April 17, 2019

Lent 5 - Numbers 21:4-9

The Circumstance Does Not Dictate the Meaning

Sometimes we act like people can make mistakes or cut corners if they’re under a tough situation or a lot of stress. We sympathize with them and say that it’s only natural that they failed or did something wrong. Could anyone expect more of them? Sometimes we apply that to our faith too. If we’re stressed or scared, we think we have a good reason for not trusting God. We argue that if God would just let up a bit and make things easier, we’d be better Christians. But God strengthens us through the trial. He works for our good in the bad. And He doesn’t let us off the hook.

In our text for this morning, the Israelites were in a moment of heightened stress. Not just ordinary stress, but a high level of stress. Should the Lord have taken it easy on them? We might say so at first glance but would that have really helped them? Instead of complaining about what was going on, God wanted them to trust in His will and remember His promises. The same applies in our lives. We shouldn’t get special treatment just because there’s a lot going on. God doesn’t let up – in His faithfulness or in His love. The circumstance does not dictate the meaning – the Lord does. A situation does not become important or unimportant based on what we’re going through. The Lord provides meaning to it, whether we see it as mundane or extraordinary. Something isn’t wrong in one setting and okay in another just because we’re under a lot of pressure or stress. How would that play out in life?

·       Would you tell your teenager, go ahead and drink while underage and drive your car home just because you’re under a lot of pressure to conform?

·       Would you be okay if your boss lied to you about a promised bonus or treated others better than you out of favoritism just because he was under a lot of stress?

The circumstances of life in which you find yourself are important, but they never are the single determinant to the meaning that your life has. How much more this is in true when it comes to faith in Jesus. Consider our text from God’s Word for today, which tells us of a very difficult circumstance:

Numbers 21:4-9 Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses: "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread." 6 So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. 7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD that He take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. 8 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live." 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

Chronologically, the book of Leviticus covers about a month. By contrast, the book of Numbers spans almost 39 years. This gives us an indication into why there are many important and influential events are found in the book of Numbers. The name “Numbers” was derived from the two numberings, or censuses, of Israel that are contained in the book. Topically, a better name for Numbers might be “Tension” or “Failure.” This is a book hat contains a lot of problems – the problems that God’s people had in following Him. The momentum that Israel had in the book of Exodus, as they began their journey home from Egypt, had been abruptly halted in Numbers. They were on the doorstep, but they were also tested more intensely than they had been before. Consider some of the stressors and difficulties we’re told about in Numbers, leading up to our text:
·       40th year of wandering – now on the cusp of the Promised Land
·       King of Edom was not allowing passage – other Canaanite kings in the way.
·       Two rebellions already – Sons of Korah (swallowed up by the earth – religious leaders) – entire assembly of people – over 15,000 dead.
·       Miriam and Aaron rebelled.
·       Moses failed and would not be allowed to complete the journey into Canaan.
·       Israel refused to enter Canaan at their first chance.
·       Miriam and Aaron have both died.

Our text is one of the last events before Israel crossed into the promised land, thus the heightening of expectation from God. His people had been here before, when the spies scoped out the land and its kingdoms, and the people lacked the trust to move forward. Fast forward to the next generation, after wandering around in the wilderness for nearly 40 years. God didn’t want another failure to happen again so things got tense. This is a lesson in judgment over unfaithfulness but even more so of God’s mercy and forgiveness. We might think the judgment is powerful but it pales in comparison to the effect that the Lord’s compassion has on people.

The trouble is, faithlessness balks at the gift of compassion. The Lord was also generous, caring, and protective of His people. But He was also harsh because He didn’t want them to slip into unbelief. All of these thoughts set the stage for the event here on the plains of Moab. The tension and stress of the time had its effect on the people of Israel. We see three indications of that in our text:

1. Verse 4 tells us that the soul, literally the life of the people, became discouraged. This word literally means shortened. Think of our saying when we witness someone who has an outburst of anger – that they have a “short fuse” or that they’re “short-tempered.” The people of Israel had run out of patience.    

2. Verse 5 tells us that they “loathed” the bread God had given them – the manna from heaven that had sustained them throughout their journey. This was not simply indifference, or coming to the dinner table and preferring something else. They abhorred this bread. They were no longer satisfied with God’s provision. They hated it. They were incensed with anger.

3. And when we’re told that the people spoke against Moses and God, the word used is not the typically Hebrew word for normal talking. This is a word with a stronger force – to speak in a demanding way.

The people of Israel were fed up with their circumstance. And they believed that it gave them the right to defy God, to complain, and to demand that He give them something different. In reality they were wrong about their complaint. They may not have liked the Lord’s plan, but they still had food and water. The manna ensured that they wouldn’t starve. Just in the previous chapter the Lord provided water for the entire camp when Moses struck the rock (what proved to be his fatal error). God had supplied their needs and here they were, about to take possession of their own land which they had lost hundreds of years before – and they were angry and complaining. The problem wasn’t that they were in need; it was that it they wanted something else. The circumstance didn’t determine right or wrong, nor had God’s grace faltered – Israel allowed their perception to be skewed.   

The same is true about our complaints. The Lord provides for us, it’s just that He doesn’t always do it the way we want Him to. We allow our circumstances to dictate what we believe and how we treat God. If we believe we’re being mistreated, or held out on by God, we feel justified in complaining and demanding. Can you imagine your children acting that way? If you provided for them, gave them everything they needed. If you accomplished things for them that they couldn’t achieve themselves; only to hear them complain and demand differently?

Well, it happens with our children, doesn’t it? And we did the same thing to our parents. Because children don’t always grasp the proper meaning. They allow their limited understanding of the circumstance to dictate the meaning for them. Perhaps we’re better at avoiding this as adults, but it’s the same thing we do to God when we get impatient with His plan, His will, and His Word. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more stressful and tension-filled situation than we have here in Numbers 21. It’s certainly more than we’re typically up against when it comes to our earthly lives. But that didn’t justify how the people of Israel responded. And we’re not justified in our moments either.

Think about the big picture for the moment. Our Heavenly Father has secured eternal life for us in heaven. He sent His only Son to die a criminal’s death in our place. He has created our lives and given us, freely, every needed earthly and spiritual blessing. On top of that, God protects us daily from evil – even without our request. He gives us a 24/7 communication lifeline through prayer, which we typically throw on the back shelf in favor of television, our phones, and whatever else captures our attention for the moment. God has done all of this for us already – and much, much more. And the evil we experience in our lives is a product of human hands, not God’s. Despite all of this, we still have trust issues with God. We still believe that we know better – just because we’re going through a lot. What more must God do to prove His faithfulness and mercy to us?     

I’m not trying to sound calloused and unsympathetic. The struggle of sin is real and I know you all go through a lot. What I’m trying to do is remind that God is never the villain. You must fight and resist the urge to lash out against Him just because of the circumstance you’re in, because no matter what you’re going through I can guarantee you one thing – it doesn’t change the meaning of what God has done for you.

The people of Israel forgot that. So, God sent them this unusual and stunning plague -fiery serpents. The casual observer sees a vengeful God that sits as a tyrannical judge in fury and disdain for His people. The enlightened skeptic sees a cruel deity who delights in punishing His people. General human nature sees it as downright unfair and harsh. Hadn’t the people been through enough? What was the point to all this anyway? Does God really think that motivating through punishment is the most loving thing to do?

Everyone sees the meaning of this story the way they want to they forget to see it as God intended and planned it – as a testament to His love for sinners in Christ. God knew that no matter the circumstance, the meaning of His work as the Author of salvation would never change – and He will fight at all costs so that it doesn’t change in your heart. He didn’t want the people to lose that! So, He disciplined them in a harsh way. And it worked. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD that He take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. 8 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live."

God’s meaning remained intact, and His mercy held the day. What a strange story, though. It seems so different than how God works with us in our lives. But is it really? We should see deep connection between Israel’s situation and our own. And Jesus gave us the connecting clue:

John 3:13 "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. 14 "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.

The bronze snake on the pole ultimately symbolized God’s Son on the cross. Israel saw the symbol – we see the fulfillment. The impact on each is the same – repentance and forgiveness through God’s substitute. Despite how strange this story sounds to our ears; it has the same blessing because we suffer from the same ailment.

No matter what any of us go through, no matter how bad it was for Israel – no one could handle what happened to Jesus. Talk about a stressful, hard-pressed circumstance – even to the point of death. Every outward observation of that circumstance indicated failure. Accused and bound, mocked and beaten, scourged and crucified. There was no hope with Jesus – no glimmer of light even as He was shrouded in darkness in the middle of the day. Everything seemed lost and hopeless but God’s plan never changed. The meaning of His mission and its impact for sinners never wavered – because it was God’s will.

It was true for Jesus’s and because of that, it’s true for us. Remember that no matter what you go through. Nothing changes God’s love for you. Amen.

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