Text: Numbers 21:4-9
Date: Lent IV + 3/18/12
The season of Lent is the traditional time (from ancient days) for the making of new disciples of Jesus, as He commanded us, saying, “make disciples of all nations.” With the command He also gave us the means by which to do it, first with the institution of the sacrament of holy baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and then the task of “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). Infants are baptized and then taught what their baptism means. Adults, on the other hand, are first instructed in the faith, as through the weeks of the catechization of Lent leading up to baptism at the Easter Vigil. The entire Christian life, of course, is one of daily renewal in your baptism and constant learning the faith, the life, the hope and the love of being a Christian.
How did you become a Christian? Most of us here would say we became Christians through our parents bringing us to baptism as an infant. These days, however, as more and more people are born and grow up apart from the Church, more and more adults experience spiritual awakening, are brought to the doctrine of the Gospel and to the sacrament of baptism. If we expand our question from merely “how you became” a Christian to ask “why” you became a Christian we would receive many interesting answers especially from those who didn’t come to baptism until adulthood. In many cases, in my experience, people often quite simply hear the command and promises regarding baptism and desire to receive that command and promise. But then let’s include us all by asking why you continue and remain a Christian? You may even have asked yourself that question especially if you have been confronted by some frustration, opposition, ridicule, rejection, or even the doubt or questioning of your own mind or conscience.
In today’s Old Testament reading God’s people became impatient. They complained to God and to Moses of the lack of food and water and even complained about the food with which God was miraculously and daily supplying them. They questioned why it was worth going on and continuing in this journey of faith. “Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” Ah, how often haven’t we wished for “the Old Testament God” of wrath and fire and brimstone and snakes? for the retribution especially of that other sorry fellow with what he surely deserves? “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” (Mt 5:38), “yeah, and that’s the kind of god we need around here!” Or, as I even heard a pastor say, a long time ago, “what we need is to put more teeth into the Gospel!”
This reading and our Lord’s mention of it as predictive of His crucifixion is to serve us in our Lenten learning and catechization, and in this way. To become and to be a Christian does not mean that you will be instantly shielded from any suffering or trouble in this world, but rather have been given the way through suffering, trouble and even death. Like the people of Israel in our text life in this world continues to be a wilderness wandering. And the trouble comes from both within and without.
The peoples’ trouble began with their own frustration and angry complaining. So our troubles usually begin because sin hangs on like a slimy discoloring that we just can’t wash off thoroughly or get rid of. The only way to get rid of sin, Biblically, is to die. A Christian is one who has died to sin through baptism into Christ’s death (Rom 6:3-4). Yet this life of faith is still lived in the body in this world where sin still reigns. In the physical life of our bodies sin still hangs on until it has killed us. “For [only] one who has died has been set free from sin” (Rom 6:7).
Then there is the suffering and trouble from outside of us; the opposition, ridicule or even persecution for the sake of your faith in Christ. In fact it seems like it is even more obvious these days as we hear the increasing attacks against almost anything to do with God (though, you will notice, only the one, true God!) as having any place in the public square or discourse. Christians are mocked for their antiquated moral judgments or admitted dependence on God for things unbelievers and atheists simply and ignorantly take for granted, until, that is, the earthquake or the tsunami or the tornado or hurricane or other so-called “acts of God” when they must admit their utter defenselessness.
Here we must remember our Lord’s words, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:10-13). “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19). And remember the words of the Apostle Peter who had many things to say about Christian suffering, but best of all these words:
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And
‘If the righteous is scarcely saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’
Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:12-19).
The trouble and suffering comes from within and without. “Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people.” So do we need the “bite” of God’s Law so that we may regularly and faithfully come to the same conclusion of those people and say those words of repentance, “‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.” Notice that the Lord did not take away the serpents. The serpents were still there and their bite still threatened. Rather, the Lord answered their prayer of repentance by instituting a sacrament: a promise of healing, life and forgiveness, to be conveyed through the physical means of a fiery but dead bronze serpent on a pole, simply for the price of lifting up your eyes to God’s promise and looking at the bronze serpent.
Dear friends, as the sacrament of holy baptism makes us to be Christians, so the sacrament of holy communion keeps and sustains us in both body and soul in the healing, life, forgiveness and hope of the Christian faith. All our sins and murmurings, our fears, doubt and faithlessness is forgiven in His blood. For He was lifted up in sacrifice for us all, “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” So have patience and take courage, Look and Be Saved through Faith Alone.