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[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.

[Exodus 20:1-17 – The Ten Commandments]

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me…”


Law and Gospel

When the judge slams the gavel and says, “Guilty!”, to the defendant, next comes the sentencing and then the jail cell. The judge’s words are final. Guilty means guilty. Bad deeds have their consequences.

But when a father says “guilty” to his son, maybe for the same bad deeds, what happens after those words is much different. The son stays home. Is fed. Is loved. Is indeed corrected and disciplined. But is forgiven. The father’s word, “guilty”, is not his final word. It is followed by the father’s love.

And, if your father and the judge happen to be the same person, who knows? This might be to your advantage.

We speak in different ways depending on our role and relationship to another. A judge speaks like a judge. But a parent has a different set of words to use.

God is both Judge and Father. God speaks both Law and Gospel in His Word, in the Bible. God’s will is that His Gospel, not His Law, would be His final word.  

Lutheran Christians highly regard what we call “the distinction of Law and Gospel” as the true and helpful way to read and understand God’s Word, the Bible.

            In the Bible, God is sometimes speaking to you His Law and sometimes He is speaking His forgiving Gospel to you. We understand the Bible correctly by recognizing this distinction and the distinct purposes of His words of Law and words of Gospel.

God’s Law is found throughout the whole Bible – Old and New Testament. Today we read the Ten Commandments [Exodus 20:1-17] in our Old Testament reading. Not all the laws in the Old Testament are the same sort of thing, and not all still apply.

God’s Law in the Old Testament, which we often call the Law of Moses, can really be seen in three categories: Civil, Ceremonial, and Moral.

The Civil Law was unique to ancient Israel in its time and place. It contained regulations and laws for their nation. It was more merciful, in many ways, than the laws of the nations around them. It provided protections for slaves and women, the poor, and foreigners. Yet, where it was strict and harsh, it was indeed strict and harsh. God is Judge.

            The Ceremonial Law was unique to the worship life of Israel. These were the laws pertaining to sacrifices, offerings, feast days, fasts, the Passover, the Days of Atonement, etc. These ceremonial laws pointed to Christ who was to come — and preserved Israel, Christ’s family tree, as a unique people until Christ came.

            The third kind of law, the Moral Law, applied not only to ancient Israel but applies to all people of all times, even today. The Moral Law is written on the human heart, though we often twist and dull it. It is written throughout Holy Scripture – in fact, most fully in the New Testament. The Moral Law is simply God’s eternal will.

The Moral Law is summarized in the Two Great Commandments – to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself. The specifics of how to do this are expressed in the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere throughout Scripture.

The Civil and Ceremonial Law no longer apply; the Moral Law applies forever. (The civil laws ended because Jesus brought in the true Kingdom, the heavenly Israel. The ceremonial laws ended because they foreshadowed the coming Messiah, Jesus, who is now here.)

            But the Moral Law is God’s will forever. It shows us what kind of people we ought to be. And it serves three purposes for us today. God’s Moral Law is our Curb, Mirror, and Guide.

God’s Moral Law curbs our outward behavior. The preaching of the Law keeps us in the lane, like the curb on a road, so we don’t go as far off course as we would.

God’s Moral Law serves as a mirror which shows us our sins. A mirror is honest. It shows all the ugly spots. God’s commandments show us all our sins and ugly spots where we have fallen short. God gives us an honest look at ourselves.

            “Through the Law comes knowledge of sin” – “That every mouth may be stopped” [Romans 3:19-20]. “No one is righteous; no, not one” [Romans 3:10]. The Law shows us our sin to show us our need for a Savior. It shows us our guilty verdict.

            And God’s Moral Law serves that third purpose – our Guide – which we’ll get to after the Gospel. God speaks Law. But, more than that, God speaks the Gospel.

The Gospel is the good news that God has forgiven your sins and saved you from death and hell because of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel is not a new set of commandments. The Gospel is the work of Jesus for you. Jesus fulfilled the Moral Law on mankind’s behalf by His life of perfect obedience.

Jesus fulfilled the Moral Law also by suffering all that the Law required as just payment and punishment for our sins. Jesus suffered this, in full, on man’s behalf.

On the cross, Jesus offered up His one-and-only perfect life as a God-pleasing sacrifice on your behalf. On the cross, Jesus’ death was the once-for-all satisfactory payment for all your sins against God’s Law.

Because of what Jesus did, you are forgiven and set free from doing it yourself. And this forgiveness of sins produces in us a new heart. A new heart of flesh instead of our old heart of stone.

            Because sin is forgiven, God’s commandments are no longer judge and accuser. They no longer condemn you. Instead, they are now instruction and guidance from a Father who loves you.

            This is that third purpose of God’s Law. Because sin is remembered no more, the Moral Law is now a Guide which you can love and cling to through the waves of life. It doesn’t condemn God’s sons and daughters. It leads them through the wilderness.

            In fact, the Ten Commandments were first written – foremost – as this kind of guide. It was written for God’s redeemed children – whom He had just saved out of slavery in Egypt – who were now traveling through a wilderness to the promised land.

The Ten Commandments begin with God saying these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

In short, “I, the Lord, am your Redeemer, your Savior.” Therefore, “You will have no other lords, no other gods; you will not worship creatures and images; you’ll use my name rightly, not in vain; you’ll receive rest each week and keep my day of worship. You’ll love each other, honor father and mother, be faithful to husband and wife; you’ll do no harm to each other; you’ll not steal; you’ll not gossip about each other; you’ll trust Me and be content with what I give you.” Because He has redeemed us, we have His commandments as the guide for our new life together.

God loves you. He has redeemed you. He gives you new life. God speaks to you in His Word, the Bible. Thanks be to God that He speaks to us as Judge and as loving Father – Law and Gospel.

And thanks be to God that He guides us by His commandments as we walk as strangers and pilgrims in this world, until we reach the world to come. Amen.

Pastor and preacher at Trinity Lutheran Church

Pastor Curtis Stephens was born in Flint, MI. He completed his M.Div. at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN and has served congregations in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Pastor Stephens began serving at Trinity in July of 2023. 

rinity Lutheran Church

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