A Serpent on a Stick

Fire snakes were loose in the camp of Israel. Slithering all over the place. Hiding in dark corners, slipping in under tents and into sleeping bags. Venomous and deadly. People were dying all over the camp of Israel. The Lord sent those snakes; they were His judgment over the grumbling of a faithless, ungrateful people. Ungrateful for the manna that fell from heaven every day but Saturday and for the fresh water that streamed from the stricken rock. They despised the Lord’s food. They despised the Lord. They despised their freedom and longed for Egypt. So God sent snakes.

Stricken, smitten, and afflicted, the people came crawling to Moses with their confession. “We have sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you.” That’s a good start. Confession. Tell the truth. Admit it and stop trying to cover it up or justify yourself. We have sinned against the Lord; against one another. In thought, in word, in deed, by things done, by things left undone. You may as well admit and stop trying to deny it. The sting of death is all around you. Don’t pretend it isn’t there and you don’t know why. Don’t blame everyone around you. Own it. The Lord sent the deadly snakes to drive His people to repentance. Don’t think He doesn’t do the same with us.

They prayed to Moses to interceded. “Pray the Lord to take the snakes away from us.” The Lord sent them; He alone can take them away. Moses stands between, a mediator between God and Israel. Notice they don’t speak straight to YHWH. They go through the designated go-between – Moses, who stands in the breach between the God of Sinai and the people of Israel. Moses prays for the people about the deadly snakes.

Notice that the Lord doesn’t take away the snakes, as they had asked. Instead, He provides a cure, an anti-venom. Karen and I took a tour of the Long Beach aquarium on Monday night. It was a special behind the scenes tour for members. It was after public hours, so the place was quite empty and we could study all the exhibits in detail. They have a display of tropical water snakes that are at once beautiful and deadly. They are so deadly that only two members of the aquarium staff have a key to the exhibit. And they keep a supply of the anti-venom at St. Mary’s Hospital in Long Beach “just in case.”

The anti-venom for the fire snakes was a sacrament, a sign instituted by God with a promise. “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” A material object with the promise of God attached. Look on this bronze snake on a stick, and you will live. And that’s how it worked. Everyone who looked at the bronze serpent would live.

How can bronze do such great things, you may wonder. It is not the bronze indeed that does them, nor is it the shape of the bronze, though had Moses made a bronze mouse or chipmunk it wouldn’t have worked because that’s not what the Lord instituted. This is the Lord’s doing, not Moses’. It was a bronze serpent – the cure resembled the disease. It had the promise of God’s Word attached to it – whoever looked on it would live.

Suppose you were an Israelite and your best friend or relative is lying on the ground, writhing in agony, bitten by one of those fire snakes sent by God. What would you do knowing what you know? Would you say, “Pray this snakebitten prayer and everything will work out fine?” No. You would lift his eyes to the bronze serpent and the pole and say, “Behold the serpent of the Lord. Look on it and live.” Suppose you yourself had been snakebitten and survived because you did the same thing. You looked on that hideous bronze serpent and you lived. Do you suppose you might be eager to tell your fellow Israelites and urge them to do the same? Would you worry about offending their sensitivities or not respecting their beliefs or pushing on their fear of snakes? No, of course not. You wouldn’t take no for an answer, would you?

Penn Jillette, of Penn & Teller, the quirky Las Vegas magic act, recorded a video on his home computer that was all the rage on the internet a few months ago. Someone from our congregation alerted me to it. Penn is a avowed atheist and fairly outspoken about it. He incorporates his atheism into his act and is pretty merciless in his criticism of religion in general and Christianity in particular. But an incident after one of his shows really rattled him, and he made a little video about it the next morning.

Apparently, a man came up to Penn Jillette after a show and handed him one of those little pocket Bibles the Gideon’s distribute – Psalms and the New Testament. All the man said was something like, “This is very important me and something I believe very deeply, and I think you should take another look at it for yourself.” He wasn’t aggressive or hostile, just very honest and plain, and it really impressed Penn Jillette, the atheist. Penn said this in his video:

I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell, and you think, ‘Well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward’… How much do you have to hate somebody not to proselytize?
This is coming for a die-hard atheist, mind you. Does it make you think? It sure made me think, long and hard. And wonder whether I do, in an apathetic sort of way, hate my neighbor. It made me repent too. Imagine knowing about the serpent on the pole, imagine being cured by that thing, and not telling anyone else in the camp. “How much do you have to hate someone not to proselytize?” I bet you never expected to hear that out of the mouth of an atheist, did you?
“God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”
Humanity is snakebitten. You and I included. It has been since Adam and Eve listened to the snake instead of God back in Genesis 3. We are born snakebitten. Dead with the venom of the Law coursing through us. “The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the Law.” That’s our condition from the greatest to the least of us. But God has provided the cure, a cure that looks curiously like the disease. His Son on the cross, dying a cursed death. He looks damned by God, stricken, smitten, and afflicted, and He is, in our place, for us all and for our salvation.
This is how God loves this snakebitten world. He doesn’t simply love it abstractly and in general. “Oh, nice world, I love you.” He loves in the world in a very specific way, and only in this way. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, true God of the Father, true Man of His mother, born of woman, born under the Law, to take on the sting of death and become for the world the anti-venom for snakebitten humanity.
The Father didn’t send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to be condemned for the world. His condemnation is our acquittal; His death is our life. He came to be judged – one Man for all men, for all of humanity. He came to be lifted up and to draw all to Himself into His death. As in the one man Adam, all sinned, all die, all are condemned, so in the one Man, the second Adam, Jesus the Christ, all are forgiven, all are justified, and all live. As Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness, so the Father has lifted up the Son on the cross that whoever looks on Him with the eyes of faith, trusting in that bleeding, broken, dying Son of Man, has eternal life.
Can you imagine how precious that anti-venom at St. Mary’s Hospital in Long Beach is, especially if you were bitten by one of those poisonous snakes? Imagine how grateful you would be if you were bitten? How much more precious that good news, that Gospel of free forgiveness, life, and salvation to the sinner! You have received it; you know what I’m speaking about.
You know how they make anti-venom, don’t you? They inject the poison from a snake into a horse or goat (why don’t we substitute a lamb for dramatic effect), and then as the animal builds up immunity, its antibodies are collected. In other words, anti-venom comes from one who has survived the poison. Christ became sin for us who knew no sin. He was cursed for us on the accursed tree of the cross. He took the sting of sin with the full power of the Law’s venom. He took it to the grave in His death. And He rose triumphant over sin, death, and the Law. He survived the sting of death.

The anti-venom is here for you in the water of Baptism. Here for you in the Word of forgiveness. Here for you in the Body and the Blood, the very death and life of Jesus, whose Body and Blood were given into death and raised from the dead to become the anti-venom of sin and the Law, the very “medicine of immortality” and eternal life.

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Look on HIm and live. Point other to Him that they may live. The sting of death is sin, and the venom of sin is the Law. But thanks be to God; He gives us the victory, the anti-venom, the cure, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the name of Jesus, Amen






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