By Paul Koch –
When we hear the word “church” we probably have several images running through our heads. We may think of the body of Christ or a family of believers. We may think of particular brothers and sisters in Christ. You might think of a special pastor that impacted your life in some way. You may have bad memories as well, disappointments along your journey that you associate with the word “church.” But I think all of us in some way or another think of a place, a brick and mortar building, something concrete, somewhere that we gather – that is the church. When we tell our friends and family that we are going to church we are thinking of an actual place.
It is a place full of traditions and deeply held confessions. It is a place that stands for something; it is a seemingly immovable fortress against the winds and waves of our constantly shifting culture. The vestments which are worn, the liturgy we use, the hymns we sing, they all add to our image of what church is. But if we get too focused on the permanence of the place, on its traditions and appearance, I fear we might lose the organic reality of the church. For the church is a living thing – after all it is made up of you, of those called by the gospel of our Lord, those who have received his gifts. This means the church is never a stale or stagnate thing, it is full of people, men women and children all trying to figure this thing out, trying to understand the work and Words of our Lord.
Today we have an incredible text to examine, Numbers 21:4-9, it is a text that gets right to the heart of our understanding this thing we call “church.” The text finds the people of God continuing on their wilderness wanderings, moving ever closer to the day they would finally enter the Promised Land. We catch up with them as the leave Mount Hor and head south toward the Red Sea. And we watch them through just 6 short verses as they move from indifference or even distrust of the Word of God to an absolute reliance on his promise. So how does this great change happen? What accounts for such a dramatic turn?
Well, these are a people without a home, without a land to call their own. Oh, they have a promise of a land but their forefathers messed up their immediate taking of it, so now they wander in the wilderness. Throughout their journey they have been taught over and again about the decrees and commands of God. They have had to trust in him for their survival. But their journey has been marked with doubts and second guessing the wisdom of God. And that is certainly the case in our text. They wonder now about their survival, they tire from a weary life on wandering, they long for permanence and stability. So they begin to raise their voices against God and Moses and declare, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Apparently things are so bleak that they actually begin to pine for their days of slavery, for at least there they had consistency and predictability.
Here’s the thing; God, as it turns out, will not tolerate such a blatant indifference. The lukewarm he spits out of his mouth. He will not allow this fickle spirit to permeate his chosen people. So what will he do to these whiners and complainers, who praise him when he leads them through the Red Sea on dry ground but grow impatient when they wander in the wilderness? What he does is shocking. I had a professor at the seminary who always said to us, “Brothers, God doesn’t do fractions.” That was his way of reminding us of the completion of God’s activity. And certainly there are no half measures in our text, for in response to their complaining God kills them.
He sends poisonous serpents to infest their camp. They creep into their tents and slither into their beds. They repeatedly bite them over and again. The old and young alike, the mothers, fathers and children are attacked by God and they begin to die. And as the poison courses through their veins and they grow weak and their vision becomes blurry they come face to face with the horror of their situation. There is no hope for them no way out, no way to survive. For if it is the God who delivered them from Egypt with great signs and wonders how will they endure? Their only way out, the only glimmer of hope is to plead to God himself. And so as they die they confess, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.”
What happens next is simply incredible. Moses pleads the case of a dying people and God says, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses makes a bronze serpent and places it on a pole. The serpents where judgment right, the serpents were death, the serpents were full of every terror of our nightmares and yet our Lord attaches his promise to a serpent high and lifted up.
You don’t want to die? Then you must look at the very image of death and there I will give life.
Isn’t it fascinating that early in the Gospel of John we find our Lord having a discussion with Nicodemus about baptism and new life and he says to him, “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.” We hang a large cross here in our church; it is a symbol of death, for it is in the death of our Lord Jesus Christ alone that we are promised life. From the flesh and blood of our Lord’s own body we are given that gift of new life, we are forgiven and cleansed and promised life everlasting.
In the text, the people plead that the serpents might be taken away but that is not what God does. He provides a way out, he gives hope, he promises life but death remains. The serpents still bite, that is they still bite even now. And we know this all too well. For the serpents of judgment and death relentlessly attack us as all. The serpents condemn us in our sin, reminding us of how far we have fallen from the glory of God. Everywhere we turn we are surrounded by their accusations and condemnation, death is what we are mired in. We know what it is to grieve, to mourn the loss of those we love, we long for freedom from such oppression. And our God hears our prayers; he rescues us from death by dying himself.
Now we began by saying that this strange text from Numbers 21 is a text about this thing we call the “church” and truly it is. For it is a text about the great working of God. The people of Israel go from doubt and complaining to fervent trust in the promises of God, not because of their own works, not because of their own creativity but because God has killed them and brought them forth to a new life in his promise. And this is the work he does even now; it is why he has called us together. Church is not about our figuring it all out; it is not about having the answers to all of life’s tuff questions. It is about dying and living and that lies solely in the hands of God. He alone kills and brings forth life.
You are sinners and so the serpent of death plagues your life. You cannot overcome its poisonous bite; it will consume each and every one of you. God will do this, weather you desire it or not. God will kill you. But in his mercy he kills you now in his Word, he kills your pride and arrogance, he kills your work righteousness and your glory seeking. And by his gracious working of death you find yourself crying out, “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto you all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended you.” And as you die he lifts up to you his son, you see him dying in your place and he declares, “I forgive you all of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”