Amy will tell you that I am not in any way a picky eater. As long as you don’t make lima beans – the one food I absolutely detest – I’m fine. Now too be sure, there are some things that I like more than others. But I am perfectly content to eat whatever we have for dinner. I am certainly not going to complain or express any kind of objections about what is served.
There are two reasons for this. First, I am content to eat many different things. And second, I’m not stupid. I may be the grill master at the Surburg house, and I help out in little ways like cutting up strawberries for dinner or other things. But at the end of the day, Amy is the cook in our house. She does the shopping and makes the food, aided by us as we are able.
I greatly appreciate all the work that she does, and I am certainly not going to complain. That would be unappreciative … and very unwise.
In the Old Testament lesson for today, the Israelites complain about what’s for dinner. But since it is God who is directly providing them with food, to complain about dinner is to speak against God. It is to sin by rejecting God and his gifts. God acts in judgment against them, and after their repentance, God provides deliverance in their midst – deliverance that points us to the great deliverance that he has given to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
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.” The people became impatient on the way. Doesn’t that sound like us? As God leads us through the pilgrimage of this life, we want things on our time table.
We know how we want things, and we want it now. And yet the Psalms are filled with the instruction and encouragement to wait on the Lord. Psalm twenty seven ends by saying, “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” God’s way and God’s timing often do not match ours. And you know who is right? God is. We need to trust in God’s love and care, and know that his way and timing is best. He may take things in different directions than we expected. He may be preparing us for what is ahead. He may be acting to draw us closer to himself. But his will and way for us is always one of steadfast love.
We learn further that not only did the Israelites become impatient, they spoke against God and Moses as they said, “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 this statement is in itself, contradictory. Notice how after saying there is no food – or bread as the Hebrew says literally, they then go on to say that they loathe this “worthless food” – once again using the Hebrew word for bread.
We heard in a previous Old Testament lesson from Exodus chapter sixteen that Yahweh was providing them with bread from heaven – with manna. He was also sending them quail in the evening for meat. Now maybe one could say there was a lack of variety, but certainly they were not without food. God was providing them with all the food they needed.
It might seem that a lack of water could be an actual problem. But the fact of the matter is that in the previous chapter, God had just given them water from a rock. And this was indeed the second time he had done this during their journey. So there couldn’t possibly be any question about God’s ability to meet their need for water.
No, what Israel was complaining about was that they were not satisfied with the way God was providing for them. They said it wasn’t good enough. Yes there was bread – bread from heaven – but as far as they were concerned this was worthless bread.
This temptation is always present in our lives too. Jesus teaches us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “give us this day our daily bread.” God has promised to provide us with daily bread – with what we need to sustain this life. But we want more. We want it better than that. We look around at what others have, and they sure seem to have it better than we do. And so we covet what others have. We resent God for not giving us those things. We take for granted the immense blessings God has given to us – and remember, there are billions of people in the world who would trade places with you in a heartbeat.
Our text states that when the Israelites made this statement, they spoke against God. This is an important reminder for us. Sin is not just the fact that we have done something that breaks some objective standard we call the Law. Since it is God’s Law – since it is the way God has said life is to work – sin is always committed against God. To sin is to reject God.
The Israelites spoke against God. They sinned against God. God is the just and holy God who punishes sin. In this case he did it immediately. We learn that Yahweh sent fiery serpents among the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died. God’s judgment against sinners is not something that the world wants to admit. Some Christians don’t even want to talk about the wrath of God against sinners. But Scripture is very clear on this point. God punishes sinners. God judges sinners. God damns sinners who do not repent.
Israel did repent. We learn that “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.’” The people confessed their sin. They asked Moses to pray for them – or as the Hebrew more literally means, to intercede for them.
Moses did and Yahweh told him, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” Moses carried out God’s instruction as he made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. God attached his promise to the bronze serpent on the pole, that everyone who was bitten and looked at it would live. And God was true to his word. Those who were bitten and listened to God’s promise – who believed God’s promise – looked at the bronze serpent on the pole and lived.
Israel sinned, and God sent judgement against them. We have already described how we see our own sin reflected in what Israel does in our text. When the Israelites repented and confessed their sin, God provided deliverance as he had Moses raise up a bronze serpent on a pole.
Our Lord Jesus teaches us that the bronze serpent raised up on a pole was a type – it was something in the Old Testament that pointed forward to the salvation that God would work in Christ. 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.”
Jesus was lifted up on the cross in order to rescue us from the eternal death of our sins. Our Lord said during Holy Week, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Then John adds, “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.”
Jesus Christ died on the cross to rescue us from sin and death. When he compared himself to the serpent on the pole he said, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” But merely being lifted up on the cross in death could not bring us life. Our Lord said, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
Lifted up on a cross in death, Jesus was buried in a tomb. Yet on Easter, he took up his life again as he rose from the dead. Our Lord defeated death by his resurrection. He is as John says in Revelation, “the firstborn of the dead.” His resurrection means that we have life with God now, and that we will experience resurrection life when Christ returns on the Last Day and raises our bodies.
For the Israelites who were bitten by the serpents, they had to have faith in God’s promise that he had attached to the bronze serpent on the pole – they had to look at it. For us to receive the eternal life that Jesus Christ describes, we must have faith in him – faith in our crucified and risen Lord who has carried out the Father’s saving will. We must believe and trust in Christ.
In order to give us the forgiveness that Jesus has won, God works in the same ways that he did with Israel. He attaches his promise to located means in our midst. He does so because we are bodily creatures who live in this world. He has attached the promise of his word to water in Holy Baptism, and to bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar. He places these means in our midst to which we look in faith.
We have been born again of water and Spirit in baptism, and our sins have been washed away. We receive the true body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament, and through this Jesus gives us forgiveness and life. Through these means – these Means of Grace – we receive the salvation that Jesus has won for us. Like the serpent on the pole, God gives us something towards which we look in faith. For to have faith in God’s promise about them is to receive Jesus and all that he has done for us.
Risen from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand in the ascension that we will celebrate on Thursday evening – you are planning on being here, right? – Jesus is the fulfillment of Moses in our text. We learn that the people confessed their sin, and asked Moses to intercede for them with God. John tells us in his first letter, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” The One who was lifted up on the cross as the sacrifice for our sins, is now the risen and ascended Lord who intercedes for us – who speaks on our behalf. He declares that we are forgiven because he carried out the Father’s will by dying on the cross and rising from the dead.
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.” Our Lord loved us by giving himself into death in the suffering of the cross. He loved us by taking up his life again on Easter and giving us the assurance of eternal life and resurrection on the Last Day.
We continue to receive this love through his Means of Grace that he has given to us in our midst – the located means by which he meets us where we are. But Jesus said that this love does not stop with us. Instead at the Last Supper he said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In word and especially in deed we love and support one another. And this love is, of course, is not limited to those in the Church. It extends to all who are around us – all whom God places in our life.
In our text we find that the people complain and speak against God. God acts in judgment against their sin – their sin committed against him – as he send fiery serpents into their midst. But in response to their repentance, God attaches his word of promise to the bronze serpent raised up on a pole and provides deliverance. God has responded to our sin against him by sending his Son into the world to die on the cross and rise from the dead. Through Christ we have life, for 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.”