Wed Night Lent 3 – Vicar Schleusener

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Hebrew, as you may have heard, draws much more heavily from context than languages like Greek or English, and therefore it’s not uncommon to have multiple possible readings of a passage that are both linguistically and theologically defensible. Our passage for today has multiple examples of this dynamic, and we’ll get to one of those fascinating twists in the Hebrew in a minute. First, though, let’s take a moment and highlight something important about what the people are saying that starts everything off. “And the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.’”

These words aren’t simply a complaint. They’re a statement of rejection of God’s saving work. God had rescued them from their bondage in Egypt, and the people were saying that they didn’t want His salvation or trust it to be a good thing. In other words, they knew that God had saved them, they just didn’t think they wanted His kind of salvation. This sort of hardhearted rejection of God is completely contrary to faith, which is the non-rejection of God’s word. The people who spoke this way were in a very real sense no longer God’s people. They were rejecting His salvation, and therefore rejecting their very identity as members of the people whom God had brought up from Egypt. And God’s response to the people who spoke against Him was to send serpents against them.

And this is one of the points where the Hebrew suddenly gets very interesting. You see, though the text is clear about God sending serpents, in the plural, against the people, what the people say to Moses is a bit different. Not, “Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us” but something more like, “Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpent (singular!) “from over us.”

Now. In the context, it seems highly unlikely that the people realized quite what they were referencing when they said this, but looking at it from the perspective of the Church, it seems pretty clear. The switch from “serpents” to “the serpent” is a reference back to the Garden of Eden. This seems especially clear with the use of the positional word meaning things like “on,” “upon,” or “over.” “that he take away the serpent from over us.” In other words, though the people probably have no idea as to what they’re doing, they’re actually pointing back to Genesis 3:15. The seed of the woman was supposed to be stepping on the head of the serpent, but there they were, the heirs to the promise of the seed, lying defeated beneath the serpent.

Everything had been reversed from what it was supposed to be, and they wanted Moses to ask God to restore things to a better place. To remove the serpent from over them. To no longer be defeated and in subjection to the serpent whose coming brings death.

And interestingly, the prayer that God answered wasn’t the prayer that the people thought they were asking for, namely the removal of all the serpents from their midst. Rather, the prayer that God answered in an impressively in-your-face kind of way was the one they actually asked for. To remove not serpents, but the serpent, singular, and with the definite article, from its position of dominion over them. A request that could only be truly granted by bringing them back to trusting in God and in His words and promises. And so God instructed Moses to put a mock serpent on a pole, and set that mock serpent physically over them so the people who were bitten could look at it and live. That is to say, so that everyone who was bitten, but who also had faith in God’s promise, could live.

Anyone who rejected the salvation that God promised from the bite of the serpent died. But those who believed. Those who did not reject the promised salvation. They lived. Each and every one of them. They gazed upon the image that served as a constant reminder that they were under the dominion of the serpent. Of the sin that was the ultimate cause of their death. But because they believed the promise of God that this image of death would bring them life, they lived. Saved from the venom of the serpent by faith in the promise of God, the only thing that could free them from the serpent’s dominion.

And so it is to this day. In the Garden, the venom of the lying serpent brought forth sin in Adam and Eve. A sin that brought death not only to them but also to the entire human race. All of us born with the venom of the serpent already wreaking havoc upon us. Twisting the good nature that God created and bending it relentlessly toward sin and unbelief. And anyone who rejects the salvation that God has promised from the bite of this serpent will die. And not merely a physical death, but the spiritual death that lasts for eternity, forever subjected to the power of the serpent.

But for you, those who don’t reject God’s promised salvation, you will live. You look to that which shows so clearly that you have no power in yourself to set yourself free from the dominion of the serpent. You look to Jesus, nailed to the cross, His body broken, dying the death that was yours because of your sins. And because you don’t reject God’s promise of forgiveness through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the venom of the serpent that afflicts you has no victory. The serpent can’t hold his former dominion over you. Because God has acted on your behalf. The one who made you His own through the waters of holy baptism has set you free from the dominion of the serpent. And He who freed you from the serpent’s dominion will also feed you with word and sacrament, the very means by which your faith is strengthened and the power of the serpent in your life is shattered.

Because as you hear and believe God’s word and the promise of forgiveness that it contains, your sins are forgiven you. As you eat the body that was broken and drink the blood that was shed upon the cross for your sins, your sins are forgiven you. And when the serpent comes hunting for you, and your attempts to resist him fail, you know what to do. And you look again to Jesus. You put your hope and confidence in Him who died and rose on your behalf. And you will live. Not just today, and not just physically. Rather, you will be granted the life that lasts for all eternity, by faith set forever free from the dominion of the serpent. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

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