A Snake-Bitten World and God’s Holy Cure!
4th Sunday in Lent
Rev. Steven D. Spencer
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. 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.” Then 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.” So Moses prayed for the people. 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.” 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.
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.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”
The Israelites were snake-bitten. Venomous fire-snakes were wreaking havoc in the camp. The people were dying, in agony. They grumbled. They spoke against God and they spoke against His servant, Moses. They were ungrateful for the manna that fell from heaven and the water that came out of the rock. So God sent a plague of fiery poison snakes.
The people confessed their sin, Moses interceded, and God provided a sacrament - a bronze serpent on a wooden pole. A visible sign of God’s promise: “Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” It’s a strange sign, don’t you think? The cure looks like the disease itself. A serpent of all things, that image of a sly, subtle creature who had tempted Eve in the Garden, a bronze snake on a stake. In Leviticus God said don’t make graven images; then He has them make an image.
An idol is an image without the command and promise of God. Such as the golden calf or even the bronze serpent became an idol for the Israelites. They named it “Nahushtan” and offered incense to it. It had to be destroyed along with Aaron’s staff that miraculously budded. Whenever a sign comes unbuckled from God’s Word, idolatry lies close at hand.
With the Word, the sign is a “sacrament,” a gift from God made tangible, and receivable. Look on the bronze serpent and be healed of your snakebite. The promise was there, located for certain for you. And if you were burning up with fever and delirious with poison, you didn’t say, “What do I need such a silly snake on a stake for? I can just pray to God directly.” You didn’t say, “I don’t like snakes; they give me the creeps. Look at the snake? Are you crazy?” No, you did what the Lord said to do. You went out of your way to glue your eyes on that bronze snake because it was the only way to survive.
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.”
Jesus foretells of His own 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 on 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 cunning and subtle serpent tempted Eve and injected the poison of his lie. A lie that says, God is not true to His Word. A lie that God doesn’t mean what He says. A lie that we can be a god in place of God, that we can experience good and evil on our own terms, that we can reach out and be masters of our own destiny. A lie that we can disobey God and that we shall not die as a result of that action. Eve bit, Adam bit. The serpent bit and his deadly poison he invaded our humanity leaving no part unspoiled. Humanity died that day. Humanity became dead to God and dead to each other - hiding, ashamed, blaming and self-justifying. 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 or me. Each of us is born with the poison coursing through our humanity. The apostle Paul says, “You were dead in trespasses and sin.” Not sick, not weak, not troubled, not struggling not even hanging on for dear life. We are Snake-bitten dead.
How do you cure a deadly case of snake bite? You don’t put a Band-Aid on it and say, that should do it! You don’t say, “Think positive thoughts and try really hard to get better.” You don’t say, “Pray the snakebite prayer and that will save you.” You need a shot of anti-serum. Anti-serum comes from one who has been exposed to the poison and survived.
God made Jesus the sinless Son to be sin for you. He became your sin, so that in Him you might become the righteousness of God. He was cursed with the curse against your sin; He was damned for you. He was exposed to our sin and death. 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 the dead. He conquered our death in His Death. He is the anti-serum of Death. Like the bronze serpent on the pole, all who believe in Him are healed of death and have eternal life.
Imagine you were an Israelite in the wilderness. Your best friend, a relative, a neighbor is lying on the ground, bitten by the fire snake. What do you do? Do you wish him good luck and hope for the best? Do you tell him to accept YHWH into his heart? What if you had already looked on that bronze serpent and lived because of it. You’re a survivor, alive by the grace of God. Wouldn’t you point your friend to the bronze serpent? Maybe you’d even carry him over to the place where he could see it too. You would urge him, “Look on this thing and live.” You wouldn’t take no for answer, at least not easily. You’d be urgent and forceful. You wouldn’t worry about hurting his feelings or “not respecting his beliefs” or all the other excuses we might have.
Do you see - the medicine is here in the church! The church fathers used to call the Sacrament “the medicine of immortality.” It is the cure for death and the curse of sin. Jesus’ own body given into death; Jesus’ own blood given for your life. The world looks on the Sacrament as though you have just raised a bronze snake and says, “You’ve got to be joking! This is how you live forever? Trust Jesus? Eat His Body as bread? Drink His blood as wine?” But what other cure is there? Who else promises life from death? Who else in the world died and rose from the dead? Who else says, “Trust me, eating my flesh, drinking my blood, and I will raise you up on the Last Day and give you eternal life”? Who else but Jesus?
You need this medicine, this word of forgiveness, this Sacrament of Jesus’ death and life. You need this medicine because the snake bit you too and without the anti-serum you’ll die in your sins. You need hear and eat and drink. And others you know need to hear and eat and drink too.
God loved the world in this way: He gave His only-begotten Son to die for it. He raised His Son up on a cross one dark day called Good Friday. It wasn’t a bronze image He lifted up but His own Son in the flesh in that cruel and bizarre death that even today people would rather look away from. An empty cross, they can tolerate (unless it’s on a county seal or a government building). But they can’t stomach the crucifix, that instrument of torture and death with a body on it. Who can look at such a thing? What kind of religion is it that lifts up such a banner with pride and says, “Behold, your Savior and King”?
Here is the love of God. He loved the world so much that He gave His Son for the life of this unloving, unlovable world. Can you begin to imagine it? What God tested Abraham to do, offer up his son Isaac, God the Father actually did. And the world says, “That’s nuts. How can I believe in a God would do such a thing?” There is no better alternative. This is the God who is loving - to the loveless, forgiving to the unforgiving, who justifies sinners in Christ. The God who was willing to be bruised by the serpent in order to crush his head!
Many of us know this passage by heart: “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.” It’s more than a sign people hold up at sporting events. It’s the Gospel in a nutshell. We ought to learn verse 17 as well: “For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but to save the world through Him.” Judgment comes later, at the end. And then it’s a judgment in view of what has already been done in the death of Jesus. “It is finished.” Look on Him and live. Behold the Lamb of God bearing your sin. That’s your life hanging there on the cross. Trust in Him and live. He’s not there on the cross or in the Sacrament to judge you. He was judged for you. The verdict is rendered. Jesus is guilty, but you in Jesus are innocent, - Acquitted – Justified – Redeemed!
“Outrageous,” you might say. Yes it is, but this isn’t your court. If God’s judgment of “innocent in Jesus” doesn’t suit you, if you’d rather argue your own case and justify yourself, if you’d rather refuse the bronze snake on a stick and work out your own antidote then listen carefully: Whoever does not believe, does not trust the crucified and risen Jesus, stands judged already because he refuses to trust in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
There’s hope for this snake-bitten world of ours. God has raised up the sacramental sign - the cross of Jesus - and has made a promise. Look on Jesus - in your Baptism, in the word of forgiveness, in the Body and the Blood, look on Him through faith filled eyes and live forever. He is your healing, your strength, and your life. He is your salvation. In Jesus name, amen!
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus, Amen!