Sunday, May 17, 2020

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter - Rogate - Num 21:4-9

                                                                                                Easter 6
                                                                                                Num 21:4-9

            Do you remember March 21?  It’s understandable if you don’t.  It was, after all, an eternity ago.  On that day Illinois Governor Prizker’s stay at home order went into effect.  It began on that day and was set to go through April 7.  At that time, the nation lived in fear that scenes we had viewed from Italy would play out here.
            We had learned that Covid-19 was extremely contagious. We knew that it compromised the respiratory system of its victims.  There were models that predicted hundreds of thousands of deaths. And the great fear was that the virus would overwhelm the critical care infrastructure.  There are only so many ICU beds, and only so many respirators.  A massive rise in the need for these would swamp the system and force terrible decisions about who would live and who would die.
            We were told that there was a need to “flatten the curve” – to contain the spread of the virus and the rate at which it was infecting people so that the critical care system would not be overwhelmed.  Based on everything we knew at the time, it made sense.  Once things had been explained in this way, I think most people were willing to accept that this temporary inconvenience in life was a necessary adjustment.
            The problem is that it is no longer March 21 or April 7.  It’s May 17.  We’ve been living with these restrictions for two months now. Some things have been loosened a little – at least we are now allowed to gather as ten people in church. Some things are even more restrictive – we all now have to wear masks when we go in contained public areas.
            On March 21 were told it was about “flattening the curve.”  But in the governor’s announcement of the plan to “open up” Illinois, we have learned now that the requirements for the lifting of restrictions – including the masks that make us all look so silly – is a vaccine or treatment for the virus. The goal seems to be now that we live with restrictions until no can die from Covid-19. And that means we really don’t know when this will come to an end.
            As a result of this, many people are just fed up with the whole thing. We are tired of living this way. The economic devastation mounts by the day.  Our understanding of the virus has grown, and while there is much that is no yet understood, it has become clear that the virus is not as deadly as initial models predicted.  We’ve learned that those who are most at risk of death live in nursing homes and care facilities.  And there is growing body of scientists – legitimate experts - who argue that the lock down approach is in fact counterproductive at this point.  There is rising frustration and anger about the fact that we are being forced to live this way and have no say in the matter.
            In our Old Testament lesson this morning, there is also frustration and anger.  The Israelites too were living in the midst of challenging circumstances and they were tired of it.  The difference is that while in our situation there is the possibility of disagreement about the best course of action to take, in the case of Israel there was no room for varied opinions.  To complain and grumble about how things were being handled was to complain against Yahweh himself. It was to sin against God.
            Our text begins by telling us, “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.”  Yahweh had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand.  He had sent nine devastating plagues on the Egyptians. And in the tenth plague, the Passover, he had killed the first born of the Egyptians while sparing the Israelites.  Pharaoh had sent them out of the land, only to change his mind and send the Egyptian army after them.  At the Red Sea God had dramatically saved Israel as they walked through the sea on dry ground, while the water crashed back in and drowned the Egyptians.
            At Mt. Sinai, Yahweh had entered into a covenant with Israel.  He had taken them as his choice possession and given them the Torah to live in this covenant.  He had brought them to the border of Canaan – the land flowing with milk and honey he had promised to give them.  Yet there they had rebelled against God. They had refused to enter Canaan, and so God said that they would wander in the wilderness for forty years.  All those twenty years and older would die during that time and would never enter the promised land.
            Feeding a huge group of people on the move takes a feat of logistics.  But Yahweh had no problem doing so.  He fed the people with manna, a substance they gathered from the ground each morning except the Sabbath. And he sent quail upon the camp to give them meat.
            In spite of this we learn in our text: “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.’”  Now where do you begin in analyzing this statement?  There are three facts that the Israelites conveniently ignored.  First, Yahweh had freed them from slavery in Egypt when he brought them out. Second, they were wandering in the wilderness because they had rebelled against God when he wanted to bring them into the promised land.  And third, God was providing them with food, and also with water. They lacked for nothing to keep them alive.
            Like the Israelites, we sometimes complain about the circumstances of life. We blame God for the difficulties he has allowed.  Yet, like the Israelites, we too conveniently ignore that often it is our own actions that have caused the circumstances in the first place.  God has given us the Ten Commandments because they describe how he has ordered his world to work.  If you try to do things your own way – if you ignore his ordering – the outcome is predictable. Things will not turn out well.  You will hurt yourself.  You will hurt others.  And you have don’t get to blame God when it was you who rejected his direction; when it was you who sinned.
            Or like the Israelites we find that God is providing, but he isn’t providing according to the standards we think he should.  His provision just doesn’t measure up to what we expect. An you know what? God doesn’t care.  He has promised you food and clothing and nothing else.  He has promised you daily bread, not filet mignon.  And our grumbling and complaining; our coveting what others have because they have it “better” is sin against God.
            The people had spoken against God and Moses. And we learn in our text that God responded by punishing the people.  He sent fiery serpents among them, and they bit the people, so that many died.  The people knew that they had brought this upon themselves. 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.”
            So Moses prayed for the people. And in this action we see one of several ways that Moses is an Old Testament figure who points to the fulfillment found in Jesus Christ. St. 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 exalted Lord Jesus – whose ascension we will celebrate this week – is at the God the Father’s right hand and intercedes for us.  He speaks on our behalf, and the next event in our text reveals why his words have force – why they are honored by the Father.
            Yahweh said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 
Moses did so – he made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And just as God had promised, if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
            Jesus tells us that this bronze serpent was a type of his own cross.  It was something in the Old Testament that pointed forward to how Jesus Christ would win forgiveness for us.  Jesus told Nicodemus in John chapter 3, “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 in order to win forgiveness for us by his sacrificial death.
            Yet a death that ended in death would not be a source of hope for us. And so on the third day – on Easter – God raised Jesus from the dead.  He vindicated Jesus and his sacrifice.  He showed us that all who believe in Jesus have forgiveness and eternal life because Jesus lives.  He has defeated death for us.  We already enjoy eternal life with God that death cannot end. And Jesus will give us a share in his resurrection on the Last Day when he returns in glory and raises our bodies.
            In our text God says, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”  God attaches his promise to an object – to something right there in the midst of the people.  He says, “everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”
            We see here that God works in a sacramental way – he works through located means.  Because we are physical people who lead a bodily existence, he identifies things in our midst that he uses – means whereby his gives forgiveness.  He attaches his promise to these things that are located in our midst.  We do not have to wonder about where God is present giving us forgiveness.  He has given us the object for our faith, because as Luther reminds us, faith needs something to believe in.
            That is what Christ has given us in the Sacrament of the Altar, and that is one of the main reasons have been so eager to return to services at church – to return to the Divine Service.  Here Jesus has added his word of promise to bread and wine.  He had told you that this bread is his body given for you; that this wine is his blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.  Faith receives something tangible to believe in, because Jesus is still the incarnate Lord who is true God and true man.  He deals with us as people who are body and soul. And in so doing he shows what awaits us for our Lord has said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
            Forgiven and fed in this way, the Holy Spirit then leads and strengthens us to receive our Lord’s other gifts with thanksgiving.  We receive our daily bread as a gift from God, and seek to assist others with their needs. We give thanks for the blessings God gives to us – blessings that support our body and life.  We live as those who trust God’s promise of forgiveness and eternal life because Jesus who was lifted up on the cross has risen from the dead.     

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