Snakes in the desert

14 Mar 2021 by Richie Dulin in: Sermons

Welcome to the Church

Call to worship and welcome

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    for his steadfast love endures forever.  (Psalm 107:1) 

And we do give thanks to the Lord, as we gather as Carlingford Uniting Church this morning, we do know that God is good.

This morning we gather to praise God, to hear the scriptures and meditate upon them, to pray for the world and all its people, and to praise God.


Prayers of adoration and confession

The heavens declare your glory, O God;
the skies proclaim the work of your hands.
Most wonderful God and heavenly father,
you are beyond our sight, above our thought,
infinite, eternal, and unsearchable:
yet your wisdom shines in all your works;
and your grace is revealed to all in Christ.

We love you and adore you.

God of all our days, God of our past, God of our present, God of our future
all glory be yours
now and forever,
in the name of Jesus Christ, your Son and our Saviour.


Friends, as we confess God’s greatness, we should also confess our own shortcomings, our own humanity, and so we pray:

Almighty God our Father,
we have sinned against you and one another;
we have sinned in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.

In your mercy forgive what we have been,
help us to correct what we are,
and direct what we shall be;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Declaration of forgiveness

God says:

I will make a covenant of peace with you;
my dwelling place shall be with you,
and I will be your God.                                   (Ezekiel 37.26-27) 

Hear then Christ’s word of grace to us:

‘Your sins are forgiven.’                               (Mark 2:5)

Thanks be to God.

Bible readings:

Numbers 21:4-9

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.


John 3:14-21

14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

16 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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

<Prayers of Intercession>

Snakes in the desert

Last month, my friend Jean, who’s a member at Pymble Chapel, turned 100. We were invited to a high tea to celebrate, and, for once, Jean didn’t bake the cake. Jean is a fantastic cook, and up until the start of lockdown she was baking morning tea for Pymble Chapel each week. I’m told she’s been doing a lot of baking for her neighbours in the meantime, but she is keen to be baking for the Chapel again.

So we had this high tea. It was really good, and it was nice way to celebrate. It was the best 100th birthday party I’ve been to. It was at Ku-ring-gai wildflower gardens, which is in the bush and backs on to Ku-ring-gai chase National Park. And as we were getting ready to leave, there was a squeal from the carpark ‘There’s a snake!’. So many people rushed out to look at this snake – and most people were watching the snake from a safe distance of about 10 metres or so.

I got a little bit closer than that. I maintain it was a safe distance – but others disagreed. I did touch the snake. I assure you it was safe to do so. Again, others would disagree.

It was a diamond python. It was non-venomous – but you wouldn’t want to be bitten by it. People were scared though. Far more scared than the actual danger the snake represented. In fact, the fear of snakes is the second most prevalent animal phobia. (Second after spiders).

As was remarked in bible study last week, snakes don’t get good review in the bible – things really don’t get off to a good start with the story of the temptation in the garden of Eden in Genesis.

And of course, we’ve had this story from the book of Numbers that we’ve had today. It takes place in the wilderness – after Moses had led the people out of Egypt toward the Promised Land. By the time of this incident, the people had been wandering in the desert for almost forty years.

Almost forty years! Most of those who had come out of Egypt with Moses were dead. Their children if not grandchildren would be the ones to enter the Promised Land. And still, between Moses and the people of Israel, and the promised land of Canaan, were the Edomites. You might remember,  the Edomites, were the descendants of Esau whereas the Israelites were the descendants of Jacob. And you might remember, too, that Esau and Jacob didn’t part of friendly terms.

So Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom saying:

Now let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from any well; we will go along the King’s Highway, not turning aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory. (Numbers 20:17). 

But Edomites weren’t going to cooperate and they answered: “You shall not pass through, or we will come out with the sword against you.” (20:18)

So Moses asked a second time,  and said “We will stay on the highway; and if we drink of your water, we and our livestock, then we will pay for it. It is only a small matter; just let us pass through on foot.” (20:19)

But again, they were refused, and a large, heavily armed Edomite force came out to reinforce the message.

And so, because of Edom's response, the people of Israel were forced to take a long detour. This detour meant a few hundred extra kilometres for the people of Israel. It wasn't simply a matter of taking a longer road -- there was no other road. The whole nation was forced to travel through desert – through the sand, across the rocky outcrops,  little or no vegetation with which to feed their livestock, and scarcely any water. It was the whole community, too, the old, the young, with all their flocks and herds, carrying everything they owned.

There were nearly there. And now they had this extra journey imposed. Therefore it should come as no surprise that as we get to the start of this morning’s reading that “the people became impatient on the way.” (21:4) and that 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 detest this miserable food.”

The miserable food they were complaining about was the manna God sent down every day from heaven.

They should have known better than to complain. After all, the people had witnessed the might and power of God to save them time after time.

- God had parted the Red Sea so they could pass through safely

- God sent them quail, he’d sent them manna

- God had provided them water from a rock

-  And just at the beginning of this chapter, God had saved them from the Canaanite king of Arad, and given them victory over the Canaanites at Hormah.

In spite of all of that. The people complained. And I do find myself wondering if I would complain. Or if I do complain. Do I think, sometimes, that God should be looking after me better than he is? Do we, as a church, think that God should be doing better for us?

 In spite of all that God had done for them, the nation had turned its back on God and his servant Moses. The people conveniently forgot all that the Lord had done for them and began to complain against him.

And then the snakes come on the scene.

And it wasn’t just one python providing entertainment at a high tea. Verse 6 tells us that Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. (21:6)

Now, I don’t think, if we complain, that God is going to send venomous snakes to bite us, or fire and brimstone, or natural disasters. BUT if we choose to live our lives in ways that God doesn’t want us to live. If we turn away from God, there will be consequence.

You might remember after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, that it was suggested that they had happened because God had ceased protecting America, because America had turned their backs on God.

But the gospel assures us that God doesn’t turn his back on us. Even when we had turned away from God, God sent Jesus into the fallen world to save it.

However, those attacks may well have been the consequence of American foreign policy and American culture and all sorts of other factors.

I’m quickly summarising something that is quite complex, but it did come up in our recent bible studies.

As we see throughout history, a lot of the time people don’t realise they’re doing the wrong thing, unless there’s a consequence or punishment.

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. (21:7)

Moses prayed for the people. He acted as an intercessor. Moses interceded for Israel before God's throne and asked God to save them.

For us, of course, it is Jesus who intercedes. In Moses we see in indication – a foretaste, of what Jesus will do. When we sin, it is Christ who pleads for us before His Father's throne. We read in the letter to the Hebrews that “he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:25)

And God heard and answered the prayer of Moses,

…the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (21:8-9)

As we discussed at bible study, what a strange thing this is. The solution to the problem of the snakes isn’t getting rid of the snakes, nor is it providing some sort of anti-venom. Bizarrely, they just have to look at this bronze snake, and they will live.

We need to understand that it wasn’t the statue of the snake that saved the people; the bronze snake itself wasn’t magical or supernatural. The solution was supernatural, but it was the power of God.

It’s a hard thing for us to get our minds around, and it was hard for the Israelites too.  We read in the book of 2 Kings (2: Kings 18:4) that King Hezekiah  broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it. They’d been worshipping it. That symbol of God’s saving power had become an idol.

But if it didn’t have any power why was it needed? The bronze snake on a pole was just a symbol of salvation. It was God who saved the people, but the people needed to respond to God in order to be saved.

And it was a strange symbol. It was snakes that were killing the people. It was Satan disguised as a snake that led mankind into sin. And, throughout Scripture snakes are something detestable (Lev 11:41-42). Snakes are scary. Yet, God used a bronze snake on a pole as a symbol of salvation that he gave to his people.

This morning we are celebrating the Holy Communion, one of the two sacraments that we have. But in the history of the church there have been many who treat the sacraments as having saving powers - they think the simple act of eating and drinking is able to save or that the act of Baptism is able to save. But the Sacraments do not save: Like the bronze snake, they are symbols of God’s grace to us, and we are saved only by God's grace in Jesus and through faith in Jesus.

Of course, there are some people who say that we read too much of Jesus into the Old Testament. But Jesus, as we heard in the reading from John’s gospel, makes the connection himself. Talking to Nicodemus, he says:

And just 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. (John 3:14-15)

The snake was lifted up on a pole. In the same way Jesus was later lifted up on the cross.

And just like the Israelites had to turn their eyes to the bronze snake in belief in order to be saved, we must turn to Jesus, to look with faith at the Son of Man lifted up (on the cross) if we are to be saved from sin and death.

We have to realise that people today are like the Israelites were back then. They’ve rebelled against God and are destined to die as surely as they’d be bitten by a venomous snake. And, just as Israel was totally helpless to do anything about it themselves, so are people today. They can’t save themselves. Only the Son of Man lifted up upon the cross is able to save them. Only when we look with faith to Jesus are we saved.

And that is God’s gift to each one of us, and to all of us.

It is a gift that cost God his only Son.

But it is given freely.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man was lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.


Offering prayer

Gracious God,
We offer you our gifts, how ever we give them,
for the work of your Church
and the welfare of your people everywhere;
acknowledging with gratitude that we could give nothing
if you had not first given to us.
Help us to use all we have
In accordance with your good will
and for the glory of your name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.



May Jesus our Saviour who was lifted up on the cross draw you to himself,
So that you may find in him a sure ground for faith,
a firm support for hope,
and the assurance of sins forgiven;
and know that the blessing of God almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is with us all, today and always.


Next Sunday: 21 March 2021
Bible Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10
Theme: “The new covenant”

Lectionary Readings for next Week
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12 or
Psalm 119:9-16 Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33