What Faith Looks To - Fourth Sunday in Lent
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Numbers 21:4-9
March 14, 2021

Did you notice that the Gospel and epistle readings today both talk a lot about faith. And then there is a direct connection made by Jesus in the Gospel reading to the Old Testament reading that also has to do with faith. So let’s talk about faith today by talking about “What Faith Looks To.”

This is important for us today. We often hear it said: “You just gotta believe” or You just gotta have faith.” When I hear such things, I want to say, well, believe in what or have faith in what. And then I get the feeling that what is really meant is that faith is an exertion of will so that if you will hard enough, it will happen. But then it all relies on your strength of will, which aside from making us willful people, not humble people, also ends up being a shaky foundation because it is not rooted in God’s action and promise. So when we are talking about what faith looks to, we are also talking about the source and strength of faith.

The Apostle Paul talks about faith in that famous statement from Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8). Jesus talks about faith in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him has eternal life.” He also talks about faith in two other places in our Gospel reading. In John 3:14-15 Jesus says, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also it is necessary that the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him should have eternal life.”  And then in verses 17- 18, Jesus says: “For God did not send the Son into the world for the purpose of condemning the world, but for the purpose that the world be saved through Him. The one who believes in Him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because that one has not believed in the Name of the only-begotten Son of God.”

How these things relate to what faith looks to is illustrated in the Old Testament reading from the book of Numbers. There we see that the people of Israel are in trouble. Once again they are criticizing God. This happens over and over again in the story of the people of Israel after God had brought them through the Red Sea. Here they say: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food and no water, and our soul detests this worthless food” (Numbers 21:5).

There is a back story to this. Just before what we read in Numbers 21, God had taken them to the edge of the promised land as He had promised He would; as He had promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then Moses sent 12 spies into the land to check it out. Ten of the spies came back preaching a narrative of insurmountable problems and fear. The people of the land are big, they said. Their cities are fortified and strong, they said. We are like grasshoppers in our own sight and in their sight, they said. There is no way we can conquer them. They will kill our women and our children if we try to go in and take the land (Numbers 13:25-14:4).

Joshua and Caleb, however, preached a different narrative. Theirs was a narrative rooted in faith in the Lord because of how He had brought them out of Egypt. Had the Lord not gained the victory over Pharaoh’s army for Israel, quite possibly the most powerful army on earth at the time?

The narrative of unbelief and fear prevailed among the people. It did so to such an extent that the people were prepared to stone Joshua and Caleb for continuing to proclaim faith in God who had brought them through the Red Sea (Numbers 14:10).

It was at that point that the Lord determined that that generation of the people of Israel, except for Caleb and Joshua, would die in the wilderness (Numbers 14:20-35). So when we see the people of Israel in our reading this morning, they are wandering around in the wilderness because they had to turn back from entering the promised land. They had to turn back due to their lack of faith in God. And now they are criticizing God because there was no food and water and they had to rely on the manna sent from heaven, which they now say they despise.

So God sent a hardship among them as judgment and discipline. He sent the fiery serpents. Many of the people died from being bitten. Many more came to Moses and said: “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against You” (Numbers 21:7). Then they asked Moses to ask the Lord to take away the snakes.

The Lord did not immediately take away the snakes, but He made a provision for them to provide rescue from dying from being bitten. He instructed Moses to make a figure of a snake and put it on a standard, like a pole that is used for a flag or a banner as a sign.

So Moses made the figure of a snake out of bronze and did so. The Lord promised that anyone who looked at the figure of the snake on the pole would live. This promise called forth faith.

Now maybe someone might think that that was an easy thing, just to look at the figure of the snake on the pole. But maybe it was not so easy. Maybe the tendency would be to look at the ground around your feet; to try to run; to try to kill the snakes; or to sit down in despair if bitten thinking that there is no hope for me now. Maybe the tendency would be to do anything but to keep one’s eyes looking at the physical sign God had provided according to His promise.

Thus the promise attached to the sign required faith. The promise attached to the physical sign taught them to turn their eyes away from what is obvious; to turn their eyes to the salvation God was providing.  Look to that sign; look away from yourself and your immediate circumstances; abandon your own efforts to get rid of the snakes, to save yourself; look alone to the provision God has provided; the provision being this physical sign that is in the form of the danger and God’s judgment.

It is interesting and quite significant how the sign was in the form of the thing that was God’s judgment. The sign of the snake was in the form of the snakes the Lord had sent among them. So it is for us. What is God’s judgment against all mankind and why? It is the judgment of death due to sin. So the Son of God becomes Son of Man lifted up on the cross and dies in the place of all human beings. He becomes sin, as the Apostle says: “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). God judges sin there in the lifting up of the Son. The judgment of death is meted out there, as by death He destroyed the power of death (Hebrews 2:14). So we look to the Son lifted up there and are saved from the judgment against sin, just as the people looked at the bronze serpent on the pole according to the word of promise and were saved from the serpents.

So the looking to the bronze snake on the pole is picture of faith. It is such a picture because it involves looking to the provision God has made; a physical sign to which the word of promise is attached. In this same pattern, faith for us means that our eyes are ever toward our Lord Jesus Christ. God presented Him once for all as He gave Him to the world; as He was lifted up from the earth on the cross. And He is brought to us, presented to us now in His Name as Jesus talks about faith in the Name of the Son of God (John 3:18). Name here means much more than just label. It has to do with His reputation; His renown; How He is known. He is known by His character and being. He is known by His deeds, which redeem us. This is His Name. We come to know His Name by what is spoken about Him; the good news, the Gospel. We know His Name by what we hear: faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ, says Paul (Romans 10:17).

But Jesus does more than that. He connects us to Himself through physical signs which are filled with Him, presented to our sight, to our touch and taste; water with the word, Holy Baptism; His body and blood in the bread and wine according to His word. Thus He connects us to Himself in ways that are sure; in ways that do not waver; so that the strength of our faith is rooted in Him and His deeds and His promises. We look to Him where He is present for us in these things. And we live in the power of the promise: Whoever believes in me has eternal life, Jesus says.

So we give thanks to God for placing the story and the reading and the speaking about Jesus in our ears and then in our hearts. We thank God for the Gospel which tells us the mighty deeds of God in Christ, who is the person of the Son Himself, in human flesh appearing, being lifted up for eyes to see on a cross, being raised from the dead for eyes to see alive again; being now spoken to us as the Name of the only-begotten Son of God, being now brought to us in His sacraments of water with the word and His supper; the operation of the Spirit being placed in these things through which He works to create and sustain our faith in Christ and so gives us eternal life.

As the Psalmist says, let us continually look to the Lord (Psalm 25:15), looking to where He has placed His promise and provision of salvation in Christ; the good news about Him, brought to us in word and sacrament. These things are sure. In these things He comes to us and draws us to Himself forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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