Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
People often ask Pastors “Where did you go on Vicarage?” Vicarage being the practical year that would-be Pastors go on to mentor under another seasoned Pastor and learn all the practical, hands on stuff about ministry which is far more real-life than all the book learning in the world. I went to North Western BC for my Vicarage, more specifically to the coastal rain forest of Kitimat, BC. It was pristine wilderness of mountains, trees, waterfalls, rivers and a plethora of fish and wildlife. This was indeed an adventure for two young dyed in the wool Prairie kids! We were blazing a new trail to someplace that we had never been and experienced things we never experienced before. It was kind of scary, rather ominous, to be so far from familiar surroundings and familiar faces. But the one thing that really stuck out to me as the die hard Saskatchawinner that I am is that there was only one road in to Kitimat and that same road back out again. That’s it. Just one. Here in Saskatchewan there are 75 billion roads to pretty much everywhere. But there is only 1 way in Northern British Columbia.
This experience of Vicarage is much like all of life. Many of you have had similar experiences. Life is fraught with ups and downs. There are a great deal of “unknowns.” What will happen to us as we age? Where will we end up? What will happen to our kids and grandkids? What will happen to our parents? What will happen to our church? Lots of these kinds of questions often can make for many a sleepless night. But through it all, when we step back and look over the big picture of our lives, with all the uncertainty and trials, you will quickly see that God has not abandoned you or let you down. Contrary to Joel Osteen or other TV preachers you shouldn’t watch, faith in our Lord does not mean that life is a total bowl of cherries all the time. Sometimes life is ominous and unknown - but God is faithful and things will always work out for good for those who love Him. There will often come times in our lives where we have no other choice than to simply trust that God is in control and will get us through whatever comes our way.
This is the kind of context that our Old Testament reading embodies today from the book of Numbers. The people of God are out in the wilderness. It was ominous, scary and uncertain. They had lots of unknowns facing them. And there really are two options when life gets like this: Faith or Freak-out. We either trust our Lord unwaveringly or we despair and go down into the mirey bog of sin and iniquity. From our reading we can see which option the Israelites chose! They begin to grumble against Moses and against God. “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!” (Num 21:5). Woe to me! Oy Vey!
So into the downward spiral the people go. Faith is gone out window. Freak-out is on the menu! So like a little kid acting out against her parents goes on time-out, God sends the Israelites a fiery reality check to help them change their tune: “Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Num 21:6). And freak-out all the more the people did! But nothing brings on repentance like being subject to slithery assaults! “And 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.” So Moses prayed for the people" (21:7). And God hears the prayer of Moses and sends them a faith-based solution: ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So 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" (21:8-9).
This bronze serpent on a pole no doubt seemed like a bonkers solution. Look to the very thing that killed and cursed the people?! That seems totally insane! Would it not make more sense to give the people a magical vaccine?! An injection of anti-venom?! At the very least maybe some herbal tea to drink?! Nope. Nope. Instead they get a snake made of bronze and put up on a pole. This indicated that the curse would be drawn away from the people when they looked at it - in faith.
This seemingly strange and weird story from the Old Testament is the context and backdrop for the most famous Bible passages in the world. “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” (John 3:14-15). And of course, what our Lord Jesus is referring to here is His cross. His very mission and purpose would be to become a curse for us and be lifted up, so that all people who look at Him by faith would live. Again, this doesn’t make sense in the eyes of the world. As we heard from St. Paul last Sunday “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18).
It is the power of God because this is how our Lord deals with our biggest problems of death and sin: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (JN 3:16). This connection to Numbers and the bronze serpent is so strong. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He is the only way, just like the road to Kitimat. One way in and one way out, whether you like it or not. It is what it is. This is why repentance in our Christian life is so vital. We can’t be healed if we don’t admit we are sick. We can’t live unless we admit we are dead. Dead in our sins and trespasses. Dead in our rejection of life in Christ. But by nature, we don’t want to do this. We naturally want to hide in the darkness and avoid the light. But our festering spiritual wounds that we all contend with will never heal until we look to the cross of Christ our Lord in faith. It is only in looking at His death that we have life, for it is the power of God.
It’s no accident that Jesus says the way of life is narrow. It is. Only those who look to the cross in faith have life and salvation. This is a hard teaching today in our world of ‘anything goes’ and ‘if you offend me it’s hate speech.’ In a world where the Hollywood entertainment industry, the mainstream media, the government, big tech companies and the public school system outright attack Christianity non-stop, it can seem outright hopeless. But we can return to our readings from Numbers and John’s Gospel today. In the midst of hopeless scenarios, with God there is hope. The Israelites looked to the serpent on the pole, Christians look to the cross of Christ. There is hope of life, there is hope of resurrection, there is certainty that our God is with us and will get us through. There is hope because we don’t have to die in a cesspool of darkness, death and sin. Instead we look to Christ and have abundant life in the light of His Kingdom.
The key, dear friends, is faith. It is always faith. We have faith that our Lord’s death and resurrection were for you. These gifts of life and victory are yours personally in your Baptism and are received every time you hear the words “take and eat,” “take and drink,” the body and blood of Christ given for you. These are the ways we walk with Christ in the light of His Kingdom all of our days. Sometimes life can be scary and ominous with many ups and downs. We may think our hope lies in a magical vaccine or maybe some herbal tea. But it doesn’t. Our hope lies only in the Messiah who is lifted up, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15). Look to the cross and live. Amen!