Just One Look – 4th Sunday in Lent

But God, Who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) [Ephesians 2:4-5]

The Old Testament Lesson [Numbers 21:4-9] presents an extraordinary picture of what St Paul is saying in the Epistle [Ephesians 2:4-10].  Along with the Gospel [John 3:14-21], you cannot get a more clear and powerful picture of God’s grace and mercy.

In the Old Testament Lesson, the Israelites in the wilderness were practicing their favorite pastime, which was to gripe, complain and accuse God and Moses of mismanagement.  Jehovah of Covenant had been providing manna since when they had left Egypt, and just recently had added quail to the menu, and all along had been, sometimes even miraculously, providing water for all the People’s needs.

But they had now called these wonderful gifts from God worthless.  It was a sour attitude that refused to appreciate what God provided; an attitude that never saw what the God of the universe did as “good enough”; an attitude of rebellion that reflected Adam and Eve’s distrust which believed that God was shortchanging them.  It would seem that this People would have grown very tedious very quickly to God, especially since there were still more years of more rebellions to come.

Who were the Israelites?  This was God’s People – they were meant to be strong in the power of the Lord, the People who would define before the nations what the Jehovah of Covenant was all about.  Their task would be to represent the great Glory of Jehovah, which He Himself had described in Exodus [33 & 34] as His goodness, His Covenant relationship, His mercy and grace, His steadfast Love and forgiveness, as well as His justice.

However, what was happening was that, in their selfishness, this People basically claimed that God was selfish and inconsiderate.  What they held forth before the world was that this Jehovah was not much better than any of the temperamental false gods of the surrounding peoples.  In their disdain of Him, they rejected that God was anything like what His Glory stood for, and therefore held Him up to contempt and ridicule before the nations.

So the Israelites were given the plague of serpents.  We ourselves could be like the Israelites and criticize the God Who identifies His Glory in terms of mercy and grace and forgiveness, that He would send deadly snakes among His own People, however we may have missed how part of His Glory is also His justice.  Yes, there are times when the rebellion and the despising of God by any people, much less this one, finally reaches its limit and justice demands its accountability.  Ultimately that is what Hell is about.

Yet once God is driven to that point where He must act in His justice, you would think that He would just “write them off” and then walk away, or possibly He might hang around to gloat like some false god might do.  Instead, what we find is that as soon as this rebellious People came back to Him in repentance for the umpteenth time, He was ready to immediately provide a solution – and to demonstrate His Glory really is marked by His grace and mercy and forgiveness.

Moses was instructed to make a bronze replica of the agents of death – the snakes – and to place it on a pole.  It is here where the story takes an unexpected and bewildering turn.  For such a continuous string of rebellions on the part of Israel, one of which had been that when came to the very threshold of the Promised Land, they had rejected the Land because they did not trust that their Covenant-Partner would actually be their Rock and Conqueror – you would think that by now a really annoyed God would have demanded a stringent list of requirements in order for them to be forgiven and saved.  But not so here.

In profound contrast to the great mass of constant rebellion, and to the response of justice with its demand for death – the simplicity of the antidote for the snake venom, for forgiveness of the rebellion, is stunning: one merely needed but to look at the bronze replica.  And that was it??  Yes!!  For the one who stood at the foot of the pole on which hung the bronze serpent, when he was bitten all he had to do was to look up.  He was so close that perhaps he noticed the detail work that Moses may have put into this replica.  And he was healed.

But what about the one on the very fringe of the camp, maybe a good half kilometer or so away?  When he was bitten, he looked and only saw perhaps a glint in the sunlight.  He saw no detail work, in fact, he may not even have been able to distinguish the shape of the replica.  If he had eyes like mine, he probably only saw a fuzzy blob.  Yet he was instantly cured just as much as the one standing by the pole.
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It was merely a look.  There was no long form of a confession of sin, there was no sub-clause demanding a given time period to determine if there was a lasting change of attitude or of action.  But what about if the person had not believed correctly, or did not quite understand what was going on?  Yet today’s Old Testament Lesson is completely silent about any of this.  All that is identified is that all any one of this rebellious People needed to do was simply to look, that is, to look specifically to God’s solution against the death they faced and any person, every person who looked was healed.

Why was the person healed?  Because that was Jehovah’s promise.  The bronze serpent had no power beyond what the Lord gave it, and it was simply the reminder and pointer meant to focus attention to the God Who brought healing and life to all who obeyed Him, even in something so easy as this.  It was quite a turn-around for those who had been accusing God of mismanaging their lives, that now they had to cling to His promise in order to freely receive such life, salvation and blessing.

This whole incident, Jesus indicates in today’s Gospel, describes what Good Friday would be all about.  He Himself would be placed on a pole of sorts – a cross – , and any who looked to Him would not be cured from a common snake’s bite, but rather from the bite of the greatest snake of them all, the serpent of the Garden of Eden, Satan.  His bite produced not just physical death, but especially spiritual death.  Yet a look to the cross would point us to an absolute healing from the sentence of death that hangs over our heads.

It is not that we merely see a figure of a Man hanging there that brings such benefit, as where the cross for many is now just a piece of jewelry.  It is because promises have been attached to this event, promises that bring life, fellowship with God, and the healing from spiritual death and the emptiness it brings to life.  We also, who are so often too willing to doubt God’s motivations, are suddenly confronted again with the very Glory of God at work: here on that cross is the fullness of the grace, mercy, goodness, steadfast love, forgiveness, Covenant relationship and justice in as complete a bundle as God could ever have provided.

All this has great application for today, because we have a Baptism, through which we welcome this infant into God’s Family, Christ’s Body and Jehovah’s People.  Again the same principle is at work.  Although Martin Luther in his Small Catechism used different words, he basically identified the same things about what is going on right here.  He declared that the water is simple water only and no baptism if there is no promise attached to it, the same as without the promise, the bronze serpent replica would be merely an interesting piece of artwork describing a sad time in Israel’s history, but beyond that it would be meaningless.

However, when the water has God’s promises attached to it, now it becomes an amazing powerhouse of blessing and life.  You might say that there is no end to the blessings that it brings, especially considering how Luther describes that it bestows the forgiveness of sins, but then goes on to declare that “what does the forgiveness of sins not bring with it but life and salvation” and a multitude of other ramifications for daily life here and for life in that great unending day of Jesus’ return.

And yet what makes us falter is that this is such a simple action.  One might expect a far more dramatic event with some sort of earth-shaking power revealed.  But the whole occasion is characterized by an almost seemingly routine air about it.  In fact, it seems about as routine as, one might suppose, a simple look to Jesus on the cross or a look to a bronze serpent on a pole.

Sometimes that is what is so frustrating about God.  We would expect much greater fanfare when it comes to the significant events that have such powerful and long-term effects.  Yet that’s the way God works.  Even Holy Communion, which has the staggering thought that here Jesus gives to us His very own Self, His very own Body and Blood: how often have we come to the altar and returned, and it is over so quickly that it is hard to comprehend that something of such enormous consequence, something so profound, has actually occurred?

Over and over, God seems to be repeating to us the essence of His message to Zerubbabel in Zechariah 4:6: “’Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says Jehovah of hosts.”  Throughout our lives, we wish that God would be more dynamic and more visible and yet He reminds us, “I have given My Word on this – that is enough, that is all that is ever needed.”

It is so easy, that it is wonderful that He does do things this way.  We need not fear that we might not measure up to some impossible standard, but rather we here (today!) get to participate in the great Glory of God:  Here in Word and Sacrament we come face-to-face with His mercy and grace, His Covenant and goodness, His steadfast love and forgiveness, and even His justice, all of which are brought into each of our individual lives.  Rather than giving stringent requirements that we would too often fail at, God repeatedly brings us back to His promise and simply tells us, “Look!  Look again at My salvation that is for this child, which is also for you.”  Today in Baptism, in Holy Communion, and then on Good Friday, let us take a good long look and see in all its wonder the Glory of God that is found in His promise of salvation that is found in the Person of Jesus.

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