboard or refrigerator and complained that there was nothing to eat, even though there was plenty of food inside? Have you ever grown impatient on the road because someone was going too slow? Have you ever complained or spoken against God because your life wasn’t going the way you thought it should, reality wasn’t meeting your expectations? Have you ever spoken against a leader God appointed because you didn’t think they were doing a good enough job, or because something wasn’t going right in your life, or simply because he told you what God said but it wasn’t what you wanted to hear?
Just like Israel, God has showered us with blessings. We have much more than manna every day for lunch. We have never had to experience living in a tent in a wilderness for years on end. We have better living conditions and more food choices than any people who have lived on earth before us, with the exception of Adam and Eve before they sinned. And yet, when something goes wrong in our lives, when we encounter a temporary road block, when we look in the frig and don’t see exactly what we are hungry for, we too become impatient. And sometimes, in our impatience, we sin. We blame our situation on others. We get short tempered. We get so focused on whatever is going wrong, or slowing us down, that we become blind to all the positive things God is doing for us. He’s leading us to the promised land of Heaven. As Paul reminds us, our present sufferings, whatever they are, aren’t worth comparing what he has in store for us. Life is short, eternity is forever. Wait patiently.
When Israel became impatient and sinned by speaking against God and his appointed leader, Moses, God acted. He sent poisonous snakes among them. It was almost like saying, “you think you have it bad now, it could be a lot worse.” God’s reaction may seem harsh but remember that this generation had seen and heard about a lot of miracles from God, they had seen and heard what God had done to the previous generation when they spoke against God. They should have known better. And, remember, God’s purpose was to call them to repentance. He could have justly destroyed them all on the spot and sent them all to Hell.
How do we recognize God’s discipline today? Sometimes it’s easy to see because God lets us suffer a consequence for our sin- we pay a fine, we lose a job, we feel shame and guilt. But it’s not always easy because bad things aren’t always a direct result of our personal sin. Often bad things happen just because we live in a sinful world. When natural disasters happen, people are often quick to say that God is punishing those who are affected for sin, as one Christian TV personality tried to say about Haiti. But Jesus warns us about doing that. He tells us that when such things happen, don’t point the finger at others, you don’t know the mind of God. Use it as an opportunity to reflect on your own sins. It could have been you. You deserve God’s punishment just as much as anyone else because you too are a sinner.
This second generation of Israelites showed that they had learned something from what they had seen and heard in the wilderness. They realized that the snakes were sent by God to call them to repentance. They came to Moses and confessed. We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and against you. And they asked Moses to intercede for them. Rarely, if ever, did their forefathers come to repentance that quickly.
You have to admire Moses. For forty years he had put up with grumbling and complaining; with people accusing him of being power hungry and misleading them. They had just buried his brother Aaron and he knew that he himself was not going to be allowed to enter the Promised Land. If I were in Moses’ sandals I would have been tempted to say, “I’m done with you people. Talk to God yourself and see if he answers you.” But Moses showed his great humility and faith. He interceded for the people. If past prayers were any indication, Moses humbly reminded God of his promises and asked him, for the sake of those promises, to spare the people.
God heard Moses’ prayer and answered him. And what he told him must have seemed foolish to him and everyone who heard it. God didn’t miraculously get rid of the snakes. He told Moses to make a snake out of metal and put it up on a pole where it could be seen from all over the camp. Then God attached a promise to the metal snake. He promised that anyone who was bitten could look up at the metal snake and the poison of the snake would have no effect on them. They wouldn’t die, but live.
This was pure grace. The people didn’t deserve to be given a means for healing the bite of the snake. Because of their sin they deserved to die and go to Hell. But instead of allowing that to happen God provided a way out. All those who were bitten and realized that they faced certain death, and who then looked up at the snake on the poll thinking, “Ok Lord, you promised I would be healed,” they were. They lived.
What a wonderful picture of the way that God deals with us! When Adam and Eve sinned, instead of giving them what they deserved, he gave them a promise. Through faith in his promise they were saved. When we sin. When we realize that we have been bitten by the serpent Satan and that poisonous venom of sin should bring us a fiery eternity in Hell, God gives us a promise. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. He attaches a promise to the water of Baptism and tells us that, by the power of the word connected to the water, our sins are washed away. He attaches a promise to the bread and wine, telling us that his body was given and his blood was shed for the forgiveness of our sins.
Just as the idea of looking at a bronze snake to be cured of a snake bite seems completely foolish, looking at a man crucified on a cross 2000 years ago to be cured of sin also seems completely foolish to our sinful nature. But those who did look at the bronze snake were healed. And those who do look at Jesus hanging on the cross and hear God’s promise that in him their sins are forgiven, have what God promises. The forgiveness of sins.
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.