A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on 18 September 2011. Holy Cross Day (observed).

Numbers 21:4–9
1 Corinthians 1:18–25
John 12:20–33

You can also listen to the sermon.


Picture the scene: deadly snakes all over the place. Grief-stricken mothers cradling their dying children. Panicked Israelites trying to find a hiding place from the venomous reptiles that overran the camp. People of all ages and all stations in life, dead or dying by their thousands. Those who escaped being bitten would inhabit their lives in tents marked by the absence of loved ones who were not so fortunate.

Worst of all, it was such an avoidable disaster. The calamity was a just punishment on a grumbling, unbelieving and ungrateful people who yet again failed to remember the wonders wrought by the right hand of yhwh, their deliverance by the might of His arm as He brought them out of slavery in Egypt. We are told that they became “impatient on the way”. The Lord had promised to lead them to the Promised Land. He had shown the lengths He was prepared to go to in order to fulfil His promises: bringing them out of Egypt, leading them through the Red Sea and drowning the armies of Pharaoh, giving them water to drink where there was none, feeding them where there was no food. He had given them His covenant with all its glorious promises. And now they were on the move again, being led by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.

But they became impatient, because they were being taken on a detour round the land of Edom. The way to the Red Sea, in the opposite direction from Canaan. A journey that could be done in a few weeks would take much longer, perhaps several months. A totally unacceptable delay!

Never mind that to go round the land of Edom was to go round enemy territory, a longer and harder, but also much safer route. Never mind the wonders of the past, the provision for today and the promises for the future: the people would have none of it! Manna may have tasted of honey, but even that wasn’t good enough anymore. Better to be a slave in Egypt than free in the wilderness, on a seemingly endless journey.

“They spoke against God and against Moses, His servant. ‘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.’ ”

And so God gave them what they were asking for: they wanted to be back in the land of death, so death they got. Fiery serpents, venomous snakes, wielding death wherever they went, leaving a tail of mortal wounds and wailing.

While the details of this story are unique in the Bible, the storyline is depressingly familiar—a variation on an age-old theme: the combination of impatience, ingratitude and death, usually involving a serpent. In the Garden, the serpent drew our first parents’ attention away from the bountiful gifts of God to the false promise of a better future. The world’s first death-trap. Ever since, that great serpent, Satan, has been hard at work to lure God’s people from life under the strong, loving hand of the Lord into a life of slavery: to labour over a cursed ground; to toil in Egypt; to sacrifice people, animals and produce to the mute gods of this world; to endeavour to live a good life in the hope of receiving God’s favour in return for their efforts; to gratify the sinful desires of the flesh that clamour so loud against the call to holiness.

And the end is always the same: death outside the Promised Land, outside the gates of the city of God. Because of impatience, of the insistence on instant gratification, of having our best life now. Not for me the way to the Red Sea, round Edom. Not for me the way of the cross, along the narrow way and through the narrow gate. I want it all, and I want it now.

The ensuing death in the wilderness, whether violently by a fiery serpent, or gradually through ill-health or old age—which was the fate of every one of those Israelites that survived the serpents—is neither surprising nor unfair. If you want to live apart from the author of life and choose your own destination, one thing is sure: the destination is not going to be life.

Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that this was a particular problem for others. Every person here present knows how easy it is to get impatient, you know. Impatient with the state of the church. Watching the enemies of the Gospel outside the church winning the day in a godless society. Christians reduced to an ignored, or even abused, minority. Churches that are working hardest at being faithful making the least headway, while those who compromise to get the world’s attention thrive.

Impatient in our own lives: with the demands made on us by God’s uncompromising word, to de-prioritise or even banish things that are so dear to us. The impossible choices between what we want as Christians and church members and what we are actually prepared to do to bring them about. Greater faith without greater attention to God’s word, greater desire for the sacrament, more prayer. More Christians without making the Gospel heard, for want of comfort. Greater godliness without confronting and putting to death our favourite sins.

Impatient with the message of the cross, as soon as that cross begins to overshadow my life, to put me to death. A stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

* * * * *

But even as He punished them severely, the Lord did not abandon His chosen people. As they repented, He provided a cure: a bronze serpent, set on a pole, so that anyone bitten by the snake could look at the bronze serpent and live.

It may not have seemed much to the dying men and women, wounded by snakes, to the mother whose child lay dying in her arms: fixing your gaze on a hastily cast image as the only antidote to the deadly poison. And yet, because of God’s promise, “if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”

Though the Scriptures don’t report it, it’s easy to imagine how some stricken Israelites may have perished because they wouldn’t look up. “I’m dying of a snake-bite: I need a doctor, a proper antidote; what good could come from a dead statue? ”

But for others, that dead statue of a cursed serpent was all they had; and so they fixed their eyes on it and were healed. Healed, not by some magic but purely because of God’s promise, “if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” And because they had nothing else, no other cure, they fixed their eyes on that serpent and were healed.

Many centuries later, the bronze serpent had to be destroyed because it had been turned into an idol, people worshipping it instead of the God whose gift it was. The power was not in the serpent, in the lifeless piece of bronze, but in the word and promise of God: everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.

The living serpents brought death. But the vision of the lifeless serpent, lifted up on the pole, brought life to the dying.

* * * * *

This, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is the folly of the cross of which the Holy Spirit speaks through the apostle Paul. Everyone knows that no good can come to the dying from gazing at a statue. Everyone knows that a life of self-denial and walking under the shadow of the cross is a recipe for misery and lack of fulfilment. Everyone knows that a violent death at the hands of one’s enemies is the surest sign of defeat. Everyone knows that humiliation is the polar opposite of exaltation.

To say anything else is foolish at best, offensive at worst.

But what is foolishness to the world, is in fact God’s wisdom, and He delights in that which the world finds offensive.

All the world is dying of the deathly venom of a fiery serpent. The serpent is the Devil and the venom is sin. Slowly but surely the venom is doing its worst in our bodies, snuffing out life little by little, until none is left. Nor is he satisfied with a temporal death: those who die under God’s curse die eternally. And since God’s Law says, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them,” we can safely conclude that no one is exempt from this curse, however nice and pleasant they may be. Because all mankind is like the people of Israel, unwilling and unable to take the long road that leads around the enemy country into the Promised Land, and insistent either on the shortcut through enemy territory that leads to death on the way, or a return back to slavery—if they ever left it.

That we see death and destruction, misery and injustice everywhere we look, is only what is to be expected in such a world: serpent bites, oozing deathly venom.

But what was true for Israel in the wilderness is true for the whole world today: even as He punishes the world justly, the Lord does not abandon His chosen ones. Paul writes in Galatians, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’ ”

On the cross, Jesus was as accursed as the serpent itself. Christ drew into Himself the venom of the world’s sin, placed Himself under the just curse of God and died our death as the greatest sinner of all: the pure Lamb of God took on Himself the sin of the world and died a just death. He took your sin—your impatience and ingratitude, all your shortcuts and false steps—and nailed them to tree of the cross so that you wouldn’t have to die your own just death.

Fix your eyes, not on a cross but on the Jesus nailed onto the cross. It’s not the cross that saves you but the crucified.

So fix your eyes on the Crucified Lord—not the serene and beautiful man in flowing robes smiling at us from children’s Bibles, but the bloody, bruised, naked Man of Sorrows, dead on the cross. In that ugly, repulsive image you see both the deadly consequences of your sin—and that because Jesus died, you won’t need to face up to those consequences. For all who behold the dead one on the cross with the eyes of faith, shall live. In Christ, the venom loses its power.

For Jesus’ death on the cross was not a defeat but a victory. Death seemed to get the better of Him, but by dying He destroyed death, because death could not keep hold of Him. It pulled Him down into hell, only for Him to burst the gates of hell forever. It is by dying that Jesus cast out the ruler of this world. It was by being lifted up, exalted, onto the cross that He drew all people to Himself. His humble death was in fact the moment of His glorious victory, vindicated by the Father when He raised Jesus from the dead on the third day.

It makes no sense and it offends our natural and religious sensibilities. No one wants a wounded Saviour, a dead God. We all want a glorious Lord to reflect the glory we are seeking for ourselves. Jesus was popular enough when He displayed His power in a visible way. The crowds at the foot of the cross were not so big or so enthusiastic!

But, dear friends, don’t be offended by the cross of Christ. Don’t be ashamed of the humble Saviour., and the shame and humiliation to which He calls you and the Christian church. Don’t be ashamed to be a member of the little flock. Christ has overcome the world, and with Him, we are more than conquerors.

“‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’
‘O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?’

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:56–58)


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