Pastor Aaron Steinbrenner delivers a sermon entitled “God’s Grace Is Lifted Up” based on Numbers 21:4-9 at Peace Lutheran Church in Hartford, Wisconsin.
Delivered: Sunday, March 11, 2018
In 1969 Sesame Street aired its first episode. One of the staple segments is a song called “One of These Things is Not Like the Others.” The children watching are asked to look at four items. Three are similar, one is different. Three red sneakers are shown and one big red rain boot. The boot doesn’t belong. Three hammers are shown and one tennis racquet. You get the idea. Ones of these things is not like the others.
For whatever reason, this popped into my head when I read through the verses from Numbers. The Lord sends manna to his people. The Lord sends quail. The Lord sends water from a rock. The Lord sends venomous snakes. Ok, one of these things is not like the others. Manna. Quail. Water. Snakes. The snakes don’t seem to belong. The snakes seem like some kind of punishment sent by some kind of angry, irrational God. However, the snakes do belong. The snakes are good gifts that were sent by a loving, caring God. Take a quick look at some of Israel’s recent behaviors and see if you can understand why venomous snakes could be seen as a good gift.
- It all started back in Egypt. God sent Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh – soon the people would be released from slavery…this is a good thing! But the people complained when Pharaoh’s treatment turned harsh.
- God prevailed – ten plagues later, the people were now free. But they complained…they even longed to go back to Egypt because the food was better, in their opinion.
- So God sent them manna and quail. Guess what? They displayed greed and then discontent.
- God gave them his written law. Before Moses could even return with the tablets of stone the people had made a golden calf and were worshipping that.
- The Lord led them right up to the promised land…all they had to do was step over the border and take the land for themselves…but they were afraid because the inhabitants looked too powerful and they did not believe the Lord’s promise and they rebelled.
- Still the Lord was patient with them…continued to lead them in the wilderness…training them, blessing them, loving them.
- Now their wilderness journey was nearing its end. All they had to do was cut through Edom and enter their new home. The king of Edom said, No, I don’t want your 2,000,000 people to tromp through my land; go around.
And apparently, that little detour caused the people to rebel again…and complain again…like those GIF video clips that repeat and repeat and repeat…same scene over and over again. The people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
Let me paraphrase. God, we are sick and tired of you…sick and tired of your leadership…sick and tired of your provisions. Can you see how sending those snakes was meant to be a loving wake-up call to those Israelites? Can you see how they had been developing a very unhealthy attitude…and how God loved them enough to intervene and provide an attitude adjustment?
Can you relate to those Israelite journeyers? It would be pretty bold for us to speak against God and tell him how much we detest his gifts and his leadership. Detest is a strong word. Do we prefer terms like take for granted?…complain?…wish we had something different? Those are just polite ways for us to say, “Lord, we’re a little sick of your leadership and your provisions.”
If we are so content and happy and thankful for God’s gifts…why do we covet someone else’s bank account or their job perks or their spouses or their houses or their health?…why do we have moments where we hate our jobs and hate our bodies and hate our lives?
When we watch the Israelites, it’s so easy to see their repeating sins and bad attitudes. Again and again. Grumble…complain…repeat. Grumble…complain…repeat. When the Lord watches us, what repeating sins and bad attitudes does he see?…again and again…like a GIF video clip. Grumble…Complain…repeat? Covet…Lust…repeat? Gossip…Lie…repeat? Apathy…Laziness…repeat? What sins do you hide from others? What sins do you cover-up and try to pretend aren’t hurting anyone? God sees them…so he sends in the snakes.
Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.”
Those snakes accomplished what God wanted. He wanted to give his people a wake-up call. He wanted them to repent. God loves us enough to send in the snakes. Actually, for us it’s not literal snakes. They are attitude adjusters. Attention getters.
- He may permit diabetes and cancer and heart disease – but why? To remind us that we are mortal and our main goal on earth is to prepare for heaven.
- He may give us a detour in life or extend some kind of hardship – but why? To show us that we are not in control and we cannot fix everything…so we are to turn to him…trust in him.
- When we sin, he will make sure there are consequences and deep and heavy guilt – but why? To teach us that sin is indeed a serious thing…and to have us ever pleading for and yearning for the forgiveness that only he can provide.
Did you notice that the Lord, while he heard the prayer of the people, he didn’t answer their prayer in the way they wanted? They wanted the snakes to be taken away. What does God do? The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.
He didn’t take the snakes away. He gave them a bronze snake up on a pole. And that bronze snake didn’t do anything either. It was a symbol of God’s grace and promise. It was the sure Word of the Lord connected to that bronze serpent. Does that remind you of anything? Does that remind you of baptism? It’s not some special water, blessed by the right person or poured just the right way, or at just the right temperature. It’s the promise of God that in the waters of baptism we are forgiven and we are given power to live for him. Does that remind you of holy communion? It’s not the wine and the bread that send you away satisfied; it’s the promise of Jesus – I bled and died for you and now I forgive you. Does that remind you of what Jesus said to Nicodemus? 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. We were snakebitten with sin. We were dying. We were doomed. But the Son of God was lifted up. And here’s God’s promise: look to him and be forgiven…look to him and live!
We’ve been talking about things being lifted up? God’s grace lifted up in the desert. God’s grace lifted up on Golgotha. We are lifted up too, by God’s grace. God has lifted you up and away from your guilt…up and away from your sin…up and away from your repeating loop of sinful attitudes and behaviors. You are forgiven. One day he’ll lift you up and away and take you home. Until that glorious day…
- Live in the power of your baptism
- Live with the full nourishment of the holy supper
- Live as people lifted up by the grace of God
- Live for him. Amen.