Pastor Kyle Bitter - The Fourth Sunday in Lent - Sunday, March 14, 2021

Text: Numbers 21:4-9

Watch Service Video

When was the last time you found yourself complaining about something? Could it have happened already today? If so, what did you find yourself complaining about? I’m sure the answers to such questions are probably as varied and far ranging as the experiences and personalities of the different people gathered here today, but I’m going to make a few guesses. I’m guessing that in the not too recent past most of us have probably complained at least once or twice about something that someone in a position of authority has done – whether in government or elsewhere. In addition to that, I’m going to guess that most of us have complained once or twice about the behavior of other people we interact with regularly – whether that’s a frustrating co-worker or classmate, or a family member or friend who is getting on your nerves. On top of those, I’m guessing we could add some complaints about health challenges, maybe some grumbling about financial matters, perhaps a little dissatisfaction about the food on our tables, and maybe to top it off just a couple of gripes about the constantly changing spring weather, despite the fact that it’s really been pretty nice lately.

Anything you’d add to the list? I’m sure we each have our own personal struggles that we find ourselves complaining about too, but perhaps a more productive discussion than an airing of grievances would be this one: Why do we complain? You could probably list all sorts of different reasons, but I think they could all be summarized like this: We complain because deep down, we think things should be better. We think that we deserve something better. Better leaders. Better health. A better financial situation. More respect from our family members and peers. Better food on our tables. Insert what you will.

The Israelites in today’s first lesson thought that they deserved something better too, and on the surface maybe it seems like there was something to be said for their complaints. They’d put up with a lot already! They’d been wandering in the desert for more than 40 years. They ate the exact same thing every single day – that miraculous bread they called manna. But now, it had seemed like their journey through the desert was finally coming to an end. Only the tiny country of Edom stood between God’s people and the long-awaited promised land of Canaan. Moses, the leaders of the Israelites, sent a delegation to the king of Edom and asked for safe passage through – promising that none of the people would stray from the highway, not even to get a drink. They would bring food, water, everything they needed and pass peacefully and quietly through as quickly as possible. The king of Edom responded with a resounding “NO!” punctuated by mobilizing his army along the border. So, the Israelites backtracked and started a 100+ mile journey around Edom, through the rugged mountains and dried up riverbeds, in a part of the world where the year-round average temperature is in triple digits. 100 miles is a short car ride, but with two million people on foot including children and the elderly, to say nothing of flocks and herds, progress was probably measured in months and years rather than hours or days. Was this any way for God’s special, chosen people to live? Moses picks up the story. “They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they 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!” Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.” (Numbers 21:4-6 – NIV84)

What were the Israelites really saying about God with their complaints? What are you and I really saying about God with our complaints? Isn’t complaining just another way of saying: God, you’re not doing it right. I could do it better. I don’t like the way you’re running my life – things should be going differently. I don’t like the way you’re allowing things to go in the world – my ideas would be better. God, if you just let me be in charge, thing would be so much better! You can see the arrogance and selfishness we show to a God who has blessed us with so much! Poisonous snakes were exactly what the Israelites deserved, and to be honest, God would be perfectly just in sending snakes out from under our chairs to bite us and poison us too, because complaining is just one outward sign of the selfish rebellion against God that comes so naturally and infests everything we do. But the good news is this: In his grace, God doesn’t operate that way. You can see that here. The snakes weren’t sent to destroy the Israelites – if that was the purpose, they’d all have died. Instead, the snakes were sent to remind the Israelites of where they needed to turn when tempted to complain.

Look to God’s Promises

“The 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”…and amazingly, God listened and responded to people who had showed nothing but ingratitude for everything he’d brought them through! But, God’s response was far different than what the people probably were expecting. “The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole.” (Numbers 21:7-9a – NIV84). Sounds like a strange cure for sickness, doesn’t it? There wasn’t anything special the sick Israelites were actually supposed to do. No medicinal treatments to pursue, no special herbs to eat, no miracles drugs. No visits to the doctor, no sacrifices. Much simpler than that. Look at the metal snake on the pole, and you will be healed. Trust God’s promise: Look and Live!

The poison of sin is far more deadly than a snakebite. It doesn’t just cause physical death – sin carries with it the penalty of eternal death in hell. But in his mercy, God doesn’t abandon his complaint-filled people to that fate. He offers a solution that is strikingly similar to what he offered to the Israelites.  Jesus described God’s antidote to the poison of sin when talking to a religious leader named Nicodemus one evening in Jerusalem – words you heard in today’s gospel: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him…shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:14,16b – NIV84). You know what Jesus was referring to – his battered body would be lifted up on a cross, and everyone who believed in him, everyone who trusted the promises attached to that event, would not perish in hell for their sins, but would enjoy eternal life!  And as was the case with the Israelites, there’s nothing special that God asks sinful people like you and me to do. No rituals to complete, no sacrifices to make, no rules to follow. Look at God’s Promise made at the cross, and the disease of sin will be cured.  Look and Live!

Live with Contentment

It’s so simple…but as sinful people we are still tempted to complain – even about the cure God has given us! I wonder what thoughts were on the minds of the Israelites who were bitten by the snakes and lay dying in their tents, groaning and feverish as the poison ravaged their bodies, and then they heard what God’s cure was. Do you think any responded: Wait, that’s it? You mean…God’s not actually going to take the snakes away? I wonder if there were any Israelites who ended up dying from the snakebite because the solution God provided just didn’t seem to match up with their expectations?  It’s all speculation, but the good news is this: no matter what doubts and fears may or may not have been voiced, none of that had the slightest impact on what God intended to do. You can imagine the waves of joy sweeping through the camp when they realized that God’s plan worked. Healing flooding through their bodies, feverish minds becoming clear, aching limbs and joints becoming strong again!  “When anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.” (Numbers 21:9b – NIV84). Even though God didn’t take the snakes away, those who trusted God’s promise were not disappointed. They Looked, and they Lived – God kept his promise!

Things tend to work in the same way when you look at God’s much larger scale cure for the much more dangerous disease of sin with its consequences that extend beyond this life and into eternity! Even though 21st century America is far removed from the deserts of the ancient near east, each one of us still has a sinful nature, and it functions in exactly the same way as it did for the children of Israel. It’s easy to look at God’s salvation plan and think to yourself: wait, that’s it? God’s not going to take away the snakes, so to speak? And that’s true. Trusting in Jesus’ promises doesn’t remove the frustrating and irritating things that can happen when sinful people interact with one another. An execution that happened 2000 years ago doesn’t change a person’s failing health or other struggles. A battered body hanging on rough wooden cross doesn’t take away financial woes, nor will it cause other people to treat you with more respect. The temptation to complain, even about God’s plans of love and mercy, is ongoing!

But the good news is, none of that changes what God does. Look at that snake in the desert and realize what happened there. It worked. Those people were actually healed, even though God didn’t take the snakes away. And realize what happened after that. God led them through the snake-filled desert to the promised land of Canaan, just as he had promised he would do! Then, look at little farther ahead to Jesus. You can see those Roman soldiers raising up a cross with a battered body nailed to it and as you look, realize what happened there too. On that day, you and I were healed spiritually. Jesus did pay the price for every single one of our sins, from the smallest of complaints to the biggest crimes against humanity! God proved that to be true by raising Jesus from the dead, and now there’s nothing you need to do. Jesus already did it all. And you know what God promises to do next. He promises to lead us through the snake filled desert of a sin-damaged world, all the way to the promised land of heaven where at long last, there will be nothing to complain about because everything, including you and me, will be perfect and holy.

And that’s the secret to a live of contentment in a world filled with complaints. Look to the promises of God, and then and only then can you live with contentment – contentment that comes from knowing that God will keep his promises. We can be content because we know what God promises to do. He doesn’t want conflict between people to be a permanent thing. He doesn’t desire failing health and other hardship to be your eternal destiny. He doesn’t intend for financial struggles to last forever. That’s why God has made plans to take away all of those things – that’s what he promises is waiting for you in heaven. So when you’re tempted to complain, look and liveLook at what God has promised you, and live with contentment that he will come through and keep his promises. Amen.