Sin and a Pole
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The children of God found themselves dissatisfied with God’s ways of providing for them. He had delivered His people from slavery in the land of Egypt. He provided food and water in the wilderness. He had protected them from and given them victory over their enemies in their wilderness wanderings. And yet, they were dissatisfied. They were impatient, and they made no bones about expressing that impatience to Moses. They even went so far as to say that they would rather be back in Egypt, living in slavery than continue their detour through the wilderness, forgetting that they had begged God to deliver them from that slavery. God had always provided for them when they asked for what they needed. All they had to do was to ask. Instead, they grumbled about Moses; but since Moses was merely doing what God had ordered him to do, the Israelites were really grumbling against God.
I know that sounds preposterous to us who rely on God for “clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children”—“all that we need to support this body and life.” Certainly the congregation of the faithful today would never think of complaining about the way God does things, would we? Except . . . we do. Why would God send us a snowstorm when we’re still getting over hurricanes? Why would God allow His children to suffer while the minions of evil seem to thrive? Why would God announce and deliver the forgiveness of sins through sinful men and ordinary, boring things like water, bread and wine? In the end, we are no better than the Israelites of old. We demand better from Him, as though He has been holding out on us. We do not trust in God. And as you know from Luther’s explanations of the Ten Commandments, this is the essence of sin.
As the Israelites found out, the wages of sin is death. And as bad as the Children of Israel thought things were, they can always get much worse when God withdraws His grace. God sent among them snakes—poisonous snakes. The snakes bit the people, and the people began to die. Now, it’s no coincidence that the instrument of judgment was snakes. The Israelites knew all too well the connection: how Adam and Eve trusted the serpent in the Garden rather than God, and how that led to the judgment of death. God meant to remind His children of the connection between sin and death. And that’s what we would have to look forward to, if that had, indeed, been the end of the story. Our lack of trust in God, our grumbling against Him, our sin—these things make us deserving of the same death sentence that the Israelites received.
But even now, hearing this story, we’re questioning God! Was it really necessary for God to send poisonous snakes? Did they have to be deadly? Where’s this supposed mercy for which God is so famous? But that’s the thing. Instead of writing them off, God used these snakes to call His people to repentance. That’s what the Law is meant to do. As we hear so often in the funeral liturgy at the graveside, St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.” So the Lord showed them their sin, and this did exactly what it was supposed to do: it brought the people back and turned them around. They went to Moses and confessed their sin—their lack of trust, their lack of faithfulness. And then they asked Moses to pray for them, that the Lord would deliver them. Moses did exactly that.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve done the same thing this morning. We’ve come to this place from a number of different places and conditions, but the one thing we all have in common is that we’re poor, miserable sinners. Recognizing your sinfulness, you came here to confess your sins, to repent of them, and to ask God for forgiveness. Our consciences are heavy-laden with our sin, and only the grace of God can remove that burden from us.
The Israelites found that out when God gave Moses a seemingly strange command: “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” Despite the strangeness of the request, Moses obeyed without question. After all, he had seen God provide water from a rock and manna from heaven. He knew that God’s Word would do exactly what He said. So Moses made the serpent and set it on the pole. Without the command of God, this would have been idolatry. But the power of the cure was in the Word of God. God said that those who looked on the brazen serpent would be cured, and that’s exactly what happened. Notice that God didn’t say the serpents would stop biting. But the bites no longer had any sting. It didn’t matter how many times the snake bit. The people looked at the serpent on the pole in repentance and faith, and they lived.
This was a temporary cure for a temporary disease. It took another pole with something greater hanging from it to bring to us a full and holy cure. In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us that He will be lifted up just as the snake was lifted up in the wilderness. Some people think of being lifted up as being glorified, and sometimes that’s the case. But it would not be so in this case. True to His Word—for God always keeps His Word—Christ was lifted up on the pole of the cross, lifted up in shame and disgrace, lifted up to be mocked and spat upon, lifted up to die. What happened in the wilderness happened in an even greater way on Golgotha. Jesus took the very sin that was killing us and bore it Himself upon the cross, so that all who look upon Him in faith would live—and not just for a time, but for all eternity.
Earlier I read to you from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, a passage which is often read at the graveside of those who depart in the faith. Paul writes, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.” But he doesn’t stop there. He continues by saying, “Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” God doesn’t stop when He sends the snakes that trouble us. He provides relief, pardon, peace, forgiveness, and life through the body and blood of His Son. He promised from the moments after the first sin in the Garden that He would send a Savior, and He kept his promise. We can count on God to keep His Word, even when we don’t keep ours, even when we grumble against Him. God is faithful, and those who look upon God in Christ through faith will live forever. In the name of the Father, Son (+), and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.