Sermon by Tony Hobbs – 15th April 2018
INTO A NEW SITUATION WITH THE LORD
Numbers 21:4-9 & II Kings 18:1-6
Numbers 21 and John 3
Talking to Nicodemus, Jesus uses the example of the bronze serpent to explain what He is saying:
I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
The significance of the example
The reference to the bronze serpent helps Nicodemus (and others) to understand:
The nature of Jesus’ Messiahship.
The nature of true healing.
How relationship with God is to be restored.
The example introduces the most famous verse in the Bible:
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.
This is another example of the Israelites getting fed-up with their experiences in the Wilderness and attacking their leaders.
Had they followed the urging of Caleb and Joshua to obey the Lord, they would, by now, be in the Promised Land.
Their tough circumstances are a direct result of their disobedience.
A learning experience
We shouldn’t think that the people’s voicing their petulance with God and Moses results in some form of emotional annoyance from God!
We see God teaching the Israelites some important principles that run through the OT, and into the NT:
That decisions have consequences. Decisions to disobey the Lord ultimately have bad consequences.
That adversity and suffering are often used by God as a wake-up call the people: intended not as punishment but as a prompt to repentance.
The nature of Divine healing.
A comment about the snakes
The Hebrew word is Seraphim. (Plural of Seraph.)
This is used elsewhere in the OT for venomous (ie firey) snakes and is the obvious meaning here.
But because the word is also used to describe the angelic beings Isaiah sees in the Temple (Isa 6), some people think we might be dealing here with some form of angelic creatures.
However, it is more likely that the angelic beings Isaiah sees are so called because they have snake-like bodies and are associated with fire.
Offer of healing, not a removal of consequences of sin
God doesn’t take away the venomous snakes, which are a direct consequence of the people’s free-will choice to disobey God. But He does provide healing if an individual chooses to receive it.
God’s command to make a snake is, at first sight, curious, but:
It reminds each individual that their suffering is a direct result of their sin.
That God’s healing is available.
It is, of course, God that heals, not the symbol. The symbol serves its purpose.
II Kings 18:1-6
We discover that the bronze serpent was not left in the Wilderness. It had been part of Israelite culture for several hundred years.
It had been transformed into an idol and given a name. (Which has linguistic connections to both the Hebrew words for serpents and bronze.)
It’s original purpose was good but it had now become bad.
Hezekiah was a rare good king, who sought to do the Lord’s will.
He also had to deal with some of the greatest challenges in Israelite history. Seeking to be obedient to the Lord didn’t protect him from hardship and difficulties.
God does not explicitly tell Hezekiah to destroy the bronze serpent. He does so because he recognises that any idol is contrary to God’s will.
This must have been difficult and unpopular because it had direct associations with Moses and Israel’s history.
What once was good…
A principle here is obvious:
Something that may have been good in the past, something that may have been explicitly from God, may become unhelpful after it’s served it’s God-given purpose.
It may not become an idol as such, but it can become an obstacle.
We must be careful that religious tradition does not become some sort of idol and get in the way of being obedient in following the Lord.
Some traditions may be helpful. But we must not mistake any religious tradition for active relationship with the Lord.
The need to let go
Destroying, letting go, of religious traditions can be very hard. We are comfortable with the familiar.
But if they stop being helpful and become an obstacles to what God is saying to us NOW, then they need to go.
Nicodemus appears to have been one of the ‘good’ Pharisees; Judaism at its best. But to embrace God’s love to the full, to respond to what God was saying to him NOW, he had to let go of his old understanding. It had been good, but inadequate.
Embracing the new
As we move into a new situation with the Lord we may well be called to give up familiar things, both small and big. This is rarely comfortable.
While the easiest thing is to moan, the best thing is to seek God’s healing.
As we let go of the old, we need not just to lament its loss, but also to embrace the new.
Sadness for what has gone is legitimate, as long as it doesn’t stop us experiencing the new blessings that God has for us.