In January and February, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission conducted the “2013 Python Challenge.” This event licensed individuals to come into the southern end of Florida in the area around the Everglades in order to attempt to find and kill python snakes. Prizes were given for the most snakes and the largest snake killed. The weather was apparently not conducive to the event since it made the snakes more difficult to find. Yet in spite of this fact, those involved in the Python Challenge killed sixty eight snakes.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission took this unique step because south Florida has a problem – large constrictor snakes have taken up residence there; they are breeding; and they are thriving. The problem first came to light during the 1990’s, and in the years since then it has become clear that this area of Florida has a potential ecological disaster on its hands.
Various kinds of constrictor snakes such as Burmese pythons, African pythons and Boa constrictors are now breeding in south Florida. The snakes entered into the wild when they accidentally escaped or when they were intentionally released by pet owners who decided they no longer wanted to care for the snakes which can become between fifteen and twenty feet long. The snakes found the area around the Everglades to be an ideal setting to live.
The problem is that in south Florida these snakes have no predators. Instead, they have established themselves at the top of the food chain and have begun to devastate local wildlife. Even the Florida alligator – a dangerous predator to say the least – is not immune from the threat. This fact was driven home a number of years ago by the shocking photo of an alligator that had been killed by a python, which in turn died while trying to consume the alligator.
The snakes show up in the yards of homes and eat pets like dogs and cats. And while it is true that pythons kill their victims by constricting, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that they strike and take hold of their victims using a mouth full of sharp teeth. The population has established itself – scientists estimate that there may be tens of thousands of pythons living in south Florida. The fear is that they may migrate further north in the state and devastate the indigenous wildlife.
In our text this morning from Numbers 21, Israel also faces a snake problem. However these are not constrictor snakes, but instead apparently some kind of venomous snake that God had sent upon the Israelites as punishment for their sin. When they experience God’s punishment the Israelites confess their sin and God attaches his promise to a bronze serpent on a pole. In this event we see foreshadowed the death of Jesus Christ on the cross for us and the Means of Grace by which God delivers forgiveness to us today.
Our text takes place during Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness. We are told, “And the people became impatient on the way. 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.’” In response God sent fiery serpents among the people who bit the people and caused many to die.
We learn that the people become impatient. They start to speak against God and against Moses, and their specific complaint is that they have been brought into the wilderness to die. After all, there is no bread and no water, and they loathe the worthless food they are receiving.
Now in order to evaluate their complaint, it is necessary to take a step back. God had, of course, rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt in the Exodus. As we heard in the reading at the Vigil of Easter, when trapped between the Red Sea and he onrushing Egyptian army they had complained to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
Of course God then rescued Israel by bringing them through the Red Sea on dry ground. The large group journeyed in the wilderness, and it is not surprising that there were issues about water and food. They ran out of water, and then the only water they found was bitter. The people grumbled against Moses, and God had Moses throw a log into the water so that it became drinkable. Again they ran out water and could find no more. They grumbled against Moses, and this time God had Moses strike a stone and water came out. And then yet again they ran out of water, and again God provided. Though told to speak to the stone, in frustration Moses struck it with his staff and water came out.
The complaints about water were nothing new … and neither were complaints about a lack of food. In the chapter right after the exodus the people say, “Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” And so God provided manna – the bread from heaven, and also quail in order to feed the people.
The rabble that was among the people later incited the nation to complain, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” And so God gave them quail again.
When Israel arrived at the promised land, they did not believe and trust in God. They refused to enter, and so God condemned them to wander in the wilderness for forty years. It is during this time that our text takes place and we learn, “And the people became impatient on the way. 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 people became impatient. They complained about the lack of water – ignoring how God had provided water for them in the past. And they complained about the food. They said, “For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Israel complained about the manna – the bread from heaven. Literally, the Hebrew says that “there is no bread” and “we loathe this worthless bread.” It’s not that God wasn’t providing. Instead, Israel was not satisfied with the bread – the manna that God was giving to them.
And doesn’t that continue to describe us, the spiritual descendants of Israel? Don’t we become impatient on the way? As we live in the pilgrimage of the Christian life, don’t we complain about the daily bread that God is giving to us? Oh, the issue is not about whether we have sustenance and necessities of life. Instead, we complain because we don’t think we have enough of the things of this world. We don’t think that what we have is good enough. After all, we look around and see people who have more and who have better and we covet what they have.
And there is more to it than that. There are times when we are not satisfied with the manna, the bread from heaven that we receive. After all, God only gives us the Word of Scripture. He only gives us sermons that his pastor proclaims to us. He only gives us a little dry wafer of bread and a sip of wine. That is all he gives us to sustain us on the way.
When Israel complained yet again against what God was doing for them, God sent deadly serpents into their midst. And as the people were bitten and were dying they 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.”
The people confessed their sin. They repented. They asked Moses to intercede for them. 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.
Like the people of Israel, we must confess. We must confess that we have sinned by coveting and unthankfulness. We must confess that we have sinned by taking his Means of Grace for granted. And when we do – when we repent – the Holy Spirit directs our attention to Jesus Christ lifted up on the cross. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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.”
In faith and trust we look at Jesus Christ lifted up on the cross, dying as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There we see that God has worked the forgiveness of these and every other sin. And in Christ’s resurrection from the dead on Easter we learn that has also defeated the ultimate result of sin, namely, death. When we believe in Jesus Christ the crucified and risen One, we do indeed have eternal life.
In our text, God adds his promise to the bronze serpent when he says, “everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” And this leads us to recognize that God continues to do this very thing. He adds his promise of forgiveness to water, and bread and wine. He gives us these located means in our midst and says that through them he gives us forgiveness and life. And like the bronze serpent on the pole in our text, they do just that. When faith takes hold of the promise attached to the water of Holy Baptism, and the bread and wine of the Sacrament of the Altar, we receive the forgiveness of sins and strength for the life of faith. We receive life that will have no end.
Again and again our Lord gives to us in this way. Again and again he gives us forgiveness and life in Christ. And because this is so, he leads us then to forgive others. As the Lord sustains us in the life of faith, in faith we then seek to support and assist those around us – our children; our parents; our neighbor, and our co-worker. For the forgiveness and life received from the Lord are not unfruitful, but instead they cause us to forgive and love one another.
In our text today, the people have to say, “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.” They ask for forgiveness and rescue, and God attaches his promise to the bronze serpent on a pole in order to give it to them. Like the serpent lifted up by Moses in the wilderness, Jesus Christ was lifted up on the cross in order to provide forgiveness and rescue to us. And through the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper our Lord continues to attach his forgiving promise to located means in our midst in order to give this forgiveness and life to us.