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2024-03-10 Lent 4

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!

I’ve always loved nature shows. Since I was knee high to a grasshopper, documentaries about lions in Africa or polar bears in the Arctic or wild pigs in the Southern States have always drawn my attention. Wolves in Yellowstone, Wolverines in Banff, you name it and I’m going to like it. And now that we have YouTube, there’s literally zillions of nature videos to watch on demand from the Amazon to the Sahara! Normally these shows are always narrated by some wise sounding British guy from the BBC or maybe Marty Stouffer from Wild America and even most recently, country singer Garth Brooks narrating America’s National Parks! But without a doubt, the best one yet was when they got gangster rapper Snoop Dogg to narrate a nature video about a lizard running away from about 50,000 snakes in the Galapagos! Have you seen that one?! It’s rather hysterical to have a gangster rapper narrate a nature show! But this poor baby iguana has to run for its life to escape this unending onslaught of starving racer snakes, all of which are trying to make a meal out of this little lizard. Snoop Dogg eloquently related it to his home-boys trying to escape the Police! It was hilarious!

But what is it about snakes?! Most people have a natural aversion to them. Even manly men like Indiana Jones can’t stand the slithering and the hissing. I get it when they are poisonous snakes but even when they aren’t, I think most people would rather not see them! Many have said the only good snake is a dead one! This may all be due to our human-snake history being checkered and sketchy at best. If we take a stroll down snake memory lane, we eventually get all the way back to the downfall of mankind, don’t we? There was a serpent in the garden. “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’” (Genesis 3:1-3).

And we all know exactly what happened after that. Adam and Eve died, that is, people became cutoff from God and the divine life lived with Him in His presence. Their death also brought sin into the world as well as sweat and toil, hunger and thirst, weariness and sorrow, pain and suffering, sickness and tribulations, tragedy and tears. What a nightmare all of life has become. We all have felt the horrid effects of this world. We’ve either caused hurt to others in our sin or have been hurt ourselves by others, or have experienced the seemingly random cases of bad things happening to us by no apparently direct cause and effect. Regardless of the who, what, when, where, why and how, sin and death have made their horrible mark in our world.

Our Old Testament reading from Numbers vividly reminds us today of those consequences of sin and death. The first one is that God’s people are complaining and whining and carrying on like bunch of babies. They’ve been out in the wilderness, wandering around after escaping the clutches of the Egyptians, much like that little lizard from the snakes. They were mad at God and Moses and they started to get lippy and vocal about it. “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.” When the going gets tough, the tough get going, right?! Not so much. The natural inclination is to whine and complain about hard times. And that’s exactly what the people of Israel do. To which God responds by reminding them who they sound like. Venomous serpents were sent to them by the Lord. And they bit the people and many of the Israelites keeled over and died right there on the spot! Immediate and severe judgement for sin came upon them. And, quickly, the people approached 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!” (Num 21:7).

We confess that we are sinful and clean, Moses. Lord have mercy upon us. Amazing what a little snake venom will do to bring on repentance, hey?! And maybe, just maybe, God permits trials in our lives with our ultimate healing in mind. Think about horrible Cancer. The pain and anguish it causes is too often unrelenting. But think also of how Cancer may actually save peoples’ eternal lives if it draws unbelievers to the Lord and His grace? The streets of heaven will be lined with people for which tragedies and calamities may have ultimately bring about repentance and salvation!

This is what happens to the Israelites. They are freaking out and they asked Moses to ask God to take the snakes away from them. But that doesn’t happen does it. Instead, they are provided with the way of escape. “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” (Num 21:8). Notice how God didn’t really get rid of the problem. Instead, He used the problem as the solution. The serpent on the pole signaled that the power of the venom in the people of Israel was now dead as they looked on that snake on the pole.

“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” (JN 3:14). Here our Lord speaks of Himself. He draws the connection to the weird snake story of the Old Testament to Gospel itself. Jesus would be lifted up on the cross for us and for our salvation. All who look to Him in faith will live. It’s the same thing really as Moses and the snake. Jesus used the problem as the solution. Death was and is our ultimate problem. So does Jesus use an earthly army with power and might to fix it? Nope. He uses the problem itself. Jesus dies on the cross in order that He may destroy death. Death itself is slain by the Giver of life! This is why at every Lutheran funeral committal service I love proclaiming, loudly, at the grave side “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).

“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 single well known verse encapsulates the entire Gospel and God’s salvation history. Jesus our Lord has been lifted up on the cross for us and for our salvation. And not only that, but was also raised from the dead for us too. This ultimate sacrifice has provided the remedy for all that ails of us in this life. The tool of death, the cross, has become for us a sign and image of victory over sin and death. The problem has become the solution – the cross now means our healing and eternal life. We have one in our Sanctuary and we often wear them on a chain around our necks. Some of us may even make the sign of the cross to bless ourselves as Luther says in the small catechism. “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 Corinthians 1:18). Death is our defeated foe. The serpent is squashed. Christ is crucified for us. Life reigns. To God be the glory now and forever more. Amen!

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