Text: Numbers 21:4-9
Theme: Look to the Cross to be saved
Image: cross lifted up
Need: joy of salvation
Message: remember your saviour
Edom, who were the descendants of Esau and thus related to the Israelites, had just refused access to their land. Moses had sent an envoy of people out to ask the King of Edom if they could pass through. “We promise not to take anything from your land,” the messengers said. “We will pass through on the kings highway and step off of it. Brother, you know how we have been mistreated by Egypt and how God brought us out of there.” But Edom answered, “You may not pass through here; if you try we will march out against you and attack.” So Moses sent back to him saying, “Please, we will go along the main road only, and if we drink any of your water we will pay for it, just let us pass through.” Again the king answered, “You may not pass through.” They came out against the Israelites with a large and powerful army, so Israel turned around to go back into the desert.
After refusing to follow God's guidance to enter the land of Canaan, the Israelites tried to enter the land anyway, without God's permission, and they were soundly defeated. They were forced back out into the Negev. Thus, they had to travel around to the other side of the Dead Sea, to approach the promised land from the other side of the Jordan. The land of Edom lay on the south side of the Dead Sea, and the refusal of Edom to allow the Israelites to pass through forced them to take a very long, circuitous route south of the land of Edom. After being given the hope of entering into the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the people are forced back into a long trek in the desert.
Page 1: The Israelites grumbled against God and were punished.
This was another blow to the pride of the Israelites. They were defeated when they tried to enter Canaan without God's blessing, and now the Edomites had refused passage. On top of all this, Aaron, their beloved priest, had just passed away. Moses, Aaron, and Eleazar, Aaron's son, went up Mount Hor because God had told them Aaron would die. When Moses came down with Eleazar, dressed in the priestly clothing of Aaron, the entire community learned of Aaron's death. They mourned for him for thirty days in the desert. They sat weeping and wailing in the scorching heat of the sun. They dressed themselves in sackcloth and sat down in ashes for thirty long, hard days. Then, when the period for mourning was over, they got up and began their long journey around Edom.
In order to avoid the whole country of Edom, they had to go back the way they came. They had to turn their backs on the promised land, and put their faces toward the Red Sea, back toward Egypt. This is the middle of the fortieth year of wandering around in the desert, and the people are getting rather sick of it. You can hear them saying, “What's the deal here? I thought we were only supposed to be in the desert for forty years. Now we have to go back out into the desert the way we came?” The people grew impatient along the way. They people's souls grew short. They became hot tempered. They began to argue with each other and get on each other's nerves. It didn't take much to set people off. The blistering heat during the day, the frigid cold at night, the travelling, the same food day in and day out, these things have cause the people to get grumpy.
They do not limit their complaints to other people, however. They are even dissatisfied with everything that God has done for them. The spoke out against God and against Moses. They complained, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt? Why have you brought us out into the desert? Why could you not leave us alone? There is no bread here. There is no water here. We detest this miserable food.” God did not take this kindly. He did not appreciate having everything he had done for them, in spite of themselves, derided like that. No bread, what about the manna? No water, God had just brought water out of the rock at Meribah. The manna which God had given them, and had sustained them throughout the forty years in the desert, plus the time in took them to get there from Egypt, this they now detested, they loathed it, all they wanted was to have some real food for a change. Something, anything would be better than another meal of that manna,” they said.
So God sends venomous snakes into their camp. The people were going about their various duties, cleaning the tents, feeding the livestock, gathering and preparing another meal of manna. They did not notice the silent serpents slithering into camp. They did not notice as they found their way into the tents and corrals. They did not notice that anything was wrong, until they suddenly stumbled across one of them and were bitten. It took quite a while for the venom to take effect. It began with a very sharp burning sensation around the wound, something like being pinched with red hot pliers. As the venom became mixed with the blood, the pain would move throughout the body. The people who were bitten felt like their whole bodies were on fire. The venom destroyed the blood and fragile tissue of the victim. It broke down the tissues in the lungs and the blood vessels causing them to rupture and causing the person to bleed internally. The venom also prevented the blood from coagulating and so the ruptured blood vessels could not stop bleeding. It sometimes took days for the victim to finally die of the snake bite.
The Israelites had grumbled against God. They had disobeyed him numerous times and now they were heaping scorn on all that he had given them. They were not satisfied with what they were given. They wanted to be brought back to Egypt, or to have been allowed to enter the land of Canaan. They were not satisfied with what God had provided him, and they detested his miraculous provision for them in the desert. They tested the Lord, and were bitten by the snakes. (1 Cor 10:9)
Page 2: The world is cursed because of our disobedience, we are all bitten by the serpent (the devil) and are destined to die from the sting of sin.
We too tested the Lord. Our father and mother, Adam and Eve, tested the word of God and ate from the tree of which the Lord had commanded them not to eat. He told them that they would die if they ate from the tree, but they ate it anyway. They caused us all to be bitten by the serpent, bitten by the Devil. We are all now destined to die from the venom of sin. All of us have been affected by the sting of the Devil's bite. We have all turned away and fallen short of the glory of God.
Our world was not meant to have all this evil in it. Often we ask why a good God could have allowed our world to be filled with all the sin, evil, pain, and heartache that it has. How could a loving God allow his people to suffer so much? We suffer not because God wanted it that way, but because we have brought sin into the world. We have ruined God's good creation and stained it with our sin. Our testing of God led to the curse which has marred God's good creation.
My grandmother died when I was about 12. She was my grandfather's second wife. His first had died before I was born, and Grandma Jean was the grandma I knew. She became infested with brain cancer at a rather young age. I think she was in her 60's when she passed away, though I can't remember specifically. She lived with her cancer for many years. They tried all kinds of treatments on her, and she was in the hospital almost as much as she was out of it for the last few years of her life. He was given chemo treatments more than once. These were especially hard on her. She was a small frail woman to begin with, but the treatments were beginning to take their toll on her. She could hardly walk. Her bones were so brittle that if she stepped down wrong she might break them. She spent most of her time in her bed, being looked after by my grandfather.
When the time came for her to go to the hospital the final time, my dad went to help bring her there. He picked her up and carried her out to the car. By this time she was so small she weighed only 32 kilos, or about 70 pounds. Dad said she felt like a little kid when he placed her in the car. She spent the last few months of her life in a hospital in Calgary. The thing I remember so distinctly about her was her love for her toy soldiers. She had an entire army set up in her room of over 200 troops. She lost much of her mental ability, and by the end she could not recognise anyone any more. The cancer had taken over so much of her brain and the rest of her body that there was not much of her left.
It was really hard for us as a family to watch something like that happen before your eyes. To watch someone you love being ravaged by a disease that you have no control over. To pray night after night that God would heal her, or take her away so her pain would stop, and have nothing happen but her continue to waste away. It is at times like that that you realise that this is not how it was meant to be. Our lives were not meant to be this way. Often we get by day to day without thinking much about the effects of sin in our world, but at times like that the venom of sin comes to the surface.
But it is not just these more dramatic things which are evidence of sin. Thousands of people die daily because they don't get enough food to eat. Millions of children are orphaned in Africa because their parents die of aids. People die in car accidents, or farm accidents, or some other way. We are all destined to die somehow, sometime, in someway. We are all infected from the serpent's bite. The venom of sin is raging through our bodies, and we are destined to die. We all feel the very painful effects of Satan's poison. Everyday we see, we hear, and we feel the suffering brought about by our testing of God.
Page 3: Punishment led to repentance and a look of faith at the serpent saved them.
As the Israelites looked around the camp they saw, they heard, and they felt the punishment of God for their testing. They could feel the venom coursing through their veins, destroying them from the inside out. They could see the looks of agony on the faces of their friends and loved ones. They realised that the snakes were a punishment from God. They went to Moses and they repented. They said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” The people could not handle the punishment they had brought upon themselves. They knew that they were being punished justly. They did not argue that they were being punished unjustly. They did not cry out in defiance against God. They came and repented. They got down on their knees and they begged Moses to help them.
So Moses went before God. He went down and entered the tent of meeting to bring the supplication of the people to the Lord. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So that is what Moses did. He went back out into the camp, careful to avoid any place where a snake might be hiding. He went into the bronze working tent and got to work. He fashioned a bronze model of the snake which was attacking the people. “What is he doing?” some asked. “I think he is making a charm against the snakes. Remember how the Egyptians used to wear those pendants of snakes around their necks. They did that to ward off snake bites. I wonder if that is what Moses is doing.” When Moses had finished making the snake, he placed it on a high pole in the middle of the camp and said to all the people, “This is what the Lord says, 'Anyone who is bitten by a snake must look up to this bronze model and they will live.'” “Just look at it?” someone asked. “Shouldn't you give us some kind of antidote?”
But that was all that Moses had said. All they had to do was look at the model and they would live. “Well, I guess we might as well try it,” they said. So they brought out all those who had been bitten by the snakes and who were too weak to walk by themselves. As the people looked up to the snake, nothing much happened. Their pain did not miraculously disappear. They did not suddenly jump up or their feet, run around the camp yelling, “I'm healed, I'm healed.” They did not do this, but they did feel something. They now had the assurance that they would live. They knew now that God had promised them life. Though they may still have the pain from the bites, though they may still have the snakes slithering silently around the camp, they also knew that they were no longer deadly. They were promised salvation from death simply by looking at the snake.
I heard this story when I was a kid and I dreamt about it that night. The dream was so vivid that it has stuck with me until now, and probably with the rest of my life. I dreamt that I was one of the people of Israel who was wandering in the desert. I was fairly young, but I also had responsibilities to look after my families flocks and herds. I was sent out into the desert with the animals to help them find grazing land. My father had warned me before I left that I was to avoid snakes at all cost. I heard about the snake put on a pole in the middle of camp, so I was not that worried. I travelled out into the desert for a couple of days, when suddenly a snake leapt out of a bush beside the trail and bit me on the heal. The pain was excruciating. I knew I had to get back to camp, and so I started back. It was getting harder and harder to walk. My mouth was burning and I had long drank all of my water. As I approached the last hill before camp I had to crawl up it. I could not walk any more, and I barely made it to the top of the hill. When I got there, and looked into the camp I saw the sun glinting off the bronze snake in the middle of the camp, and I knew that I would be alright. That is when I woke up, secure in the knowledge that I would not die from my snake bite.
Page 4: Our struggles are meant to convict us of sin, to drive us to repentance, and to cause us to look to Christ to be saved.
We too, should be secure in the knowledge that we will not die from the Devil's bite. When Jesus was talking to Nicodemus about being born again, Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (Jn 3:14,15) Jesus knew what he was coming to do. He knew what he had to do to save us from the punishment we had incurred upon ourselves. He came down from heaven, he was made in our likeness. He became sin for us to save us from our sin. Just as the bronze snake saved the Israelites from the snakes, so Christ, who was made sin for us saved us from our sin.
Sometimes I think back on the life Grandma Jean lead. She had a difficult life at the end. She was constantly in pain. She had headaches which she said felt life someone was hammering a nail into her head. Yet she rested secure in the promise of Christ Jesus. She knew that all she had to do was turn to Christ and she would be saved. She rested secure in the knowledge that she had long ago given her life over to Jesus. She knew that she had seen her saviour. She had seen him in the words of scripture. She has seen him in the melody of hymns. She had seen him in the quiet of her own heart when she knelt to pray. She knew she had seen her saviour, and she knew she would live forever.
The pain of the world is meant to make us look to Christ, therefore, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:2) If you are plagued by doubt because the world is such an awful place. If you are worried because you have not fully turned your life over to Christ. If you are facing certain damnation because you have not looked to Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour, then hear his invitation, “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.”(Is 45:22) No other remedy will do. Nothing you can do will give you peace. Nothing you can do will give you life. Turn to Christ and be saved. If you have looked to Christ for you salvation, then rest secure in the knowledge that nothing can separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:39)
Remember, God did not send the snakes among the Israelites to wipe them out. He sent the snakes among them to punish them, and to cause them to turn back to him. The Israelites were given a bronze snake, raise up on a pole, to look toward so that they would not perish from their bites. We have been given the Son of God, raised up on a tree, to look toward so that we will not perish, but have eternal life. What are the trials you are having in your life? What evidence of sin do you see in the world? What things about the creation do not seem right to you? These things should be leading you to Christ. We, along with the whole creation, have been infected with the venom of sin, and we groan as in the pains of childbirth awaiting the return of Christ. The Devil's poison is racing through our veins. Turn now to the cross. Turn your eyes to Jesus. Look intently upon him and you will be saved. Rest secure in the knowledge that you will not die from the Devil's bite.
Let us Pray
Gracious, heavenly father, we thank you for the promise we have of salvation through your son. We pray for all those here who may need to turn to you yet. Lord, use the trials in their lives to turn them back to you. Show them the salvation they have through your Son. Grant all of us the peace that comes from knowing you. In Jesus name we ask this, amen.