Dear Friends in Christ,
Dad’s Complaint Department
My dad was a man of few words, but he had a habit of making every word count. I don’t remember ever getting spanked, but I do remember him reaching for his belt and beginning to remove it and thinking to myself that I didn’t want to travel down that road. When we kids would start to complain about how cold it was or how we really didn’t want to do our chores, he had an eleven word little saying that rings in my ears to this day, “Quit your complaining, or I’ll give you something to complain about.”
My father took no pleasure in punishing his sons and daughters. What he took pleasure in is the same as what our Father in heaven has always took pleasure in, takes pleasure in today, and always will take pleasure in – when we say in sincere fashion that we are sorry for our sins and cry out for mercy. In our text for today, the people of Israel were complaining. Again. They complained against God and they complained against Moses. They complained about no food and they complained about no water and they complained about the food they did have and how they hated it so. In a variety of ways and on multiple occasions, God had told them to quit their complaining or He would give them something to complain about. He kept on drawing a line in the sand and telling them not to cross that line or else! One day they collectively crossed that line one too many times. And God gave them something to complain about. He sent fiery snakes among the complainers and they bit the people, and many of them died. And when enough people had died, they cried out for mercy. And in the moment they cried out for mercy, the angels and the archangels of heaven rejoiced. As they do to this very day when one or more sinners quit their complaining long enough to say in sincere fashion they are sorry for their sins and ask for forgiveness.
This wasn’t the first time God would move His people from a “moaning and groaning” mode to a “Lord have mercy mode” and it wouldn’t be the last. The entire book of Judges takes place even after the people of Israel have taken possession of the Promised Land, and they keep on forgetting how far they have come and how faithful God has been. In their forgetfulness, they fulfill what Solomon wrote later on, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly. In today’s sermon, the Holy Spirit would hold a mirror in front of us to show us the ways we are repeating our foolishness. The ways we have fallen again and again into the cycle the Israelites kept falling into - The Sin / Suffering / Supplication / Salvation Cycle.
Three truths I invite you to learn again today about what snakes God might be sending into your life as an individual and our life together as a congregation and as one nation under God. The first lesson is that First of all the poison still is fatal. Martin Luther writes that where the Israelites were, there is a snake that is called an asp. When that particular snake bites a person, they swell up, and they get a fever. The fever will get so high that their skin actually turned fiery red. Unless the part of the body that was bitten was amputated, the fever would penetrate the whole body, and death was inevitable.
Israel was So close and yet so (far). They were so close to the Promised Land, and the poisonous attitudes which kept on getting handed down from one generation to the next kept them from entering. They would remember how God had provided water in miraculous fashion, but as often as the water seemed far away, the poison of bitterness would rise up and rule. They could remember how God had literally dropped manna from the sky and quail would fly low and be caught, but as often as the food seemed scarce or untasty, the poison of hatred would stand up and shout. Their noses were close enough not once but twice to smell the land flowing with milk and honey, but out of their hearts kept on coming a spirit poisoned with pessimism and pride. So close to the precious promises of the one true God and yet so far away from holding on tight and staying the course.
Once again God found it necessary to increase their suffering to the point where they would feel the sting of their sin. To this very day, we need to (feel) the poison. The kingdom of God is like a man with a drinking problem whose wife has given him second chance after second chance, but he really doesn’t feel the poison until that day where she looks at him with a righteous anger in her eyes and says, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m done.”
It’s like a woman with an anger management problem whose husband has hung in there and stayed engaged, but she really doesn’t feel the poison until that day when he won’t look her in the eyes and he finally says, “I don’t care. I’m done.”
Thank God that hasn’t yet gotten to the point of not caring about us. Thank God that He has loved us with an everlasting love, and to this very day He is rich and never stingy with His mercy. Thank God that The antidote still is (effective). That day in the desert, the people of Israel finally realized their sin. All around them their friends and relatives were dying, and so they came to their senses. Like the prodigal son who wasted his inheritance and eating with the pigs and who finally remembered how good and safe and beautiful it was in his father’s care, so also did Israelites flee for refuge to Moses and confess that they had sinned when they had complained. Two lessons we learn again about life together in God’s family.
First, Humble yourself, or be (humbled). No doubt God would prefer to teach us in the good and smooth times that He is Lord, but if we have to learn the hard way, the hard way it will be. No doubt our Father in heaven would prefer to say, “quit your complaining, or I’ll give you something to complain about” and have us snap back to attention. But if it’s going to take a two by four or a snake or a loved one dying to get our attention, then a two by four or a snake or a loved one dying it will be. Whatever it takes to humble us, so that God may exalt us, so shall it be.
Secondly, and most importantly, we learn again that God’s ultimate desire is to show (mercy). The desire of God isn’t just that we quit our complaining, it is that our sins of complaining be paid for, forgiven, sent away. The desire of God isn’t just that we learn our lesson, it is that our diseases be healed once and for all. Up on a pole in the middle of their camp went that snake made out of bronze. That bronze snake itself was not the magical cure. It was a sign of God’s promise to heal them. Without God’s promise, that snake was ridiculous, just an inanimate object. But because of God’s Word, it was a beautiful sign, a sign that He would hear and heal. For about 8 centuries, Israel would carry that bronze snake around, wherever they went, polishing it, preserving it, even worshiping it until God had to command King Hezekiah to destroy it. But the day of our text, it was a sign and symbol of God’s promise to help and heal.
Our Gospel lesson for today fast forwards us 1500 years. Where Nicodemus is wondering about the teachings of Jesus and how it might be possible to be born again. And Jesus answers by saying that 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. Which is to say 1)the poison is still fatal. 2)The antidote still is effective. And 3) The look still is (required). This very day, the Spirit of God would invite you to fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith. This very day, fix your eyes on the One Who can’t and won’t take His eyes off you. Fix your eyes on the One Who refused to complain and went as a lamb to the slaughter on your behalf.
The author Chad Bird says it this way, “With full premeditation, knowing exactly what was about to happen, he slid off his shoe, shoved his foot in the face of an uncaged snake, and let that serpent strike his heel. Not only that he held it there and let the snake strike again and again and yet again, until every drop of venom passed from that serpent into his heel, into his body. It worked its way upward, through his calf to his thigh to his abdomen to his chest and finally to his head. His whole body pulsed with poison. Indeed he became so fat with venom it seemed he would burst. And just at the last moment, before death finally came, he raised his foot as high as the heavens, and slammed down his heel upon the head of the snake. He crushed that serpentine skull beneath his stricken heel. And his mission accomplished, he collapsed in death. The snake slayer died, and the snake and all it poison died with him.”
The kingdom of God is like a woman whose husband with the drinking problem has driven to the brink. She has announced her decision to be done with him. And then she hears him that night sobbing uncontrollably. In his mind, his life is over. He whispers to God in heaven above for forgiveness. On the inside of his heart, a desire to change rises up and begins to rule. A new day is dawning, and somehow, in some way, by God’s grace, a marriage survives.
The kingdom of God is like a husband who doesn’t care anymore, and yet as his wife with the anger management problem fixes her eyes on Jesus, she starts to see clearly one more time. One more time she looks him in the eyes and says she is sorry. One more time she asks for forgiveness. One more time they get down on their knees and pray, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Two thoughts, in closing today, by way of practical application. What does it mean to (fix) your eyes on Jesus? Our Shared Vision Statement answers in three ways. It means to receive gratefully God’s good gifts in Divine Service. (repeat). It means to search eagerly Holy Scripture. (repeat). It means to confess humbly sin to God and to others.
Secondly, I have it on my mind to ask you to think about Finishing strong! Eventually of course, the people of Israel did enter the Promised Land. They did conquer their enemies by the grace of God, and there were periods of time where they lived humbly and walked by faith. On a personal note, I’ve been talking with my financial advisor in recent weeks about the next ten or 20 or maybe even 30 years of my life and what they might look like. He asked me to fill in an inventory about what my preferences might be and what those years might look like. When I was 30 or 40 years old, I gave little thought to finishing strong, but at age 60 it’s different. Our text for today invites all of us to do inventory on a regular basis. To ask good questions like, “What kinds of snakes have been biting me lately? Have I been feeling the poison? Have I been fixing my eyes on Jesus Christ and Him Crucified? Am I just sort of wandering through the wilderness with no particular purpose, or am I focused on the good works God has ordained for me to do? Am I finishing each day strong, or do most of them just sort of end with a fizzle? Praise God with me today that He is in fact a God of new beginnings and second chances. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther