Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Rev. Sabrina Ingram


Three ministers were sharing a room at a large Christian convention.  One of them said, “I hear people’s confessions all the time, but no one ever hears mine; why don’t we share our ‘secret sin’ with one another? “I’ll start.  My flock thinks I’m a spiritual giant but I never pray.  Instead I complain about my people to my wife.”  The second minister proudly said, “I can top that.  My congregation thinks I’m a brilliant preacher but I copy all my sermons from the internet and spend my prep time at the track betting on the ponies.”  The third said, “My secret sin is gossiping and tomorrow I’m the keynote speaker!”


Now you’re probably all wondering what your minister’s “secret sin” is.   I’m not going to tell you, but I assure you I’m no different than anyone else.    Paul wrote,All of us once lived among them (the disobedient) in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses” (2:3).   Peterson paraphrase says, “We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it.”  In honesty, doesn’t that appeals to you just a little?   Isn’t it human nature to do what we want, when we want, without regard for God or others?  As Jesus said “people love darkness over light because their deeds are evil.” (John 3: 19)   Peterson observes, “It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us.”   It wouldn’t be the first time.


In the book of Numbers we find a brief story about sin and wrath.  The Israelites had been in the desert for about 30 years.   It had been hard slogging through the wilderness – it was blistering hot in the day and freezing cold at night; they carried their homes and all their belongings on their backs while dragging children and elderly people through the sand.  There was no food and no water.  True, God had provided them with manna but after 30 years of eating bread for every meal, that wasn’t exactly a treat.  Now the Israelites were at the edge of the Edomite camp, not far from the Red Sea.  Recently and with God’s blessings they had “utterly destroyed the Canaanites and their towns.” (vs. 3).   Why not destroy the Edomites too?  Instead, Moses decided to detour around their lands which wasn’t welcome news to the Israelites.  So the Israelites fell into sin.  What did they do?  Create idols?  Worship other gods? Commit murder or adultery?  Lie or gossip?  Nope.  They “became impatient” (vs. 4) and grumbled.  Wow!  Who knew a bad mood was sin?  The trouble was they’d turned against God and Moses.  They were peeved with God and mistrusted his plan.  They questioned God’s love; being saved from slavery wasn’t enough. They felt betrayed. They fell into self-pity and blame.  They bemoaned their lot in life and demanded God do something about it.  They expected God to serve them.


Who can’t relate to that?   When life isn’t as we’d like it to be, our moods often get sour. We have a giant pity-party.  We question, blame, curse and mistrust God.  We expect God to “fix it”.  If God wants followers he should make our lives better, that is easier.  He should solve our problem.  He should serve us.  No wonder God “lost his temper” with the Israelites, their self-indulgence and anger towards God was venomous.  So instead of serving his people by “fixing” their problem, God sent a plague of venomous snakes.  People were bitten and died.  After a while the people went to Moses in humility, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents.” (vs 7).  Moses prayed and God told him to make a bronze statue of a snake on a pole; whenever people were bitten, they could look at the icon and be healed.  Notice God didn’t get rid of the snakes.  The plague continued and the people were still poisoned; the consequences of their sin remained.  But God did choose to show mercy.  The bronze snake was a significant symbol. In looking at the bronze serpent the community would have been reminded of their sin and its consequences, of God’s anger, of their repentance and of God’s mercy.  Through it their faith was restored.  Looking at it was an act of hope that renewed their trust in God.  Through gazing upon it, they were healed.


We all remember Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus – he’d been telling Nicodemus that he needed a spiritual rebirth.  Later in that conversation Jesus made reference to this story, “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.” (vs. 14)  He was, of course, referring to his own death on the cross.   Jesus’ suffering on the cross mirrors back to us our sin and its consequences.  Sin always leads to suffering and ultimately to death; on the cross Jesus bore the sin of all people.  He was tortured for our salvation.  He was sacrificed in our place.  The cross represents God’s anger in the face of our sin and God’s justice; there are consequences for what we do.  God didn’t magically wipe sin off the planet or out of our hearts – he sent his Son to deal with it on the cross.  Paul reminds us, “…while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) 


The cross makes us uncomfortable.  We don’t like to think of Jesus’ suffering, particularly for something we’ve done.  Its human nature to deny our sin and to try, by our own strength, “to fix it”.  Most people think if we live good lives, our goodness will outweigh our sin and God will recognize that and reward us.  Jesus didn’t tell Nicodemus to be good; he told him he needed to be reborn and to be reborn we need to look at the cross.  When we gaze at the cross, when we really connect with it, we see there the only solution to our sin.  Sin makes God angry and sin needs to die in order for people to be reborn.  Peter wrote, “Jesus himself bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24).    The cross invites us to repent – to admit we’ve offended God with our venomous attitudes and to change our hearts and our actions.   The cross also invites us to experience God’s mercy.  When Paul considered the cross, he was overwhelmed by the mercy God has shown us through Jesus’ death, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2: 4 & 5)  Grace is the word we use to sum up God’s gift of mercy.  Through Jesus’ death, God gives us mercy without any strings attached.   Through our faith, God unites us with Christ so sin cannot have power over us and death does not defeat us.  The cross is a hope-filled sign.  Anything else we put our hope in – our goodness, our money, medicine, education, tolerance, even human love – is transient and will let us down.   All those things may make our lives better for a time, but in the end they cannot rescue us from death or give us freedom.  Only the cross of Jesus Christ can save us.  So the cross also invites us to trust in God.  The cross is the way God has chosen to save us – will we look at it or not?  Will we see our sin and take ownership of it?  Will we perceive that on the cross Jesus paid the price for our sin; he took the punishment that was due to us?  Will we repent?  Will we throw ourselves on God’s mercy and trust in him?   Paul said, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (vs. 8 & 9).   The cross is God’s gift of grace and a gift can’t be earned, it can only be received.  In this case through faith, by believing Jesus’ death will save you and by trusting God’s ways. If sin is the venom running through our veins and threatening to kill us, the cross of Christ is what heals us.  Listen again to Peter, “Jesus himself bore our sins in his body on the cross,so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his woundsyou have been healed.”


To be “free from sins” means we no longer “love the darkness over the Light.”  Throughthe cross we are reborn; what is old in us dies and we’re made new.  To be alive in Christ means we no longer “follow the course of this world” or “the ruler of the power of the air” and we do not share “the spirit of those who are disobedient.  (Ephesians 2:2)  That means our old nature no longer controls us; doing “what we want, when we want it” no longer holds an appeal for us.  We want to live for Christ Thatdoesn’t mean we never do anything wrong – our inner serpents are still with us.   It does mean that we’re drawn to the Light – to all that is holy, humble and honouring of God.  Through the cross we are drawn towards Jesus, the Light of the world.


Are you living in the Light of Christ?  Have you looked at the cross? Are you still looking at it or have other things taken its place?  Are you trying to save yourself by your own goodness or are you ready to accept God’s gift of grace?  Maybe you think you have faith in Jesus but aren’t sure.  As we pray together today, God invites you to gaze upon the cross; to accept his gift of mercy; to trust in Jesus as the one who died for you and to be healed – in fact to be more than healed, to be born again.  During our time of silent prayer and reflection I invite you to look at the cross, to surrender your life to Jesus or to renew your faith in his gift of salvation.