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Devotional for March 11, 2018 based upon Number 21: 4-9 and John 3: 14-21

Our Old Testament reading for this coming Sunday starts out by telling us that God’s people “became impatient on the way” because they were now going to have to go back into the desert and around the land of Edom in order to get to the Promised Land. And so they began complaining. Have you ever become “impatient on the way” and so you began complaining?

One more time the Israelites said, “Moses, why did you make us leave Egypt?” Which simply was not true. How often are our complaints based upon information or perceptions that simply are not true? Moses had not forced them to leave Egypt. Rather they were desperately clamoring to escape slavery in Egypt. But still the people said, “Moses, why did you make us leave Egypt? Why have you brought us out here to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water here, and we are so tired of manna.”

Now I do not believe that God deserves our complaints. God desires and deserves our thanks and praise. The Israelites should have been thankful for all that God had been doing for them. But instead, they were complaining.

What about you? Should you be spending more time and effort thanking God for all that He has done for you, and less time and effort complaining?

How about this one? If you were an Israelite during the time of Moses, you would have lived in the desert for almost forty years by now. Most of your friends would be dead. You would have eaten the same food three times a day for almost forty years. You would not have been able to take a shower for almost forty years. And you would have been wearing the same clothes – which you would not have been able to wash – for almost forty years. All of which seems like plenty of reasons to let Moses – and God – really have it and complain.

But look at all this from God’s perspective. God is the one who had brought them out of slavery and was leading them through the desert to the Promised Land. He was leading them to a place where they could have entered forty years before if only they had had more faith in Him. And so, because one more time they complained instead of giving thanks, God sent snakes into the camp.

What if the same thing were to happen to us every time we complain? Well, the truth of the matter is that we are all snake-bitten. God has been so good to each one of us in so many ways. But we will not stop complaining. He puts food on our tables – and not just manna – three times every day. He gives us His guidance and blessing, but we will not stop complaining. He gives us a place to live and the health and strength to go to work, but we will not stop complaining. We are all snake-bitten.

And for all who are snake-bitten, our story for this morning from Numbers 21 has good news. There is a cure for the snakebite. Let me give it to you in the form of an equation. CONFESSION + INTERCESSION = HOPE.

First, CONFESSION. Numbers 21: 7 tells us, “The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” They confessed their sin. If you want to have hope, you must confess your sins.

Now confession is not talking about somebody else – what they have done – which is far worse than anything that I have ever done. Confession is not complaining about what other people have done to me. Rather confession is my talking about me. Confession is about what I have done. And notice something. The people did not say, “We have made a mistake.” Or, “We have made an error in judgment.” Even a very bad error in judgment. Rather they said, “We have sinned.” If you want the cure for the snake bite, you must confess your sins to God, as well as to any other person whom you have sinned against. We need to stop complaining and start confessing.

Second, INTERCESSION. Also in Numbers 21: 7 – “So Moses prayed for the people.” Intercession is praying for the people. Intercession is the job of every baptism-washed, blood-bought, and Spirit-filled child of God. Intercession is not telling God about something that somebody else did to you so that now you feel that you should be able to complain. No, intercession is my asking God to help, heal, forgive, restore, lift up, bless, lead, comfort, and keep another person. Moses is a great example of someone who engaged in the ministry of intercession. In fact, Moses often interceded for the people, even when they did not ask him to. Sure, Moses got fed up with their attitudes and got tired of their complaining. But he was always willing to stand in the gap and intercede for them.

And as children of God we also are to intercede for other people. We do not have the option of badmouthing those who bad mouth us. Instead of cursing them, our Heavenly Father tells us that we are to bless them and intercede for them. Being a Christian means that we are to be intercessors – for each other, as well as for our local community, our nation, and the entire world.

So let’s get back to our original formula. CONFESSION + INTERCESSION = HOPE. According to Numbers 21: 8, the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole. Everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” Now one thing that is really interesting here is that God did not do what the people had asked Moses to ask God to do. In verse 7 the people asked Moses to ask God to remove the snakes. But there is no indication that God ever removed the snakes. Rather God provided a way for people to live in spite of being bitten by a snake. Why? Why did God not get rid of the snakes?

I believe for two reasons. First, so that the people would have a constant reminder of what could happen again if they were to start complaining again. And second, because the serpent on the pole was a picture of a future, greater event that would give even greater hope to the entire human race for all time. For we all are snake-bitten. We have all been bitten by the serpent of sin. But because of the one who was lifted up on another pole – on a cross – we all can have hope.

In our Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday from John 3 Jesus is having a conversation with a man by the name of Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people. In that conversation Jesus tells about the second reason why God had Moses make a pole and put a bronze serpent on the pole. In John 3: 14 and 15 Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”

The snake on a pole was a symbol of the cross of Jesus. On the cross He who had never sinned took on our sin so that we could have hope. Because He died, we can be forgiven. We can have peace and hope.

Now the Bible tells us that when the people got to the Promised Land they took the serpent on the pole and placed it in the Ark of the Covenant. In the same way, after Jesus died, He was taken down from the cross and laid in a borrowed tomb. And then on Easter Sunday morning He rose from the dead and came out of the tomb. And now we can have hope because Jesus is alive.

All we need to do is to look to Him in repentance and faith. All we need to do is to look and live. For looking and living is lifting high the cross.

Dennis D. Nelson
President of the Board and Director of Lutheran CORE