Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. And the people spoke against God and 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 miserable food."
And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us." And Moses interceded for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live." And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.
Sermon for Rogate Sunday 5/17/20
Hung with a New Rope
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
There is an expression used to describe a person who is never satisfied. They say that "he would complain if he were hung with a new rope." The person or persons characterized by this half-humorous expression would be the sort that is always complaining, usually loudly proclaiming their dissatisfaction to everyone within earshot. That is, they would be the sort of people described in our text. The Children of Israel were the sort of people who could complain under any circumstances. They might well be described as the sort who would complain if they were hung with a new rope. This morning, we are going to take a closer look at the account of the fiery serpents in our Old Testament lesson with the theme, Hung with a New Rope.
If there were an Olympic event in grumbling, the Children of Israel would have won gold every time. Here they were, a people who had been pressed into slavery and cruelly treated for generations, and God had brought them out with tremendous miracles and signs and wonders! God led them out, wealthy with the spoil of Egypt. He opened the Red Sea before them and drowned their enemies behind them. He personally guided them with the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. They never had to sleep in the darkness they always had a night light, even out in the wilderness. God fed them each day with the miracle of Manna and made water fountain out of rocks in the desert to give them something to drink. God made sure nothing ever wore out, so they had no needs like those of the nations around them.
They should have been content. They should have been downright giddy with happiness; freedom, riches, food without labor, security. But here they are, in our text, complaining bitterly. Their complaints don't even make sense. They complain they have no food, and yet they also gripe about having to eat Manna. "We loathe this miserable food." Manna was a pleasant tasting, slightly sweet food, one that could apparently be made into bread or just eaten the way it was. But, familiarity breeds contempt, and, after all, these were people who would complain if they were hung with a new rope.
Not like us. You would never catch any one of us complaining! No sir! We live in the richest nation on earth. We are the people who consume the majority of the resources consumed each year, even though we are a small fraction of the world's population. We have abundant food, and it is clean and safe. We have a health system that is the envy of the entire world. People flock to our country to get our health care if they can afford it. And if you cannot afford it, our hospitals are required by law to serve you anyhow. We have the safest nation. The only thing we have to fear is one another our enemies cannot generally hurt us, and when they do, like 911, we pound the daylights out of them.
We never complain, right?? No one gripes about prices. No one complains about their doctor. No one grumbles about how the vast selections in our local grocery stores aren't quite as fresh or pretty or broad as they were before CoVid-19. No one ever hears any of us complaining, right? We often don't realize just how good we have it, particularly when we complain. We must seem to others to be the sort that would complain even if we were hung with a new rope!
How did God respond to the Children of Israel and their grumbling? In this case, He sent what the Bible describes as "fiery serpents." They may have been reddish or orange, or perhaps it burned when they bit. We don't know why they called them "fiery", but we do know that the bite was fatal swiftly fatal, although not instantly fatal. It was almost as if God had said, "If you want something to complain about, I'll give you something." Our text says that many people of Israel died.
Then God did something unique. When Moses interceded for the people, bringing their confession of sin to God in prayer (which was how God wanted them to do it back then), God told Moses to "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze that looked like the ones troubling Israel, and He put it on a tall pole that is what the word "standard" means in the text, "and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived."
What is so wonderful about this is that it is salvation by faith, pictured for us by the Children of Israel. You have to expect that there were those among them who said, or at least thought, that it was stupid to expect that just looking at the serpent on the pole would heal them. They were probably sure that nothing so simple would end the pain and stop the poison. Those who thought that way were what we would now call "casualties". They died, and we have late word that every single one of them was a Coronavirus victim.
But anyone who took God at His Word and looked at the serpent lived. All it took was trusting the Word of God enough to do what God had commanded. I imagine that there may have even been those who didn't actually trust God, but did what was commanded "just in case", and they lived, too, and learned to trust the promises of God even when they don't make good, rational sense.
Even more, think about this: there was a serpent on a pole like the serpent of old from the garden of Eden, nailed to the cross.
But Jesus was nailed to the cross, you say. That is true. Jesus "became sin for us, He who knew no sin of His own, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." Jesus became sin! He was all that evil through all our generations not personally, but He took it on Himself and carried it to the cross and nailed it there in His own body for us. It was on the cross that Jesus crushed the head of that Ancient Serpent. So, it was every bit as though the Serpent hung on the cross, just as the fiery serpents were hung on the pole, the standard, which Moses raised. And just as those who took God at His Word and trusted His promise and so looked at the serpent received the salvation they desired and lived, even so, he that believes and is baptized shall be saved.
When anyone looks at the cross of Jesus, trusting in what God has spoken, and all that God has promised on account of Jesus and His death and His Resurrection, that person is healed from the poison of sin, forgiven and restored, and given the power to live a holy life both here in time and there in eternity. Those who cannot or will not believe, are poisoned and die that second death we call "hell." It doesn't matter if they don't trust God, or can't believe it is something so simple, or don't want to have it given to them, but want to do something so they can hang their confidence on what they have done. If they do not believe, they die eternally. The other half of the verse above is, "and he that does not believe, shall be damned."
The problem of the Children of Israel was sin. Their wicked hearts led them to grumble, even in the face of the wonderful deeds and gifts of God. Death is the wages of sin. When they realized their sin, they confessed it, and they repented, and they asked for forgiveness. The pole of the serpent was their absolution. They heard, they looked, and they lived.
The problem when we grumble is the same problem wicked hearts and sin. The wages of sin is death, still today. The solution is the same for us as it was for them. We need to see our sin all of our grumbling against the goodness of God and what He has chosen for us as our path as his children. Our sin is bigger and deeper than grumbling, of course, but let's just focus on that. Our grumbling comes out of our flesh the part of us that does not know God, the part that was not put to death and raised to new life in our Baptism.
We need to confess our sin be honest enough to admit it, and that it is sin, to ourselves, and then confess it to God. Then we need to repent, turn away from the sin, and turn to God for forgiveness. And then we need to hear our absolution: your sins are forgiven. Jesus paid the price already and clothes you with His own righteousness. We look to the cross, and the empty tomb of Easter, and we see and hear our forgiveness.
And we are healed. Because your sins have been forgiven, your death has been turned into the door of life everlasting! You will not die, even though your body will, and your body shall one day rise from the grave to everlasting life, body, and soul reunited, with all the holy people who have trusted God and believed His promises. The poison of the serpent cannot destroy us as long as we look to the cross.
Then, we can live out our salvation right here and now. We can do that by resisting the temptation to grumble but give thanks to God instead. We should give thanks as openly and often as we have been tempted to grumble and complain against God and His gifts. We should give thanks because God is good, and we owe Him great thanksgivings. We should give thanks because we are always under His loving care. We should give thanks because we have so much to give thanks for and because we do not want to look like people who would complain if they were hung with a new rope.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)