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“Lifted Up, That We Will Live”

Date: March 11, 2018 Speaker:



Mar112018

“Lifted Up, That We Will Live”

Numbers 21:4-9

 The Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 11, 2018

Pastor Mark Wiesenborn

St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Houston, Texas

 

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Our message for this morning is taken from the Old Testament reading, where we hear an example of how the sin of IMPATIENCE can lead every one of us into spiritually-dangerous situations:

The people of Israel became impatient on the way to the Promised Land, and they spoke against God and against Moses… then the Lord sent fiery serpents among them, and they bit the people so that many died.”

 

Dear friends in Christ, I have a straightforward question to ask this morning. Have any of you ever “almost” stepped on a snake? (pause for responses) That’s not the kind of experience we tend to forget! If anything, it is magnified in our memories so the snake seems bigger and also more threatening. Just two weeks ago, a local news article cited Texas A&M University experts saying spring-like temperatures in areas of Texas mean snakes are coming out of winter hibernation, increasing the likelihood of people and pets getting bit. Dr. Jill Heatley, an associate professor of veterinary medicine, says snakebite treatment for people can be painful and cost up to $50,000 for venomous cases. That attracted my attention, since Kristen and I are heading to Huntsville State Park with our granddaughters tomorrow for a Spring Break camping vacation!

 

Many years ago at that same park, I remember going fishing with my son Kyle on a pier not far from our campsite and staying to enjoy the sunset. As we walked back to rejoin the family, I saw a dark silhouette of what I thought was a long stick laying in the middle of the road right between us. Instead of picking it up, I poked at it with the end of my fishing pole – and quickly leaped back as it coiled up and then slithered away! It was a venomous copperhead, seeking a little of the sun’s warmth from the pavement.

 

When it comes to snakes, most people are prejudiced. Often the first reaction to encountering a snake is to regard it as a threat. Even my brother Dennis, who was experienced at identifying and handling snakes when he was a college student, suffered the misfortune and misery of being bitten on the thumb by a copperhead!  What we fail to realize (or admit only reluctantly) is that most snakes are beneficial to the ecosystem by keeping the population of rats and mice from getting out of control. Yet when a five-foot long rat snake appeared in our backyard late one evening last year and used its coils to slither up the Shumard Oak tree right next to the patio, Kristen was quite insistent that “somebody” (meaning me) needed to step up and execute a permanent solution to the problem. By then darkness had set in and the snake surely had the advantage, so we retreated to the safety of our house.

 

In the morning the snake was still there. It was stretched out motionless on a tree branch about seven feet high, clearly waiting for one of the fledgling mockingbirds to flutter within reach. In our minds this good snake was choosing to be a bad snake, so I found an eight-foot long pole and used it to pry the snake’s coils from the branch until I was able to pull it free, and then flip it over the wooden fence into the field behind our house.

 

Even if you are not afraid of snakes, and do not think of them as your enemies, there might still be some anxiety if you thought one or more of them might be hiding underneath the furniture in your home – or even worse, lurking nearby while you are trying to sleep.

 

The story of Creation in Genesis 1 describes how on the Fifth day, God brought forth living creatures according to their kinds – the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird, and livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds. And God saw that it was all good.

 

But chapter 3 introduces the serpent, which was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. We know that it was Satan in the form of a serpent who tempted Adam and Eve, and caused their Fall into sinful disobedience against the Lord. But as a result, and according to God’s foreknowledge and divine purpose, we have the first promise of a future Messiah:

 

“The LORD God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are          you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between      you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.’” [Genesis 3:14-15]

 

Those who “live and move and have their being” in the city may believe that snakes are not a threat to them. (In Houston this may be somewhat true, but it’s not entirely true.) None of us, however, are able to protect ourselves from the unexpected attacks of our venomous spiritual enemy and his fiery, burning bites. Especially during our times of adversity, suffering, sickness or sadness we are susceptible to Satan’s whispered lies that tear us down, and tear us away from God!

 

▪   God’s voice STILLS you.

Satan’s voice RUSHES you.

▪   God’s voice LEADS you.

Satan’s voice PUSHES you.

▪   God’s voice REASSURES you.

Satan’s voice FRIGHTENS you.

▪   God’s voice ENLIGHTENS you.

Satan’s voice CONFUSES you.

▪   God’s voice ENCOURAGES you.

Satan’s voice DISCOURAGES you.

▪   God’s voice COMFORTS you.

Satan’s voice WORRIES you.

▪   God’s voice CALMS you.

Satan’s voice OBSESSES you.

▪   God’s voice CONVICTS you.

Satan’s voice CONDEMNS you.

 

It is much easier to trust God and remain obedient to his commands when our own lives are free of challenges – when we can say that because of our faithfulness we have been blessed with good health and peaceful relationships. Yet at any given time many of us are dealing with some very serious challenges, and sometimes these can get in the way of trusting God and resting in His love.  And as Paul warns us in today’s Epistle, we are vulnerable in two particular ways:

▪   When the desires of our bodies and minds lead us into sinful disobedience;

▪   and when we start to believe that we have the means to save ourselves!

 

There was a news story several years ago about what we might call “misplaced confidence”.  This happened in the panhandle of Texas, where the beginning of spring means it is time to start watching out for rattlesnakes.  (By the way, the annual Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup takes place every year on the second weekend of March.) A forklift driver at Patterson Drilling in Abilene was doing some cleanup in the equipment storage yard.  One of the items he had to move was a pit liner – a large structure (measuring 10 ft. by 10 ft. by 30 ft.) made of steel pipe and plate, used to brace dirt walls during excavations to prevent cave-ins.  He picked up the pit liner and immediately set it back down, then radioed the office with this message: “I need some people out here with shotguns.”  Three men showed up; when he lifted the pit liner again, they opened fire.  According to the report, they killed 62 rattlers… but as many more got away as were killed.

 

Those men were counting on their weapons to protect them, from poisonous snakes that were fleeing for their lives.  But try to imagine their sudden panic if those rattlers had instead headed straight for them – and then what if their shotguns jammed, or they ran out of shells!

 

Stories like this may help us relate to the predicament of the Israelites, who after grumbling against God and against Moses were punished with a plague of fiery serpents.  Some of the people almost certainly picked up rocks and clubs and did the best they could to defend themselves, perhaps killing many – but not all.  Those who were bitten died, and as a result the rest repented and begged for mercy.

 

There are two key difficulties with Bible stories like this. First of all, they have the ability to terrify us with shock and awe.  Even those who aren’t afraid of snakes may object to the idea of having dangerous creatures in our homes or anywhere around our children.  We cling to the misplaced confidence that we can and will prevent situations like that from ever happening.  And second, messages of divine wrath and punishment can get in the way of our trusting God and resting in His love.  This is where we might learn patience from Job, who in the midst of great suffering and loss said to his wife, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” [Job 2:10]

 

As we study the Bible, the pattern of our relationship with God becomes very clear.  He blesses us out of love; we respond with thanksgiving, but eventually we come to regard His manifold gifts as our entitlement; we complain and turn away from God, until out of the depths of our suffering we cry out for mercy; and He rescues us and restores us as His people.  We see this cycle in today’s reading:

 

The people of Israel became impatient on the way, and spoke against God and against Moses. Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people died.  And the people came to Moses and said, ‘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.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’  So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” [Numbers 21:4-9]

 

In today’s Gospel reading, a Pharisee named Nicodemus has come at night to ask Jesus to explain some difficult teachings.  As a prominent Jewish leader, he had probably preached many times about the dangers of impatience and disobedience.  So Nicodemus of all people would have understood the incredible connection to God’s ongoing work of salvation when Jesus gives this explanation:

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.

 

And following these words, we find one of the most familiar (and most famous) of all verses; people write “John 3:16” on posters that they hold up at sporting events for the television cameras to see – and when they do, they are helping to carry the proclamation of how much God loves this impatient, disobedient world.

 

So here is the Good News of the Cross of Jesus Christ.  God sent His only Son, out of the immeasurable riches of His grace and kindness – knowing that even when we were dead in our trespasses, He would “rescue us” and make us alive together with Christ. Jesus suffered and died for us, shedding His blood as the perfect gift of life that is offered to all people for all time.  Whoever looks to the Cross and believes in Him by grace through faith will not perish, but will be lifted up to receive eternal life – and we will share in Christ’s victory over the power of sin, death, and that ancient serpent, Satan!

 

     In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen!


OLD TESTAMENT LESSON – Numbers 21:4-9 [ESV]

 

            4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “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.”  6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.  7 And the people came to Moses and said, “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.” So Moses prayed for the people.  8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”  9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and liv



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