What is the first aid for a snake bite? In the old Western movies, the hero cut an “x” across the punctures and sucked out the venom with his mouth. This is a definite – “don’t try this at home” or anywhere! Although they sell “snake bite kits,” the first aid for snake bites is a) stay calm; b) call 911 / get to the hospital; c) immobilize the area bitten; d) apply bandage (but not a tourniquet)…As many sources as I looked at, I didn’t see one that said: “Look to a bronze snake on a pole!”
That’s what is so surprising in this weekend’s Old Testament reading from Numbers 21. God had been miraculously caring for His people in the desert for 38 years – almost to the end of their 40 year “sentence” because of their refusal to believe Joshua and Caleb when God first wanted to lead them into the Promised Land of Canaan. Instead, they wanted “their own way” and God said “okay, have it your way.” God “sentenced” them to wander around in the Wilderness for 40 years. Yet, in His mercy, God provided “free groceries” every morning for 40 years, in the form of manna, for well over a million people! But this next generation was just as sinful and rebellious. They too “grew impatient… they spoke against God and against Moses.” In effect they said: “We are sick and tired of waking up every morning and all of our lives finding the same old free groceries that have kept us alive in this desert wilderness, delivered to our door! We want something different!” So, God answered their prayer – instead of “free groceries,” “the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.” (Numbers 21:6)
God’s purpose of consequences and punishment for sinful rebellion IS ALWAYS to lead His people BACK TO HIMSELF through repentance. So when the people confessed to Moses: “We have sinned… Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us… The LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.” (Numbers 21:7-9)
Now, of course it wasn’t the bronze snake on the pole – but God – who healed them. The bronze snake was merely a symbol – a FOCAL POINT for the sinful people to look away from everything else, to the one place of healing and life which God had established.
In today’s Gospel reading, when Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, Jesus POINTED Nicodemus to the FOCAL POINT for sinful people to LOOK AWAY FROM EVERYTHING ELSE, to the ONE PLACE of healing and life. Jesus told Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15
Isn’t it ironic? The bronze serpent on the pole in the wilderness looked like the source of death – but God made it the “cure” for physical life! Jesus’ suffering and dying on the cross looked like the source of defeat, the end of our Savior Jesus, but God made it the only “cure” / the only “means” of eternal life for all people! Looking up to Jesus, His cross and resurrection, gives eternal life to “everyone who believes.”
But “looking up to the cross” is much more than MERELY looking at the symbol of the cross; wearing the cross as jewelry. We read in 2 Kings 18, (500 years after “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness”), that Israel had been “burning incense” to the bronze snake! King Hezekiah put an end to such “superstitious foolishness.” He “broke the bronze snake into pieces”! (v.4) It was NOT the bronze snake, it is NOT the cross, to which we are to look up to for life!
Have you heard about or seen (maybe pics on internet) the 19-story cross located on I- 40 at Groom, Texas. Steve Thomas and his wife, Bobby, wanted to do something to express their devotion to Jesus Christ, so, sparing no expense, they built this huge Cross. It stands 190 feet (19 stories) in the air. It took 100 welders 8 months to construct. It weighs 1,250 tons and is encircled by 14 bronze statues depicting the Stations of the Cross. They say, on a clear day, you can see it from 20 miles away.
Will seeing this Cross and being impressed by its sheer size and scope lead to lives that reflect the presence of the living Christ, or will most simply stop, take pictures and go on as they often do when they see other monuments like the Washington monument or the statue of Abraham Lincoln?
Anyone can build a statue or hang a picture of Jesus. Jesus Christ is no bronze serpent on a pole. He’s the crucified and risen Lord, and He calls us to live in relationship with Him day by day. To lift high the Cross of Jesus is to walk with Him, serve others in His name, and glorify Him as Lord of all creation.
Jesus, was not only “lifted up” on the cross, He was also “lifted up”/ “resurrected” on Easter; and 40 days later, “lifted up” at the Ascension. And now, in addition to these Words from His Holy Word, Jesus continues to “lift us up” through the other Means of Grace:
- Holy Baptism in which God’s Word reminds us: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death (the cross)? We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:3-4)
- The Lord’s Supper in which God’s Word reminds us: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26)
And as we are “lifted up,” this makes a difference in our lives. In today’s second reading from Ephesians 2, we know that we are “saved by grace through faith, not from ourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” This gives us direction, meaning and purpose in life: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10) By grace, through faith we are “lifted up” to a life lived “higher” than sin and selfishness – a life of willing service, that God prepared in advance for us to do. May Jesus Christ and His cross be lifted high as God continues to work in and through our lives. Amen.
Pastor Dan Myers