Pastor Michael Frye:
In our gospel lesson today, Jesus has used an account from the Old Testament Book of Numbers as a way of reminding the people that God is a God of salvation and grace:
“And just 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.”
Of course, those who were hearing Jesus’ words would have been familiar with the Old Testament story, some of which appears in our First Lesson this morning.
Jesus wanted his disciples and those who were there to know that, just as God’s word of salvation in the wilderness was kept for those who believed God’s promise, the same would hold true for those who would believe in the resurrection of the crucified Christ.
But let’s take a closer look at the Numbers account in order to gain A more accurate picture of why Jesus drew that parallel.
As those whom God through Moses had delivered from slavery in Egypt began to experience the hardships of traveling in the wilderness, they complained against God and Moses, saying:
“Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, for there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food” (speaking of the mannah God had sent to them).
The Numbers account says that God sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
That sounds very much out of character for the God we have come to know in our own studies of scripture God is omnipotent and God is good; doing something of this nature toward God’s people is not something that he would even consider doing.
In fact, God would certainly provide a way to save his people (in this particular case, by providing a symbol that they would have recognized).
What we know from the historical context in which the people lived at that time is that almost all of the Semitic cultures living in that region assumed that serious illnesses, catastrophes, and natural disasters were brought upon them by whatever gods they worshiped as a response to their bad behavior.
In Canaanite culture, for instance, the goddess of life was represented by a statue of a serpent on a pole.
The Israelites would have made that connection when God instructed Moses to make a serpent of bronze and place it on a pole so that anyone who gazed upon would be saved.
It wasn’t the Canaanite goddess they would have attributed their healing to, rather the promise that Yahweh (God) had made that when they gazed upon that statue with belief that Yahweh would save them, their salvation was assured.
Melinda Quivick surmises that tribulation calls for liberation.
“When the people were enslaved in Egypt God answered their cries by giving them freedom.
When desert life grew deadly (as with the serpents) God answered by saving them with what might be considered a “mysterious balm.”
Centuries later when God’s people were adrift in hopelessness and fear under Roman occupation and all that was going wrong in the world, God lifted up his Son on a cross to bring healing to those who believed in his promise of salvation.
In this world pain often comes before the healing begins, and even during the healing process.
Paul Shupe observed that:
“In a time when world leaders routinely invoke the language of good versus evil; truth versus falsehood; and light versus darkness in order to justify acts of war or retaliation because they are good and dwellers in the light, and those who oppose them are evil and deceitful dwellers in the darkness – we cannot lose sight of Christ’s words in our gospel today:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
However, we must not stop there, because verse seventeen gets to the heart of why God sent his Son:
“Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Christ said “the world,” not just a certain population in the world, not just those who act and think and believe like us, but the lame, the blind, the poor, the dysfunctional, and those with whom we may have very little in common, or with whom we may be in conflict.
God’s love is for all, without exception, which means that God expects those who believe in him to work diligently to get that message across to all who need to hear it and be comforted and restored by it.
That, sisters and brothers in Christ is our mission as God’s disciples.
We may not comprehend it; we may not even believe that it can be done; but we forge ahead on our mission, knowing that God is with us every step of the way.
Saint Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesians:
“God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…
By grace you have been saved…
This is the gift of God.”
This is the gift worth taking the risk to share wherever it is needed, with anyone who needs to experience it.
What does scripture say about salvation?
“Those who believe and who are baptized shall be saved.”
It is our mandate to lift up “Christ Crucified”, and “Christ Risen” so that all those who come to believe in him shall not perish, but shall have new life for eternity.
Never underestimate the power that the Holy Spirit has given you to share this message of salvation with others.
Never pass up an opportunity to tell your story of how God has blessed and enriched you with the gift of his Son.
Shortly we will be singing the hymn, “God Loved the World”.
I ask you to pay particular attention to the first verse:
“God loved the world so that he gave his only Son the lost to save, that all who would in him believe should everlasting life receive.”
Just as our Lord was lifted up to bring eternal life to God’s children, let us be so bold as to lift him up through the way that we live our lives as Christ’s disciples so others may come to know his grace and salvation.