A symbol of death that gives life.


Sermon for March 14th, 2021


God creates order. Humans create chaos. Bad things happen. God starts over.

This, brothers and sisters, is a recognizable pattern in the scriptures, in particular the first five books of the bible, the books of Moses or the Torah. Pay attention to this pattern as you read the scriptures.

God creates order. Humans create chaos. Bad things happen. God starts over.

It happens with creation and Adam and Eve; it happens with Noah and with Moses and you will see it in the prophets and in the writings and in the history books of scripture. Watch for this pattern in scripture.

God uses his power to create or do something wonderful. Humans use their power to make a mess out of it and they suffer the consequences. Then God uses his power again to start over and create something new. 

Think of the Hebrews wandering in the desert. They had been spared from the plagues in Egypt. They had crossed through the Red Sea. God fed them with bread from heaven. God gave them water from the rock. How many times has God proven himself to these people? How many miracles had they seen? By the time we get to this point in the Book of Numbers, this isn’t just a disorganized mob of refugees anymore. By now, God has given them commandments. The different tribes have been organized. The worship has been structured and there are set rituals. The community has order and the community has direction; they have a goal, the promised land. The beginning of the Book of Numbers can be kind of a dull read because so much time is spent describing the order and the structure of the tribes of Israel as they move through the desert. And they get to this point where they have to take the long way around to get somewhere. The people of Edom don’t want them passing through their land, so they have to go around, and the people get impatient. They get angry with Moses again; they say why have you brought us out of Egypt to die out here in the wilderness. They exaggerate and say there is no food and water…we know that’s not true, that’s a lie. We know they have food and water, but they don’t want to look at what God is giving them; they want to focus on what they left behind in Egypt. 

These people are starting to think that God can’t be trusted. They are starting to think that God is a liar. Well, who was it that first told humans that God can’t be trusted? Who was it that first made us question God’s power? Who first taught us to focus on what we didn’t have rather than what we have? 

The serpent. It was the serpent that fooled Adam and Even into thinking that God couldn’t be trusted. It was the serpent that taught mankind to focus more on what he lacked than on what he had. Adam and Eve decided to trust the voice of the serpent more than they trusted in the voice of God. That is the original story. The first time that humans take God’s order and turn it into chaos and suffer the consequences for it. 

So when the Israelites are wandering through the desert and decide that they no longer want to trust in God and that his promises are no longer good enough for them, what does God send them? Serpents! Because the Lord loves a good symbol, and what could be a better symbol of human pride, arrogance and sinfulness than a serpent? Of course, the serpents brought pain and death, that is what human sinfulness does. 

But God isn’t sending the serpents to be vindictive. God isn’t some sadist or angry tyrant that has to have his way, otherwise he punishes people. Humans may act that way, but not God. God is a loving parent. A loving parent doesn’t discipline a child because he or she takes some perverse joy in inflicting pain. A loving parent disciplines a child to protect that child, to keep him safe, to help her make good choices. 

Well, the people figured out very quickly that they had made a bad choice in not trusting God. They realized that no matter how strong, or how clever they were, they just couldn’t win with these snakes. They needed God again. Humans had messed things up again and suffered the consequences. Now it was time for God to start over. God had the antidote; he would give them a second chance, a new life. How would God do it? Well do you remember how I said the Lord loves a good symbol? Well our God loves symbols! Write that down. Our God loves symbols. Symbols have incredible power in this world our God created and ordered. Symbols have real power and God gives them to us for that power to work in our lives.

God gives Moses a symbol. The very thing people are most afraid of: a serpent. And this serpent wasn’t just a symbol of death to them, it was also a symbol of their failure. These serpents were a reminder of how they had turned away from God; how they had trusted the voice of the deceiver more than they trusted the promises of God. This isn’t just a bronze reptile on a stick; this was a visual reminder of death and human sinfulness. A visual reminder that on their own humans have no power over death. And yet, through the power of God this symbol of death, was the very thing that gave life. 

A symbol of death that gives life. If you read scripture often enough and closely enough, you will identify patterns and themes like the one I mentioned as I began: God creates order. Humans create chaos. Bad things happen. God starts over. You identify these patterns and these patterns, in turn, point you to deep truths. Truths about God and truths about ourselves. And one of the truths that we find in the cycle that I just mentioned is that there is a moment when human failure comes into direct contact with something new and miraculous that God is doing. There is a point right at the intersection of bad things happening and God starting over. In the story from Numbers that point is marked by the bronze serpent; the symbol of death that gives life. When our blessed Lord walked the earth, he saw that symbol of Moses as a sign that was pointing to an even deeper truth: his own cross. 

In our Lord’s day, the cross was a symbol of death. And not a natural death either. This is death at the hands of another human being. It was a symbol of political power. It was a symbol meant to strike fear into the hearts of all that saw it. The Romans used this as a symbol of their power and success, but can you think of a more potent symbol of our failure as human beings than this? Can you think of a more powerful depiction of human sin? Human beings, in their lust for power and control and possessions, will nail another human to a tree, and will call it justice. 

We will call it justice. This is human justice at work. What does God do to this symbol of human justice? How does God intervene once again with depraved humanity to start over and offer them life again? He dies on it. God meets us in the depths of our depravity and takes the suffering onto himself. This is the point where human failure comes into direct contact with a new thing that God is doing. This is the intersection of human sinfulness and God’s grace. This is where human justice meets divine justice. This is where condemnation meets salvation. And this point is forevermore marked in eternity by a symbol. It was a symbol of death, that now gives life. 

There is absolutely nothing in a cross for humans to brag about or be proud of. In fact, it is a vivid reminder of where human pride can lead. The glory and power of the cross is all in what God has done with it. God has taken a symbol of death and human misery, and he has used it, once again and here for all time, to give new life to the world.