God’s Wrath and Grace Displayed Through a Desert Detour

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. 5 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.” 6 Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 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. 8 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.” 9 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.

Good morning, my name is Mike Maruska and I’m a member here.

If you are a guest, we welcome you. I hope you are able to get a taste of why so many of us love this church and we would invite you to stick around for a few minutes after service to give us a chance to meet you. Pastor Dave is on a well-deserved rest this weekend. I’m grateful for the chance to preach again this morning.

For those who were here last week Pastor Dave exhorted us to use our gifts to edify the church and that one way to know what our gifts are is whether people are blessed by them. I know for my family and for many of you that we as a church have been thoroughly blessed by Dave’s pastoral and preaching gifts. Dave faithfully expounds the glories of whatever passage he’s in for our benefit. It reminds me of a story I heard about another pastor. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a famous pastor in London during the 1930’s-1960’s. Many would consider him the greatest preacher of the 20th century. It was said about him that each week he would say in his sermon something to the effect of, “This may be the most important sermon I have to preach”. The apparent reason was that he would so immerse himself in his studies during the week that he had a holy burden to share it with his people. Do you notice how often Dave says similar things? “Do you see it Grace? Grace, you have to get this. Grace, write this down. Don’t miss this Grace!” He is in his office all week, every week, digging, digging, digging for the treasure in every text. And when he finds it, he urgently wants us to see what he sees. We are really fortunate to have him as our pastor and I would encourage you to tell him the next time you have a chance. And tell him specific ways that you have seen his gifts at work. Write him a note. Give him a hug.

Before we get to our text, join me in prayer. Take a moment to thank God for Pastor Dave and then Let’s seek the Lord for help to understand this text, to hear what he wants of us and to respond rightly.

Prayer: Father, thank you for your church. When I was younger, I thought I knew how great your church is, and thought I understood it, but now I can see more clearly how glorious your church is. To the world it is an inefficient, even backwards way for your kingdom to grow, but it is beautiful. You graciously give your church everything we need to display your glory: Your Spirit, your word and your covenant people gathered together in love. Technology, advertising and man’s inventions cannot improve on your good design. And you give us people with gifts. We thank you for Pastor Dave and the way he willingly uses his gifts for our benefit and your glory. Would you be gracious enough to bless our church with 10 more years and beyond for pastor Dave to bless us and lead us as we all exercise our gifts for one another?

And LORD, we need your help to hear rightly from you. Grass withers and flowers fade, but your Word lasts forever. I pray for pastors this morning all over this state, country and world who will labor to proclaim your word. Give them confidence in the truths You have revealed yourself to us in your word. Every single piece of it is for our benefit. And for pastors who weren’t planning to preach the gospel, I pray that you supernaturally wreck their plans. Parts of this text might seem harsh or dark, but let us clearly see the truths of this passage. Please help us through your Spirit to see both the seriousness of sin, and the glory of Christ. Help us see why something that happened thousands of years ago is not only relevant but necessary and authoritative for us today. You are good to show yourself to us, but you do so much more through your word. Help us to see and know the truths you have graciously given us. Help me to point to Jesus and get out of the way. Would you speak to us through the preaching of your word? We ask in our mediator’s name, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Did anyone cringe when you heard this morning’s text? It’s okay. There’s a lot going on here. Fiery snakes? A bronze serpent on a pole? It’s pretty dark, especially for a stand alone sermon. I spent several years in children’s ministry, and we would not shy away from telling this kind of story to the kids. I regularly heard this concern from parents: couldn’t we stay away from the stories about sin and death and instead talk about Jesus’ love? My response was the same every time: If we get rid of the darkness in the Bible, how can we possibly understand how good the gospel is? The sin in this world and in our hearts is dark and how Jesus dealt with sin involves a violent, scandalous death. And yet, when we understand the darkness-not celebrating the darkness-we begin to realize how incredible Jesus really is. So this text is dark, but it portrays the reality of this world. Before we dive into the text let me first explain why I would choose this text for a sermon.

First, I wanted a text that was a story. The entire Bible is a series of stories, combined to tell one great, glorious story. It’s the story of God going to great lengths to rescue his people from sin and death. God tells stories. When Jesus was on earth he told stories in parables. And we all tell stories. By story, I mean a narrative. Sometimes we hear the word story and we assume fiction, but stories can be true too. Think about the last time you had something eventful happen during your day. How did you inform your family or friends? You told them a story. Stories are for our good. We understand how this world works through stories and the Bible is a story. Romans 15:4 says,”For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

Second, I love the Old Testament and wanted to give us a taste of the richness of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is two thirds of the Bible and at Grace we believe that all of it is equally God’s word. If that’s true, then we have a lot to discover about God and his plan of salvation he speaks to us through all of his Word, even gnarly stories like Numbers 21.

And third, Jesus tells us in Luke 24, that all of scripture-even weird Old Testament stories about snakes and bronze poles-point to himself. If you want to see how the Bible fits together, look for how the stories point to Christ. One of the ways scripture does this is through themes and symbols. We’ll look at a few of this in this passage. All of themes somehow connect us to Jesus.

As we turn to our text, here’s my basic outline which shows the basic elements of any story:

  • Verse 4 the setting: Detour in the wilderness
  • Verse 5-6: Conflict: Grumbling and judgment
  • Verse 7: Climax: Seek shelter in your mediator
  • Verses 8-9: resolution: God promises life

Setting: A detour to reveal our hearts
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom.
One of the challenges with a 1-off sermon is that we parachute into a text and then struggle to find our bearings. So we’ll have to do a little work to get started and hopefully avoid whiplash. We have a text, Numbers 21:4-9, but we first need to zoom out and see both the larger and the surrounding context. Let’s look at the book of Numbers as a whole:

The book of Numbers is one of the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. This collection is called the Pentateuch, the Torah or sometimes the Law. You might be somewhat familiar with Exodus. Matt Howard gave two sermons earlier this year on the Passover and the way God rescued his people, the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. With the help of Moses, God leads them through the desert wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. There the people witness God’s miraculous deeds and provision, with a little grumbling sprinkled in. Numbers is a book that continues the wilderness story as Israel gets to the edge of the Promised Land. If Exodus is mostly glory, with a smattering of grumbling, Numbers is the opposite: mostly grumbling and a smattering of glory. While there are some high points early in Numbers, by the time we reach chapter 20, things are on edge for the Israelites. The first generation of Israel has already been told that they will not see the promised land because of their unbelief. Moses’ sister Miriam dies in chapter 20. Then Moses is told by God that he will die and Aaron does die in the sight of all the people of Israel on Mt. Hor. Things seem to be unravelling for God’s people. And now we reach our passage for this morning. Let’s look at the setting.

Verse 4 mentions three places that provide our context. Mt Hor, where Israel witnessed Aaron’s death. It’s a reminder of Moses and Aaron’s rebellion. God, true to his word, did not let Aaron reach the promised land. For the people, this means their leaders will not always be with them.

Secondly, Edom is also mentioned in chapter 20. Edom is the neighboring nation, which originates in Esau, the older brother of Jacob. And Jacob is where the nation of Israel came through. So you have two nations, Edom and Israel who have a long history of conflict and fighting. As Israel neared the promised land, the Israelites went to the king of Edom to ask if they could pass through his country on the King’s highway, which was a direct route to the Promised Land. Despite assurances that they wouldn’t invade, steal anything or cause trouble, they would even pay for any expenses incurred along the way, the King of Edom refused. So the Israelites had to take a longer route and loop around Edom. It would be like wanting to drive to Milwaukee but you couldn’t pass through Wisconsin, so you have to go down to Iowa and cut back over. It’s not terrible but certainly inconvenient.

As a result of the detour, Israel would head towards the Red Sea. Even if you know nothing about the book of Numbers, the words ‘Red Sea’ should set off a buzzer in your head. It was the place in Exodus where God parted the waters so that Israel could cross dry land to escape the marauding Egyptian army. It’s enough for us to recognize this, but the Israelites witnessed this incredible sign of God’s strength and judgment (the waters came crashing back down on the Egyptians). And now they are headed back to the site of their deliverance.

Detours come at us in our lives too. Instead of the most direct route, God takes us somewhere different than our plans. Two and half years ago we were living in Portland, I was working part time for our church and finishing up school and beginning to think about full time ministry. Through a friend, I got word of a small church that was hiring an associate pastor. It was a church very similar to Grace in its theology and philosophy. It was in a diverse area of Portland. The pastor wanted someone to help with discipleship, preach and he would mentor me. On paper this had everything I was looking for. And they wanted to interview me. Everything was falling into place for a seamless transition.

And then I bombed the interview.

Then they called me back for a second interview. And I bombed that one too. And that was that. I got an email saying ‘No’. Worse, it wasn’t “We’re going in a different direction”, or “we have a better candidate.” They didn’t at the time. It was simply “no” to me. And it left me crushed. Like I said, on paper, this seemed like God was lining things up for me to slide into this position and everything would progress from there. It made sense to me. I spent several months replaying scenes in my head, questioning why it happened this way, doubting myself and fighting at times not to question God. It certainly caused sin in my heart towards others, and question lots of things. My Plan A looked great and logically it made sense.

As I prayed through our roster this week, I was struck by how many significant detours we have seen as a church in the last year. When things look logical and right to us, but God takes us in another direction, how do you respond? Let’s look at how the Israelites responded in verse 5 and God’s answer in verse 6.

Conflict: Grumbling and Judgment
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.”

So the people set out on their detour and quickly began to grumble. Grumbling was a theme throughout their journey. In the book of Exodus, while they are still in Egypt, they grumble against Moses and blamed him for Pharaoh increasing their workload. After they were freed from slavery, they arrived at the Red Sea and questioned whether the Lord had brought them to the desert to die. And the grumbling continued throughout the rest of Exodus and Numbers about food, water, and Moses’ leadership.

The irony is that God had provided the entire time. He led them and showed them exactly where to go. He provided food and water out of nowhere, literally bread from heaven, Israel’s enemies had never completely conquered Israel. If God hadn’t provided, they would have died in the wilderness long ago. And yet they forgot all of these blessings and complained. They were questioning whether God knew what he was doing. They were questioning more than God’s actions, they were questioning God’s character. Is God really good? By wanting to return to Egypt, they were rejecting God and implying that they didn’t need him. Sure, they might return to slavery under Pharaoh, but at least it was familiar and predictable. And the food was decent.

One thing that we need to keep clear about this passage:It wasn’t the detour that caused Israel to sin. It simply exposed what was already in their hearts. Grace, where are you prone to grumbling against God? When suffering comes, when things go differently than our own plans, how do you respond? Do you respond in faith or unbelief? Are you patient with God’s plan, even if it’s the long route? Too often we will pay lip service to waiting on the Lord. But that doesn’t last very long before we begin trying to make things happen on our own. We lack the proper perspective. Here’s a practical way to address your grumbling heart: make your stomach grumble. Fast for a time. When you get hungry, remind yourself how dependent you are on the Lord to provide. Ask God to give you wisdom, grant you patience and change your perspective.

The Israelites speak against God. This brings up a question: What is the difference between speaking against God as we see in this passage and speaking to God?The Bible is filled with people who plead with God, sometimes with incredible candor and rawness. Psalm 13 asks, “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;”

The Israelites weren’t appealing to God’s goodness or the promises he had made. They were blaming God for their discomforts. They didn’t believe that God would provide for them. They had convinced themselves that returning to Egypt would be better than being in the presence of God. When people cry out to God in the Psalms or elsewhere in scripture, they are still addressing God as God. Here’s the end of Psalm 13: “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” Do you see how the Psalmist cries out honestly but also appeals to God’s goodness and power? The Israelites posture was different.

This is the last mention of grumbling during the wilderness journey. All of this unbelief and dissatisfaction is coming to a crescendo. How will God respond? How will this end for the people?

Verse 6 “Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.”

In another irony, God answers the question, “Will we die out here?” with a frightening “yes.” Verse six shows God responding by sending fiery snakes to bite the people. And the text says, many people died. God’s judgment is frightening.

Ever since God created Adam and Eve, God had set out his terms with humanity: trust me and be blessed or you will die in judgment. With the help of a serpent, Adam and Eve sinned against God. In Genesis 3, God addresses the serpent and curses him. We are all under this curse, we are all born sinful and commit sins. It’s our natural condition living under the serpent’s curse.

Do you see the connection that Moses, the author of Numbers is making here? Snakes represent sin and rebellion and God has judged rightly. Sometimes people will ask, why did God kill some people, that doesn’t seem fair. The better question is why did he save any of them? Romans 9:14-16 provides an answer to this question: What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. The truth in scripture is that we all deserve what many of the Israelites received. We are all in this situation: we have all sinned against a holy and righteous Creator and deserve punishment by death.

For the Israelites that are still alive in our story, they are now faced with a decision. Do they continue struggling for their own way-a way that has already proven deadly? Or do they give up their plans for another way?

Climax: You have a mediator for confession
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.

The Israelites confess and repent. Do you see how similar verses 5 and 7 are? The people’s sin is that they spoke against God and Moses. In verse seven they own it. We hear the term repentance and we can wrongly reduce it to apologizing. True repentance is quite different. Look at what the people did: They realize they have sinned and specifically confess it.

This offers instruction for us: When we confess sin to one another, we have to be specific. If we keep sin vague, we won’t hate it in the way we should. The more specific you get, the more you will recognize the heinousness of sin.Listen to how one author describes the difference between a general confession and getting specific: “I was proud in that situation” compare that to something like, “Lord, in that moment, with that attitude and that action, I was contending for supremacy with you. That’s what it was all about. Forgive me.”

After confession, they then turn back to God to seek forgiveness through Moses. Repentance means turning around. The people didn’t want a detour, they didn’t want God’s food and Egypt seemed like a better idea. The people didn’t trust God’s goodness and power so they tried to go their own way. When it didn’t work, they turned back to God and sought restoration.

The way they sought restoration was through Moses. They asked him to intercede on their behalf. Moses is a key to this story. He’s the leader of Israel, but he’s also from the tribe of Levi, which means he’s a priest. And the priest’s job was to intercede with God for the people.
If we look back at the passages where the Israelites grumbled against God and Moses, we also see how Moses worked to intercede for the people.

Here is one of several examples in the book of Numbers: Chapter 14 sees the people grumble and try to rebel. They want a new leader who will lead them back to Egypt. The very country God led them out of! The LORD is ready to destroy them, but Moses intercedes and appeals to God: And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.” Moses appeals to God’s character and promises he has made.

The theme of mediator runs throughout the Old Testament:

Jesus is now our perfect mediator, even better than Moses. You can go straight to Jesus: There is only one mediator between God and Man, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim 2:5). He is a high priest who presents his people to the Father because of his perfect sacrifice. We are justified and declared not guilty because of our mediator. Hebrews 7:25 says he always lives to make intercession.

As a result, we don’t need a human, sinful priest in order to be forgiven of sin. We don’t need rituals or works in order to reach our High Priest. You don’t have to confess your sins and be pardoned by one of the elders here. While it is good to confess our sins to one another, we have an even better mediator.

So the people seek forgiveness through Moses. And God answers Moses in the opposite way he did in verse 6:
“Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”

V 8-9 God’s promises life
God gives Moses instructions to build a bronze serpent and attaches it to a promise: all who look at the snake will live. And Moses obeys. He makes a snake out of bronze and raises it up on a pole. Anyone who looks will live.

Everything God has done so far in this passage was to bring the people to this moment: that they would return to God, be reconciled, and live. Hebrews 12 tells us, “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” Our heavenly Father uses actual circumstances and means to bring us to Christ. He brought his people on a detour through the wilderness, He actively sent snakes to punish them, all in order to bring them to something greater than they imagined: relationship with God and greater holiness in their lives. It’s for our good!

What can this mean for us, Grace? Parents, remember this with your own children. Discipline your kids, including consistent punishment in order to bring them to faith in Christ. Show them how God wants kids to turn back to him for their good.

All the people have to do is trust what God has promised.It didn’t matter how hard they looked, or how convinced they were that it would work. As crazy as it may have sounded, all they had to do was look up, away from their own circumstances and believe. If God doesn’t act, the people die. But he gives them life.

Later, Jesus uses this story and expands it. As he speaks to Nicodemus in John 3:14-15 he explains: “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.”

The Israelites who looked at the bronze snake raised up on a pole lived. Now Jesus promises that all who look to him will have something even more valuable: eternal life. The cross is where all of the themes from this story come together: Instead of grumbling, Jesus willingly obeyed his Father to the point of death, even death on a cross. In order to defeat the curse of the serpent, Jesus became sin for us. He became the curse on the cross. Jesus is our mediator who interceded on our behalf, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” And he took the Father’s judgment in our place. All so we could have eternal life and be in the presence of God. Where the world would look at this moment and see it as humiliating, the Bible says it was the most glorious moment. Jesus was lifted up on the cross to display God’s glory.

God took the Israelites on a detour through the wilderness ultimately to give them grace and mercy as the remedy for their sin. For you the circumstances are different, but God’s purpose is the same. Maybe it is assuming parenting was easier than it actually is. Maybe it is a business deal that appeared straightforward but God took you down a completely different path. We have a number of families who are in different stages of foster care or adoption and I’m sure they can tell you how puzzling that process can be. Wherever you currently are, remember that God is using circumstances to bring you to the cross. For me it was a detour through a bombed interview that led me to the cross. I can look back now and see how disastrous that position would have been. I wasn’t ready and my family would have struggled with the move. My sin was not trusting God’s goodness and I tried to take matters into my own hands. And yet, the detour he took me on brought me to Minnesota and here to Grace Church. Which has been far sweeter than we could have imagined, and we have seen God’s mercy in abundance. Wherever you are in your detour, look to Christ. Look to Christ and live. If you’ve never looked to Christ, look now, confess your sins and believe he holds eternal life. If you trust in Christ, look to him again.

There’s a warning here as well. Don’t mistake the Giver with the gift. Second Kings 18 tells us that later generations in Israel worshipped the snake statue and made offerings to it. Don’t worship the object that God provides. Last week we took communion as a church. In doing it, we celebrate Christ’s death, burial and resurrection by eating a piece of bread and drinking a tiny bit of juice. But it’s not the bread and wine that save us, but the gospel which they symbolize and the Holy Spirit who applies the gospel to our hearts. Look to Christ. Don’t worship your circumstances. It’s not the child, house or job you’ve been waiting for. It’s the Lord alone who is worthy of worship.

Verse 9 gives us a postscript to the story. It tells us that God’s promise was fulfilled to all who looked at the snake. They lived. God’s promise came true.

This was the same God who was faithful at the Red Sea. When the Israelites headed back to the Red Sea, they should have recognized that the LORD would be faithful. In the same way, we need tangible ways to mark God’s signs and wonders. Get a journal and write down as many prayers and detours as you can. And then occasionally review them, and highlight the ones that were answered. If you pay close enough attention, your notebook will quickly fill with bright yellow highlights.

Our Ebenezer service is coming up in a few weeks. You’ll get a big rock. Write everything you’re thankful for on the big rock. Then put that big rock somewhere in your house where you’ll be reminded of God’s faithfulness.

Further, we know that Jesus made good on his promise to die on the cross and rise from the grave to defeat the curse of sin. The serpent was defeated that day, but the final battle will not come until Jesus returns to ultimately vanquish the serpent once and for all. Revelation 20 describes how Satan, the old serpent, will one day be thrown into the Lake of Fire. Jesus has the victory over the serpent. God’s promises will all come true someday.

Here’s my conclusion. If your eyes glazed over the rest of it, let’s look again at our passage and see the Gospel. God provides for us and wants us to be in his presence. But we wanted our own way more and rebel against him. God justly punishes us to bring us to our mediator who will intercede for us. And we are left to respond. That’s the gospel: God-Man-Christ-Response. Will we set our sights on Jesus for life or continue in our own power? All who respond and place their trust in Jesus will live. He’s good and he’s using our stories to draw us to him. All we have to do is look to Christ. Grace, we are storytellers and here’s our story to tell. Tell this story to yourself, tell your family and tell others at Grace. And tell people who don’t believe this story. It’s the greatest story ever told.