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4th Sunday of Lent
Numbers 21:4-9

Grace, mercy, and peace to your from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, who was lifted up on a cross for you and me, dear friends in Christ, How often do you take the “scenic route”? All we could see were red tail lights for miles and miles. We were headed back from the Cities, we got a late start in the evening, and Interstate 94 was backed up for miles. Creeping along at 5 miles an hour. Ever been there? I think I’m generally a patient guy, but when I’m driving 5 miles an hour for 25 minutes, facing a 4 hour drive ahead of me, and with a car full of small children, I can get quite impatient. Ever been there? Finally it gets to the point where I’m ready to take the next exit and I don’t care if I have to drive miles out of the way taking the scenic route, I just want to be moving.  Or, it’s happened that I’ve picked a route I want to go on and the traffic turns out to be terrible and then come to find out that there’s a way out of the way detour that makes the trip twice as long as it could have been if I had taken a different route. Or, it’s happened that my GPS has decided to route me on a way that it thinks is the shortest but doesn’t take into account all the small towns and traffic lights and slow speed limits along the way. Ever been there before? How often do you end up taking the “scenic route”? In our face-paced, time-crunched, and high gas priced world, not many people go for joy rides just to take the long scenic route.

It wasn’t much different about 3,500 years ago either. You and I think tacking on an additional hour to our trip is bad, try tacking on an additional 40 years! And consider that the most direct route from Egypt to the land of Canaan is about the same distance as you would drive between Bemidji and the Twin Cities, give or take a few miles! Think about that, instead of it taking you 4.5 hours to get to the Cities, it’s going to take you 40 years! And why? The Lord had graciously delivered the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt- remember the 10 plagues, ending with the Passover when the blood of the lamb painted on the door posts saved the Israelites, then remember how they had wondrously been led right to the edge of the Red Sea and had Pharaoh and his army breathing down their necks and then God miraculously parted the Red sea so that this entire nation of some 2.5 million people could go through on dry land, then remember how God had appeared to them on Mt. Sinai when He gave them the Ten Commandments with fire, smoke, a loud trumpet blast, and then how God led them with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud during the day, and how God led them right up to the Promised Land, but then when they spied on the land, saw that the land was great and wonderful, but the people were big and strong, they said, “We’re like grasshoppers to them, there’s no way we can take the Promised Land.” Forgetting that God is with them, so God made them wander around the wilderness for 40 years until that unbelieving generation- all those 20 years old or older – died. Talk about a scenic route!

Well, now we’re nearing the end of that 40 year scenic route, 40 years of wandering, 40 years of ups and downs, 40 years of God graciously and miraculously providing manna for the people to eat every day, 40 years and yet we’re told that their shoes and their clothes did not wear out, 40 years of God taking care of all their needs, and now they’re ready to march up to the Promised Land and so Moses asks the Edomites, the descendants of Esau, if they could pass through their territory- that’s all they wanted to do, they won’t touch any of their property, won’t use their water, nothing. And Edom’s response? “No, you may not. If you so as much as try, we’re going to attack and kill you.” Moses sends another message, “Just let us go through on the main road, if we inadvertently drink any water, we’ll pay for it.” And Edom’s response, “No means no! You will not pass through our land.”

So, what does that mean? That means that now the Israelites have to travel hundreds of miles in the opposite direction, south east, instead of north west. They had to take the scenic route through some barren, dry, intensely hot, and rough land full of sandstorms on foot in order to go around Edom! I guess our detours aren’t quite that bad! And what do the people do? They grumble and complain: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” In other words, “Why didn’t you just leave us alone in our slavery in Egypt? Why did you rescue us to die?” It’s mind-boggling isn’t it? God had been faithful to them for the past 40 years wandering in the desert and now they are going to die in the desert? Really? They detest this miserable food? God had been miraculously providing this manna for them for everyday for forty years preserving their lives! And then to add insult to injury they call it “miserable” food. Literally, the word is “worthless, good for nothing” and it’s the same root of the word to curse, so they were actually cursing the food God gave them! We look at this and wonder: How could they be so thankless? How could they be so short-sighted? The Promised Land was a couple weeks away!

Well, how could they be so thankless, so shortsighted?  Hmm.  What about us?  How easily we, too, become shortsighted!  We see the difficulty in front of us at the moment rather than the amazing eternity which God has prepared for us!  We set our eyes not on things above, but on things below. We see the current challenge and become stressed and bothered and sometimes even angry, somehow managing to forget the incredible faithfulness which God has shown to us over and over and over again in our past.  If we are going to point an accusing finger at these Israelites, then we are pointing one just as accusingly at ourselves.  How much of our lives do we fill with griping and complaining? We’re just as guilty, just as worthy of God’s judgement.

And in the midst of their complaining, the LORD gave them something to complain about. He sent venomous snakes. If you remember the KJV here it called them “fiery snakes,” literally the Hebrew says, “burning snakes,” either because of how they looked or because of their deadly, burning bite. People who have been over to this area actually report about these terrible, deadly snakes over there. And many of the Israelites died.

But notice who sent these snakes. It’s the LORD. All capital letters. That’s a special name for the Lord used in the Bible. It indicates that God is the God of free and faithful love, yes He is a God faithful to His justice, but also faithful to his love, He is the God of salvation. So, really, in sending these snakes it wasn’t in judgment, it was an act stemming from His love and His desire to save them. It was an act of love not just in getting them to their earthly promised land, but to their heavenly home. He allowed them to feel the consequences of their sin so they’d see their sinfulness and their need for forgiveness.  You see, those who don’t feel the results of their sin aren’t likely ready to admit their sin and their need for a Savior. Again, a common theme in Scripture: Hurts, pain, suffering alert us to a problem and drive us to look for a solution and a Savior.  In love God rebuked them.

And, it works! The people come to Moses and say, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take…the snake (sg) away from us.” Hmm…”the snake” that’s what the original says; they didn’t say “snakes.” What does that remind us of? Doesn’t that take us back to where it all began? All our trouble, all our pain, all our sin began in the Garden of Eden where our first parents listened to the devil in the form of a snake and brought sin into our world. So, ultimately, the Israelites don’t need relief just from these poisonous snakes, they need it from The Snake, the devil.

And God provided the solution. But it’s not at all what they might have expected. God didn’t take the snakes away. Instead God has Moses make a bronze snake put it up on a pole and anyone who looked at that snake on the pole wouldn’t die, but would live. Can you imagine how the Israelites must have reacted to this? We’re supposed to do what? Why are you putting that ugly, disgusting thing on a pole? Can you imagine the first person who was bit? The intense pain but then when looking at the pole the incredible relief that must have flooded over you? I’m guessing this is something they would have talked about again and again! God took a symbol of death and turned it into the source of deliverance and life.  But finally why did it work? It worked because of the words and promises of God.

Jesus connected this incident of the snake on the pole with Him on the cross. As we look at Jesus on that cross, it’s ugly, it reminds us of our sin and guilt our problem that sent Jesus to that cross, but in that cross there is healing, not physical, but spiritual, not temporary, but eternal. And for the Israelites it didn’t depend on the size or strength of their stare, but it depended on the words and promises of God which worked in them a trust to look with faith at God’s remedy for their problem. The same is true for you and I with Jesus. It doesn’t depend on the size or strength of our faith, rather, it has everything to do with the words and promises of God. And what is God’s promise concerning the cross of Jesus? God’s promise is that on Jesus’ cross God forgave your sins, my sins, the sins of the world! On the cross God opened the doors of heaven for you forever! Infected with our sin from the snake we look in faith to God’s remedy found in Jesus on a cross and we’re saved, eternally saved!

The Israelites had seen God’s faithfulness for 40 years and were on the verge of the Promised Land, but they were still struggling. We, too, struggle. God’s faithfulness surrounds us every day, God’s grace and mercy surround us every day, but so often we become so short-sighted, focusing on the problems, fill ourselves with complaining, dissatisfied with our lives, and yes, whether knowingly or not blame God for our troubles and our problems. But thank God for His discipline, His rebuke, for without it we would soon feel we didn’t need God and be lost without Him. But thank the Lord even more for His remedy for every complaint and His healing for every sin. The eternal healing we need found in one place: the cross of Christ where whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. Amen.