March 14, 2021*
By Pastor John Partridge
Numbers 21:4-9 John 3:14-21 Ephesians 2:1-10
Throughout history, one of the things that human beings seem to be incredibly, repeatedly, and reliably, good at, is complaining. It isn’t difficult at all to imagine that the soldiers who crowded into the Trojan Horse were complaining about the cramped spaces and the smell of the guys next to them. We’ve read stories about how even as the troops sailed ever closer to the coast of France on D-day, they complained about the weather and their seasickness. Any student of history can tell you that no matter what nation you examine, no matter what system of government was in place, the people of every nation have always found reasons to complain about their leadership, and the same is true of virtually every church, every corporation, every union, and every employer… even when we are self-employed. In good circumstances and bad, in feast and in famine, in joy and sorrow, no matter where humanity finds itself, we always seem able to find something to complain about.
And the people whose lives are recorded in scripture were no different. But from them, we learn that we should be careful about what we complain about. In Numbers 21:4-9, we read the story of the people of Israel, recently freed from 400 years of slavery and bondage in Egypt and discover that the joy of receiving their freedom faded quickly from their memory.
4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 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!”
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 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.
8 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.” 9 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.
For four hundred years, the people of Israel had prayed that God would rescue them and bring them freedom. But when God answers their prayers, it doesn’t take much time at all before they begin to complain about the conditions of their freedom. Worse, they blame God, and Moses, for causing their suffering. As a result of their whining, God sends poisonous snakes to slither among the people, and many of those who are bitten, die.
The people cry out to Moses, repent of their sin, and in answer to his prayers for the people, God instructs Moses to construct bronze snake, and lift it up on a wooden pole. And anyone who had been bitten, and had faith in God, could look at the snake and would be saved from death.
The people had sinned when they blamed God for causing their problems by answering their prayers and they suffered and died, because of their sin, when they were bitten by the snakes that came among them. But God provided a way for the people to be saved if only they would have the faith to believe in the power of God and look up to the bronze figure as God had commanded. And that imagery is recalled in John 3:14-21 as John compares God’s rescue of Israel in the time of Moses, to God’s rescue of the world through the crucifixion of Jesus.
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
In the time of Moses, anyone who believed that God could save them from the venom of poisonous snakes could look up to the bronze figure of a snake and be saved. And John says that now, anyone who believes that God can rescue them from sin and death can look up to Jesus on the cross and be saved. In both cases, God provided a way for his people to be saved, if only they had the faith to believe. Jesus did not come to earth to condemn us for our sin, but to save us from it. All that is needed is for us to believe in Jesus and in the power of his death and resurrection to rescue us. Anyone who believes in Jesus is not condemned but has been given the gift of life for all eternity.
The Apostle Paul explains it this way in Ephesians 2:1-10:
2:1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Just in case we were tempted to think that we had anything at all to do with out rescue, Paul disabuses of that notion by bluntly saying, “you were dead.” Much like the people who had been bitten by snakes and already had a fatal dose of venom circulating through their bloodstream, we had already consumed a fatal dose of sin and were just waiting around to die. Because we lived the way that the culture of the world lives, and lived only to gratify our desires, we were deserving of, and already condemned to, death. But God chose to be merciful and demonstrate his great love for us through grace. Because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God opened a path for us to be rescued from death. Paul emphasizes that our rescue is a work of God’s grace, kindness, and love and the only part that we play in our rescue is in looking up to Jesus and placing our faith in him. Our rescue is God’s undeserved gift to us and not anything that we could ever earn through works of any kind. And, because our rescue is a work of God, because we are a new creation through the work of Jesus Christ, our life’s purpose is to do good for the people, and for the world, around us. God has rescued us so that we could do the work that he has planned, prepared, and intended for us to do.
Although human beings have always been extraordinarily good at complaining, and just as good at being selfish, committing sin, and offending God, we need not sit as people condemned and wait for our execution and death. Instead, we have been rescued by God’s grace, kindness, and love, and have been given a new life, a life whose purpose is to do good and to do the work of the kingdom of God.
During this season of Lent, let us stop complaining and look up to the cross. Remember God’s grace, mercy, kindness, and love, and recommit ourselves to doing good for the people, and for the world around us, so that everyone might hear the good news, be rescued, and receive God’s incredible gift… of life… and love.
You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/EmHE8dCyeEc
Did you enjoy reading this?
Click here if you would like to subscribe to Pastor John’s weekly messages.
Click here to subscribe to Pastor John’s blog.
Click here to visit Pastor John’s YouTube channel.
*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.