You might be wondering what in the world “Pre-Lent” is. My wife was when she proofread the bulletin last night.
In the ancient church calendar, the season of Epiphany ended three Sundays before the season of Lent began. Those three Sundays sandwiched between Epiphany and Lent were called Septuagesima Sunday, Sexagesima Sunday and Quinquagesima Sunday. Collectively they have been simply called “Pre-Lent”.
This year we’ll be using these three Sundays to prepare our hearts and minds for Lent. To do this we’ll use a Sunday to meditate on Christ’s Cross, one for Christ’s Resurrection and one for Christ’s Glorious return on the Last Day. Our sermon texts will come from the Old Testament.
Today, we consider the Cross.
Our sermon reading from the book of Numbers is simple. Boiled down to just three words it is about SIN, REBUKE and GRACE. It concerns the nation of Israel, so before we start reading, we need to understand what period of Israel’s history this takes place in.
Israel had been in slavery. They called out for the LORD to rescue them. The LORD sent Moses, and through plagues on the Egyptian people and many other miracles, God took the Israelites from Pharaoh to be His own people.
In the desert of the Sinai Peninsula, at the very foot of Mt. Sinai, the people saw God’s presence in smoke and fire and dark clouds. There, the LORD gave Moses the Ten Commandments and all the other laws concerning how the nation of Israel would be governed, and how the people would worship the LORD. By these laws God would set this people apart from the other nations of the world. This was the nation from which the Savior would be born.
The LORD promised the Israelites that He would lead them through the desert to a rich land that would be their own. As they traveled through the wilderness to reach this Promised Land, God fed them with miracle bread. The Israelites called it “Manna” because they didn’t know what it was. It appeared in the morning with the dew, and dissipated in the heat of the day.
When they needed water, God provided water. Sometimes God made undrinkable waters pure. Other times God made pure water spring out of rock for the people to drink.
When they reached the border of the Promised Land, the Israelites sent scouts to scope out the land and its inhabitants. When the scouts returned, they said the land was indeed rich, but they should go back to Egypt instead, because the people there were too large and too strong to displace.
Because they didn’t trust the LORD’s promise to make this land theirs, God proclaimed that only two of them would ever enter the Promised Land. The two scouts who had urged the people to go up and take the land. The rest of the people would wander in the desert for forty years until they were all dead. Only their children would enter the rich land that God had promised.
Our text for today falls near the end of the forty years of wandering. The Israelites are nearly ready to enter the Promised Land. In fact, they were on the way to the border when they hit yet another snag.
The best way to the Promised Land was through the land of Edom, but the king of Edom would not give them passage through his land. He even mustered his army just in case the Israelites tried.
So, they had to go around. That’s where we pick up our reading…
Numbers 21:4-9 (NIV)
4They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
6Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9So 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.
Like I said earlier, you can summarize this reading with three words: SIN, REBUKE and GRACE.
First we see sin.
The people grew impatient. We can almost excuse this one, can’t we? Or at least understand it. I mean, these children had grown up in the desert. They have moved from one place to another, living in tents all their lives. They had to carry their own water, and gather their own food every day. There were no towns out there in the wasteland. And why were they forced to grow up in the desert? Because their parents didn’t trust the LORD when they came to the border of the Promised Land so many years ago.
But now, they were on their way to finally enter it. Then they wouldn’t have to live in dusty tents anymore. They would have walls, and rooms and real beds, and wells and gardens and vineyards. But all the sudden they had to go out of their way and travel all the way around the country of Edom.
Their impatience grew, and blossomed into the bitter flower of ungrateful discontent. They “conveniently” forgot how much they had been given by the LORD. They were alive in the wasteland because HE provided bread for them every morning. They SAID they didn’t have any water, but if that were really true, they’d have been dead already. In fact, if you back up from our reading, in the first part of this chapter God provided water for them right out of a rock at a place called Meribah.
Finally, their blossoming discontent sent up the acrid scent of open rebellion. They expressed their rebellion against God in words when they said – “And we detest this miserable food!”
Manna may not have been chocolate cake, but it was what was keeping them alive, and it was given from the very hand of God each and every day.
If we had been there, would we have acted in this way? I wonder. Sin has re-wired the human mind so that we are instinctively impatient. As children our impatience is amplified. As adults we’re have a smidge more, until we have a bad day, a slow internet connection, or find ourselves in an unexpected traffic jam.
And then, do we glorify God by bearing these setbacks and slowdowns with tact and grace? Or do we swear and honk our horns, forgetting that it is by God’s gracious hand that we even have cars, or roads on which to be impatient.
Sin has wired us for ungrateful discontent also. In this country, we are tremendously rich. Yet, we don’t consider ourselves wealthy. Even if we’ve got multiple cars, large screen TV’s and a cell phone for each child. We generally don’t live within our means, but just outside our means – which illustrates our desire for just a little more. And so the debts piles up, or the stuff does.
Even in the middle of plenty, we can be discontent. In our own way we say with the Israelites – “God, I detest this miserable food”. Sin has wired us for this response. But that doesn’t make it right. And that doesn’t make it okay.
When the Israelites sinned against the LORD, God rebuked them. We might be tempted to view this response by God in a bad light. Like He just got angry and wanted to wreck something, so He vented His anger on the whining Israelites. But that’s not what God’s rebuke is all about.
In the book of Proverbs Solomon writes…
“11My son, do not despise the LORD’s disciplineWhen the LORD sent venomous snakes into the camp of the Israelites, He did it in judgment of some – it was their death. But to others this was a loving rebuke. Rebuke is never a pleasant thing, but it serves a purpose. It’s like a slap to the face meant to shut our complaining mouths and wake us up to reality of our situation.
and do not resent his rebuke,
12because the LORD disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in” (Proverbs 3:11-12 NIV).
And it did just that for the Israelites. They realized that their implication that the LORD had led them out into the desert just to kill them was completely baseless. The snakes that slithered through their camp made it clear that if the LORD really wanted them dead, they’d be dead.
God wanted them to live. And not just live through the desert on their way to the Promised Land of Palestine, God wanted them to live in harmony with Him forever. Looking to Him as their great God and provider in this life, and in eternity.
The LORD’s rebuke was harsh, but it woke the people up. They abandoned their brash complaints, and turned to Moses with a heavy heart. They told Moses they were wrong, and asked him to request that God take these snakes away.
It’s too bad they didn’t do this in the first place. You know, ask God for help. If their frustration led them to assault the throne of God with PRAYERS instead of complaints and accusations, things would have gone much differently. May God give US the faith to respond to our frustrations with prayer and trust, so that we don’t have to feel the heavy hand of God’s rebuke.
The last paragraph in our text is my favorite. We’ve seen SIN. We’ve send REBUKE. Now we see God’s GRACE. Look again at verse 8…
“8The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9So 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 21:8-9 NIV).Simple, isn’t it? God doesn’t make it complicated. Those who look at the snake, live.
The Israelites only asked for the snakes to go away, God gave them more. He healed the already bitten. The doomed, would now live.
And what an unusual way to heal. God didn’t instruct them to treat themselves in some mystic way. He didn’t require them offer some special sacrifice of sadness or self degradation. Through His servant Moses, God simply gave them the gift that would heal them.
In the book of 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul talks about all the different things that the wandering children of Israel went through on their way to the Promised Land. Paul says that these things were written down as a warning for us. So that we will not do the evil things that the Israelites did, and face the wrath of God.
We will sin, we’re wired for that. But when we do, and when we face God’s rebuke (harsh or gentle), now we know what happens next. God heals. He heals our souls through the forgiveness that came because God’s Son was raised up on a pole.
In John 3 Jesus says…
“14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.The man-made religions of the world teach that God would have us earn our own forgiveness of sins. But the LORD says something altogether different and wonderful. He says, “Look and live”. Look to Christ’s Cross trusting that there He suffered for all your sins. Look and live.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:14-15 NIV).
As we go through the season of Lent, remember that the Cross is what it’s all about. Look and live.
Prayer: Father in heaven, lead us away from sin. Give us patience, gratefulness and contentment. Teach us to see your hand at work in our lives. Teach us to wait on your plan. And while we wait, teach our mouths to praise you and our hearts to pray to you in complete trust. And when we do sin, teach us to bring our sins to You. Teach us to look at the Cross of your Son and believe that there we are healed. Don’t let us flounder in self-justification or trying to earn our own salvation. Teach us to look and live. Amen.