Numbers 21: 4-9 (Lent 4 - 2018)
“God Means What He Says”
In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul addresses the concept that Israel’s history, including their sinful mistakes, are recorded for our benefit. It is in that section that he records familiar words: “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall” (10:12). We are constantly hearing and learning of wonderful people who have fallen into sins. When it is people we have placed on a pedestal we tend to think, “if they can fall, is there any hope for me?”
Paul went on to explain “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful, he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (10:13-14). God means for us to learn from our own history of sin, discipline and forgiveness in Christ.
In our lesson today, the Israelites were on a leg of their path to the Promised Land. To get there they would go through wastelands. They would face warring enemies. But there were moments when their smugness got the best of them. They faced the natural conflicts of life among sinners who were prone to disobedience against God. God had clear marching orders for how to act and what to do. God is a God of truth. He means what he says. He will discipline those who abandon his Word. He will rescue those who repent.
He Means it When He Disciplines Us
What God had to say to Israel preserved them as the unique nation of the Saving Lord. His words and commands were designed to instruct them regarding the Savior. They were designed to teach them that he knew what was best for them; that he loved being their God at the center of their trust. Even in the wilderness he provided a traveling worship space as a daily reminder that he was to be the center of their attention and trust. He wanted them to obey those laws so that they would benefit from the things which they taught.
When Israel began to see the immediate picture: desolate wilderness, boring food, no Promised Land in clear sight – they dishonored God by speaking out against him. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no food and no water! And we detest this miserable food.” This was not obedience. This was not trust and worship. This was rebellion. This was disobedience. This was sinfulness. This was not the first time. They had grumble in their impatience several times before. They bickered to Moses about food and water in the past. They rejected God, forsook the tabernacle and turned to idolatry of gold. How quickly they repeatedly fell from trust to disobedience!
Lack of trust is at the heart of our disobedience. The first command to “fear, love, and trust in God above all things” is foundational to our obedience of all of God’s laws. When we fail to trust in God we disobey him. When God is not at center focus other things replace him: self worthiness, the finer things in life, financial security, pride and prestige. When we do not like the small picture we easily develop the same attitude: “I detest the way things are, I blame the God who made them this way; I chose to live in disobedience to that God. I chose to find happiness my way!”
God answered: with deadly serpents. These venomous snakes were killing people. The Israelites realized their guilt and asked for help. God knows how to turn us around. When we replace trust in him for trust in something else, he will likely take away that idol. He tests us where we most need testing. Israel complained about the sustenance of their lives. God responded by taking away their lives entirely. Have you noticed how God often rips out from under you the very things to which you have turned in place of him?
But, oh, how he loves us even and especially then! Even then, he desires to be our God. Even then, he desires our spiritual and physical wellbeing. Even then, he desires our obedience and trust. Even then, he desires to heal and forgive us through his grace for the sake of his Son Jesus. Even then, he is showing how resilient he is to our sinful condition and our pathetic rebellions. Even then, he calls us to see the Big Picture together with him. Even then, he loves to help us see, not only the blessings he will bring about through difficulty, but also to appreciate the blessings that we had the whole while we failed to notice them.
He Means it When He Rescues Us
Did you notice the prayer request the Israelites made? They asked for the snakes to go away. In their limited understanding that seemed like the best solution. “Snakes are killing us. We have sinned. Please take away the snakes.” Did you notice how the LORD responded to their request? He did not take the snakes away. He had a better idea. He had a better way of helping these people learn how to trust fully in Him. His solution was another call to obedience. His solution was another invitation to trust in his grace. God made Moses make a bronze snake and place it on a pole. Anyone who trusted God’s promise by looking up to the bronze snake would be healed.
This is a great Bible Story to illustrate an important truth about the cross. You recall the familiar request of Paul: three times he asked the Lord to remove a personal difficulty from his life. Paul confessed that he realized the Lord had put that difficulty in his life for good reason. The Lord did not want Paul to think too highly of himself, but rather to rely completely on God for his grace as he preached the gospel to the world. Jesus said to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul learned to rejoice in the difficulties of the cross because they were specific reminders of God’s power and grace to sustain us in life.
Some crosses that we bear are meant to remain as blessings from our God. In a society that seems to driven to solve every problem and find human solutions to divinely given struggles, God reminds us that not every problem is solved by making it go away. God chose to answer the repentant request of Israel, not by taking away the snakes and venom, but by providing a way for them to trust in God’s grace for help in the face of adversity. The Lord does both: he supplies adversities which will keep us focused on our need for him and he supplies his grace in times of need.
Thankfully we have a beautiful commentary on this lesson from Jesus himself in our Gospel lesson (John 3). As he spoke with Nicodemus in the night Jesus clearly defined God’s plan for salvation. He spoke of the need and blessings of baptism and faith in Christ. He spoke those familiar words in verse 16 about God loving the world so much that he gave his Son. In that lesson he explains: “just as Moses lifted up the snake in the dessert, so the Son of man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” John 3:15).
Once again Israel was taught a valuable lesson in trusting the Lord. He even tangibly gave them a prefigured vision of Calvary. He pictured for them the plan of the rescue, not from Egyptian slavery, but from their slavery to disobedience against their God. He refocused them on the Land of the Promise, and in doing so prepared them for the eternal Jerusalem he had prepared for them. Once again he restored the truth of the faithful few.
So also he points us to his Son, who was lifted up another pole, where he crushed the serpent’s head and destroyed our disobedience in his crucifixion. He points us to the Big Picture which reminds us of his eternal purposes for our lives in this world. These lives will end and new one the Promised Land of Heave will for all eternity.
God says what he means and means what he says. His words save us. In doing so he develops in his people, in you, a trust that sings with confidence:
What God ordains is always good;
His will is just and holy.
As he directs my life for me
I follow meek and lowly.
My God indeed In every need
Knows well he will shield me;
To him then I will yield me. (CW 429: 1) Amen.