Fourth Sunday in Lent
†††In the Name of Jesus†††
Pastor Murray Keith
Text: John 3:14-21
Date: March 11th, 2018; Lent 4; Series B
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
The Israelites had become impatient with God and his servant Moses.
They were ungrateful for everything God had done for them – he delivered them from slavery in Egypt, he sent manna from heaven, he miraculously provided water that came from a rock.
Yet, instead of being thankful - they complained, “We loathe this worthless food” and they grumbled against God and Moses (Numbers 21:5).
They had turned from God to their selfish desires – even though God had been very generous with them.
So, the Lord called them to repentance by sending fiery serpents, which “bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:6).
If they thought they had it bad before – they hadn’t seen anything yet.
It’s funny how that works, isn’t it?
Even though God has provided us with everything we need (and so much more!), we too, at times, are not content with what the Lord has provided.
We want the bigger house, the fancier car, better looks, popularity – we don’t feel that we have what we want or deserve.
But, when we lose what we have been given - then we realize how fortunate we were in the first place.
The old saying, “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone,” definitely rings true.
Often, we don’t realize how fortunate we are to have our health until we are diagnosed with an illness or until we suffer an injury.
Or, we don’t realize how blessed we are to have food, and clean water, and a warm house, and reliable transportation - until we end up losing them.
Or, we don’t realize how much a person in our lives means to us until that person moves away or dies.
When these are somehow taken away from us - we realize how fortunate we were to have had those blessings - those blessings that we previously took for granted and even complained about.
Well, this is exactly what happened to the Israelites – they came to realize that things weren’t all that bad before they started to grumble and complain against God and Moses.
The reality was they were blessed!
They were God’s chosen people through whom God would save the world.
Maybe they didn’t have the steaks and pizzas and cheeseburgers they wanted, but God provided the food they needed to survive.
Even more importantly, they had God’s favour and guidance for their lives.
But, now, having rejected God, they had his wrath in the form of fiery serpents biting them and killing them.
If only they could go back to the way things were before!
When the Israelites recognized their sin and guilt, they confessed, “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” (Numbers 21:6).
This is what God’s Law does for us - it enables us to become aware of our sin and guilt so that we can turn from it and seek forgiveness and restoration.
And God did for the Israelites what he always does when people recognize their sin and repent.
He showed them love, forgiveness, grace, and mercy.
He did this by providing them with a means to save them – a bronze serpent on a wooden pole.
He provided them something tangible, something visible, something they could receive. “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” the Lord said to Moses (Numbers 21:8).
He provided them with a “sacrament”.
Luther’s Small Catechism defines a sacrament as, “A sacred act, instituted by God himself, in which God himself has joined his Word of promise to a visible element, and by which he offers, gives, and seals the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ.”
God’s promise of mercy was attached to the physical, tangible, object of a bronze serpent on a pole.
Certainly there wasn’t anything magical in this serpent pole in and of itself - really it was like any other pole.
But this one had God’s promise attached to it.
This is how God’s people received his mercy.
No longer could the people of Israel complain about what the Lord had provided.
If they wanted to live, they received what God gave them.
God gave them a means for life in the midst of death, “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” (Numbers 21:9).
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus said, “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” (John 3:14-15).
Jesus foretold his death on the cross and its benefits.
He is the “serpent” on the wood, lifted up for the life of the world.
All who look to him through the “eyes” of faith have eternal life.
Like the Israelites in the wilderness, humanity is “snake-bitten.”
It happened in the Garden when the shrewd and subtle serpent tempted Eve and injected the poison of his lie.
The lie that God is not true to His Word. The lie that God doesn’t mean what He says.
The lie that we can become like God, that we can experience good and evil on our own terms.
The lie that we can disobey God and we won’t die as a result.
Eve bit and Adam bit. And the poison not only invaded them, it was passed on to their children.
Every son and daughter is infected with the serpent’s venom.
No generation is skipped. Not you. Not me. The apostle Paul says that you were dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1).
Not sick, not weak, not troubled - but snake-bitten dead!
God had mercy on the Israelites who were snake-bitten and he has had mercy on us too.
In fact, he has had mercy on every person who has ever lived in the past, who lives today, and who will live in the future, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
For the Israelites he provided the serpent pole to save them from death.
For us he has provided his only begotten Son. This is the cure for the snake-bitten world.
Jesus took the full hit for us, the wrath of God, the temptations of the devil, the judgment of the Law. He went down to our grave and he rose from it.
He conquered our death by his death.
He is the eternal cure, the eternal medicine, for death.
Like the bronze serpent on the pole, all who look to Jesus in faith are healed of death and have eternal life.
The medicine is given out here in the church.
Today, instead of the bronze serpent on the pole, God has attached his Word of promise to water.
Those who have been washed clean by the waters of Baptism and believe will be saved.
Today, instead of a bronze serpent, God has attached his Word of promise to bread and wine – through the ordinary means of bread and wine he gives us his true body and true blood.
One of the earliest Church Fathers, St. Ignatius of Antioch, called the Lord’s Supper: “the medicine of immortality.”
The cure for the curse of sin and death is Jesus’ own body given into death; Jesus’ own blood shed for your life.
There is hope for this snake-bitten world - a sure hope that is based on God’s Word of promise.
God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save us.
Look to Jesus - in your Baptism, in the Word of forgiveness, in his body and blood.
Look to him through faith-full eyes and live forever.
For “…God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:4-9). Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.