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4th Sunday in Lent
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, Snakes. How do you feel about snakes? Perhaps you remember the line from the movie where the main character says, “Snakes, it just had to be snakes.” A few months ago, Katie and I watched the Indiana Jones movie where he’s just about fearless about anything and everything, except for snakes, and near the end of the movie he ends up in this pit and it’s just covered with snakes, snakes everywhere. How do you feel about snakes? When I was in my vicar year in TN one day Katie and I were going to grill and the town home we lived in had a patio in the back with a grill. I went out there took the cover off the grill was working on starting it and Katie is just going crazy just inside the patio door and I look at her so confused, trying to figure out what’s wrong and she couldn’t even say a word, eventually I looked down and right at my feet underneath the grill was this huge, probably like 5 foot long black snake curled up underneath the grill. I jumped and booked it inside and we decided not to grill. How do you feel about snakes? Some of you probably don’t mind them, but I’m going to guess that the majority of us are not very fond of snakes.
But I’m guessing that we don’t hate snakes as much as those Israelites whom we read about in our OT lesson. The Israelites had been wandering in the desert for almost 40 years; it was finally time for them to head towards the Promised Land. Bust as they were going, they grew impatient, complaining against Moses and against God: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is not bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” “Miserable food,” by the way, that’s the manna which God had faithfully and miraculously provided them to eat every day to sustain them for forty years. They were complaining about that! Can you imagine?
Well, we probably can, can’t we? “I’m so sick of these clothes; I have nothing to wear.” Really? Who made sure that we have those clothes? How many clothes do we have? “I just don’t like this food; I have nothing to eat.” Really? Who made sure that we have food to eat? How many times don’t we have many options of things to eat? “I’m so sick of this car, my spouse never does what I want them to do, I never have enough money, my children never listen.” Hmm…perhaps we can relate all too well to the Israelites?
So, what did God do? He confronted them. He confronted them with their sin. He sent poisonous snakes among them and those snakes bit many of them and many of them died. Can you imagine how they must have hated those snakes? Can you imagine how they must have feared those snakes? How do you keep a snake out of a tent? Can you imagine being a mother, how would you have been comfortable laying your child down for a nap? Snakes were everywhere! It must have been terrible! They must have hated those snakes.
Now, perhaps we’re thinking, “Wow! That was pretty terrible. Why would God do something so drastic?” But what we have to realize is that the complaining, the bickering, the dissatisfaction was a sign of something much deeper. It’s like a headache. If you have a headache every day for a week, you might say, “I just didn’t get good sleep, if I got better sleep it’d be fine.” But the headache could be a sign of something much worse, like a brain tumor that will kill you. You go to the hospital and the doctor could say, “Here’s some Tylenol, take these, you’ll feel better.” But that won’t deal with the real cause. Or, he may slap you in the hospital and do all these uncomfortable tests to get to the real problem that could kill you.
And that’s what God did with the snakes. The snakes were drastic, but they caused the Israelites to see their sin underneath their sin- the sin that was killing them. It caused the Israelites to see their sin, it caused them to see how far their hearts were from God, it caused them to see their dissatisfaction. And underneath their complaining was really a lack of trust in God and the goodness of God. The same is true for us. When we complain, whenever we’re dissatisfied with what we have or the situation we are in, it’s really an attack on God, we don’t trust that God has our best interests in mind, that he loves us so fully and so completely that He will only deal with us in a way that’s for our best. In fact, that’s exactly what happened in the Garden of Eden where it all started. Remember? Satan comes to Adam and Eve, “Do you have everything? Do you have everything you want? Can you do anything?” “Well, we have everything except we can’t eat from that one tree.” They’re in paradise! And Satan convinces them to be dissatisfied! “That tree is probably 100 times better than every other tree in the garden! You can be like God!” Underneath our dissatisfaction is a deeper issue of the heart: a lack of trust in the goodness and love of God.
So, what does God do? He confronts them with the sin underneath their sin and it works. Notice that they don’t say, “Oh this is so awful” or “Oh this is overkill.” But, “we’ve sinned.” That’s repentance. Repentance says, “Lord God, anything you send me to wake me up is justified. Anything, because that thing which is devouring me spiritually, my sin, is so serious that anything it takes to wake me up and to get healed is justified.” They went to Moses with repentant hearts and asked Moses to pray for them and take the snakes away.
God’s answer to Moses’ prayer was, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” Really? The answer to a snakebite is…too look at a bronze snake, hung up on a pole?? What you loathe the most, what you hate, what causes all your pain, you have to look at an image of that thing in order to be healed? It doesn’t seem to make any sense! (Some commentators even suggest that the poisonous snakes were bronze colored and so the bronze snake on a pole would have been that much more striking to look at.) Can you imagine the people thinking, “A snake? Why did it have to be a snake?”
But it worked. When the people looked at that bronze snake, they were healed. Why? Because God’s promise was there. God promised that they’d be healed by looking at the snake and they were. It seemed crazy, but it worked. Looking at what they loathed, brought them life.
What is it that we ought to loathe more than anything else? What ought we to hate and despise more than anything else? It’s sin, isn’t it? Sin is at the root of everything bad in our world. Tension and difficulties and hard feelings in our relationships with other people has it’s root in sin. The pain and hurt we feel in our relationships has it’s root in sin, whether it’s unfaithfulness, anger, lies, selfishness. The challenges we face with health, whether it’s heart attacks, arthritis, diabetes, bad backs, failing eyesight, loss of hearing- we wouldn’t experience any of those things if it wasn’t for sin. The difficulties we face at work, the problems with fellow employees or customers or stress, it’s all a consequence of sin.
And the worst effect of sin? It’s death. The wages of sin is death. Not just temporal death, not just our last breath or heart beat, but eternal death. You see, it’s because of our sinfulness that we deserve nothing more than eternal death in hell. We deserve to be condemned, to have an eternity of suffering. That’s what our sin has earned us. What we ought to loathe and hate and despise more than anything is our sin.
So what does God do? He takes all of our sins- every sin of every person – and he places them upon one man. Jesus is declared to be the absolute worst sinner of all because all of the world’s sins are charged to his account. And then what happens? He’s lifted up! Just like the bronze serpent was hung up on a pole, so Jesus was hung up on a cross. He was crucified. Why? Because our sins were charged to his account. All that we loathe in life was placed on Him. He was crushed for our iniquities, pierced for our transgressions. Jesus dying on the cross is the most ugliest thing in the world.
And what does God want us to do? He wants us to look to him for healing! God wants us to look to the world’s biggest sinner for…healing. And the results? “That everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Just like looking at the bronze snake, believing God’s promise, brought healing and life, so looking at Jesus, hung on that cross, brings us healing. The ugliest thing – Jesus on the cross – becomes the most beautiful thing in the world because it’s there where God gives us the eternal healing we need.
And so, it is thus, in this way that God so loved the world. So much so that he sent His One and Only Son, that everyone who believes in Him would never perish, but have life eternal. We see the love of God clearest as we see Jesus lifted up on a cross paying for the sins of the world.
Honestly, I don’t care much for snakes. I don’t think I’m ever going to have a snake for a pet. I don’t think I’m ever going to be comfortable with a snake. Perhaps you’re similar. Perhaps it’s because of what a snake represents, they could be poisonous, the could cause death, they aren’t very appealing to look at.
And similarly the cross isn’t appealing, it represents suffering, pain, and death. But it is precious to us. It’s precious to us because Jesus died on it. Jesus took our poison in Himself, took the punishment we deserved. He was hung up on the cross, not you, not me. And by doing so, He healed you, healed me, healed us forever. Amen.