Sermon: Numbers 21:4-9

The Old Testament reading this week is an interesting passage. We have this story of the people of Israel, having been rescued from Egypt by God, now travelling through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, and they’re upset about the food.

It’s amazing how short memories can be. It wasn't that long ago that they were the victims of slavery. I can’t imagine the Egyptians were serving up food that was much better under those conditions. Yet here they are, whinging and whining, and wanting to go back.

The text tells us that, in response, the Lord sent venomous snakes amongst them. We just have to take a moment to sit with this statement. The Bible is written by multiple authors over many years and so we understand that there is not one singular understanding of God throughout the scriptures. Rather, there are many theologies that evolve over time. Here, the author has taken a strict monotheism, that is the belief that there is only one God and there are no other divine beings at all, to its logical conclusion. If there is only one God, then good and bad must both come from that one God. That’s an uncomfortable theology. But here it is sitting in the text, and we have to allow it to be there.

“Then the Lord sent [venomous] serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” (21:6)

Despite how uncomfortable this verse is, it has the desired effect. The people recognise their sin and called upon Moses to pray for them; “pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”

“So Moses prayed for the people.” (21:7)

In response, the Lord says to Moses “Make a [venomous] serpent, and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” (21:8)

That’s a bit weird, isn’t it?

How can looking at a bronze version of the thing that is killing people save the people from that thing? In actuality, this was a fairly common practice at the time. It’s known as “sympathetic magic” and the idea is you defeat the snakes by creating a snake that is more powerful. Modern medicine echoes this idea in some way by the use of vaccines. Medical researchers defeat a virus by taking the harmful virus and creating a safe but ultimately more powerful version of it. The body then learns to defeat the real virus by attacking the safe one. Now, let me be clear that this is just an illustration and I’m not in anyway saying that vaccines are just a form of magic.

For the Israelite people, what is most important is that they do the thing that God asks them to do. They obediently create the bronze serpent, lift it up, and look upon it when they are bitten. It’s not really the gazing upon the bronze snake that saves them. The defeat of the venomous snakes comes by the authority of the Lord who responds to their prayers by calling upon then to act in obedience to him.

Turning our attention to the Gospel reading, it is also interesting that Jesus turns to this passage as a metaphor for his own saving work. Jesus points to the lifting up of the bronze serpent and says that he too must be lifted up. But why would Jesus compare himself to a serpent? Isn’t the serpent the enemy?

Well, the real enemy is sin itself and, just like the bronze serpent, Jesus defeats sin by becoming sin. This is known as the “great exchange” and Paul describes it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:21 “For our sake God made the one who knew no sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Elsewhere, in Romans 8:3, he says that God sent Jesus “in the likeness of sinful flesh and to deal with sin,” and “he condemned sin in the flesh.” Jesus becomes the very thing that is killing us and because he is more powerful than sin, he saves us. Not even death, sin’s most powerful weapon, could defeat Jesus. In response, the gospel reading invites us to believe in Jesus and “do what is true.” (John 3:21)

Returning to the Old Testament reading, but also with reference to the New Testament reading as well, one last thing needs to be said about the saving of the people. Salvation came to them through prayer and action. They prayed to the Lord and he responded with actions to be performed. Make the bronze serpent, lift it up, look upon it. In our New Testament reading, Paul emphasises that salvation comes through faith and not by works. It’s one of the great doctrines of the Christian faith. Yet, then he says we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” (Eph 2:10).

The passage from Numbers, the passage from Ephesians, and the Gospel reading combined, all remind us that belief and action go hand in hand. For the Israelites it was prayer and action. For Paul, it’s faith and good works. In John’s gospel, it’s belief in Jesus and doing what is true. This is also echoed in our liturgy. In a few moments time we enact our belief in Jesus through action; doing this in remembrance of him. As you look upon the bread and the wine I invite you to look upon Jesus, believe in him, and do what is true in his name.

Perhaps even more importantly, though, belief and action extend beyond the liturgy and into the world. As the Gospel reading says, “so that it may be clearly seen that [your] deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:21). Our liturgy points to this reality and invites us to live lives that reflect God into a world that desperately needs to look to Jesus to be saved. We gather together, from our homes, our workplaces, our schools, our families, and together we become the gathered body of Christ visible in this place today. We listen to the gospel of the Lord and seek to enact what we have heard. Then, together, we share in the body and blood of Christ for we who are many are one body. We take Christ into the centre of our lives, represented by the taking in of the bread and wine at the Table. Then, at the end of the liturgy, and this is no small thing, we are sent back out into the world. The gathered body of Christ becomes, once again, the scattered body of Christ. Belief and action continue as together we “go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

As you go into the world with the message of the gospel, in obedience to Christ’s command, may it be clearly seen that your good works have been done in God.

The Lord go with you.


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