Philip Casmer

This Sermon Is for Losers

by Philip Casmer on March 10th, 2024
Numbers 21:4-9

What losers! Seriously now… when you read in texts like Numbers 21, don’t you just say to yourself, “Man alive! These Israelites! What a bunch of undeserving, self-serving, ungrateful losers!” Myself, I envision it almost from some nearby hilltop, shaking my head and watching this thing open-mouthed: these people are complaining again, wanting to go back (after like 30+ years) to the place where they were slaves? …and then, judged by God, they’re derping around on the ground writhing in pain and dying from fire-snake-bites and regretting once again their dumb impatience and impertinent mouthiness? These people are in a special category of stupid, I think… And to their shame, having to look up at a snake statue on a pole for rescue…

In that vein, I’d guess, when you meet Numbers 21 there’s also a feeling of strangeness around that whole snake-on-a-pole thing, right? What’s the solution to sin? Bronze snake! The what now??? And if you were to account for it as some kind of antediluvian, atavistic, archaic thing – “that’s Old Testament for ya!” – you’d also have to account for that it’s actually New Testament too apparently. Jesus seems to like it. In point of fact, he identifies it with himself – that what happened with that bronze serpent is a foreshadowing of what he himself would do. “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.” (Jn 3:14) 

Forget the snake on a pole; this is the worst part, I think… The worst part is actually the implication of what Jesus says. After all, doesn’t he really put you in the same camp as rebellious Israel? Are you not among those who need to look up and be saved?

Let’s draw that out for a moment. Perhaps you do identify with Israel; you don’t primarily say, “What losers!” After all, when I say it was “after 30+ years” that they wanted to go back to Egypt, well, that means they’d been wandering about in the desert for 30+ years. And, you could blame them – we should – they chose it, after all. Seven times, in fact, they rebelled – just in Numbers. They complained about meat, their leaders rebelled against Moses, they just grumbled sometimes, they rebelled when they were barred from the promised land, they rebelled in great numbers, they quarreled over where to go and what to do, and they spoke out against Moses and longed for Egypt. Even so…their lot was wandering until the old generation died off. In that kind of story – if that were your story: we are those destined to wander until we die – sanctification would surely grow short. Even bread from heaven would get old after 30 years. Even shoes and clothes that didn’t wear out… I’d be longing for a new pair of Oxfords sooner or later… You’d likely get tired of all that dust and dirt… Somebody’d surely throw out their back carrying that tabernacle in pieces all over the place… 

Maybe you’d say: I don’t know that we’d fare so differently; likely we’d turn to be just as dramatic; just as much terrible caricatures of ourselves as they became…

A cartoon caricature drawing is a good way, I think, to think of these chapters of Numbers (11-21), with all these rebellions. In a caricature, the artist looks at your face, takes individual features of your actual appearance, and then magnifies them all out of proportion – he’d magnify my medium sized shnozz and probably Elvisize this silver swoopy hair… Like that, Numbers is trying to highlight something about the human heart and mind, how fickle and short-sighted God’s people can become. Including you. I mean, even here with all we have and how we’ve been led and blessed and cared for, who among us can say that we’ve never been ridiculously impatient with God’s timing in our lives? We could say real losers we are too… 

And I don’t mean to be offensive. I’ve just been thinking this way the past weeks. In the class I’m taking right now, we’ve been discussing the philosopher Nietzsche and the Christian church. Now, before you think I’m some intellectual: I haven’t read Nietzsche since somebody made me do it for a grade. And all you really need to know is Nietsche’s big claim was: “God is dead.” Now, you and I know God’s not dead – he is the Living God. But Nietzsche was arguing that, for a long time, we’ve been in a world that doesn’t care about God at all – doesn’t accept his rules as the rules – assumes that He doesn’t even exist- refuses your assertions that this is right and that is wrong. In fact, the fact that you even have to argue that what God says is right means that people don’t agree…in their minds, he’s a dead issue or no issue at all. And it is actually insightful because, when we meet a text like Numbers 21, we find that we think that way too…

Of course the complaining, but even more the judgment. Tell me when you read Numbers 21 that one of your first reactions isn’t: Fire serpents and death for whiners? Tell me that you don’t say there and in any number of other situations, “Well that’s just not fair, Almighty God!” Tell me it’s not the case – that you, believers in God, don’t also push back on his justice and his judgments and find them very difficult, sometimes even wrong? 

We struggle with this by nature – that God is the Living God, the Judge of the Universe, the Measure and Maker of all things – that only by his gracious will anything exists at all, and all of it only for his good designs, all of it ordered actually under his limiting principles… By nature, as we confessed and St. Paul told us, we’re dead – and by nature we’d prefer to consider God dead. In fact, even we may treat him that way: as just the Great Vending Machine in the sky who will supply cars and retirement and health, as the buddy who’s there to be our sounding board, as one to be argued with… Do we not treat him often as one limited by the smallness of what we can design and how we measure and what we desire? 

That He is not: limited, small, obliged to you… And what we are is what Paul said, “by nature deserving of wrath” – whether by fire serpent or fiery judgment – the deserved solution for sin is hell because the only comparison to make is me against God’s righteousness. And the right word in our mouths this morning and any other is: “What a loser I am!” Put it in a more biblical way, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord…” 

In truth, there is nothing else to do. Israel, losers though they are, they have it totally right. They said, “Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” See, the solution for sin, as we engage it in worship today, is not to picture ourselves as the winners; not to compare ourselves with anyone at all. Rather it is to start with nothing, to recognize our death, to confess our sins – and to look for the solution outside of us – again and again and again.

When losers read God’s Word this morning, what do we find? Through Moses God provides a solution:  “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” It’s not the solution any of those Israelites were dreaming. They, like we, were probably thinking of what kind of repayment they could make to God. He said instead, “Here’s a sign that you understand that I’ve had mercy on you – I could destroy you, but I’ve done something else. Look to it as I’ve commanded – believe in what I’ve said…” Here’s the solution: it’s totally outside of us; God raises his work up for us to see and believe.

Paul described it beautifully. When losers come before the Almighty God and confess who they are, they find: God – who “has great love for us,” and who “is rich in mercy,” and that by his “grace you have been saved,” grace “incomparably rich.” How? He “made us alive…when we were dead in transgressions.”  Is there any gift greater than that? Or any kindness greater than this: he raised us up [from lying in the dust of death to be] with God himself? Actually, losers before the Almighty God find mercy – and he raises it up for us to see.

How? Where? Well: This is the way God loved the world: he gave his one and only Son; his Son came into the world not for condemnation but salvation; intending that whoever believes in him might not die but live… In fact, just as Numbers told it: “In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe…the Son of Man [was] lifted up [on a cross]—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting [in what God has done] and expect[ing what God has promised], will gain a real life, eternal life.” (The Message, modified)

Fellow losers… I forgive you your sins in Christ. You are at peace with God. In the light, in the truth, walk and live whether you are. You are not wandering and lost. You are rather the work of God’s hands, his creation purposed to do every good thing he’s prepared in the lives he’s set before you. By his gracious design, all is yours. Because the solution for sin is easy to find. He’s raised up for you to see his Son. Salvation for sinners. For losers, victory. Look here and live…

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