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"Impatient on the Way" - Numbers 21:4-9 - The Fourth Sunday in Lent


[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.

 

Impatient on the Way

Another delay. The people of Israel were redeemed from slavery in Egypt and are now on their forty-year journey through the wilderness to the land promised them – a land that is prosperous and will be their own, where they will become a great nation.

They are delayed because the king of Edom won’t let them pass through his territory. They now have to go down and around, out of their way. The people become impatient on the way. They speak against God and God’s servant, 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.” 

How quickly do we forget the ways God has helped us in the past and what He has helped us from. How easily do we overlook the ways God is helping us now.  

“Why did you bring us out of Egypt?” Egypt was a terrible place for the Israelites. But sometimes we remember the past as being better than it really was for the sake of complaining about the present.

“Why are you letting us die in the wilderness?” So far God has saved their lives from Pharaoh’s army, delivered them by dividing the Red Sea, has been leading them in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, and has given them victory against others along the way.

They are not dying in the wilderness. It’s been difficult. But at every juncture, God has provided.

“There is no food and water, and we loathe this worthless food.” By their own words, they admit that there actually is food. But they call it worthless. What is the food God has provided?

So far, they have been fed every morning with the bread of heaven, manna. And God has driven quail into their camp for meat. And God has given them water from the Rock by the word and staff of Moses. 

God has given them miraculous food and drink. He has provided. Yet, what He has provided they begin to ignore and despise. They are more focused on what God has not given them – the kind of prosperity the world around them has – so they forget the worth of the heavenly riches He has given them.

In heart, their grumbling and complaining about what they don’t have is a rejection or a despising of what God has given them. “This worthless food.” They don’t believe and expect good from Him.

This is serious. For their impatience on the way they receive God’s anger in the form of “fiery serpents” – snakes, bronze in color, with a burning, venomous – and deadly – bite. Many of the Israelites did die.

How easy it is to forget the good thing God has done for us when we fall into this same trap of complaining along the way. Grumbling because of what we don’t have. Unhappy because of what others do have. Speaking against God – or just being angry at life – because of the difficulty of our circumstances.

The point isn’t to make light of the difficulties we face. You sometimes face some devastating stuff in life. It is hard. Sometimes it’s ongoing.

But we are called to faith. We are called to believe by faith – not by sight – that God who has so loved us will love us still. That God who has sustained us up to this day will do so also for days to come. That God who has so many times spared you will spare you again.

God is more powerful than any evil circumstance and does give peace that surpasses understanding.

You might not have the same food and drink, house, clothing, income, family, or health as many others. No matter what you have, someone has it better.

But no one has it better than you, God’s people in Jesus. Because your clothing is a spiritual clothing. By baptism, you are clothed in the robe of Christ’s righteousness which covers all your sin. [Galatians 3:27]

And your bread and drink are from heaven. You have Jesus, the Bread of Life: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” [John 6:35]

Your house, your home, is in the heavens: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” [2 Corinthians 5:1] – “In My Father’s house are many mansions… I go to prepare a place for you.” [John 14:2]

Our family is the community of saints. Our health is eternal life and the resurrection of our body. And Jesus has called Himself our friend. We lack nothing if He is ours.

When we complain and become impatient on the way – Or, when we become very focused on the earthly blessings we do have along the way – we are forgetting about such great treasures which we possess in and through Jesus alone.

The Israelites suffered punishment for their impatience. The fiery serpents. But they cried out, “We have sinned!” Repentance is saying to God, “I’m sorry; forgive me; and help me do better.”

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.” 

God lifted up His punishment off from those who believed and put it up on a pole. Those who believed could look up at that pole and say, “See, God has lifted up His anger and punishment away from us. He put it on that pole.” 

This, brothers and sisters, is a sign for you and me. God has lifted up His anger and punishment away from you and put it on the cross. All of God’s wrath and punishment against your sin – including your sin of impatience and grumbling – has been placed upon the cross. Jesus suffered it in His body in your place.

This is what Jesus was talking about in today’s Gospel lesson: “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.” [John 3:14-16]

This is the Gospel – the good news of God’s love by which He has saved sinners. Because we believe this, we can come into His light.

Jesus has clothed us in this Gospel by baptism. He puts this Gospel in our ears and feeds our heart. He puts His Gospel in the bread and wine, His body and blood, in His Supper.

Jesus does not delay to be our Savior, Provider, and Friend along the way. For all He has done for us, let’s seek to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. Amen.

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