The Fourth Sunday in Lent [b] March 14, 2021
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 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.” 6 Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 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. 8 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.” 9 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.
In the Name of Jesus.
How do we want God to work toward us?
He is the creator, we are creatures. Creatures don’t get to tell the creator how to act.
He is holy. We are unholy. The unholy ones don’t get to tell the holy One how to act.
We don’t really have much leverage in this.
We may have thoughts of how God is unfair—maybe he gave my neighbor more gifts than he gave me. Or how he is unjust—maybe he doesn’t strike the evil person with the retribution I think he should. But then I remember, I’m unclean along with my neighbor. So I don’t really have much say in that.
So how do we want God to act toward us?—considering we are creatures who often act like we think we are the creator and we should call the shots. And considering we are unclean, and he is holy.
How would we choose for him to act toward us?
We don’t want him to act in all his power and retribution, we know that. We don’t want to fire from Heaven or the quake of the Earth every time we’re caught out as sinners, we know that. No sinner withstands God’s power.
But there is another way we try. It’s the way of the Law. The Law, after all, is written on our hearts, St. Paul tells us that, Romans 2:15.
The sinner, who has the Law written on his heart even as he sins against the Law, has a way of using the Law. It’s using the Law to try to justify self; using the Law to try even to make a deal with God. This is a misuse of the Law, of course, but that won’t stop us from trying.
So, I claim my righteousness under the Law by using the Law to accuse others, as if they are worse sinners than I am. But that won’t work. For by the Law, every one stands guilty before God.
Or, I will use the Law to make a deal with God. In this way, I have sinned, sure; but I am on a track of improving myself. I’m getting better every day. God will see my effort, and he’ll reward me. Even the fact that I confess my sins, isn’t that already a sign of my effort to do better?
But God doesn’t make deals. The sinner has nothing to bargain with, anyway. And God is not a used car dealer looking to make trades.
He’s the creator of the world and everything in it. He’s the creator of all life, and of all the gifts of life we know. He creates; he gives life; he bestows gifts. He doesn’t make deals.
Then how will God deal with the sinner?
Israel was sinner. They had turned their back on God. His gift of food? They acted like it was below them to eat it. His delivering them from Egypt? They considered that not worth even remembering. His promise of a new land, his covenant gift of life everlasting? It didn’t compute with what they wanted right now. His deliverance, his promise, his covenant of salvation and life? They shrugged their shoulders at God, and complained they didn’t have a better lot in life.
How will God deal with the sinner?
He sent the snakes, and they brought death. That is certainly God dealing with the sinner. Guilt, accusation, retribution, death, that’s the Law of God at work. But that’s not what God wants. He wants no one to live under the Law. So how will he deal with the sinner?
Then 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.” 9 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.
Will God deal with the sinner by an instrument of common bronze and wood?
The Law comes by the fire and brimstone of Sodom and Gomorrah, by lightning and earthquake, by poisonous snakes, by sickness and death. The Law comes by power and intimidation and coercion.
But now we see God coming by lowly bronze and wood. Not to harm, but to heal. Not in power and coercion, but in lowliness and weakness and gentleness.
In this wood and bronze serpent-pole which Moses holds in front of the people God is coming not to judge but to forgive, not to kill but to bring life.
The same bronze they use to make their shovels, the same wood they use for tent poles, God is here in these elements. Not because of the bronze or the wood, but because God has instituted this gift for these people at this time, because he has attached his word to it—God is here giving blessing, bestowing the promise, forgiving the sins, cleansing the sinners.
The power and might of God, his coming to accuse and coerce, that’s all the work of the Law. The gentleness and mercy of God, his coming in common elements bound to his Word, his forgiving of sins and bestowal of promise, this is the Gospel.
For the power and might of God, for the accusation of the Law, you don’t need faith. You need only eyes to see the power and senses to perceive the sickness and death.
For the grace and kindness of God, for his giving of gifts, for his Gospel, that is received by faith.
So we can speak of God working toward us in two ways.
One is proper to him. It’s of who he is. It’s of what he wants to be known for. It’s of his will to forgive, to cleanse, to show grace, to restore the sinner to himself. That’s all proper to who he is.
The other way is alien to him. It’s not what he wants to do. It’s not of who he is by his nature. This is the way of the Law. God does his work of the Law. He accuses, he holds guilty, he brings judgement. But not because he wants to. It’s alien to him. But he does it to drive the sinner to fear, to despair, to finally recognizing that the sinner cannot justify himself and has no hope.
When God has done that work through his Law, he now does what he most wants to do. He comes in lowliness and gentleness, in kindness and mercy.
He comes in ways or instruments which won’t destroy the sinner, but will bestow gifts upon the sinner. He comes in the lowliness of a piece of wood and bronze—but wood and bronze with a divine promise attached and taken up into the Lord’s use.
The wood and bronze serpent?
That was the gift of the Gospel to those Israelites at that time out at that place in the wilderness. The wood and bronze is not given to you and me and our families. To us, the Lord gives the water—the common water of Baptism combined with his word forgiving our sins and bestowing the promise. And he gives the bread and the wine—common bread, common wine, but combined with his Word of promise, taken up into his use, so that in this bread and wine, he is giving his Body and his Blood, forgiving sins and bestowing life.
How will God work toward us?
He has appointed the ways. The Law, yes, bringing to us God’s power of judgment, showing us our sin, taking us into death.
Our life of sinful flesh is under the Law. But our life of faith lives from the Gospel.
He has appointed his ways of Gospel. This is who God is. It’s proper to him. He is love. Love for the sinner, love for us. For God s loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever has faith in him will not be destroyed, but will have eternal life.
In the Name of Jesus.