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“The Strange Story of the Bronze Snake”
Numbers 21:4-9


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Fourth Sunday in Lent—March 18, 2012

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

All of today’s readings refer to an unusual event from the Old Testament, “The Strange Story of the Bronze Snake.”  The story begins with the Old Testament Reading:

“They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way.”  Because of their rebellion against the Lord following their exodus from Egypt, before they could enter the Promised Land the ancient people of God first had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.  This has a parallel to us, today.  For, we must all first wander in the wilderness of this world before we can enter the Promised Land of heaven.  For me, next month will mark 52 years of my wandering in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.

“But the people grew impatient on the way.”  The Hebrew says literally, “the spirit of the people became discouraged.”  Is that how you feel sometimes, on your journey through this world?  Do you become impatient with the struggles of life?  Does your spirit become “discouraged on the way”?

“But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses.”  Now, becoming discouraged because of the struggles you face in your life is not a sin in itself.  Jesus tenderly invites, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”

However, Paul says in Ephesians, “Do not give the devil a foothold.”  And that’s exactly how Satan wants to exploit your feelings of impatience and discouragement, to give himself a foothold, an opening into your life to lead you astray.  Peter warns, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.”  Like the ancient people of God, Satan wants to use your impatience and your discouragement with the struggles of life for his own purposes, to escalate from discouragement, to dissatisfaction, and finally to open unbelief and rebellion against the Lord.

“But 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?’”  It can be very difficult for us to understand and accept Paul’s declaration in Romans, “And we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love him.”  It’s that word “all” that’s so hard.  Because, that means not only what we consider to be good things that we are blessed to receive along our journey through life.  The word “all” means that somehow God is also working together for our good also the bad things that we endure.  Trusting in God’s goodness toward you, even when bad things happen in your life, is perhaps the greatest test that we face on our journey through this world, a test that we often fail, like the ancient people of God on their journey through the wilderness.

“But 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!’”  In the original Hebrew there is a great irony in their complaint, which doesn’t come through in English.  When they say, “There is no bread . . . and we detest this miserable food” it is actually the exact same Hebrew word.  Literally, their complaint is, “There is no bread . . . and we detest this miserable bread.”  So, in their own complaint they actually admit that they have bread, they just don’t like the bread they’ve got.

That’s often how it is with us.  In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther lists some of the gifts God bestows upon us: “He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.  He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have.  He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.”

It’s rather amazing that the Census Bureau reports the average American household at the official poverty level actually owns their own home, and has a car, two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, an Xbox or PlayStation, refrigerator, stove, microwave, washer, dryer, and cell phone.  For most of us, it’s not that we’re lacking any of the essentials or even the luxuries of life.  We just don’t like the ones we’ve got.  God graciously gives us so many wonderful gifts, such a job, a spouse, a home.  But, like the ancient Israelites, we forget the blessings we do have and ungratefully complain, “There is no bread . . . and we detest this miserable bread.”

Of course, the bread they’re talking so negatively about is the manna God miraculously sent from heaven.  Receiving this manna was actually an extraordinary blessing, as the psalm says, “He rained down manna for the people to eat, he gave them the bread of heaven. . .  men ate the bread of angels.”  And, despite their complaint “We have no water,” for 40 years God did provide them with water as they traveled through the parched wilderness, usually by directing them to sources of water, but several times miraculously making water gush forth from a rock.  As Moses says in Deuteronomy, “He brought water for you out of solid rock, and gave you manna to eat in the desert.”

“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!”  Another difficult lesson for us to learn on our journey through life is contentment.  Hebrews puts it this way: “Be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’  So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.’”  Paul tells Timothy, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”

“Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them.”  The venomous snakes in this story symbolically point back to the Garden of Eden, and the snake there, that Revelation describes as, “that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan.”  Luther comments, “The devil stung Adam and injected his poison . . .  by nature we all are still subject to death . . . for we have all drunk the serpent’s fatal venom . . . transmitted to all of us by Adam.”  So, the venomous snakes in the story symbolize that we all have been bitten by Satan, infected with the deadly venom of sin. 

“Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them.”  In our dissatisfaction and complaints against God, part of what we fail to recognize is how often he prevents disaster from coming upon us.  God didn’t have to conjure up snakes to infest the Israelites.  For, the wilderness they were traveling through is notorious for its masses of vicious, venomous snakes.  But, up to this point God had held these snakes back and prevented them from attacking his people. 

In the same way, there is deadly danger and disaster all around you on your journey through life.   We don’t begin to appreciate all the ways God is constantly protecting us from such dangers and disasters.  Sometimes when I’m driving and make a wrong turn or I’m stuck in traffic, I try to ease my frustration by wondering, “Did God just protect me from having some accident, by this detour or delay?”  As the psalm says, “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.”

“Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.”  Psalm 103 says, “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. . .  as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.”  So, the Bible promises that God does not send such traumatic events as a direct divine punishment on those who trust in him: “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.”  However, at this point many of the Israelites had so completely fallen away from the faith that the Lord does send venomous snakes upon them as a punishment.  As Paul warns us in today’s Epistle Reading, “We should not test the Lord, as some of them did, and were killed by snakes. . . These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us. . . So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”

What about the Israelites who had not fallen away, but still had faith in the Lord?  Hebrews explains that “God disciplines us for our good.”   For those Israelites who still retained faith in the Lord, this episode was not a punishment from God, out of wrath, but a loving, fatherly discipline, for their good.  It was a powerful preaching of the Law, not with words, but with the snakes, venom, and death, for their good, to shock them out of their rebellion and bring them back to the Lord.

“Then . . . the people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you.’”  So often when we make an apology or confession it really isn’t sincere.  The classic non-apology apology is, “I’m sorry that you were offended.”  Or, we tack a “but” onto the end, to really blame others and excuse ourselves.  “I’m sorry I was angry, but you made me so upset.”

In contrast, the classic sincere confession and apology is found in the ancient Latin liturgy: “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”; “my fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault.”  A sincere confession and apology doesn’t blame anyone else or try to excuse yourself, but admits in sorrow, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”; “my fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault.”

“Then . . . the people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you.’”  The Israelites could have tried a non-apology apology for their sinful rebellion.  “We’re sorry we grumbled, but you know it’s been a long journey; the desert heat just got to us; and the manna has become monotonous for us.” However, the wording in Hebrew of their confession indicates that it was completely sincere.  They didn’t try to blame Moses or the Lord for their rebellion, but instead they humbly declared the Hebrew equivalent of, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”; “my fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault.”

“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.’ So Moses prayed for the people.”  In the next verse we’re going have the most dramatic symbolism for Christ in this story.  But, already in this verse, Moses is a type of Christ.

Paul says in Romans, “Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”  Like Moses pleading with God on behalf of the Israelites to grant them forgiveness, Christ is continually interceding on your behalf with his heavenly Father, pleading for him to grant you forgiveness. 

The Apostle John puts it this way, “If anybody sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, who speaks to the Father in our defense, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.  He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”  Because of his atoning sacrifice, your sins are all forgiven.  Peter says in Acts, “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” And Jesus promises, “Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life.”

“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.’”  In today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus himself explains for us the meaning of this strange symbolism: “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.”

That’s the real meaning of “The Strange Story of the Bronze Snake.”  Jesus says, about the Old Testament, “These are the Scriptures that testify about me. . .  Moses . . . wrote about me.”  So, while “The Strange Story of the Bronze Snake” is a real, historical event, it is also symbolically prophetic.  This Scripture testifies about Christ; in this account Moses is writing about him.

Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”  Then John adds, “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.”  In Genesis, immediately after the fall into sin, the Lord promised to send a Savior, the Messiah, who would crush the serpent Satan.  Gradually throughout the Old Testament, the Lord reveals more and more about who the Messiah will be, when and how he will come, and how he will accomplish his mission of salvation.  The bronze snake on the pole was the first Old Testament prophecy that showed the kind of death he was going to die.  “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”

Just as the serpent on the pole is rigid and lifeless, Jesus will be lifted up for us on the cross, crucified, dead, and buried. Just as looking upon a dead serpent on a pole saved the ancient Israelites from the snake’s venom and gave them life, looking in faith upon the dead Savior on the cross saves you from the venom of sin, from the bite of that ancient serpent Satan, and gives you victory over death and eternal life.

“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.’ 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.”  

“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. 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”

That is the meaning of “The Strange Story of the Bronze Snake.”

Amen.

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