Readings: Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
It begins, as happens a lot in the book of Numbers, with the people grumbling. Now they have recently come out of Egypt where they were slaves and life was very difficult. They are now in the wilderness, and God has been providing: manna—a kind of bread like substance—each morning. When they complained about that, God caved and gave them quail to eat as well. God has also been providing water for them, from rocks.
Then, the people say: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water. And we detest this miserable food.”
They are ungrateful for the provisions God has given. It is a repeated theme in the book of Numbers. The people have these rose-colored glasses when they remember their lives in Egypt—being worked to the bone by Pharaoh, given less and less food with more, and more work.
Under Pharaoh they were perishing. God delivered them from there, and now, it seems they’ve forgotten. So almost like a reminder that God delivers these perishing people, poisonous serpents begin to bite the people, and they are again perishing.
The text says that the LORD sent the serpents. In the time when these stories were written, it was essential that everything happened because God willed it to be and made it happen. For God to be God and be in control, God must be controlling every little thing. But Jesus’ conversation in our Gospel lesson reorients this thought. He compares himself to the serpent—specifically the one on the pole.
See, the people asked Moses to tell God to take away the snakes. They knew they’d not kept God the priority in their lives, and they were sorry. So God told Moses that the people’s cries were heard, that Moses should make a serpent and put it up on a stick for the people to look at, and God would heal those who were bitten when they looked.
Jesus says that he, as God’s self-revelation to people, came not to condemn the world (like the serpents that bit the people) but that the world through him might be saved.
See, as faithful Christians, we need not think about God as directing the bad along with the good. And neither must we think of God as distant and having no interest or power in the day-to-day details of our lives.
Instead, we know that all manner of things happen every day—bad and good, extraordinary and mundane. And in all of it, God is with us. Jesus walks with us through the dangers of this life and, in the midst of it, walks with us and opens the gates to eternal life.
Jesus points out that Snakes happen, and God may not take away the fiery serpents, just as God does not again flood the earth and drown away all flesh for its corruption. But God does open the way to healing and eternal life even in their presence.
When the Israelites looked upon the bronze serpent, raised up, God would heal them. So too when we keep our eyes on God—revealed in Jesus Christ—we find a way out of the poison we encounter in life.
Beneath the cross of Jesus, looking up to him, we see that all the promises of God are true. God looks on us with steadfast love, faithfulness and mercy, and chooses us as partners in blessing the world.
Even though our actions will continually, like venom from a snake, lead to our own demise—even though we will continue to turn away from God and our neighbors—we are reborn new, again and again, in the waters of baptism—looking to the crucified and risen Lord, as if gazing upon the bronze serpent.
We have forgiveness, life, and a partnership, from the same one who was raised up on a cross and crucified—the same one who rose again, to show his love for the world—the same one that came to dwell with us, walk with us, so that the world might be saved through him.
God saves perishing people, and makes them alive together with Christ.