No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
How do you get people’s attention when you want it? In a classroom, you might raise your hand and wait for the teacher to respond. In a burning building, you would scream at the top of your lungs. If you were stranded on a desert island, you might light a fire. On the battlefield, they used to blow a trumpet or raise a flag. If one signal doesn’t work, you try something else.
So how would God get our attention? You would think that God would have our attention with every breath, every sunrise. It might take the miracle of a flower or a baby. Some people need the fury of lightning or an earthquake.
Today’s scripture refers back to an Old Testament story about the children of Israel in the wilderness. They had disobeyed God the first time they reached the Jordan, so God made them wander in the wilderness for 40 years till that generation died off. Moses’ brother Aaron had already died. But God was still providing manna to keep the people alive. In spite of their rebellion, God was still taking care of them. So imagine how God must have felt when the people kept complaining.
They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. 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 wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “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.
The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
After all God had done, the children of Israel were still complaining. That is what we mean by “tempting the LORD thy God”. This “miserable food” they talked about was the manna that God sent down every day to feed the people – and they detested it!
God could have destroyed them all then and there, but instead, he sent snakes into the camp to bite them, and many of them died. Then they saw their sin. They said to Moses, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.”
What does it take to get people’s attention? Do you have to part the Red Sea? Squeeze water out of a rock? Drop manna from the sky? Like it says in Psalm 78:32-33, “In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe. So he ended their days in futility and their years in terror.”
“He ended their days in futility.” We don’t get much done without God’s help. “…and their years in terror.” Without God’s protection, the world is a scary place.
God didn’t give up on the people, but he had to get their attention. “Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. They remembered that God was their Rock, that the Most High was their Redeemer (Psalm 78:34-35).”
So Moses prayed to God, and God told him to make a serpent and lift it on a pole. When the people were bitten, they could look at the serpent and not die. And here’s where Jesus fits in. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
How is Jesus on the cross like Moses’ bronze serpent on the pole? What does it take to get our attention? When the children of Israel were bitten, they remembered why – because they had sinned against God. When they looked at the bronze snake, they remembered that God is merciful. Psalm 78:38 says, “Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath.” God got their attention, and they did not die.
What does it take to get our attention? We’re surrounded by snakes, and our sins bite us. Does that get our attention? We look at how Jesus suffered, in a manner so visible it gets our attention 2,000 years later. Does that get our attention?
Paul referred to the snake story as well. In 1 Corinthians 10:9-11, he wrote, “We should not test Christ, as some of them did – and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.”
What does it take to get our attention? I would love to say that this story is about the sin of grumbling and complaining. Personally, I think that internal complaining is a sickness in any organization. We forget where the manna comes from and complain because God doesn’t send us quail and T-bones every day. When we grumble, we show that we are not grateful – which means we aren’t paying attention to the blessings God pours out on us.
But there were other sins that the people of Israel committed, and God lifted his hand of protection to get their attention.
1 Corinthians 11:13 says, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful, he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so you can endure it.”
In Luke 10:19, Jesus says, “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.”
When you’re bitten by snakes, God lifts up the bronze serpent, to get your attention. When you’re bitten by sins and trouble, God lifts up his Son on a cross, to get your attention. When we’re tempted, God provides a way out. Jesus is that Way.
What does it take to get our attention?
When times are tough, we turn to Scripture. And even if we don’t have a Bible with us, we all remember at least one verse: “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.” That’s in today’s scripture. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
What does it take to get our attention?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.