The Israelites were snake-bitten. Venomous fire-snakes were let loose in camp. The people were in agony, dying. They grumbled. They spoke against God and against His servant Moses. They were ungrateful for the manna that fell from heaven and the water that came out of the rock. And so God sent a plague of fiery poison snakes.
The people confessed, Moses interceded, and God provided a sacrament – a bronze serpent on a wooden pole. A visible sign with a promise: “Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” It’s a strange sign, don’t you think? The cure looks like the disease itself. A serpent of all things, an image of that sly, subtle creature who tempted Eve in the Garden. A bronze snake on a stake. In Leviticus God said don’t make images; then He has them make an image.
An idol is an image without the command and promise of God. The golden calf. Even the bronze serpent became an idol for the Israelites. They named it “Nahushtan” and offered incense to it. It had to be destroyed along with Aaron’s staff that miraculously budded. Whenever a sign comes unbuckled from God’s Word, idolatry lies close at hand.
With the Word, the sign is a “sacrament,” a gift from God given tangibly, receivably. Look on the bronze serpent and be healed of your snakebite. The promise was there, located for certain for you. And when you were burning up with fever and delirious with poison, you didn’t say, “What do I need such a silly snake on a stake for? I can just pray to God directly.” You didn’t say, “I don’t like snakes; they give me the creeps. Look at the snake? Are you crazy?” No, you did what the Lord said to do. You went out of your way to glue your eyes on that bronze snake because it was the only way to survive.
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.”
Jesus foretells His own death on the cross and its benefits. He is the “serpent” on the wood, lifted up for the life of the world. All who look on Him through the “eyes” of faith have eternal life.
Like the Israelites in the wilderness, humanity is “snake-bitten.” It happened in the Garden when the shrewd and subtle serpent tempted Eve and injected the poison of his lie. The lie that God is not true to His Word. The lie that God doesn’t mean what He says. The lie that we can be gods in place of God, that we can experience good and evil on our own terms, that we can reach into the middle and be masters of our own destiny. The lie that we can disobey God and we won’t die as a result. Eve bit, Adam bit. The serpent bit and his deadly poison invaded our humanity leaving no part undamaged. Humanity died that day. They were dead to God and to each other – hiding, ashamed, blaming, self-justifying. The poison not only invaded them, it was passed on to their children. Every son and daughter is infected with the serpent’s venom. No generation is skipped. Not you. Each of us is born with the poison coursing through our humanity. The apostle Paul says, “You were dead in trespasses and sin.” Not sick, not weak, not troubled, not struggling or even hanging on for dear life. Snake-bitten dead.
How do you cure a deadly case of snake bite? You don’t put a band aid on it and say, “Think positive thoughts and try really hard to get better.” You don’t say, “Pray this prayer for the snakebitten, and all will be will.” You need a shot of anti-serum. Anti-serum comes from one who has been exposed to the poison and survived. God made Jesus the sinless Son to be sin for you. He became your sin, so that in Him you might become the righteousness of God. He was cursed with the curse against your sin; He was damned for you. He was exposed to our sin and death. Jesus took the full hit for us, the wrath of God, the temptations of the devil, the judgment of the Law. He went down to our grave, and He rose from the dead. He conquered our death in His Death. He is the anti-serum of Death. Like the bronze serpent on the pole, all who believe in Him are healed of death and have eternal life.
Imagine you were an Israelite in the wilderness. Your best friend, a relative, a neighbor is lying on the ground, bitten by the fire snake. What do you do? Do you wish him good luck and hope for the best? Tell him to accept YHWH into his heart? What if you had already looked on that bronze serpent and lived because of it. You’re a survivor, alive by the grace of God. Wouldn’t you point your friend to the bronze serpent. Maybe you’d even carry him over to the place where he could see it too. You would urge him, “Look on that thing and live.” You wouldn’t take no for answer, at least not easily. You’d be urgent and forceful. You wouldn’t worry about hurting his feelings or “not respecting his beliefs” or all the other excuses we have.
The medicine is here in the church. The church fathers used to call the Sacrament “the medicine of immortality.” The cure for death and the curse of sin. Jesus’ own body given into death; Jesus’ own blood given for your life. The world looks on the Sacrament as though you have just raised a bronze boa and says, “You’ve got to be joking! This is how you live forever? Trust Jesus? Eat His Body as bread? Drink His blood as wine?” But what other cure is there? Who else promises life from death? Who else in the world died and rose from the dead? Who else says, “Trust me, eating my flesh, drinking my blood, and I will raise you up on the Last Day and give you eternal life”? Who else but Jesus?
You need this medicine, this word of forgiveness, this Sacrament of Jesus’ death and life. You need this medicine because the snake bitten you too and without the anti-serum you will die in your sins. You need hear and eat and drink. And others you know need to hear and eat and drink too.
God loved the cosmos in this way: He gave His only-begotten Son to die for it. He raised His Son up on a cross one dark day we call Good Friday. It wasn’t a bronze image He lifted up but His own Son in the flesh in that cruel and bizarre death that even today people would rather look away from. An empty cross, they can abide (unless it’s on a county seal or a government building). But not a crucifix, that instrument of torture. Who can look at such a thing? What kind of religion is it that lifts up such a banner with pride and says, “Behold, your Savior and King”?
Here is the love of God. He loves the world to death in the death of His Son. God loves by giving His Son for the life of this unloving, unlovable world. Can you begin to imagine it? What God tested Abraham to do, offer up his son Isaac, God the Father actually did. And the world says, “That’s nuts. How can I believe in a God would do such a thing?” You have no other alternative. This is the God who is loving to the loveless, forgiving to sinners, who justifies the sinner in Christ. The God who is willing to be bruised by the serpent in order to crush his head.
Many of us know this passage by heart: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It’s more than a sign people hold up at sporting events. It’s the Gospel in a nutshell. We ought to learn verse 17 as well: “For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but to save the world through Him.” Judgment comes later, at the end. And then it’s a judgment in view of what has already been done in the death of Jesus. “It is finished.” Look on Him and live. Behold the Lamb of God bearing your sin. That’s your life hanging there on the cross. Trust Him and live. He’s not there on the cross or in the Sacrament to judge you. He was judged for you. The verdict is rendered. Jesus is guilty, and you in Jesus are innocent. Acquitted. Justified.
“Outrageous,” you say. Yes it is, but this isn’t your court. If God’s judgment of “innocent in Jesus” doesn’t suit you, if you’d rather argue your own case and justify yourself, if you’d rather refuse the bronze snake on a stick and work out your own antidote then listen carefully: Whoever does not believe, does not trust crucified and risen Jesus, stands judged already because he refuses to trust in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
There is hope for this snake-bitten world of ours. God has raised up the sacramental sign – the cross of Jesus – and has made a promise. Look on Jesus – in your Baptism, in the word of forgiveness, in the Body and the Blood, look on Him through faith-full eyes and live forever. He is your healing, your strength, your life, and your salvation.
In the Name of Jesus,