“God’s ‘Snakebite’ Remedy”

Lent 4

March 15, 2015


Text: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21


          Our lesson from Numbers this morning contains a story that is strange when looked at through 21st century eyes. In the years following the Exodus, when God delivered the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses, we find the Hebrews on their long journey through the wilderness. As happened several times over those 40 years of wandering, the people started complaining: “Why did you bring us out here from Egypt to kill us in the desert? There’s no food or water! And we hate this bread we have to eat every day (a reference, no doubt, to the manna, the “bread from heaven” which God provided them throughout the journey).” So what happened? Poisonous snakes came into the camp and started biting people. Many of them died.

          The people then confessed to Moses that they had sinned against that Lord, and asked Moses to pray for them and ask God to take away the snakes. Moses prayed, and the answer God gave Moses was, “Make a poisonous 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 on a pole. When someone was bitten, that person could look at the bronze snake and live.

          I have no idea how that was supposed to cure snakebite. It certainly isn’t how we do it today. Today it requires a shot of antivenin, which they didn’t know about back then. So God provided another way.

          According to John’s Gospel, Jesus referred back to this story in talking about what was going to happen to him. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness,” he said, “so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.” Jesus, of course, was lifted up on the cross to die. Jesus was describing himself as the cure for the “snakebite” of sin.

          We may not be used to thinking of sin as being like snakebite, but the comparison is apt. Being bitten by a poisonous snake poisons our bodies, and it can kill us if the proper remedy is not administered in time. Sin poisons our relationship with God. Without the proper remedy, it leads to eternal death, eternal separation from God.

          In his letter to the church at Ephesus, the Apostle Paul talks about what it is like to be snakebitten by sin, without God’s remedy: “At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. You used to act like most people in our world do. You followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power. This is the spirit of disobedience to God’s will that is now at work in persons whose lives are characterized by disobedience. At one time you were like those persons. All of you used to do whatever felt good and whatever you thought you wanted so that you were children headed for punishment just like everyone else.” Now when I read this passage and consider my life, as well as what I observe in others who call themselves Christian, my reaction is, “Used to?” Many of the things Paul says the Ephesians used to be like can be used to describe me and many Christians in their current state. Many times I act just like everybody else. I do not always live according to God’s will. Too often I do what feels good and care mostly about what I want. Only in my better moments, and by the grace of God, do I rise above these things enough that I can say “I used to be this way” about myself in regard to these things. Paul would understand that. In another of his letters he lamented his own wretched state and his inability to do what God wanted. In his letters to various churches he often lamented about people within the church who were engaged in all sorts of behavior he considered unsuitable for those who follow Jesus Christ.

          The reason Paul can say “used to be” in this situation, and the reason we can also say that, is not because of anything we have done. It is because of what God has done in Jesus Christ. This is told in those well-known words from John’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” In the same vein, Paul also reminded the Ephesians: “God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!” Remember that grace is God’s love and favor shown toward us, even though we don’t deserve it and cannot earn it. Paul continues, “God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus. God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus. You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.”

          God has provided the remedy for our sin—his Son, Jesus Christ, lifted up to die on the cross so that our sins might be forgiven. God has provided this remedy because he loves us with a love so great it is beyond our ability to comprehend or imagine. Although we still struggle with sin in our lives, we are no longer snakebitten. Thanks be to God.


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