Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sermon -- 4th Sunday in Lent (March 11, 2018)

NUMBERS 21:4-9

IF YOU WANT TO LIVE, 
LOOK TO THE ONE 
WHICH IS LIFTED UP.

In the name + of Jesus.

     The Lord had been good to Israel.  When they were held in slavery in Egypt, the Lord acted on Israel's behalf.  He led Israel out of Egypt and Israel celebrated a victory over their enemy in which they never even used a weapon.  The Lord daily provided them with food that they did not grow.  Even though Israel never dug a well, the Lord provided them with enough water for a whole nation and their flocks and herds.  The Lord had been good to Israel.
     Israel, however, was not good to the Lord.  Although they were getting closer to the Promised Land, they had had it.  And the people became impatient on the way.  And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “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.”  Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. (Numbers 21:4-6)
     Now, to be fair, the Israelites had a much harder life than you and I have.  They were homeless, wandering around in a wasteland for years.  They had been promised a fertile land, but it had been decades since they left Egypt to get there.  Granted, their banishment to the wilderness was their own fault, but it was still hard.  They were wholly dependent upon God, and that was illustrated every day by the Lord's gracious provision of manna and water.
     By contrast, our main concerns are often how we are going to pay for the luxuries and extras we have.  We have concerns over health and wellness.  Each of us also has personal struggles and private demons that haunt us.  But merely surviving is not a concern.  Nevertheless, we launch out complaints toward the Lord because we are convinced that life should be better, easier, happier.
     Because of Israel's complaining, the Lord sent venomous serpents among them.  The snakes injected their venom into the Israelite people.  Suddenly, Israel's concern was not for better food or more comfortable lodging; they were concerned about impending death.  The concern was real, as people were watching fathers and mothers, sons and daughters dying.  The Lord used this plague to refocus Israel's attention.  Israel's complaints turned into cries for mercy.  They yearned for the Lord to be their Savior.
     When our lives are afflicted by tragedies, we sometimes blame God.  Sometimes we blame the devil.  I don't know if it is helpful for us to figure out who to blame.  I suppose we do it so that we know where to direct our anger.  But this is what the Lord says: “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.” (Ecclesiastes 7:14)  Even if the devil is behind the tragedy that strikes you, the Lord makes this promise to you: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” (Romans 8:28)  God uses even the evils in your life for your good.  One of the lessons he teaches by sending tragedy your way is the same lesson he taught the Israelites who were being bitten by vipers: He teaches you to cry out to the Lord for mercy.  When you pray, “Deliver us from evil,” you recognize that the Lord is the only source for deliverance and salvation.  And if the Lord uses tragedy to teach you to pray for his mercy and deliverance more fervently, then he uses evil for your highest good.
     Still, merely begging for mercy does not supply it.  Therefore, the Lord did not let the Israelites suffer without any hope.  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.  And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” (Numbers 21:7-8)  
     The Israelites cried for mercy.  The Lord extended his mercy to them.  He gave them something specific to look upon, and then he attached a promise to it: If you want to live, look to the one which is lifted up.  Israel's prayer was that the Lord take the snakes away.  If you look closely, nowhere does it say that the Lord took them away.  As far as we know, the plague of serpents persisted for a while.  If so, the Lord used them to drive home the point that they were dependent upon the Lord for mercy and for life.  But even if the serpents continued to bite, the Lord's promise remained: If you want to live, look to the one who is lifted up.  As long as the bronze serpent was lifted up, the promise of life was attached to it.  It was not the removal of the serpents which saved them; it was the promise.  And the Lord was true to his promise.  If a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:9)
     And so it is for you.  Your problems may have to call out to God for mercy and deliverance.  Like the Israelites, your prayer is that the Lord would take your problems away.  That is understandable.  But God may not take your problem or your struggle away.  If that problem or struggle focuses you to yearn for God's mercy all the more, then God uses it for a good purpose.  But your problems and struggles can never remove God's mercy and promises from you.  God does not save you by taking your problems away; he saves you through a promise.  As it was in the wilderness, so it is for you in the suburbs: God attaches his promise to something specific.
     Jesus tells you what that is: 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)  If you want to live, look to the one who has been lifted up.  Jesus takes away from you all that would cause you to perish.  The only problem you have which would send you to hell is your sin.  Cancer or a car accident may send you to your grave, but they cannot damn you.  The sin which would condemn you, the venom from the ancient serpent, Jesus has taken away from you.  He removes the curse from you by taking it into himself.  Then he was lifted up off of the earth, hoisted up on a cross, where his sufferings and death were visibly proclaimed to the world.  There, God displayed his mercy and salvation.  There, God's promises were visibly made known.  And those promises stand no matter what your problems and struggles are.  God may not take those away from you; but he never removes his promises from you.
     If you want to live, look to the one who has been lifted up.  Then flee to where God promises he will bestow his salvation to you.  Jesus does not bestow forgiveness, new life, and salvation by us merely looking as crosses and crucifixes.  To be sure, art work, images, and icons may keep us mindful of what Jesus has done for us.  But just as crying out for mercy does not give it, so also just looking at or thinking of images of Jesus does not give salvation.  Jesus summons us to preaching and to sacraments for that.  This is what the Lord says: “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17)  That word is attached to water for the washing away of sin.  That word is attached to bread and wine where you can participate in the death of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins.  If you want to live, you look to the one who has been lifted up.  Then flee to the place where he promises his mercy and salvation are granted—in the word which is preached and in the sacraments which are administered.
     While word and sacrament may not rid you of your struggles and problems, they do deliver you from sin, death, and the devil.  The word and the sacraments deliver Christ to you, and only he will keep you from perishing.  So, if you want to live, look to Christ who was lifted up for you.  And then flee to the altar where the body and blood of Christ are lifted up in blessing and then given to you for blessing.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.