March 18, 2012 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
[Jesus said:] “And 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.”
The Exodus people had done it again. Their habitual complaint poured out of their mouths: “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.” The complaint is voiced against the Lord and His appointed servant. It reveals the people’s doubt and unbelief, as well as their lack of gratitude and thanksgiving.
Had Moses led the people “out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” No, he had brought them out of slavery to lead them to a land of their own. Had the Lord left the people to their own attempts to fend for themselves? No, He had provided for their daily needs, as well as given them victory over their various enemies—from the Egyptian slavemasters and soldiers to the nations that they encountered along their trek to Canaan.
But none of this was satisfying the people and their sinful wills. So they engage in another bout of rebellion. They spread their seditious statements throughout the company of pilgrims: “Moses, you have led us to our ruin! God, You have not provided what we want! We are tired of this never-ending, circuitous route and this lousy manna we must eat! We’re not following anymore; we will lead ourselves!” And to that sin, the Lord responds: “Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” He answers in action that brings the message: “Take that! If you think that My chosen one Moses has brought you out to die and that My provision is worthless, let Me cut off the flow of blessing and work to your detriment. Let us see where the big talk and complaint ends up!”
When the Lord acts that way, the Exodus people comprehend what they had done. They recognize their sin, their guilt: “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.’” At that moment, Moses doesn’t seem so bad to the people. Even more than that, they acknowledge his position as the Lord’s chosen leader. At the same time, the people’s loathing the Lord and His provision disappears. They are humbled, brought to contrition. They realize that their only hope is in receiving what the Lord provides. In this way, the circle of repentance is made complete.
In His mercy, the Lord answers the people’s plight. He provides a remedy for them: “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.” The Lord’s provided remedy directly answers the people’s problem. The fiery serpents brought death, so the Lord provides a serpent that brings life. Believing the Lord’s word of promise connected to this New Serpent, the one that is lifted up and brings life, the people are saved from death.
Centuries after this event in the wilderness, Jesus declares that this is a type that illustrates what He is present in the world to do. He identifies Himself as the remedy for mankind’s plight: “And 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.”
But what is the plight of mankind that Jesus answers? What has happened that requires such a remedy? The issue is the rebellion that all mankind has participated in. The problem is sin. So it has been from ancient days. What the Exodus people did in the wilderness is but one aspect, one episode of the great rebellion that the Lord’s creation has waged against Him. Discontent at what had been provided by the Lord, the desire to be followers of their own way: these thoughts that were voiced by the Hebrews in the wilderness were found in the sin of the first people and throughout the generations.
Mankind has been its own worst enemy. We have brought ruin and destruction to ourselves by what we have done. The situation is as the apostle described: “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Such description shows the comprehensive nature of mankind’s plight—what man first put itself into and which subsequent generations furthered.
But the remedy is provided for you. That is the Lord’s great act of mercy and love: “God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” In the wilderness, the fiery serpents brought death, so the Lord provides a serpent that brought life. In the world, man brought death by his sin, so the Lord provides a Man who brings life. That is the meaning of Jesus’ statement: “And 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.”
So the remedy is provided for you. It is in the person of Jesus Christ. He has been lifted up. It happened on Calvary for you. There the Son of Man, the Promised Christ, the only Son of God was hoisted up on a cross to become your salvation. It is the expression of God’s love for you, even while you were engaged in rebellion against Him: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He has loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages, He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
That is what Jesus achieved for you on Calvary. So it is most appropriate that a place named for that location where the Son of Man was lifted up has a great depiction of it. The crucifix is here, so that you may look on it and remember how the Lord provided the remedy for your sin that kills temporally and eternally. Believing what Jesus did on that day, you are saved by Him. But not only do you have a reminder in a form of art, you have a participation in the act of salvation accomplished for you. You have been baptized into Jesus’ death. The Lord’s declaration of pardon for your sins is spoken here by His appointed leaders with frequency. Jesus’ Body given into death is put before you. And these give your faith more to cling to—many and various ways that you access the merits of Jesus who was lifted up for your salvation.
The Lord has not left you in the wilderness to die, but has come to redeem you. He has brought you from rebellion and unbelief to faith and obedience. So now you are not “children of wrath,” but are “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” You have been remade, reshaped, regenerated, recreated. That is how much the Lord’s remedy has worked in you. You have been drawn to the light of Christ and empowered to do what is good and right: “Whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”
So you now do the good works that the Lord desires you to perform. And the greatest work is to believe in what Jesus has done for you. Your will is brought in line with His, so that you love His ways. No more are you “following the course of the world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” This change from death to life becomes the grounds for what you say about the Lord, just as it was for the Exodus people: “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress. He led them by a straight way till they reached a city to dwell in.” You follow the way that the Lord has laid out for you, the path of life, the road that the Holy Spirit leads you on to a heavenly dwelling place.
So from your mouths complaint doesn’t flow, but praise and thanksgiving for what the Lord has done: “Let them thank the Lord for His steadfast love, for His wondrous works to the children of men!” He shows His steadfast love in the remedy that He gives for your plight, the wondrous work that Jesus performed for you: “And 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.” Never loathe what He supplies, but always give thanks for how the Lord provides for all your needs of body and soul.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.