Lent 4 B 2021
What do you do when you are bitten by a snake? In the Old Western Movies, the hero would cut an “X” across the bite wound and suck out the venom with his mouth. I am going to tell you right now; do not try this the next time you are bitten by a snake. Why? Because not everything from Hollywood is real. And you cannot remove enough venom fast enough to stop the infection and swelling that will follow a snake bite.
Instead, one should stay calm, call 9/11 (or get to the hospital), immobilize the area bitten, remove jewelry close to the bite area, and apply a loose bandage.
Snakes. I think we all hate snakes. Snakes frighten us and I think it has been this way ever since Adam & Eve had their encounter with a snake in the Garden of Eve.
Even tough guys are afraid of snakes. In the Indiana Jones movies, Harrison Ford plays a fearless adventurer who keeps his cool in the face of every danger. Everything, that is, except snakes.And so, the movie constantly shows him having to go through room after room, and location after location, of places filled with snakes. As I worked on this sermon, I could not help but remember one of the famous lines in the picture when Indiana Jones stated: “Snakes, why did it have to be snakes.”
Now, I brought this up this morning because, to understand the message in our Gospel text about the serpent Moses lifted-up in the desert, we need to go back to the Book of Numbers and recall what exactly transpired while the Israelites wandered about in the desert.
As you may recall, during their long wanderings in the desert the people of Israel began to lose patience with God and spoke out against God saying: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”
Well… God is not deaf. And God heard their bitterness towards Him. In response God sent fiery serpents to bite the ungrateful whiners and kill many of the Israelites that had uttered God’s name in vain.
Our first lesson states “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”
And the people realized that they had sinned against God and that they had brought this horrible situation upon themselves. Feeling sorry for themselves, the people regretted their attitude towards God and asked Moses to intercede on their behalf.
In desperation they asked Moses to intercede on their behalf and speak to God and bring an end to their punishment.
So, Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” In obedience, Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
And the serpent, after it had been constructed and lifted high on a pole, indeed brought salvation to the people of Israel.
Now I know that for most people it seems rather odd that the very thing that brought about death should, after the intervention of God bring about salvation. And if you are one of those people that think this event is strange, I would have to say to you that God does indeed work in mysterious ways.
For as you may well know, the events in the desert foreshadowed another event that would bring about salvation for the whole world that would not make any sense either using our human reasoning or understanding.
Our Gospel today states: “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.”
Jesus knew that He must be lifted high upon a cross and die for the salvation of the world.
And that the Cross, which was/is the symbol of death, would become the symbol for life in His Kingdom.
And it is when we meditate upon this fact, that we begin to understand these well-known words which Martin Luther described as “The Gospel in a Nutshell.”
“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.”
And the Good News is this, God is not so much interested in punishing or destroying sinners, but in giving us sinners a way to receive the grace and salvation that God so desperately wants to give to us. But this does not simply mean a rescue from punishment, but instead a new life of fellowship with God.
It means entering a new relationship that God seeks to have with his children. It means that we become so motivated by our love for God (who first loved us) that we do His will gladly and freely.
And that is probably why God chose the cross as the instrument of our salvation, for the cross reminds us of death, which is the direct result of our sin. But the cross also reminds us of the suffering and agony Jesus went through for you and for me to rescue us from death.
In the wilderness the bronze serpent was a symbol of that love. But the full meaning of God’s love would only come to us when we experienced the love of God through His Son, nailed to a cross, on a hill far away, so that we too can experience the joy of new life three days later. And to that I say “Thanks be to God…”
Let us pray: Merciful God, you gave your Son to suffer the shame of the cross. Save us from hardness of heart, that, seeing him who died for us, we may repent, confess our sin, and receive your overflowing love, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.