The Old Testament Lesson today is an important and fascinating story that demonstrates numerous truths about human behavior, about the power of the law that we talked about last week and about God’s behavior. It’s a story about the ancient Israelites but equally important, it is also a story about us.
The people of Israel had only weeks before participated in a miraculous display of deliverance from a horrible slavery in Egypt. They had been preserved and protected from the plagues that decimated the Egyptians. They had watched the Red Sea part so that they could cross dry land and then close over and drown their pursuing enemies. They had witnessed God’s awesome majesty and power at Mount Sinai. They were being adequately nourished, cared for and protected in a desert climate. Life was good and about to get better. They only had to grin and bear a few weeks of wilderness living until they would arrive at the land flowing with milk and honey, the land of their forefathers, the land filled with hope and promise. And there was the rub. Read with me:
[Numbers 21:4] 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!”
The rub is that our fallen human nature doesn’t like to grin and bear. As Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading, “Men loved darkness instead of light (John 3:19).” The dark side of us prefers to express impatience and be whiney and complaining. It tends to blame others and God for our discontent. It also likes to exaggerate our dilemmas, hoping that by so doing, others to take our case more seriously – “You brought us out here to die!” (even though no one had yet died); “There is no bread and water!” (even though they were eating food which “they detested”). Even though humans are prone to this kind of behavior, it usually remains hidden until one or a few speak up. Their words and attitudes act like a poison that quickly spreads through the masses.
How did God react to this self-destructive human behavior? He used a very logical and natural consequence to try and change it. In essence He said, “If you are going to bite and poison one another with lies, and bite and poison your relationship with Moses and Me, and poison the conditions of our covenant, then I will bite and poison you so that you understand what the poison of discontent and lies ultimately causes.” He sent vipers to bite them and fulfill their prophecy of being brought out to the wilderness to die.
How do you respond to inappropriate behavior, the poison of discontent, destruction and disobedience, whether from your children, other family members, neighbors, co-workers, friends and the like? One effective way to address undesirable behavior is with either natural or logical consequences or applying the Law. Remember from last week, “If you do or don’t do ‘X’, then ‘Y’ will be the result? Take a child who won’t eat what you serve him/her. The natural and logical consequence is that the child goes hungry. Hunger is a more powerful motivator than spanking, timeout, reasoning or yelling. This principle is expressed in the Biblical truth, “An eye for an eye” or appropriate consequence for inappropriate behavior. Here’s an example from my life. My mother, when she was alive, would engage in what I considered inappropriate comments. For years I grinned and bore them until I decided, no more. I told her as lovingly as I could, “The next time you say those things, I am getting up and walking out or hanging up the phone.” It took a couple of times of enforcement but the behavior stopped around me.
One function of the Law is to change/curb behavior. The threat of consequences and the application of consequences often bring about an external modification in words and actions. It did bring the people of Israel to their knees and to repentance. They begged Moses to intervene: “’ 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.”
You have probably experienced similar success when you have applied consequences to others or have had them applied to you. Many times there is an apology that accompanies the desired change in behavior and an “I’m sorry that I disobeyed you or hurt you or lied to you or whatever and I won’t do it again.” Sometimes there is even an “I love you” and an embrace added on to the act of repentance. While there may have been a change in my mother’s behavior to me, I don’t think it was heartfelt. There was no apology or admission of wrong and the behavior continued around my siblings and others. Too often an application of consequences only results in momentary or specific external change and doesn’t bring about lasting and internal change.
That brings me to the final and most important point of today’s message. The Law has the power to enact change, even bring about repentance, but it cannot change and heal the soul, it cannot affect the core of a person, his attitude, heart and spirit. Let’s go back to Numbers. The Lord heard Moses’ intercession and said to Moses: “ Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” Moses did what he was told and those who were willing made their way to the bronze snake and lived.
In the snake on the pole we see God’s overwhelming desire to save His people. He responded to their hostility with both Law, to nudge them from a path of self-destruction, and mercy. Some died because of the poison of the vipers. Some lived because they availed themselves of the antidote provided by the bronze snake. Some of those may have remembered this episode and were “curbed” by it (stopped grumbling) for the rest of their lives. Most we know weren’t and complained in the future again and again.
We must not evaluate or understand this story apart from its greater context. I direct you now to today’s Gospel Lesson: [John 3:14] 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 may have eternal life.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Moses’ lifting of a snake was an antidote for a natural poison, granted an antidote provided out of God’s mercy in response to a consequence for destructive behavior. That behavior, any destructive, unloving behavior is caused by a far worse spiritual poison coursing through our veins that will eventually put us all in the grave and in eternal hell. Today’s Epistle tells us, like it or not, that we are all from conception “dead in our in our transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1) and there is nothing we can do about it. God in His grace though has done the impossible by lifting up Jesus on a cross and offering Him as a ransom, a scapegoat, a sacrifice in order to ameliorate the poison, absorb His wrath on sin and restore us as His sons and daughters and heirs of eternal heaven. Because Jesus was lifted up in death, resurrection and in glory, anyone who looks up to Him in faith will also be lifted up from the bondage of sin and death and be given hearts that can truly love.
Looking to Jesus, faith in Jesus, walking with Jesus, however you want to say it is the only antidote to true internal and external change. Jesus enables us to live by the truth and to do those good works that we were created to do.