Recently I learned about one place that I am never, ever, going to visit. The island Queimada Grande is located twenty one miles off the coast of Brazil. Partially covered by rain forest it sounds like a great place to get away from it all in a tropical climate where you can see the many migrating birds.
It does … until you learn that the nickname for the place is “Snake Island.” The island is home to nearly four thousand golden lancehead vipers which means that there is about one snake for every six square yards on the island. The island is actually the only place in the world where you can find the golden lancehead – which is a good thing because it has a powerful venom that is not only lethal but also actually melts human flesh. The large snake population is sustained by the migrating birds that stop there to rest. The island is so dangerous because of the snakes that no human being lives there and the Brazilian Navy has closed the island to the public.
The thought of a place that is crawling with deadly snakes probably creeps most of us out. And that is what our Old Testament lesson today describes. Yet in this case it was not an island that can be avoided altogether. Instead, Yahweh sent the snakes into the midst of his faithless, complaining people.
Our text finds Israel after they had refused to enter into the promised land. Yahweh had declared that they would now wander for forty years and those twenty years old and above would never enter the land. They would die in the wilderness. Aaron and Miriam had died, and the majority of the people faced the prospect of living as nomads in the wilderness waiting to die during the course of forty years.
The nation of Edom was descended from Esau, the brother of Jacob. Esau sold his birthright to his brother, and then was also swindled out of the blessing by him. There was a long history of hostility by the Edomites toward Israel and we see it here already in the book of Numbers. Just before our text, Edom had refused to allow the Israelites to pass through their land. It is for this reason we learn: “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom.”
We are told: “And the people became impatient on the way.” Many of them, because of their own disobedience, were on a journey to nowhere. They were going to die in the wilderness during the course of forty years. They became impatient on the way. But it wasn’t just that they had these feelings. The also chose to act upon them. The people spoke against God and against Moses saying, “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 on the way. Does that sound familiar? We get impatient as we travel through life. We know how things should be going. Yet despite our plans and our schedule, things are not playing out as we expect. We haven’t gotten the job we planned on getting. We are not living in the place where we planned on living. We are not married in the way we had planned. When things don’t go as we planned – as we want – we get impatient, and in our heart we speak against God. We blame God. After all, he is the One who is not working things out as he should.
Or we complain about the things God has given us, because they just aren’t good enough. Our translation has, “For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” However, in Hebrew the word translated as “food” is actually “bread.” Literally, the people say, “For there is no bread and no water, and we loathe this worthless bread.” On the one hand the people say that they have no bread. And then they turn around and complain about the bread they are receiving. They complain about the manna – the bread from heaven. We too complain about what we have and about we don’t have. We are not satisfied with the many blessings God has given to us and in so doing we despise the gifts he gives.
Israel sinned against God in this way. And so God sent judgment against them. We learn: “Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” Snakes, we are told, aren’t looking to hurt you. They are shy and defensive. They are not looking for a confrontation. Except apparently this was a different situation because Yahweh had sent the snakes against Israel. He sent the snakes with a purpose, and they carried out their role as they bit the Israelites and caused death.
The dramatic and unusual circumstances left no question about who was behind the snakes, or why he had sent them. The snakes were an instrument of God’s law confronting the people with their sin. And so 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."
We have a tendency to think about sin as something that is abstract. After all, we often define sin as the breaking of God’s law. The law is the abstract standard, and if you do something against that law then you have committed a sin which is itself also an abstract “thing.”
But the people of Israel get it exactly right when they say, “we have sinned for we have spoken against God.” When David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband Uriah killed, he confessed in Psalm 51, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” No matter what it is; no matter how it is committed, our every sin is a sin against God. It is an affront to the holy God. It is a rejection of him.
The people confessed this to Moses. Then we learn in our text, “So Moses prayed for the people.” Moses interceded for them. He approached God on their behalf. While we often think about Moses in negative terms as “the law giver” and his name even becomes synonymous with “Law,” it is important to recognize that a key part of his ministry was intercession on behalf of the people. Again and again, when the people sin, he speaks on their behalf and even holds upon God’s nature and promises before God himself as he advocates for them.
This coming Thursday we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord. We rejoice in our Lord’s exaltation – and I know many of will be here to join in that celebration. Jesus Christ has been exalted and is now seated at the right hand of God. The intercessory ministry of Moses pointed forward and finds its fulfillment in what Jesus now does for us. The apostle Paul told the Romans, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died--more than that, who was raised--who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”
The instruction God gives to Moses in our text directs us to the reason Jesus can now intercede for us. God told Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And as God promised, if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
God attached his promise to the located means of a bronze serpent on a pole. He did it because the serpent on the pole was a type that has now found its fulfillment in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Our Lord said to Nicodemus, “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.”
Jesus was lifted up on the cross because your sin is always against God. It is not just a little “rule breaking.” It is a direct offense to the holy Creator of the cosmos. God is just. And for God to be true to himself this sinful offense cannot be ignored. Instead it must be judged, condemned and punished. God did this. But because he loves you and desired to save you, he sent his Son into the flesh to be lifted up on the cross. Jesus Christ took your sin as his own, even though he had no sin. He received God’s wrath and judgment that you deserved. The wages of your sin resulted in Jesus’ death. But then God turned everything upside down as death itself was defeated when he raised Jesus from the dead.
Moses told the Israelites to look at the bronze serpent in order to live. Jesus says that all who look at him in faith will have eternal life. We believe and trust in Jesus Christ as our crucified and risen Lord. And because you do, you have the forgiveness for all sins, and you have life.
In our text, God attaches his promise to something in the midst of his people. He promises that all who look at the serpent on the bronze pole will live. The serpent on the pole became the located means God used to provide deliverance.
This use of located means – of attaching his promise to things in our midst – is something God continues to do for us today. We see it in the sacraments. Writing about Holy Baptism in the Large Catechism, Martin Luther said that “faith must have something to believe – something to which it may cling and upon which it may stand. Thus faith clings to the water and believes it to be baptism, in which there is sheer salvation and life, not through the water, as we have sufficiently stated, but through its incorporation with God’s Word and ordinance and the joining of his name to it. When I believe this, what else is it but believing in God as the one who has bestowed and implanted his Word in baptism and has offered us this external thing within which we can grasp this treasure?”
We come to church each Sunday as people who must say that we have sinned against the Lord. We confess and acknowledge our sin. But we come here in the knowledge that Jesus Christ has attached is word and promise to bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar. He has said that it is his true body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Believing his word we eat and drink. And we know that here he gives us forgiveness and salvation.