You are driving along and approaching some railroad tracks. As you get closer, you see that the railroad crossing lights start to flash and the crossing gate is beginning to lower. When this happens, what is your reaction?
Now hopefully, your first reaction is not to push your foot down on the gas pedal. For the most part, train crossing accidents fall into two categories. A larger number that you would like to think are not in fact accidents at all. They are instead suicides as a person uses the train to take their own life. More frequently, it is simply a matter of a person trying to beat the train to the crossing. To do this successfully requires correct perceptual speed judgment of both the driver's own vehicle and the train. Accidents frequently happen because the driver underestimates the approaching train's speed. The reason for this is to be found in the way that the retinal image of our eye works and the fact that the person is viewing the train at an angle. And it’s a simple fact – when the driver misjudges and there is impact, the train always wins.
Now most likely your reaction when you get stopped at a railroad crossing for a train is different than mine. You probably view it as an inconvenience. Perhaps it makes you get a little impatient. On the other hand, getting stopped at a railroad crossing and seeing a train go by makes my day. I love it. I mean, after all, I use vacation time to go watch trains.
However, there is one scenario when I don’t feel that way. If you live on the west side of Marion and you are going to go to Ray Fosse Park for baseball and softball, or if you are going to go to the Marion Soccer Complex, you have to cross over the Union Pacific tracks. If I have left later than I should have in order to take one of the kids to a practice or game, the last thing I want to see is a 125 car coal train. The difficulty involved in being late changes things for me, and even I get impatient when I have to wait at the crossing.
In our Old Testament lesson this morning we hear that Israel became impatient on the way. And in this case too, it was because of difficulty. Our text takes place after Israel had rebelled against God and had refused to enter the promised land. As a result of this, God declared that those who were twenty years and older would not enter the land. Instead, Israel would have to wander in the wilderness for forty years. During that time the generation that had refused to enter the promised land would die off.
Our text begins by saying, “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way.” As I was preparing for this sermon, I became curious about the Hebrew verb that is translated as “became impatient.” It doesn’t occur all that many times in the Old Testament and when I looked at all the instances the thing that became apparent is that often it is associated with difficult circumstances. So Job in the midst of his suffering says, “As for me, is my complaint against man?
Why should I not be impatient?” Or as Delilah tried to learn the source of Sampson’s strength she nagged him with the question. We are told, “And when she pressed him hard with her words day after day, and urged him, his soul was vexed to death.”
The people of Israel became impatient on the way because things were not easy. Yet they weren’t just impatient. They also acted upon these feelings for we are told, “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.’”
Of course their statement ignored a couple of important facts. First, Yahweh had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt in response to their call for help. We hear in Exodus, “the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” They wanted to be rescued.
And second, they were wandering in the wilderness because of their own sin. God had brought them to the land of Canaan just as he said he would. He wanted to give the land to them but they refused to enter because they did not trust God in the face of the report brought back by the spies who had scouted it.
In addition they complained that there was no water, in spite of the fact that God had provided water for them in a miraculous fashion on multiple occasions – the most recent being in the previous chapter. And on top of this they complained about the manna – the bread of heaven – that God was providing to sustain them. In fact they said, “we loathe this worthless food.”
But then you are really no different from Israel. You complain about the hardships of living as a Christian in this world, and in so doing ignore the fact that God has saved you out of this world and made you a child of God. You complain about the hardships that you experience in life. And yet you have created so many of those hardships for yourself by disobeying God in the first place.
You become impatient on the way in this pilgrimage of life because of the difficulties, and like Israel your reaction is to ignore and even to denigrate the gifts that God provides. You forget about the water that God has provided in the past – the water of your baptism and what it means for your present. You look at the challenge of walking by faith when faced with cancer or mental illness and you question whether God can’t give you something more than just bread and wine on an altar. Or perhaps your actions say that you consider it inconsequential as you let weeks pass without coming to receive it.
Israel sinned against Yahweh in the wilderness. And he acted in judgment against them. We learn that God sent fiery serpents among the people who bit them and caused many to die. Eventually the people had to confess. 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.”
Moses prayed for the people and God responded, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” And then we learn that 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.
In our Old Testament lesson, Yahweh provides rescue through a bronze serpent lifted up on a pole. During his ministry, our Lord Jesus applied this event to himself. He indicated that it was a type – something in the Old Testament that pointed forward to a greater reality that God would carry out in Christ. 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 Son of God entered into our world in order to be lifted up on the cross. He came to bear our sins and die as the substitute who received God’s judgment in our place. Through Moses God declared that all who looked at the bronze serpent – all who believed God’s word – would be delivered from death. And now the word of the Gospel declares that all who look in faith towards the crucified Lord receive forgiveness and eternal life. They receive this because Jesus was lifted up on a cross and then taken down and laid in a tomb. But he did not remain in the tomb. Instead he burst through death and defeated it forever.
Like the Israelites, we too are journeying on the way. We are on this pilgrimage of life. For us too the way is difficult. Some of this is caused by the fact that we live in a fallen world. Some of it we cause for ourselves because of our own sinful decisions. Yet because Jesus, like the bronze serpent, was lifted up we now have forgiveness and life.
God has provided the means by which he gives this forgiveness and life to us as he sustains us on the way. And we see in our text the model and pattern by which he works. In our text God attaches his promise to the located means of the bronze serpent on a pole. He uses something that is located in the midst of the people. They are told what he is using and where it is found. And through faith in God’s promise the people receive rescue and life.
God has not changed the way he does things. He provided the serpent on a pole as the located means of his rescue. In so doing he pointed forward to the located means of the flesh of incarnate Son of God who was nailed to the cross and rose from the dead. And now God works through the located means of water, and bread and wine. Like the bronze serpent on the pole, God takes these things and adds his promise to them. He adds his word to them so that they become the means of his forgiveness and salvation.
In this sermon I have repeatedly drawn out similarities between Israel in the text and our life as Christians today. But there is one very important difference. The people of Israel were on the way. But the majority of them would never reach the goal. They would never enter the promised land because of their rebellion.
You are on the way too in this pilgrimage of life. But in your case, you know with certainty that you will enter the promised land of resurrection and the new creation. You know it for sure because Jesus has already entered for you. As those who have been baptized into his death, you know that you have died with Christ. You also know that you will share in his resurrection.
So like the Israelites in our text, let us look in faith at the bronze serpent on the pole. Let us look at Jesus who was lifted upon the cross in order to give us forgiveness and eternal life. Let us look in faith at the water of our baptism, for their your sin was forgiven and you have the assurance that you too will be raise. And let us look in faith at the bread and wine of the Sacrament of the Altar. Through this located means Christ gives us his true body and blood given and shed for us. He give us forgiveness of sins and life. Through this food God sustains us on the way as we journey towards the promised land.