Fourth Sunday in Lent
TEXTS: Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 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 detest this miserable food.” (Numbers 21:4-5)
No food? And no water?
Of course, that’s an exaggeration. If you remember the story of the exodus, you know that God always provided the children of Israel with water and food. Even if he had to wring water out of solid rock, God made sure his people had enough to drink. As for food, God provided manna—which seems to have been something like a sweet bread or wafer. And quail. Quail in the evenings, and manna every morning—except for the Sabbath.
It’s not entirely clear for how long the quail supply lasted, but the Bible tells us that “The Israelites ate manna for forty years, until they came … to the border of the land of Canaan” (Exodus 16:35).
Mind you, that is a long time. By now, the Israelites have had enough. They are almost at the end of their journey—but they don’t know that. They are, frankly, fed up. Fed up with a diet that has long since become monotonous. Fed up with this desert they’ve been in for 40 years. Forty years? Forty years to cross the Sinai peninsula? Apparently, you should be able to cross the Sinai Peninsula in three days traveling day and night at a normal walking pace.* So, factor in sleeping time and bathroom breaks … you should still be able to make the trip in under a week. Couldn’t Moses ask somebody for a road map?
Above all else, the people are fed up with Moses. Fed up with his leadership. Fed up with this seemingly endless journey. They are angry. Angry enough to revolt—even, perhaps, to string Moses up by his toes. Angry enough to curse the Lord himself!
Well, there were no riot police in the wilderness of Sinai. Moses had no security forces or bodyguards to handle the situation. So what did the Lord do? In Numbers 21:6, we read: “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”
An onslaught of venomous snakes! Sounds like pretty effective crowd control, doesn’t it? And it works. The insurrection is quickly put down, and the people acknowledge their sin. But the serpents … it sounds like they hang around for a while. Moses prays for a solution to this problem, and the Lord provides one—a solution which also serves to demonstrate his power. He tells Moses to fashion a serpent out of bronze and stick it on a pole. Remarkably, this turns out to be a surefire remedy for snakebite. Whenever a serpent bit someone, that person had only to look upon the serpent of bronze, and he or she would live.
The Revised Common Lectionary pairs that story from the Book of Numbers with the gospel reading from John because, otherwise, we might not catch Jesus’ meaning when he says, “… just 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).
“The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), but Christ Jesus is the cure. Make of that statement what you will—but the truth remains: our world is pretty messed up. And no matter how you look at it, it is humanity’s fault.
When the U.S. Capitol building is stormed by hooligans carrying “Jesus is my Savior” banners, resulting in the deaths of several people—and then somebody turns that horror into a YouTube video—the “wages of sin” are graphically demonstrated for all to see. And while most of us are not jihadists, all of us will admit that our lives are not perfect. I think it’s safe to say that most of us carry some burden of regret—if not downright guilt!
Isn’t that so? And when you contemplate the perfection—the absolute holiness—of God … don’t you tremble just a little bit at the thought of one day being subject to his judgment? That’s going to be far worse than being called to the principal’s office—or even being brought to trial in a human court of law—because this judge already knows everything about you. Including everything you are ashamed of. You cannot hide anything from the heavenly judge.
The venom of sin—yes, of sin, that old-fashioned word we don’t like to use anymore—the venom of sin flows through all of our veins. And it is so seriously toxic—and so invariably deadly—that, without some kind of antidote, it will eventually destroy us. It will destroy us by separating us from God, who is the very Source of Life.
That is, more or less, our situation as described in Scripture.
However, Scripture also tells us that this situation was—in the eyes of God—entirely unacceptable. For God, being separated from any one of us is … well … intolerable!
The idea of losing any one of us breaks God’s heart as surely as the loss of a child breaks the heart of any parent. That’s why God came to us—came looking for us—in the person of Jesus. He came to close the gap between humanity and divinity.
He became one of us in order to reconcile us to himself. He came to be—not simply a good example or the object of our veneration—but rather … He came to be “the friend of sinners.”
He became a real human being so that he could bear real human sin and real human sorrow—the sins and sorrows of each and every one of us—and then leave all those sins and all those sorrows in the grave that he vacated on Easter morning. Lifted up upon the cross, he became the antidote for our snakebite!
But why would he do this? One answer, of course, is to be found in that familiar verse we all know so well: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
John, chapter three, verse 16. Kind of explains it all!
Or does it? We all want to believe that God loves us … but for some of us, that’s not an easy idea to swallow. Even if we don’t verbalize it, some of us feel we’ve fallen too far, done things that no one could forgive—not even God. Others of us …
Well, we’re skeptical. Even if we believe in God, we may doubt that he cares that deeply for individuals. And it’s a good question: why would God care? Why would he bother with troublesome rabble like we appear to be?
There’s another Bible passage that I think we need to hear. It’s from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, chapter two, the first 10 verses. Listen to what the apostle says, as I quote from the New Living Translation:
Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.
But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus.
Okay … now listen even more carefully to what Paul says next:
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.
“We are God’s masterpiece.” Our more familiar New Revised Standard Version says, “We are what [God] has made us.” The King James Version has “We are his workmanship.” Apparently, you could also translate it as: “We are God’s poetry.”
You are God’s poetry! If you want to know how you are regarded by the Maker of the universe, just consider that. The Greek word for “workmanship” is poiema (ποιημα), or poem. To God, each believer is like a poem—uniquely made, with a beauty and a complexity that is not fully appreciated at first glance.
When we look at one another—or even at ourselves—we may not see any poetry. Perhaps all we see is torn and crumpled paper. Or a page that’s been badly stained or defaced. We might see only dull or incomprehensible script. But God sees the love poem he inscribed upon you, and upon me—and he recognizes the metre of his own verse.
That is why Jesus was willing to go even to the cross on our behalf—so that we could be raised with him, with verses that rhyme, to be sung in this world and in the next as ballads of love and compassion and humble service. Or, as the apostle said, “so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”
Unlike that bronze serpent which Moses raised up on a pole in the desert, Christ Jesus does much more than simply preserve our mortal lives. He preserves us for eternal life, and presents us to this world as new compositions—heavenly love songs with grace-filled lyrics to heal every broken heart.
You are God’s poetry! You are God’s masterpiece! You mean everything to him. You matter. That is the good news, my friends—and you should believe it. Amen.
* “Research shows that a person could cross the Sinai Peninsula in 3 days traveling day and night at a normal walking pace of just 3 or so miles an hour.” https://www.holylandsite.com/exodus-redsea-sinai