Number 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.
The children of Israel had a problem. Snakes. Snakes here. Snakes there. Snakes everywhere! Under the rocks. In their tents. Creeping. Crawling. Biting. Dying.
After all the Lord had done - the release from bondage to death and slavery in Egypt; the exodus; the Lord’s promise to be with them in the wilderness. Still they grumbled against God and against His servant Moses. Ungrateful for the manna from heaven; thankless for the water that came from the rock.
Snakes were the consequence of Israel’s rebellion. Impatience led to grumbling. Grumbling led to sin. Sin led to death.
The people confessed. Moses interceded. And God provided a sacrament - a bronze serpent on a wooden pole. A visible sign with a promise: “Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” A rather strange sign, don’t you think? Most of us have some level of ophidiophobia. Usually serpents are gross and slippery and slimy; bad news, like Slytherin in Harry Potter or Smaug the Dragon in The Hobbit. Snakes are no good.
Strangely enough, this cure looks like the disease itself. A serpent of all things, an image of that sly, subtle creature who tempted Eve in the Garden. A bronze snake hoisted in the air on a stake for all to see. In Leviticus God said don’t make images; then He has them make an image.
With the Word, the sign is a “sacrament,” a tangible gift from God. Look on the bronze serpent and be healed of your snakebite. The promise was located there. When the Israelites were burning up with fever and delirious with poison, they didn’t say, “What do I need such a silly snake on a stake for? I can just pray to God directly.” They didn’t say, “I don’t like snakes; they give me the creeps. Look at the snake? Are you crazy?” No, they did what the Lord said to do. The image wasn’t the problem it was the true or false worship associated with it.
That’s what makes an idol; an image without the command and promise of God. The golden calf. Even the bronze serpent eventually became an idol for the Israelites. “Nahushtan” they called it; they even offered incense to it. It was destroyed along with Aaron’s staff that miraculously budded. That’s what happens when a sign comes unbuckled from God’s Word: idolatry always follows closely behind.
That was Israel’s most deadly problem. Not the snakes. Idolatry. In the desert they tried to repeat the serpent’s slippery performance in the Garden: forget God. Forget His promises. Take matters into your own hands. Be your own god: fear love and trust in yourself. It’s always the first commandment, isn’t it?
We’re no different. You've been “snake-bitten” along with all humanity. It happened in the Garden with another kind of serpent: shrewd and subtle. Eve was tempted and the poison of his lie was injected. The lie that God is not true to His Word. The lie that God doesn’t mean what He says. The lie that we can be gods instead. The lie 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, guilty as the poison was deadly.
And the poison is passed on to their children too. Every son of Adam and daughter of Eve is infected. No generation skipped. Not you. Not me. We’re all born with the poison coursing through our humanity. Saint Paul says, “You were dead in trespasses and sin.” Not merely a flesh wound. Not sick, not weak, not troubled, not struggling or even hanging on for dear life. Snake-bitten dead.
What’s the cure for a deadly snake bite? You can’t put a band aid on it: “Just think positive thoughts; try hard to get better.” No, you need someone to draw the poison out of you and give you an antidote. Something you can only get from someone who has taken the venomous bite and lived to tell about it. For “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.
God made Jesus, the sinless Son, to be sin for you. He became your sin and in Him you receive the righteousness of God. He was cursed with your curse; He was damned for you. He went head, hands and heals first into your sin and death. Jesus took the hit for us: God’s, the devil’s temptations, the Law’s judgment. He went down to our grave, and He rose from the dead. He conquered our death in His Death. He is the antidote of Death. Like the bronze serpent on the pole, all who believe in Him are healed of death and have eternal life.
“Outrageous,” you say. Yes it is, but this isn’t your court. And you’re not the judge. If God’s judgment of “innocent in Jesus” doesn’t suit you; if you’d rather argue your own case and justify yourself, if you’d rather refuse the bronze snake on a stick and work out your own antidote…Jesus speaks a warning: “Whoever does not believe, whoever does not trust the crucified and risen Jesus, stands judged already because he refuses to trust in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
Where then do you look for the antidote? No coincidence, the early the church fathers called the Sacrament “the medicine of immortality.” The cure for death and the curse of sin. Jesus’ body given into death; Jesus’ blood given for your life. The world looks on the Sacrament as though you have just raised a bronze boa, “You’ve got to be joking! This is how you live forever? Trust Jesus? Eat His Body as bread? Drink His blood as wine?”
But what other cure is there? Who else promises rescue from death? Who else in the world died and rose from the dead? Who else says, “Trust me, eating my flesh, drinking my blood, and I will raise you up on the Last Day and give you eternal life”? Who else but Jesus?
It's like little children - you ask them how much you love them and they spread out their arms...this much. How much does God love the world? This much...arms spread out wide on the cross. God loved the cosmos in this way: He gave His only-begotten Son to die for you. What God tested Abraham to do - offer up his only son Isaac - God the Father actually did. He raised His Son up on a cross one dark day we call Good Friday. In love, Jesus dies for an unloving, unlovable world. No bronze serpent, just a bloody, crucified Savior.
And the world says, “Eew. How disgusting. How grotesque. That’s nuts. How can I believe in a God would do such a thing? What a weak and foolish way to die” There’s no alternative. You can try looking, but there’s no other antidote for your disease. This is the God who is love for the loveless, who forgives your sin, who justifies the sinner in Christ. The God who is willing to be bruised by the serpent in order to crush his head. The God who offers his heal – his hands, his side, his whole life - to save you from being poisoned to death forever. The God who is willing to become the curse, the disease to give you the cure.
So, imagine for a moment that you were an Israelite in the wilderness. Your best friend, relative, or neighbor is lying on the ground, bitten by the snakes. What do you do? Wish him good luck and hope for the best? Tell him to accept YHWH into his heart? You’re a survivor, alive by the grace of God. Wouldn’t you point your friend to the bronze serpent? Maybe even carry him so he could see it clearly? You wouldn’t take no for answer. You’d be urgent and forceful. You wouldn’t worry about hurting his feelings or “not respecting his beliefs” or all some other excuse. “Look here and live.”
You need look no further for this medicine of immortality than in Christ’s church. Here the Great Physician gives you the medicine you need: the Word of forgiveness; the Sacrament of Jesus’ death and life. Here is your antidote. Eat and drink and live.
“For God so loved the cosmos in this way: that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It’s more than a sign for the end-zone at a football game. It’s the Gospel in a nutshell. But you should really learn verse 17 as well: “For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but to save the world through Him.”
Judgment comes later. But even then, it will be a judgment in view of what Christ has already been done for you on the cross: “It is finished.” Look on Him and live. Behold the Lamb of God bearing your sin. That’s your life hanging on the cross. He’s not on the cross or in the Sacrament to judge you. He was judged for you. The verdict is rendered. Jesus is guilty, and in Jesus you are innocent. Acquitted. Justified. Righteous. Alive.
In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.