(Numbers 21:4-9) From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 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. Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, 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. And the Lord said to Moses, Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live. So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
Despite the fire in his veins, he was growing colder by the minute. It was a desperate struggle just to put one foot in front of the other. But he had gone too far … there was no stopping now. He needed to find the prophet. All around the camp others said Moses had a way to help. His foot turned upon one of the desert stones littered about the ground, and the sering pain caused his vision to darken. As he paused for breath and clearer vision, he couldn’t help but wonder why.
What was God doing? Why was He not fulfilling His promises? None of this had turned out like it was supposed to. Had he not been there to see the great plagues? Was he not there at the Red Sea? Did he not wait patiently at the foot of the mountain for all those days? Yes, he had seen it all, but this was too much, how could he believe anymore? No one could blame him if he had grown impatient with God’s plan, peevish about God’s supposed care and kindness, imposed upon by God’s demands. Why had God brought them out into the desert? Why didn’t he take them straight to the promised land? Life had become dreary … a hopeless existence with little more than a meaningless end of bleached out bones scattered about the wilderness. And now these poisonous snakes had come to usher that end in all too soon!
As he finally stumbled over a low rise, there before him stood the man he sought. And now he had And beside him planted in the ground was a bronze serpent set on a tall pole. A deadly snake, just like that which had poisoned him. He could feel the heat rising off himself, and not just from the fever wracking his body either. They had begged him to talk to God. They had begged him to take away the snakes. “What is this?” he thought to himself. A slap in the face that’s what! One more snake, to add humiliation to suffering. For Moses was calling out that his only hope of help was to look at this sign in repentance and faith … An acknowledgment of sin, a longing for deliverance from its penalty, and a trusting in the means appointed by God for healing. As he drops to his knees, too weak to stand he knows it won’t be long now, the poison is working fast … but what will he do? Will he look to the inconceivable answer? Will he believe and see?
(John 3:1-3, 11-12) “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him. Jesus answered him, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God … Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
The night air was chill, and he wasn’t really dressed for it. He debated just going back to his nice warm home, but he had come too far to turn back. If he stopped now he might never gain the nerve again. He needed to find the prophet. It didn’t take a scholar to see that the poison of doubt was flowing through his veins. His life was quickly coming to an impasse, his soul growing numb with with the anxiety and fears. All around Jerusalem people spoke of all this rabbi Jesus said and did. He would have the answers … he had too. Just then he stubbed his toe in the dark. As a cry of pain and frustration escaped his lips he stopped and looked about furtively. With his heart in his mouth, he realized that no one was around to see or hear him.
As he stopped to clam down and catch his breath he couldn’t help but think about the unease in his soul. What is God doing? There is a right way to do things and there is … well there is the way “He” does things. But His ways seem to work. And the people hear, and believe, and are blessed! This is definitely something, but not what Nicodemus expected. Was he not a good God-fearing Jew? Had he not devoted his entire life to living out God’s laws? Hadn’t he been in synagogue every chance he had … offered every sacrifice God expected of a person? So why didn’t he feel better about it all? Why were there still so many doubts and fears? Why wasn’t God fulfilling His end of the bargain? Why hadn’t his life turned out like it was supposed to? He had devoted his life to seeing the path of salvation that lay ahead, so why did he have trouble believing it anymore?
And then the midnight conversation with the prophet himself. And things are no clearer. Indeed there are more questions than ever! Flesh and spirits, second births, blowing winds and the mystery of God’s Spirit. Given some time this would all make sense … but then this Jesus starts talking of coming from heaven and being hung on a pole. The reprimand is gentle, but definite. He is saying that He himself is a call to repentance and faith. That no one comes to salvation by the life they have lived, but by looking in repentance and faith to His life which is given as the cure for every poison of the soul. As the light grows on the horizon and Nicodemus gets up to leave, he knows he will not have this chance again. It is too dangerous to risk being seen, but what will he do now? Will he accept the inconceivable answer? Will he believe and see?
Will you dear friends? Will you trust the inconceivable? Will you believe and see? I don’t need to tell you that we have all seen so much in this world that is hard to believe. Much of this life is not what we wanted it to be. Much of it doesn’t conform to how we think God should treat those who belong to Him. We see it, but we can’t always believe it. God’s promises seem slow to come. As the song on the radio says: God must be busy. And we find ourselves humming along. God’s plan for our lives seems to have made a detour. His care seems to have grown cold. His demands seem a terrible price for the little He seems to give in return. Our good deeds go unrewarded. Our best efforts prove fruitless. Our entire lives can seem like they’ve been wasted on a dream. And our deepest questions and searching brings only more confusion and questions … and the call for repentance.
There is a poison of sin that runs through our veins, darkening our vision and weakening our soul. Sometimes it works as a subtle doubt, sometimes a nagging fear. Sometimes it burns with the fever of intense grief, pain, or suffering, but always it keeps us from seeing, and what we can’t see we won’t believe. That’s why the answer of Moses, the answer of Christ (both one and the same) are so radically different from what we might expect. There is no cure we can effect upon ourselves. It must come from Him. Seeing will never lead to believing. It must happen the other way around.
This cure for the poison of sin which kills our bodies and darkens our souls insists upon a complete change in the moral condition of a man, a thorough and all-inclusive transformation of the heart, of the mind, and of the will. In our thinking, willing, feeling, in our words and in our works, we must become a new person. Without such regeneration no one can enter into the kingdom of God.
(13-17) No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
That is why God gave His son, Jesus to be lifted up on the cross – a call to repentance and faith. For only here is sin – our sin – paid for. Only here is salvation and healing to be found. But we must believe and see. And to accomplish this feat God uses Baptism as one of His instruments. This Sacrament is not merely a symbol, but an actual means, through the power of the Word, in working salvation. It gives us the belief which allows us to finally see!
(5-8) Jesus answered, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, You must be born again. The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
New life is gained only by the gift of God. New sight comes by the Spirit. New life rises from the death of the old. We cannot earn it. We have not deserved it. The Spirit works where the Spirit wills. But God has willed that He would work in you through Baptism. The cure of sin’s poison and the gift of new life are yours. And this He has done through suffering and death – the suffering and death of His beloved Son. Knowing that changes the way we see things doesn’t it. Knowing Christ changes the way we see our own lives and the suffering we stumble through. Seeing the light and life of Christ, changes the way we view the darkness. We don’t need to know how our suffering will lead to greater things, we just know that it does. Believing is seeing.