Snake Bitten to Live
People bitten by snakes get treatment to live; what's with the sermon title "Snake Bitten to Live?" That's backwards. But before the snake bites come in our text, the bulletin says "the people grew impatient on the way." The Hebrew says, "the soul of the people was short." Doesn't that bring it to life? My mom would say, "Don't you get short with me!"
O but we do with God, don't we? We're in the same boat as the people in our text. They were journeying from Egypt to the land God promised them and the journey was getting long, so they started getting short with God. With them it was always one more mountain in the distance to walk to, one more hill to climb, one more dark valley to descend. One more meal of manna. One little drink every now and then.
We are on a journey to the promise land of heaven. The land we're heading to is a land of milk and honey, a land of peace and rest, a land of freedom and life. But it is a long a journey to get there. With us it's always one more crises to face, one more hardship to bear, or one more descent into the valley of the shadow of death. One more meal of Bread and Wine and a couple handfuls of baptismal water. Our souls too become short with God.
Their souls were short, so they complained. They said, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert?" In another place, they said, "We remember the fish which we use to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic." Is that stupid or what? In Egypt they were oppressed slaves. How can they long to go back? But we do the same thing. Before being baptized, we were slaves of sin, death, and the power of the devil. How can we ever complain about being released from that? How could we ever long to go back to that?
But God doesn't seem to be caring for us as He should, does He? And if only it were just a case of lacking fresh bread, drinking water, or having something other than manna to eat, we could bear it. But we really are dying in this desert. Our loved ones are getting sick; our kids are having problems; our family life is troubled, and things don't work right. "God you really don't seem to be taking care of us the way You should. You called us to faith; You baptized us; You made us Your children. You promised us heaven. But look where you've brought us; into this miserable desert called the Christian life. Why didn't you just leave us in Egypt, in slavery to sin? People there don't seem to have it as bad as we do!"
In response to the Israelites' complaining, God sent poisonous snakes. We're talking snakes 2 or more inches thick; snakes, 5-6 feet long. Snakes whose bite ignited a poisonous fire that killed. People who were so angry, and bitter one minute hurling their complaints at God feeling so justified in being mad at Him, are now rolling around on the ground dying from snakebite.
God sent in these snakes to show them and us that impatience, being short with God, or speaking against Him are deadly sins. However, look at what the snakes did. The poisonous serpents turned the Israelites back to their church and their God. We read, "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." The snakes were not sent to drive people away from God but to repent their hearts, to drive people to God.
Whatever snakes have slithered into your life, I can assure you they are not there to drive you away from God; they are not there to cause you to despair. They are there to turn your heart back to God, to cause you to fall before Him and admit you are a poor miserable sinner, admit that you are a child who somehow got the idea that you know better than your Father how to feed, lead, and love you.
Think about it. Where would the Israelites be if they weren't led to repent of thinking they knew better than God? There were millions of them in the desert without food and water. Who but God could provide for them? Who but God could protect them from enemies who would do anything to stop them from entering the Promise Land? If they remained in the sinful belief that they knew better than God, they would simply die in the wilderness, snakes or no snakes. And so will you and I.
God in Christ has redeemed us for all eternity. He has chosen us in Christ to enter His Promise Land. He has called us to journey through this life, not to make this life our home. Never being sick, never dying, or always being happy on the journey isn't the goal. The goal, the reason for our being on the journey is heaven. We're only passing through this life, but we can't get through this life without God leading and providing for us. We can die on our own in the desert just fine. We can be slaves to sin, death, and the devil without God's help. But if we're going to safely negotiate the many dangers, toils and snares of this world and reach the next, we need God. In mercy, He sends snakes to turn us toward Him in repentance saying, "Lord, help us!"
But just as it seems strange for God to answer complaints about lack of bread and water in the desert by sending toxic snakes, so it's strange how God answers cries of repentance and pleas for mercy. We read, "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."
What? A snake is their "salvation" from snakebite? This makes about as much sense as a dead God on a cross being the salvation of people dead in their sin! And now you see the point. Moses put what looked like a snake, but wasn't, on a pole, so all those bitten by real snakes could live. God put what looked like a sinner, but wasn't, on a cross, so all real sinners could look and live. Jesus, though sinless, was baptized by John confessing our sins. Paul tells us God made Him to be sin. John says He carried the sins of the entire world. God put this sinless God-Man covered with our sins, on the cross to be punished instead of all sinners. Now all real sinners who look to the God who looked like a sinner but wasn't, live.
You should see a problem at this point. Where can you a sinner in 2000 gaze upon the God-Man crucified for your sins in 30 A.D.? Where can you find Him today? You can find Him where God commands you to look for Him. And just as God commanded the Israelites to look at a bronze serpent hanging on a pole for life, so He commands us to look to foolish things in our day to find Christ hanging on a tree, and so live.
God says look for the crucified Christ in Water, Words, Bread and Wine. He says, "As many of you who've been baptized, you've been clothed with the crucified Christ." He says, "As many of you who've heard your pastor absolve your sins, you've been forgiven by the crucified Christ." And He says, "As many of you who've shared this bread and wine, you've shared the body and blood of the Christ crucified for your sins." Friends, the sign of the cross is made over you in baptism, in absolution, and in Communion not out of superstition but to remind you that all of these flow directly from the cross of the crucified Christ.
This is utter foolishness to all of the world and many Christians too. But it is no more foolish than what we see going on in our text. Imagine you're in the desert with God's people. You are bitten by a snake; this causes you to turn to God in repentance for life and help. God has His servant Moses make a bronze serpent and commands you to look with the promise of life attached to looking. Excuse me? I'm dying of snakebite here. I need an antidote; I need a tourniquet; I need a knife to lance the wound. I don't need any bronze snake hanging from a pole. And doesn't that make sense? Surely it's foolish to look to a bronze serpent hanging on a pole for healing. But what a terrible tragedy it would have been for an Israelite laying on the ground dying of snakebite to refuse the means of salvation God provided.
Let us not be so foolish, dear friends. Let us treasure the foolish ways that God has chosen to work among sinners. Let us find a crucified Christ in the waters of our baptism and not in our doubting, embittered hearts. Let us find His forgiveness in the words spoken by a sinful pastor and not in our feeling good about ourselves. And let us find His body and blood not a billion miles away from us in heaven but in our midst, on our altar, in our mouths under the bread and wine of the Holy Communion.
And finding Christ Crucified on our bodies in Baptism, in our ears in the Absolution, and within our bodies in the Holy Communion, we will be enabled to handle this last, and in some respects, most troubling paradox: The snakes are still here. In our text, the people specifically say, "Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us." And we're told "So, Moses prayed for the people." But the snakes stayed. Even after Moses made the bronze snake, the snakes remained biting people. Even after people had come to repentance and faith in the Lord's providing the snakes stayed. O sure they eventually left, but even then God still kept His people in the desert where bread and water were in short supply and snakes and manna were plentiful.
Our snakes remain and we remain in the desert too, don't we? People go on getting sick, troubles keep entering households, and our loved ones big and small go on dying. And the desert doesn't get any shorter, flatter, brighter, or cooler. The journey is so long! And so our souls get back to being short with God, and then more snakes come. There is a reoccurring cycle, isn't there?
The snakes and the desert are related. We have to cross this desert to get to the Promised Land. There is no other way there. The only way we will last that long in this desert is by relying on the grace, mercy, and care of God. The snakes keep us constantly turned in repentance and faith toward God so that we may reach heaven. We are snake bitten to live not to die. We are snake bitten so that we might live by the One lifted high on the cross who comes to us in the desert in Water, Words, Bread and Wine.
That's the entire focus of our text. Not that people died from the poisonous snakes sent in among them because they were complainers, but that snake bitten people were turned to look on God's foolish way of saving and so lived. If you weren't snake bitten, you didn't look and live. No, you stayed smug in your complaining and dissatisfaction longing to be back in the slavery and death of Egypt.
May we then be bitten by snakes, so that we may live. There is no life in our complaining. There is no life in being dissatisfied with God. There is life in the Christ who hangs on the cross for sinners. There is life in the Water He washes us with, the Words He forgives us with, the Body and Blood that He feeds us with. But these are only of value to snake bitten sinners. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lent IV (4-2-00) Numbers 21: 4-9