Sunday of the Holy Cross
 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.  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.  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.  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."  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. Numbers 21:4-9 (ESV)
It is Sunday of the Holy Cross, which seems funny to me, in that every Sunday should have the cross as its focus. But I’m glad that we have one Sunday that reminds us pastors of this fact. So I guess the question we have today is; what does this task have to do with the cross? Well, in short, it has everything to do with the cross, as does all of the Old Testament. The whole Old Testament is really about Christ, and therefore the cross. God chose this staff with a bronze serpent to foreshadow the cross, and teach us how it is that we are saved.
It is kind of a peculiar text. I love it. Here the people are on their way to the promised land. God has freed them from agonizing slavery and hard labor in Egypt. In Egypt the Hebrews were mercilessly persecuted, even forced to kill off their off spring, have abortions and so on. Can you imagine how terrible that life must have been? Not even allowed to have a family? Not allowed to know the joys of raising children? And God is taking care of them on their journey. They don’t have to work for their food. They just wake up in the morning and collect it. Quail drop at their feet. And yet the people complain. “Why did you bring us out here to die? There is no food, no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Well which is it, there is no food, or you don’t like the food you are given? This is a childish complaint. The kind of whining that aggravates a parent to no end. Here God is providing them food from heaven, bread from heaven, fully nourishing, for Body and Soul Yet the people don’t like it. In an earlier chapter they long for cucumbers and leeks. What? You want to return to slavery for cucumbers? For leeks? We are tempted to ask what is wrong with these people?
The same thing that is wrong with us. They were sinners like you and me. And we are guilty of the same sort of complaining during our own journey to the promised land. In fact each and every time we sin, we are guilty of the same complaint. Isn’t that what sin is, not trusting God? Thinking we know better than God? How often do we express our incontentness with the gifts God has given us in our lives. The daily bread he provides, our house and home, our cars, our jobs? So we find ourselves in bondage to credit cards, because we fail to live within our budgets. Oh we aren’t any different than these wandering Israelites.
How often do the temptations of the devil sound like fun? His attempts to bind us to the slavery of sin, with cucumbers and leeks. O.K maybe not cucumbers and leeks, I was in jail the other night, I mentioned these: heroin, pot, cocaine and strippers. I had heads nodding. Why? Why are we tempted to go and do these things? Why are we humans so willing to sell our souls to the slavery of sin? Maybe not all of us are tempted by heroin, pot, cocaine and strippers. Maybe we have different temptations. We know they are wrong yet we really are tempted by them. Perhaps, we are tempted to complain to God, about how much we make, how hard it sometimes is to make ends meet. Why God, why can’t I have…? No we aren’t any different than the Israelites.
So God sends serpents. They bite and they kill. They carry the sting of death. The death we all deserve. I don’t know about you, but I have been bitten a few times for getting out of line. Sin has its consequences. Ultimately it is death we are served with, but the law has other painful punishments. They bring us to repentance, they bring us to die to sin, to die to ourselves.
We ask God to take them away, to remove them. We are tempted to deal with the problems ourselves, by making deals with God. We try to bribe him. We re-pledge ourselves to God. God get me through this and I will…Get me through this night and I’ll never do that again. God won’t have it. Oh he hears our prayers, but he won’t let us deal with the problem. He isn’t going to answer us the way we want. It is His will, and a lucky man it is whose will matches God’s.
Seems like an easy enough solution doesn’t it? Take the snakes away God, we repented. Take them away. We are sorry. But God answers with mercy in a very peculiar way. He doesn’t remove the snakes. He doesn’t hand out anti-venom. No potion for them to drink. No solution to rub on the bite. Rather he has Moses make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole, and who ever looks at it is saved.
This is peculiar. A couple things come to mind about this solution. One, it keeps everyone in the camp. You don’t want to be found out of eyesight of the bronze serpent. Two it isn’t the natural thing to do, look at the pole. I think I would be concentrating on the wound. That is where we first look isn’t it? We turn into ourselves to see what we can do? But with a snake bite, there often isn’t anything you can do. Maybe someone else can do something for you. Give you a shot, suck out the venom, tie a tourniquet. Or in this case turn your head to the pole. But the one who is bitten is often rendered helpless within seconds or minutes. I suppose that depends on the snake. I’ve never been bit by a Rattle Snake. Growing up, living in Botswana, my parents did a good job warning me about snakes. Many snakes, there, offer no chance of survival. Many of them, even if you did get the anti-venom in time, would require someone else to carry you to the hospital for further treatment if you were going to survive. But it still isn’t natural. You are more tempted to look at the wound than anything around you. See if there is anything you can do. At least kill the snake that bit you.
But doing that will only facilitate the end. We can’t do anything. There is nothing for us to do, but look at that pole. No, we don’t have a fiery serpent on a pole in our camp. We have Jesus Christ, hanging on a Cross. He is our fiery serpent. He is the one hanging there in the middle of our camp, who saves us. When the law bites us, we have only one place to look for salvation, and it isn’t at our soul, our internal fortitude. Certainly we ought not be taking that time to make deals with God. We ought not be making false promises to God. Better to make no vow at all. We will break our promises made at that time, guaranteed. What we ought to be doing is looking at the cross in the middle of our camp. Yes we are in a camp. We aren’t on this journey by ourselves. We aren’t heading to the promised land on our own. We belong to the one holy apostolic church, our camp centered on the cross. This is the job of the Church, to put that cross out in front of you all, so you can see it and be saved. So that you can see Jesus and be saved. Because the law will bite, Satan will strike, and he will hit home. His venom will kill. And he is always out there, his snakes slithering through the camp. He knows where to bite. So don’t leave the camp, and don’t let the camp bring the cross down.
Too many churches are doing that these days. Obscuring the cross. Even physically, it is an embarrassment to me as a Pastor to see colleagues, who think a jumbo-tron is more important than a big old cross in the middle of the church. Instead they have a screen drawing you away from the cross for a power point sermon that is equally as crossless as the lecture hall they call church. But we don’t need advice for living. We don’t need more law. We have that on our hearts already. We need Christ and Him crucified. We need the cross from where we receive the forgiveness of sins, and the bread from heaven given to us there in the body of Christ sacrificed for us broken for you. So don’t leave the camp, the camp is only to be found where the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution. And there we find salvation, and nourishment for body and soul, to carry us through to the promised land. There we find our bronze serpent, there we find our water of salvation, there we find our bread, in the midst of the camp. When we get bit, we have only one place to look, the cross, and looking we see our salvation and are saved.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.