High and Lifted Up

Lent 4 B, March 15, 2015
Rev. Brian Henderson
Pastor-Trinity Lutheran Church,
San Diego, CA
http://www.tlcsd.org

Numbers 21:4–9

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The song that you just heard played by the 70’s Rock group Fleetwood Mac, is titled “Go Your Own Way” and it will be the mental and audio hook that we can hang this message on.  And it’s fairly appropriate for our message today, because after all, isn’t that the very thing that brings trouble and problems into our lives; when we leave God’s way and insist on doing things our way?

When I grew up in the small town of Pewaukee, Wisconsin we had a single “A” baseball team that competed in the Land O Lakes league.  We followed that team as closely as we did the Milwaukee Braves and latter the Brewers.  I remember that in times when our star pitcher was in a slump and was consistently allowing too many hits, it was said he was “snake-bitten.”  When the team lost too many games in a matter of a few weeks, they too were said to be snake-bitten.  What we meant by that was it was as if a bad luck snake had jumped up and bit them, thus causing a winning pitcher or a winning team to become losers, and smash all of our hopes and dreams for that season.  But it was during this snake bitten portion of the season, that we discovered who the real fans were.  While others complained and checked out, we the faithful attended every game and never gave up hope.  Even when the season ended in the bitterness of defeat, we reminded each other that there was always next year!

I’ll bet that if you could have been there with the Israelites as they wandered the last 40 years in the desert, on a trip that should have lasted only 40 days, if you were to ask them what happened; they would have told you that they too were snake-bitten!  They would have told you that although, in the past, when it appeared that their luck ran out, each time they were able to persevere.  But now, it was certain that not only did Moses let them down, so did God!

It was God and Moses who led their grandparents out of Egypt with the promise that they were going to the “Promise Land” that was waiting for them somewhere in the area of Palestine.  I can hear it now, “So here we are;  where’s that Promise Land, huh?!  Our lucks run out; we have been snake-bitten; led into this desert simply to die!  The only thing that’s been sustaining us all these years is our hope and this worthless, tasteless food; this manna that Moses has been forcing us to eat!  But now here we are, taking another long detour away from what we were told is our Promise Land.  God has abandoned us, and only Moses and a few of his worthless brainwashed lackeys still believe we’ll get there!”

Israel had fallen into the same trap that many of us fall into even today; they developed a grumbling spirit.

In the middle of their disappointment with God, because He didn’t make things go the way that they wanted or expected, they became impatient with Him and began to judge both His love for them and His sincerity.  In other words, they were throwing a pity party, and the featured entertainment at the party was a collective fit!  And from God’s perspective, fit throwing is really rebellion, and we all know that God does not deal with rebellion kindly!

Scripture is loaded with examples that prove that God will not tolerate rebellion within the ranks of his saints.  One thing is certain, when you rebel against God, He will act.  Sometimes He acts right away and sometimes He waits for just the right moment, but when He does act you know exactly what is going on.  And now in our Old Testament lesson, we see God acting.  He sends a bunch of snakes into the camp of the Israelites as a way of punishing their grumbling spirit and their open rebellion.  And what do you know… the Israelites really have been “Snake-bitten!”

By sending those snakes into their camp, God did a few things to bring those disobedient people back to a right relationship of faith in their God.  First, He showed His justified anger against a group of thankless sinners, who like their grandparents, underestimated and even rejected His means of grace that had sustained them all those 40 years.  Next, He wanted to show them that once again, it was their own rebellious action that caused them to turn a 40 day trip into a 40 year trip.  And finally, God delivered those poisonous snakes into their camp as a way of showing to them, both their sin and the consequence of that sin; the sin of rebelling against Him and rejecting His means of grace; His Word of promise that had sustained them all of these years.

So what does all of this have to do with us today?  Some of you, who are already dealing with the consequence of sin in your life already know where this is going; its going right back to us!

We can all learn from the mistakes of our forefathers.  Now some might declare that these were Jews and not our forefathers.  Oh, but once again God disagrees; you see we are all part of the same race.

Did you read in the news about the mixed race couple who had twins? One child was white in appearance, with red hair even, and the other was obviously black.  They are twins mind you; they have the same parents.  So what are we to make of this?  Well simply the fact that there is really, in God’s eyes only one race… the fallen, human, sinful race.  We are all exactly the same in God’s eyes; we are sinful and unclean.  We all need the same saving God!

Like the Israelites before us, we too want to take the matters of our lives into our own hands.  We too want to decide when enough is enough and boldly declare by our actions that God can’t be trusted.  We too allow God’s Word and our trust in His Word to become of less and less importance in our lives.  We too neglect our times of prayer and intimate talks with God, until they eventually become almost non-existent.  We too, neglect His means of grace, His preached Word and His Holy Supper, until like the Israelites of old, we see them as useless and tasteless food.  And so what happens?  We wander off and go our own way.  We go out looking for something better and more meaningful, and we reject God’s own means of grace as being old, worn out relics of a church that no longer meet our needs.

So now you see how each of us have entered into this old story.  Just like the Israelites, we too become tired of waiting on God and trusting in His promises of eternal life and glory in paradise; like the Israelites we want the promised land and the glory right now!

Now let’s go back to those snakes; we heard that God sent them as a tool in order to bring His children back to a right relationship centered in faith; faith in the promise of His Word.  His ultimate goal was to drive His children into a condition of repentance and save them.  God did not want to condemn them; He wanted to SAVE THEM!

Even today, God still uses adversity and tough times to turn our sinful hearts back to Him.  You know the old saying, “There are no atheists in the foxholes of war.”

I remember after the September 11th attack of 2001, how full our churches were.  This lasted for a couple of months, and then slowly but surely, attendance began to drop.  And after the one year anniversary, regular attendance had fallen back to and even below what it was before that fateful day.

But we are the same; we too seem to be drawn to church when times are the toughest in our lives, never realizing that they were tough because we had drifted away from God and His means of saving us.  God’s solution then for the rebellious Israelites, is still the solution for us who are by nature sinful and rebellious.

Those who looked upon the bronze snake then, not as a representation of God but as a symbol of His promise and protection were saved!  Those who were in the very throughs of death and judgment were instead given life and pardon for their sins.  It was their faith in God that saved them; faith grown from the regular use of His Word, which assured them that God was still with them, guiding them, protecting them, and loving them.

God is always the same; there’s no shadow of change in Him.  Out of the same love and forgiveness He showed to the Israelites then, He speaks to us today.  Out of that same love, God has provided a solution for us and our own sinful rebellion as well.  God sent His only begotten Son Jesus Christ into this sinful world of snake-bitten people, people dying of the devils venom of fiery disobedience to be high and lifted up on a different kind of pole.

In today’s gospel lesson (John 3:14-21) we hear Jesus own Words to Nicodemus describe why He has come to us as one of us, listen: “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.” [Vs. 14, 15]

Jesus was lifted up upon the cross of death to suffer the punishment, the condemnation, the eternal death that each of us should have received on account of our own rebellion.  We, who have been snake-bitten by that ancient serpent, the devil, and continue to be snake-bitten and bite others with our own sinfulness are now saved if we will but look!

It was the simple act of the snake-bitten people looking upon the bronze serpent on a pole that saved them; it brought life to a bunch of dying rebels who were healed and saved.  They would make it all the way into the Promised Land, where they would be safe.  They turned from their own sinful ways and followed God’s way.

In the same way but in an eternal, spiritual way, the simple act of looking up at Jesus high and lifted up, upon the cross of death for our sins, we too who are dying from sin are healed and live.  In Christ Jesus, through faith in His promise to forgive us of all of our sins, we are saved by His death, and given the promise of eternal life in a resurrected body, as we arrive home in our own Promised Land… Paradise.

The grumbling, disobedient Israelites repented of their sins; they repented of a spirit that wants to go its own way and they received forgiveness and life.  And we as well this morning have been led by God’s Word to recognize our own sin; our own sinful desire to go our own way.  Now led by God’s Spirit, we too repent and return to our baptismal condition where every day we are led to put to death our disobedience and live in our new forgiven nature of faith.

Now I know that the miraculous work of God both in the bronze serpent being lifted up in the desert long ago and Jesus being lifted up on His blessed cross just doesn’t make sense to some of our neighbors and friends.  But isn’t that the point that is being made here?  You see, without faith nothing written in scripture or declared from this pulpit makes a lick of sense, because it is all dependent upon God and not sinful men.

Jesus forgives your sins and gives you eternal life completely by grace through faith in God’s faithfulness to do what He says He will do.  That is the summation of our Christian walk.  So look to the cross dear saints and see Jesus high and lifted up.  Lifted up first upon the cross and then carried to the tomb.  And then see that tomb just three days latter empty and see that Jesus lives again.  And then by faith, come to this place often to be spiritually fed by God’s means of grace so that you will always see Jesus high and lifted up, ascended and reigning with the Father in glory.  Where He is now, their you shall also one day join Him on the day of the resurrection in all of His glory in paradise.  AMEN!

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