Sermon: The Snake on the Stick (Num. 21:4-9)

Text: Numbers 21:4-9
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Series B
Listen to the sermon here.

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

Snakes had infested the camp of Israel. They slipped into dark corners, and slithered into tents and into sleeping bags. These were not garter snakes. No, they were deadly and their venomous bites caused fiery inflammation. Israelites were dying all over the camp. Where’d these snakes come from? The Lord sent them. And then our Gospel reading comes along and tells us that this whole event is supposed to remind of us the Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ.  How? Wasn’t the snake the problem, not the solution? Surely Jesus isn’t suggesting that he was like the poisonous snakes that had been attacking the people?  Let’s unpack these texts together.

Recognise the Poison

The 40 years of wandering through the desert were at an end, and the people were fully expecting to enter and take possession of the Promised Land. Then the king of Edom refused them passage through his land. The children of Israel had to turn back once more into the wilderness to go all the way around Edom. At this point, the Israelites were done. They’d had enough. They were not pleased with the food God had been providing for them. They called it starvation rations. It was not even the first time they had complained about manna. 

They seem to have forgotten that when they had felt a need, all they needed to do was ask. God had always provided. They forgot that it was their ingratitude that made them wander for 40 years in the wilderness in the first place. They forgot that they were still wearing the same clothes and shoes they had been wearing leaving Egypt. Even after forty years of wandering, their necessities had not worn out. The snakes were God’s judgment for their grumbling and ingratitude. They despised the Lord’s food. They despised the Lord. They despised their freedom and longed for slavery in Egypt. So God sent snakes.

Bitten and poisoned, the people crawled to Moses and confessed their sins. “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you” (Num. 21:7). That’s a good start. Confession. Tell the truth. Admit it and stop trying to cover it up or make excuses for yourself. We have sinned against the Lord; against one another. In thought, in word, in deed, by things done, by things left undone. You may as well admit and stop trying to deny it. The sting of death is all around you. Don’t pretend it isn’t there and you don’t know why. Don’t blame everyone around you. Own it. The Lord sent the deadly snakes to drive his people to repentance. Don’t think he doesn’t do the same with us.

Humanity is snakebitten. You and I included. It has been since Adam and Eve listened to the snake instead of God back in Genesis 3. We are born snakebitten. That’s our condition from the greatest to the least of us. It happened in the Garden when the shrewd and subtle serpent tempted Eve and injected the poison of his lie. The lie is that God is not true to His Word. The lie is that God doesn’t mean what He says. The lie is that we can be gods in place of God, that we can experience good and evil on our own terms, that we can reach into the middle and be masters of our own destiny. The lie is that we can disobey God and we won’t die as a result. Eve bit, Adam bit. The serpent bit and his deadly poison invaded our humanity leaving no part undamaged. Humanity died that day. They were dead to God and to each other – hiding, ashamed, blaming, self-justifying. The poison not only invaded them, it was passed on to their children. Every son of Adam and every daughter of Eve is infected with the serpent’s poison. No generation is skipped. Not you. Not me. Each of us is born with the poison coursing through our humanity. The apostle Paul says, “You were dead in trespasses and sin.” Not sick, not weak, not troubled, not struggling or even hanging on for dear life. Snake-bitten dead.

Trust the Cure

How do you cure a deadly case of snake bite?  The Israelites asked Moses to interceded. “Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us” (Num. 21:7). The Lord sent them; He alone can take them away. Moses stands as a mediator between God and Israel. Notice they don’t speak straight to God. They go through the the called-and-ordained servant– Moses, who stands in the breach between the God and the people of Israel. Moses prays for the people about the deadly snakes.

God does not give the people what they ask for. The snakes do not go away, nor do they stop biting.  Instead, God provides a cure, an anti-venom. The people confessed, Moses interceded, and God provided a sacrament – a bronze snake on a wooden stick.  God proscribed a certain action with a promise. That’s a sacrament (AP XXIV:18). A sacrament is ceremony where God gives a promise joined to the ceremony: “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Num. 21:8). A bronze snake on a stick. A ceremony with the promise of God attached. Look on this bronze snake on a stick, and you will live. And that’s how it worked. Everyone who looked at the bronze snake would live.

Look at the snake on the stick and be healed of the poison. And when they were burning up with fever and delirious with poison, they didn’t say, “What do I need such a silly snake on a stick for? I can just pray to God directly.”  No, you do what the Lord told you to do. You go out of your way to glue your eyes on that bronze snake on a stick because it was the only way to survive.

How can a bronze snake on a stick do such great things? Clearly the snake on the stick does not do it, but the Word of God, which is with and alongside the snake, and faith, which trusts this Word of God in the snake on the stick. For without the Word of God it’s just a snake on a stick, but with the Word of God it is a cure for poison! It had the promise of God’s Word attached to it – whoever looked on it would live.

This is how God loves this snakebitten world. He doesn’t simply love it abstractly and in general. “Oh, nice world, I love you.” He provides a cure for a snakebitten humanity. How do you cure a deadly case of snake bite? You don’t put a band aid on it and say, “Think positive thoughts and try really hard to get better.” You don’t say, “Pray this prayer for the snakebitten, and all will be well.” You need a shot of anti-venom. 

Anti-venom is made by collecting venom from the snake and injecting it into an animal. Anti-venom comes from an animal that has been exposed to the poison and survived. The antibodies are then collected from the blood and are turned into the cure. Humankind as a whole has been infected with a deadly poison. The poison of sin which was in the world, and is still deep-rooted within us all, was allowed to take out its full force on Jesus. He was exposed to the full venom of sin. He went down to our grave, and he rose from the dead. He conquered our death in his Death. The only anti-venom is the shed blood of the sinless Son of God. He has the only anti-venom for Death. Like the bronze snake on the stick, all who believe in him are healed of death and have eternal life. When we look at him hanging on the cross, what we are looking at is the result of the evil which infects us all. And we are seeing what God has done about it.

Where can we get that anti-venom? The medicine is here in the church. God has given us ceremonies with the promise of forgiveness attached. Sacraments. The anti-venom is delivered to you in the water of Baptism. Delivered to you in the absolution. Delivered to you in the Body and the Blood, the very death and life of Jesus, whose Body and Blood were given into death and raised from the dead to become the anti-venom of sin, the very “medicine of immortality” and eternal life. 

You need this medicine, this word of forgiveness, these Sacraments of Jesus’ death and life. You need this medicine because the snake has bitten you too and without the anti-venom you will die in your sins. You need hear and eat and drink. And others you know need to hear and eat and drink too.

As Moses lifted up the bronze snake in the wilderness, so the Father has lifted up the Son on the cross that whoever looks on him with the eyes of faith, trusting in that bleeding, broken, dying Jesus, has eternal life. The point of the whole story is that you don’t have to be condemned. You don’t have to let the snake kill you. Look on him, believe, and live. Point others to Him that they may live. The sting of death is sin, and the venom of sin is the Law. But thanks be to God; He gives us the victory, the anti-venom, the cure, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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