The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 21-22, 2009
Text: Numbers 21:4-9
Dear Friends in Christ,
Are we there yet? Parents dread hearing those words when they’re traveling in the car. Sometimes children ask it so much that the parents just want to wack the kids up the side the of head. Children haven’t yet learned to enjoy the journey. I love seeing the countryside, especially as it goes through the seasonal changes. Often times people today are impatient to get to the end of a movie. Many people don’t like long movies. They say that they can’t sit that long. So something like Lord of the Rings which is ten hours long, they don’t bother to see. Their impatience costs them what is perhaps the greatest cinematic epic of all time. Most scientific advances come from great patience. Thomas Edison and his team of scientists tried hundreds of materials before trying carbon fiber as filament. One of his workers threw up his hands in frustration and exclaimed that they’d tried a hundred different materials and they’d learned nothing. They were no closer to making light bulb. To which Edison replied, no we now know a hundred ways not to make a light bulb. And of course every wine maker knows that best wine take years to produce. Impatience will only result in producing the cheap stuff.
The Israelites were finally getting close to the time when they would enter the promised land. They had been wandering for many years. The nation of Edom would not let them cross through their territory. So they had to go further out into the desert and travel around Edom. In reality this only increased their journey by a few days, but the people grew impatient. Thus we read: 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." We have to read that closely. They had food. They had manna which God provided. But they were tired of manna. It’s like the lady who called 911 because her local McDonalds was out of Chicken McNuggets. I mean after all, how many ways can you prepare manna? Manna bread, manna bagels, manna pitas, manna waffles... you get the idea. I suppose after forty years of the same thing for dinner, we’d get a little cranky too.
By the way, what is manna? It is a fungus, related to the mushroom, which grows up at night in the desert. It can be dried and pounded into flour. But it does not keep for any length of time. So it must be prepared and eaten very quickly. It does still appear occasionally in small patches today and it is highly prized by desert people. The miracle was God’s multiplying a rare thing to feed a couple million of people.
The people complained against God and against Moses. First of all what had Moses done? He wasn’t in charge. He was just following God’s orders. Second, God is providing free food, preserving their clothing and shoes so that they miraculously did not wear out. He had set them free from slavery in Egypt and shown them many great signs - like the parting the Red Sea. God had given enemies into their hands. They still didn’t get it. They still didn’t really believe.
We might marvel at this but we should not. Miracles do not produce faith. St. Paul tells us in Romans that faith comes from hearing the Word of God. Here is the greater marvel. They had that Word. They had been at Mount Sinai. They had the teaching of Moses laid before them. It would seem to us that with that Word, reinforced as it were by the great signs, they would have indeed believed. And indeed we know that some, like Joshua and Caleb did. But many did not. Why? We don’t know. In Lutheranism, we call this the cross of theology - or crux theologum. In Lutheranism we absolutely refuse even to attempt to explain why one person is saved another is not. This is hidden from us. Only God Himself knows and understands this - perhaps even only God the Father. We might ask why, for example, God sends missionaries to one tribe and but another tribe in the same region is never evangelized? We simply don’t know this and cannot answer it. In fact, attempting to answer this question leads to heresy. The Calvinists, in attempting to answer this turn to double predestination - that is God, in His wisdom chooses whom He will save and whom He won’t save. He predestines each man either to heaven or to hell. But the Scriptures are clear that God does not predestine anyone to hell. He desires that all men would be saved. The Armenians and Wesleyans insist that it is all determined by our decision to give our lives to Jesus. But this then would be work righteousness and make us the cause of our own salvation. So Lutheranism has simply said, no, we cannot offer an answer. For human logic would always in the end violate the Scriptures. So we must just leave this hanging out there unanswered.
Back to the Israelites. They grumbled against God and Moses. So God did something to get their attention. He sent a plague of snakes. Many died, painfully, from the poison of the snakes. And it worked, for we read: 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." But God didn’t take the snakes away. He would test them further. He would ask them, “Do you really trust in Me and My words of promise?” He is using this to separate the believers from the unbelievers. God instructs Moses to make an image of the snakes that were plaguing them and put it on display. So Moses fashioned snake from bronze and placed it on a pole in their camp. Anyone who was bitten and looked to it was saved. Those who did not looked to the bronze serpent, died.
What did this bronze serpent do? Nothing. It’s a statue, an image. It has no power. Much the same as water, bread and wine have no power. The power here was the promise of God. If you trust God’s words, you will cast your eyes where He has instructed you to look. So for the Israelites it was the bronze serpent. For us, we are to look to Word and Sacrament. Word and Sacrament is our bronze serpent - the thing that we are to look to for our salvation. Why? Because these things have great power in themselves? No. Because God has attached His Word of Promise to these things. He tells us that in Baptism we die and rise with Christ. He tells us that in the Supper we participate in His sacrificial death. This is not our fancy. This is the promise of God. And in a very real sense, even today, God is dividing the believers from the unbelievers. The believers seek God where He has promised to be - in Word and Sacrament. To demand God’s presence in some other way, such as in our experiences, is really unbelief. It is a rejection of the promises God has given us.
The bronze serpent teaches us that we must look to God’s promises for our salvation. Only where God has promises it, will we be saved. Christ makes this connection very clearly in pointing to the bronze serpent. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so too will the Son of Man be lifted up. He would be lifted up upon the cross, so that all who look to Him, as God would have us look to Him, will indeed be saved. Amen!