Faithlife Sermons

Moses and the Bronze Serpent

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 Sermon # 456 Title The Snake on a Stick Date 3/11/18 Text Numbers 21:4-9 Series Lectionary B Church Valley Lutheran, Chagrin Falls Notes BO51 The Bronze Serpent 4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. 1 Tim. 1:2 χάρις ἔλεος εἰρήνη ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς καὶ Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. [THEME SLIDE] Today, you are all in for a treat, because we get to go to everyone's favorite book in the Bible, [NUMBERS] the book of Numbers! No? Not necessarily your absolute favorite? Not the book you immediately turn to when you need guidance and direction? Well, maybe that's not that surprising. I have never in my life heard anyone say that their favorite book of the Bible is Numbers. When most people think about this the fourth book of the Bible, they imagine a monotonous listing of…well, numbers and other such uninteresting things. But the book of Numbers is much more than that. Unfortunately though, many people never discover this because they are put off by that admittedly boring title. And it's too bad, because honestly, that's not even the real title for this book. To understand how we got this lame title for what is honestly a good book, you need to understand the history. The Old Testament was written by the people of Israel, who spoke and wrote in Hebrew. [SCROLL] This book, what we call numbers, is the 4th book of the torah, written by Moses, so was naturally written in Hebrew. Which is great for Hebrew speaking people, but it wasn’t long before Greek speaking people wanted to be able to read these Hebrew Scriptures too. So, slowly from somewhere between 300 to 100 years before Christ, these old testament books were translated from Hebrew into Greek. And this Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures is where the title confusion comes in. When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek they changed the name of the book. They basically looked at the first chapter of this book, saw that it was a numerical record of census data, and titled the whole thing “Arithmoi” which is Greek for "numbers." The problem is, this book really just begins with census data, but gets much more interesting from there on out! See, this book contains the story of the [JOURNEY] journey of God's people from the point that they leave Mt. Sinai where they received the 10 commandments after having escaped slavery in Egypt, and ends right as they stand on the brink of entering into the promised land 40 years later. Numbers is the exciting story of the people of Israel wandering though the wilderness for 40 years and all the trials and miracles that happened along the way. This is not an accountant's ledger book, it is the narrative story of God’s chosen people as they travel, in the wilderness. So wouldn't you think that [WILDERNESS] "In The Wilderness" might be a much better title, than say, numbers? Well, funny you mention that, because "In the Wilderness" is the original title that the Hebrew Scriptures give this book: ‏בַּמִּ‏דְב‏ָּר‏ "In the wilderness." I hate to second-guess people much smarter than I, but I wish those Greek translators would have left the Hebrew title alone. In the wilderness is a much better description of what this book is about. So don’t tune me out when I say that our sermon today focuses on the 21st chapter of the book of numbers.... It's better than it sounds. So to back up a bit, the Israelites are wandering “in the wilderness,” on the way to the promised land, and well, surprise-surprise, they start to complain. But this is nothing new, because they have a track record of complaining. We see it time and time again in the Old Testament. God provides for his people in some miraculous way and then before long, they are grumbling against him. Here in in the book of Numbers we see God has delivered the people out of a life of slavery, and at first they are happy, but then as the journey gets long they begin to complain. Today we see a very popular, recurring complaint for the years spent wandering the desert; they say to Moses “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Now these complaints do not make God happy. He had miraculously delivered them from Egypt, then each and every day, he gave them [MANNA] manna, this miracle food that grew overnight. However, even with this free, miraculous food, the people eventually get sick of eating the same thing everyday. So they look this gift horse in the mouth and complain that the miraculous food wasn't good enough. In our text, they literally call it worthless. Which is not the way to ingratiate yourself to the God who is caring for your needs. So God punishes them. [SNAKES] The scriptures tell us, "Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died." This is a hard part to preach about. I’m sure many of you are wondering how God could do this to his people. We are so used to hearing the comforting words of the Gospel that we often forget that God uses the Law too. God is not hesitant to use the law to show us our sin. And unfortunately, this is often a very uncomfortable process for us. Unrepentant sin has consequences for our lives that are very real. We cannot go around living a life that is contrary to God’s will and, like the Israelites, insult the gifts God gives us, without expecting consequences. But God does give us a way out. We see that in our text today as well. When the Israelites complain, God sends the snakes to remind them just who exactly they’re rebelling against, and when they came to their senses and repented, God sent a way out. God told Moses to, [POLE] “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses fashioned a snake out of bronze and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone who was bitten simply looked at the bronze snake, they lived. And while this familiar story might sound reasonable to us thousands of years later, put yourself in their shoes. The people were dying of snake bites and God's response is to give them ... a snake on a stick. The whole thing is just weird in so many ways. First off, God has always been vehemently against making graven images, or idols. These same people had gotten in a lot of trouble for making a golden calf at one point. And now, here is God instructing Moses to make this snake that feels awfully close to breaking that prohibition. And furthermore, what the people had told Moses to ask God for, was to just take away all the snakes! But no, God doesn’t do that. He makes Moses Go through the slow process of melting the metal, forming the snake, attaching it to a pole, and then bringing all the snake bitten people to come see it. It certainly isn't the quick fix they were hoping for. It isn't even an answer to their snake problem. The snakes are still there, and they're still biting people, it's just that now they have a cure. And of all the images that God could use, why put a snake on the stick? The last thing the people wanted was another snake, and on top of that, there's the whole connection of the devil appearing as a serpent and tempting Adam and Eve into committing that original sin. Snakes symbolize evil, corruption, and sin in the people's minds, so why does God use it as the cure here? And if the form wasn't weird enough in itself, the way this cure worked was strange too. They didn’t have to touch the snake, or maybe rub the snake on their bite; no all they had to do was look at it. I mean, just looking at something, is sorta the opposite of taking medicine, right? I mean, I wish I could just look at my multivitamin every morning [PILL] rather than trying to swallow down that big horse pill. Unfortunately just looking at something doesn't usually help. But here, all they had to do was look at this [POLE] bronze snake on a stick. Just look at it. And in some ways, that's hard to accept. It's too easy. It’s hard to believe that this thing could have any kind of power, especially the power to heal the dying. And I think that's kinda the point. When God does something ridiculous like this, it's usually because he wants us to not just take it for granted. He wants us to stop and recognize that this only works because of the incredible power of God. He wants us to notice the ridiculousness of it, and stop and question it. He wants us to see something deeper. This is one of those places where God is playing out one of these big inside jokes we like to call prophecy. The Israelites here at the time have no idea of the significance of looking to this symbol of sin, hoisted up on a pole, that somehow provides for forgiveness and healing, simply by having faith in it. [CROSS] The Israelites look at this and see only a snake on a stick, but we can't help but to notice the similarities between this and Christ on the cross. [COMPARE] Jesus takes the sins of all mankind, is affixed to a cross, and all who look to this crucified savior receive the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life. And all you have to do to be healed, is cast your eyes of faith upon him. We all know John 3:16, but the two verses directly proceeding it, spoken by Jesus himself read, " 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." Jesus tells us that he is the snake on a stick, held up for the salvation of the people. Unfortunately, we get hit with the same irony of this solution, it seems too simple. I think the Israelites who are looking up to the snake while they are physically dying, have a lot in common with us who are looking up to Christ on the cross and are spiritually dying. Like them, we are dying because of our sin, and we are desperately looking up to the one thing that can save us. [CROSS] And I think it is just as hard for us to believe that simply having faith in Jesus Christ can save us, as it was for the Israelites to believe that simply looking at the bronze snake would heal them. We have a hard time having faith in something that seems so easy; something that requires no work of our own. But that’s how God works. That is the nature of our salvation. We might have a hard time believing it, but God does it for us. Jesus’ death and resurrection offers us the forgiveness of sins and we receive it simply by believing he died and rose, and by wanting the gift he offers. Christ’s salvation is offered to us freely, all we need do is come to him, broken and dying, and gaze up to his life-giving cross. When we look to Christ crucified, we are healed. When we look to the risen Christ, we share in his new life and Easter joy. May you always look to the cross, for by doing so, you will live. Amen. Now know that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen. καὶ ἡ εἰρήνη τοῦ θεοῦ ἡ ὑπερέχουσα πάντα νοῦν φρουρήσει τὰς καρδίας ὑμῶν καὶ τὰ νοήματα ὑμῶν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησῦ Philippians 4:7 14
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