You are not and will never make yourself perfect; and for that you are loved all the more.
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.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ 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.’ So 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.
After reading through today’s scripture the first 5 or 6 times preparing for today’s sermon, I came to the conclusion that there is one response likely to dominate all others. The Israelite people had left the mountain where they received the ten commandments, they had begun the journey toward the promised land – the place flowing with milk and honey where they were to be a light shining to all the world. In the wilderness along the way, poisonous serpents were killing the Israelite people. So God told Moses to make a serpent, raise it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten and then looks on the bronze serpent will live.
Only one response seems all that appropriate. What? That’s in the bible? First off, that’s just weird. Second, I don’t get it. Love and relationship; mending broken hearts and tearing down walls; rejecting the status quo and building something greater – these are themes I expect to find. This is the middle of the triumphant journey to the promised land; God’s people are claiming their rightful place as God’s representatives to a lost and broken world. Snakes on a pole is about the last thing I expect the Bible to talk about, especially in the midst of this all important and defining journey. And yet, here it is. And not only is it in the Bible, but the modern church sees fit to recommend this particular reading during the season of Lent. I can’t blame you if you’re wondering what this passage has to do with anything.
Lent is a preparation for Easter Sunday – a period of reflection and prayer in which we prepare our hearts and minds to experience again the moment when everything changed – the moment when Jesus Christ conquered death itself and rose from the grave to offer us new life in Him. To understand the fullness of that moment, we’re exploring a series of covenants in the Old Testament; covenants that are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. I don’t believe you can understand the resurrection without coming to know the covenant people into which Jesus Christ was born.
The covenant God made with Noah helped us see that God redeems all creation. Abraham’s covenant showed that God redeems one for the sake of many. The 10 commandments remind us that redemption is never just a superficial shift or an interesting bit of knowledge – redemption changes lives. So far we’ve looked at the broad scope of redemption across all creation, the means of redemption through God’s chosen people, and the method of redemption by transforming lives. If you have trouble seeing what poisonous serpents in the wilderness have to do with any of that, I’m sure you’re not alone.
How do you suppose the majority of Christians would answer, if you were to ask them to name one Bible verse that most adequately represents the heart of the Christian faith? I doubt any verse from the book of Numbers would come to anyone’s mind. You might get a few references to the Psalms – The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Or maybe The Lord is my light and my salvation– whom shall I fear? There might be a reference to the Great Commission in Matthew – Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Perhaps even Philippians would come up – I can do all things through him who strengthens me. But I’d be quite surprised if the majority of people told you anything other than John 3:16 – ‘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.’ I doubt there is any single verse more often quoted or memorized than this.
The beauty and simplicity of the message is clear. There are good reasons why so many of us know and share this verse. But the danger in finding such a powerfully short summary of the faith is that it’s way too easy to ignore the surrounding context. How many people do you suppose could quote John 3:14-16? I know I can’t without pulling it up. Given the first word of 3:16, that’s not a good thing. ‘For God so love the world.’ ‘For’ is one of those words in the Bible that should make you stop and ask, ‘what just happened?’ Because of what was just said, the thing about to be said is important. ‘For’ is a word of purpose and possibility. The purpose of this is for that to be possible. ‘For God so loved the world’ – the verse we all know and love tells us the possibility – in Jesus Christ we find eternal life. But the action whose purpose makes this reality possible, comes just prior to 3:16.
John 3:14-16 – And 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. 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. The strange and fascinating story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness is intimately connected to the message of John 3:16 – to the message at the heart of the Christian faith. The purpose of Christ being lifted high on the cross gives the possibility of new life. Without the Son being lifted up, without whatever the strange serpent story is supposed to mean, we don’t have the possibility of eternal life in God’s own Son.
I’ll be the first to admit that many of the customs and stories of the Old Testament don’t make much sense and seem so strange as to be almost unapproachable. It was a different culture, a very different world. But if the purpose of the serpents is intimately connected to the possibility of our salvation, it must be worth the effort to seek understanding. If you’ll remember, the setting for the passage from Numbers comes to us a short time after the Israelites have received the 10 commandments and left the mountain. They are continuing on their journey toward the promised land. The most meaningful and important part of who they are to become, has just been established – and as they continue their journey they quickly go back to their old ways. They complain that God has brought them out of Egypt just to let them die in the desert.
I suppose to be fair, they didn’t really go back any – they never actually got any better. At every step of the way they doubted and turned back and did exactly what God told them not to do. The very moment Moses came down with the commandments that would define their identity, he found the people had created an idol – which breaks commandment #2 if you’re keeping score. It should have come as no surprise to anyone paying attention, that they would continue in their old ways after leaving the mountain. This time, the consequences of rejecting God’s guiding hand would be crystal clear.
The Lord sent poisonous serpents and many of the Israelites were bitten and died. They got the message quickly, realizing yet again that it was always wrong to reject the guiding hand of God. They went to Moses and begged for God’s forgiveness. Moses prayed on behalf of the people and asked God to take the serpents away. As odd as the story has been so far, this is the point at which it really jumps the shark and loses me. The Lord doesn’t just take the serpents away. Instead, he tells Moses to make a serpent and set it on a pole. So Moses makes a serpent of bronze. And the Lord said everyone who is bitten shall look at the bronze serpent on a stick and live. From that time onward, those who were bitten looked upon the bronze serpent on a stick, and lived. Again, I’ll say it for you, what? I can’t think of a stranger way for God to make a point.
Strange though the story may be, it presents us with a beautiful irony – the poisonous serpent is, in the beginning, a symbol of the people’s betrayal and failing. Time and again they doubted God and desired to be slaves in Egypt rather than free in the desert. The serpents brought death to those they bit, to those who doubted – there is no clearer way to illustrate the result of the people’s sin and betrayal. Failing to follow God, desiring Egypt over the promised land, doubting the one who fed them daily and gave them water, the one Who continued to be faithful to His promises – turning away from God quite literally led to death. But in an act of beautiful irony, God made the very symbol of failure and betrayal into the source of healing. The people looked upon the serpent and saw the depth of their own failure and brokenness; but by the grace of God, in the depth of their own failure they found new life in God.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. Just like Moses raised up the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus Christ was raised up high on the cross. In that moment, humanity was confronted by the clearest sign of sin and guilt and brokenness. The man who came to heal the sick and mend our hearts, received instead the death of a criminal. And every time we look upon the cross, we look upon the mark of our sin; we look upon the depth of our brokenness. We cannot deny that we have failed to become the community of hope and forgiveness and grace and joy and love and peace that God desires for us. The beautiful irony is that God chose the very sign of humiliation and betrayal to be for us a sign of the new life He has promised.
Sin and brokenness go much deeper than some kind of cosmic invoice that we can’t afford to pay off without help. Sin is not something we can hold in our hand and let drop any time we choose; it is a part of who we are. So often we’re like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, longing for the comforts of Egypt no matter how much hope we have for the promised land. Sin and failure are as much a part of who we are as breathing – it’s true of me and you as much as its true of every other child of God. But before we even know to turn and look for God, he is seeking after us, jealously pursuing our whole self; wanting nothing more than for us to look to the very depth of our brokenness and find Him waiting there.
Don’t be afraid to look upon the cross. Until you witness the reminder of the sin that threatens your very life, until you accept it as a part of who you are, you cannot accept the forgiveness of a God who loves deep enough to receive you just as you are; who loves strong enough to transform anything that might separate you from Him. Redemption cuts deep – to the very heart of who we are. Maybe we are born so lost that we don’t even know anything is wrong, but every part of you is loved by God – from the parts you proudly show off to everyone you meet, to the shameful parts you’ve never shared with anyone. You are wholly loved and forever changed. Let rescue begin by accepting that you are not and will never make yourself perfect; and for that you are loved all the more. In Christ, redemption cuts deep, and makes us whole. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.