Look Where He Has Promised
Rev. Kurt Lantz 4 Lent B Numbers 21:4-9
Rev. Kurt Lantz Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Catharines, ON
Dear people who are almost there,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Well, it looks like we’re almost there. Vaccinations are starting to roll out. There is a plan and order to it all. You can patiently wait for your turn and then begin to make plans to get together with your family members again, feel safe about summer BBQ socials, and look forward to those big gatherings like weddings that have been put off for a year now.
The children of Israel may have had much the same feeling. They had been in the wilderness, not just one year, but close to forty years. The promised land was right ahead. It shouldn’t have taken them very long to get there. And then a huge disappointment. The King of Edom, descendants from Israel’s brother Esau, refused to let them pass through his land. Moses promised that they wouldn’t stay in that land, they wouldn’t drink up their water, they wouldn’t tramp over their crops, they would stick to the roads. But it was no good, the King of Edom would not let them pass.
Now, the LORD had given them victories over other kings and peoples that stood in their way, but He didn’t do that with Edom, their fellow descendants of Abraham and Isaac. So the Israelites “set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses” (Numbers 21:4-5). Yes, back toward the same Red Sea that they had first crossed when they came out of Egypt forty years ago. What a disappointment when the promised land seemed so close. Can you blame them for being impatient and complaining against God and their leader?
What are you going to do if your COVID-19 vaccination gets delayed, for another month, another three months, another year? You cannot blame the Israelites for being upset after a 40 year delay, because you know you’re going to get upset if your hopes for the rest of 2021 get put off once again. You’re going to complain against the leaders that make the decisions and are responsible; and your complaints will also be against God who put those leaders in place and who could eradicate this virus entirely if it was in His will to do so.
Well, He could have eradicated the Edomites as well and ushered Israel right up to the borders of the promised land a lot sooner. But out of mercy and grace toward the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Esau, He led the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel around and did them no harm. Perhaps, out of grace toward others, your vaccination will be delayed. Maybe world leaders will decide that third world countries should be vaccinated first because they don’t have the kind of health care that we are blessed to have. Maybe that will put your vaccination off until 2022 and you won’t be gathering with extended family this year, you won’t be socializing with friends, you won’t be attending that wedding.
There is a sinful self-centred rage that lies within each of one us, that just needs the right disappointment in order to erupt forth in a tirade of complaint. It might be in regard to your job or your home, or your children. For the Israelites, it was all about their promised home their long-awaited home. And when it was placed a little farther away, they complained. They complained against Moses and against God.
Can you blame them? No, you can’t, because you would complain too. But that doesn’t mean that their complaint was justified. They should not have complained against the God who brought them out of the house of bondage in Egypt. They should not have complained against God who was indeed bringing them to the land He promised. They should not have complained against God who had provided them with food and water in miraculous ways for close to forty years. They should not have complained against God who had been feeding them with bread from heaven. They should not have complained against God who also wanted to show mercy and grace to another people along the way.
It wasn’t as though God had taken away His promise. They were still on the way to that promised land. It wasn’t as though they had deserved it and He was withholding it in order to get something more out of them. It was all pure mercy and grace that He delivered them from Egypt in the first place. It was all undeserved providence that He had kept them on the way. He had been giving and giving and giving and they hadn’t done anything for Him. There was nothing that they could do for Him. He was simply being their God, saving them every day from the dangers of the world, the threats of other nations who would enslave them, the lure of other gods who would take from them, and the destruction of their own sins which repeatedly rose up from within them.
And so again, in order to save them from their sins of self-centred impatience and complaint that God should show His grace to another nation, “the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 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’” (Numbers 21:6-7).
God’s wrath against sin is frightful. The snakes slithered throughout the people spreading their fever of death like a deadly virus, so that the people would acknowledge their sinful complaint against the God who had shown them such mercy and grace. Not only did they confess their sin, but they looked to the One whom they knew could save them and would save them. They asked Moses to pray to the LORD who had shown them mercy, undeserved grace, and even great miraculous acts of forgiveness and salvation when they had sinned against Him before.
And the answer was quick in coming. “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.’ 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 21:8-9). In God’s good grace and mercy He provided the means of salvation immediately. Through the ministry of Moses and the divine promise of healing attached to a visible sign, the people were forgiven and granted life when they looked with faith to where the LORD had put His promise.
It almost seems inappropriate that God would provide salvation for His people in such a way. He had told them not to make any images (Exodus 20:4), but here He has Moses make one. They had been punished for making a golden calf (Exodus 32), but here God told Moses to make a bronze serpent. Certainly gold is better than bronze and a calf is better than a serpent. But in God’s wisdom He saved His people by something that looked rather foolish to them and to us (1 Corinthians 1:18).
By putting the source of their pain and suffering and death up on a pole, a fiery serpent, He made it obvious that He was the one providing for their salvation. In their writhing pain, as good as dead with the fever raging through their bodies, they only had to trust in His promise and look where He pointed them, to find His free salvation given without price, without condition, with nothing but mercy and love.
This is the way that God saves His people. This is the way that He saves you. St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “But 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—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5).
Our sins are a deadly poison within us. We are as good as dead. There is nothing that we can do in order to save ourselves. There is no vaccine to eradicate sin from your mortal body. You are going to die and you are going to hell and there is nothing that you can do about it. You can’t make up for it in any way. There is no price that you can pay. There is no great good deed that you can do to change your destiny.
But God, in His mercy and grace has had compassion on you and provided the means for your salvation, just as He did for the children of Israel dying of the poisonous venom burning through their bodies. He set up a pole and raised upon it, not serpent but a man, a Middle Eastern man about thirty-three years old, beaten and bloody, stripped naked, crowned with thorns, nailed up on that pole through His hands and feet. And this man is so full of sin that He might as well be a serpent. He doesn’t have any sin of His own, but He is filled and weighed down with the sins of the whole world (1 Peter 2:24). And it looks like it. It is a disgusting mess of violence and brutality.
In one of the psalms that speak of Him it says, “I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see Me mock Me; they make mouths at Me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the LORD; let Him deliver Him; let Him rescue Him, for He delights in Him!’” (Psalm 22:6-8). And it is Jesus, God’s only Son, lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness (John 3:14), like worm and not a man. Matthew’s gospel tells us, “those who passed by derided Him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ So also the chief priests, with the scribes and the elders, mocked Him, saying, ‘He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in Him. He trusts in God; let God deliver Him now, if He desires Him. For He said, “I am the Son of God.”’” (Matthew 27:39-43).
It seems a foolish way to save people, God putting His own Son up on a pole so that all who look to Him might be saved from the poison of sin and have eternal life. But that is how God does it—freely by His grace toward you, not demanding anything of you other than that you believe His loving promise and look where He points. See His redemption for you on the pole, Jesus crucified to save sinners. That grace of God is yours by faith, whenever you look where He has put His promise of salvation.
It is always in things that seem foolish, because He wants you to be sure that it is He who is saving you and not you yourself. So He put His promise for you in the waters of your baptism. And He puts His promise for you in bread and wine. And He puts His promise for you in the words preached and the absolution spoken by a man full of sin, pointing you to the Son of Man lifted up on the cross who bore in His own body the sins of all mankind.
Just as it was for the children of Israel, so it is for you. There is free salvation, not in the crucifix carved upon the pole, not in your ability to do something for the Man whose image is there, but in the promises given in the Word of God, that if you look in faith where He has placed His promises of forgiveness in Christ Jesus, you will not perish, but have everlasting life.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.