Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sermon on Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21, for the 4th Sunday in Lent. "So must the Son of Man be lifted up"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today the sermon will be based on both the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading. In the same passage of John 3, where we find the famous verse “For God so loved the world…”, Jesus compares His death on the cross to this unusual OT story of the bronze serpent. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Forty years of wandering in the desert had been God’s punishment to the Israelites for their lack of trust in God to bring them into the Promised Land. Forty years of regrets and a generation of adults who were unable to enter the Promised Land because of their rebellion. Yet also forty years of provision for their needs—God’s heavenly gift of manna, the bread from heaven, and quail to feed them, His miraculous provision for their water and clothing—all by God’s grace, despite their quarrelling and rebellion. Yet here in the middle of it all, after learning countless lessons the hard way, they once again show ingratitude to God’s provision for them. Impatient and grouchy, they spoke against God and Moses, saying “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and water, and we loathe this worthless food.” They called God’s daily bread for them loathsome and worthless food! They had not even worked for that bread, but received it wholly by God’s providence. God’s swift punishment for this ingratitude was sending poisonous snakes among them, and many were bitten and died.

It doesn’t take long to fall into the sin of ungratefulness, and to begin complaining. Ungratefulness or ingratitude are when we’re dissatisfied with what we have or what God has given. A lack of contentment. And while we don’t have swarms of biting serpents nipping at our heels with burning venom to snap us out of our funk, we have the more deadly venom of sin to contend with. While ingratitude is one sin of thought, word, and deed for which we are guilty, all of our sins bear that deadly venom of sin, which creates all kinds of misery in life—but ultimately leads to death. Like venom that wastes away the flesh or burns like fire, so un-confessed sins waste away our conscience or burn us with shame. Sometimes sinful life choices lead to their own physical consequences on our health and emotions. Grudges and bitterness cause us to decay from the inside out, until anger and resentment spill over. Sometimes the venom of sin spoils our relationships and brings grief and pain between close friends or family. But wherever the venom of sin takes root—know this, that the end of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).

Paul wrote about the Israelites’ rebellion in 1 Cor. 10:9, saying that the Israelites put Christ to the test and were destroyed for it. Catch that? It was actually Christ that they were putting to the test! These things happened as an example to them and instruction for us to take warning lest we fall (1 Cor. 10:11-12). Paul said, “Let anyone that thinks that he stands, take heed lest he fall.” In other words, don’t be lulled into complacency by sin, and think that you have no need to repent. The plague of snakes snapped Israel to their senses, and they realized that they had sinned against the Lord and Moses (21:7). The prick of the law on their hearts (and perhaps the prick of the fangs on their heels??) had driven them to repentance. This is the work of God’s Law: to remind us of our sinfulness, lead us to sorrow over our sin, and point to our need for a Savior who offers the forgiveness that we cannot get on our own.

Once the burning venom of sin has snapped us to our senses, or the sting of conscience and the conviction of God’s Law leads us to repentance, then what? Join in the words of the Israelites: “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord…pray to the Lord, that He take [our sin] away from us.” Join in the words of confession, “Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed…[and] for the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of Your holy name.” We lay our sins before Christ and acknowledge we have sinned against God, and pledge to turn away from our sin and leave it behind, so that we may delight in God’s will and walk in His ways to honor God’s name.

The Israelites looked to Moses as their intercessor before God, but we look to Jesus Christ. He is the one who prays to the Lord for us, and who opens the way to the Father. But Jesus’ role as intercessor is far beyond what Moses did. What sort of intercessor was Jesus? Jesus not only seeks mercy for us to be spared from punishment—but He Himself took our punishment. Moses didn’t give up his life for the people. But by God’s command he put a bronze serpent on a pole, and instructed everyone who was bitten to look to the bronze serpent and they would live. Bizarre! The emblem of the serpent, the very image of the thing that was plaguing them and causing them to die! With wounds stinging from venom, and the fearful dread of those cursed snakes, they were to look up to a bronze serpent and live? But this was the cure—look to the bronze serpent, and the burning venom and gathering death left their body, and they lived!

God was here preparing a type or example of Christ for them, and for our instruction as well. He created a picture lesson for the way that Christ would become our intercessor. Jesus said, “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.” The bronze serpent was a type of Jesus’ death on the cross, where He hung as the despised and rejected. The words of Psalm 22 were on His lips: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The same Psalm that voices His agony on the cross: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’” (Psalm 22:6-8) So on the cross Jesus became sin for us. He became our sin embodied on the pole of the cross, the very place from which He drew all the venom of sin into Himself. Satan, the old serpent who first deceived Adam and Eve now sunk his fangs deep into Jesus’ heel, as iron spikes fastened Jesus’ feet to the cross. Fulfilling the ancient prophecy to Adam and Eve that her future offspring would crush the head of the serpent who had deceived them, but that the serpent would strike His heel (Gen. 3:15). All the ugliness, the ungratefulness, the hatred, the wasting bitterness of sin—that burned in our lives, was embodied in Jesus, who became sin for us.

And it won’t be surprising, that some will turn away from His cross. That some, like the Israelites would refuse to look to Him and be saved. To let the venom of sin work its deadly poison in their lives till its ultimate conclusion. Perhaps to look at our sin embodied there in Jesus seems out of measure with our own evaluation of our sin. Perhaps it is too unpleasant. We despise the cure. Or perhaps we hide our eyes, not from unrepentance or ungratefulness, but from such a deep shame and fear that we doubt that even our sin could be forgiven there. But this is just as great a sin, because it tries to make our sin bigger than Christ’s cross. Never believe that your sin was too big to be forgiven there. There He hangs, interceding for you nevertheless. Calling your name to the Father for forgiveness.

Far beyond the intercession of Moses, Jesus intercedes for us from His very cross. From His cross His blood cries out for our pardon, instead of for vengeance. From His cross He takes our abuse and the anger of the world and actually cries out that we should be spared this awful judgment! As if to say, My Life is Enough! Let no one else perish from this cursed venom of sin! “It is Finished!!” For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. 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. So to have eternal life is to look to Jesus Christ crucified, and believe in Him. Like the Israelites, we gaze on the emblem of our suffering and shame—we gaze on the One who became sin for us. He is our life, hanging before our eyes, in the beaten form that our sin left Him.

But fix our eyes on Him, and the burning venom of sin that plagues our lives will leave our body. The burning shame of guilt, the remorse of sins confessed is drawn to His cross. The gathering death and gloom that once hung over our lives is now lifted in the One who was lifted up on the cross. Seeing His death, we have life by faith. See your sin hanging there, see your debts paid. See His precious blood poured out for your forgiveness, and know that life everlasting is now yours! This was why Jesus, the Son of Man must be lifted up on His cross. This was why God took the bitter poison from our sins. So that we might believe in Him and have eternal life.

In this way God loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. In this way Jesus showed God’s love, that whoever believes in Him will not be condemned and die from sin. In this way God loved the world, so that the world might be saved through Him. Trust in Him and Live! Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. How did the Israelites show their ungratefulness? How has the sin of ungratefulness been evident in your own heart and life?
2. How has the venom of sin plagued your life or relationships? What have been the effects?
3. How does God’s Law awaken our need for repentance, or alert us to sin’s deadly effects?
4. Why was it so distasteful for them to look at the bronze serpent? Why is it so distasteful for us to look at Jesus crucified? What would God have us learn by this?
5. Compare Jesus with Moses’ role as an intercessor. Compare Him to the bronze serpent. How does Jesus’ being “lifted up” draw all people to Himself and bring glory to God? (Read John 12:27-36; 8:25-30) What is that “lifting up”?
6. How does Jesus’ lifting up on the cross “draw the venom” from us, and what is the result for us?
7. For your own study, read 2 Kings 18:1-12 (esp. v. 4). How did the bronze serpent later become twisted to a false purpose and use?

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