Looking up (14 Mar 2021)

The Grumblers: Numbers 21:4-9

By the time we catch up with the Israelites in Numbers chapter 21 there had already been a series of wonderful events.

There had been Moses’ confrontations with Pharaoh asking him to let God’s people go. With that there was God’s power being clearly demonstrated at great expense to the Egyptians, especially when the Lord brought the Israelites miraculously through the Red Sea but the  Egyptians chasing them were drowned.

The pillar of smoke by day and the pillar of fire by night had led them safely through the wilderness.  Water had been made available, food was provided daily. Opposing nations had attacked them but the Lord had delivered them every time.

By now, surely they were thrilled to be in the care of our wonderful God and ready to celebrate his goodness day by day.

But, no.

The people grew impatient on the way; 5they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’” (Numbers 21:4-5)

What a miserable, unappreciative mob of whingers!

We wouldn’t be like this, would we? I don’t behave like this, do I? Unappreciative, quickly forgetting the wonders God has done, the way he has led me, provided for me, kept me safe but yet I am not satisfied because it doesn’t always work out the way I want it rather than the way God wants it.

I had better not behave like this! Look how God responded to such ingratitude, to such offensive, impatient faithlessness and grumbling.

6Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7The 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. (Numbers 21:6-7)

Do you complain about your security and want a change of diet? Do you want something to complain about?  Try a plague of venomous snakes for something to complain about.

Pretty quickly the Israelites realised they had done the wrong thing.  With people all around them dying from snake bights they soon repented that they had sinned by speaking against the Lord and against Moses and came asking for forgiveness and salvation from the snakes.  “Ask the Lord to take the snakes away!”, they said. “We’ll do better next time!”

Then God provided an unusual solution, a strange way of salvation from the snakes.

8The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ 9So 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, they lived. (Numbers 21:8-9) 

Notice that all they had to do was look up at the bronze snake on the pole.  They weren’t to worship it. Once before they had been impatient with God and melted down their gold to make a golden calf which they foolishly worshipped. There were severe consequences for worshipping an idol like that.

No, this bronze serpent had no rank or power in itself.  It was not an object to be worshipped or venerated.  It was just a bronze serpent on a pole.

The key to salvation from the venom of the snakes was to acknowledge your sin against God, confess that sin and repent of it.

You looked up to the bronze serpent provided by God himself. It was a powerless, otherwise useless lump of metal on a pole and God said to look. It was as a result of this act of faith and obedience that you were saved and lived.

Somehow it seems a silly thing to do, doesn’t it? But faith is sometimes like that, isn’t it? Looks silly to others but it works because that’s the way God works.

By the way, looking at a bronze snake is not the cure for snake bight nowadays, of course.  We turn to the medical profession for help.  You probably know that the symbol for doctors is the Caduceus, a symbol with a short staff entwined by two serpents, sometimes surmounted by wings.  Its history is based on Greek mythology, not the bronze serpent of Numbers 21.it of 

Well, that seems a sad little bit of the history of the old Hebrews but then Jesus himself referred to it. 

In John chapter 3 Jesus was talking to a Pharisee called Nicodemus who had come to see him at night.  Jesus told him no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again as followers of himself, Jesus.

He said, “14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,15that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’”

Back there in the wilderness the Israelites needed salvation and the way to find it was to look to a bronze serpent.  Today, to find salvation the way is to look to Jesus and his sacrifice on the Cross.

It was important all those years ago that the bronze snake was lifted up on a pole for people to see and be saved.  For us, it is so very much more important that Jesus was lifted up, nailed to the Cross that we should look to him for salvation and that we should continue to proclaim this good news.  Jesus died in order to save us. We should always lift up this news for people to hear and respond to and have eternal life.

The snake on the pole saved the life of people who were bitten by the snakes.  Their faith in the promise God gave saved their physical life. By putting our faith in Jesus crucified we are saved not merely for physical life but for eternal life.

Jesus went on to say, “16For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

You have heard that before, haven’t you?  You are familiar with that verse: John 3:16. It’s likely you know it off by heart. But therein lies a risk. We know the saying, “familiarity breeds contempt”.  We need to make sure that we don’t allow our familiarity with this verse to prevent us from responding to it as we should. 

Far from treating this verse with contempt we should take the opposite response, our response should be approval, esteem, honour, loving, praise, respect and obedience.

The gift of Jesus for our sake is a gift entirely and lovingly made by God himself, the creator, God Almighty. God himself made the gift of his one and only son; God was born in human form so he could do for us what we could not do for ourselves.  Jesus is the one and only person who gave up his sinless life to carry the total burden, blame and power of your sinfulness and mine. 

To put that sacrifice into effect personally we must look to him, lifted onto a cross for us.  See what happens? Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

There is a parallel with the bronze serpent along with a huge difference.  The bronze serpent was totally powerless whereas the Lord Jesus holds total power. 

Where there is a parallel is in the response people make.  Then and now it starts with an acknowledgement of sin, confession of sinfulness, repentance and turning away from sin to a new life from now on. There is an  act of faith and obedience on our part.  For us, that is placing our faith in Jesus.

Just as Jesus explained to Nicodemus, placing our faith in Jesus gives us salvation. We will not perish but will have been born again to eternal life. This is a spiritual transfer to a form of life brought about in us by none other than the Holy Spirit, by the Spirit of God, by the Spirit of Christ Jesus. We are born again as sons and daughters of God Almighty.

From then on we live knowing that on the Cross Jesus took our personal blame for every failure we have had or will have.  We now have no condemnation, no guilt.

Jesus went on to say, “17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

What blessed assurance! 

It never was and is not God’s wish to condemn you, but to save you. We should not fear what God will do to us.  He has only ever had our welfare as his motivation. Do you believe Jesus did this for you? In that case you are ready to stand before God, to face his judgement.  Already you are saved.  Already you are not condemned.

Do you believe God loved you so much he gave his one and only Son for you? Then you are saved – there is no condemnation for you now or at any time. 

You have eternal life. This began when you believed in Jesus.  It’s where you are now. You are now living eternal life.

This eternal life that you have started never ends! You have it now! You will have it forever. It is continuous, uninterrupted even by your physical death. 

God’s verdict has already been given!

Sadly, Jesus tells us that unbelievers stand condemned already. It is already publicly clear where they will stand on judgement day.

There’s no wondering what will happen.  Jesus taught Nicodemus, us and the rest of the world, “19This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

Jesus, lifted on the Cross came as the light of the world. But too many people love darkness instead of light because their deeds are evil. They don’t want to think about these things because it might expose the reality of their lives, their sinfulness. Truth isn’t popular and in recent years especially there have been all sorts of efforts to find ways to avoid it.

People don’t like reading the Bible.  It lights up the truth of our lives. 

It shines a light where they don’t want it to shine.  It probes and cuts deep into the depths of our being

They want to edit out bits they don’t like. Not only might they say, “don’t tell me that” but they go so far as to say, “you should stop believing the Bible, too!”

But where we stand is quite different.

We have seen the light!

Now there’s a phrase people will use to mock us and detract.  But what they are detracting from is the truth.

By the grace of God we have seen and understood Jesus our Saviour and him crucified.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,that everyone who believes may have eternal life in himFor God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:14-16)

We know that God so loved you and me that because we believe in Jesus, God’s one and only Son whom God gave as a sacrifice for us we shall not perish but have eternal life.

And out of our love and concern for others we share this good news.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so we seek to have the Son of Man, Jesus crucified lifted up so that others may turn to him also and be saved.

Bellingen Uniting Church Sunday, 14 March 2021