Within Earshot of Jesus

Sermon preached on 5 May 2024 at the service for the closing of Brighton Mission, by pastor Tapani Simojoki

Text: Numbers 21:4–9

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Let us pray. Holy father, sanctify us in the truth. Your word is truth. Amen.

By the time Israel came to Mount Hor, they had been travelling around the desert regions between Israel and Egypt for a long time on foot. The shortest route when they left Egypt would have taken them a maximum of a fortnight. Two weeks — and two weeks would eventually become 40 years. God took them not on the short, quick route along the coast, just across from Egypt, across the top of Sinai, along the Mediterranean coast into the Promised Land. But instead, he led them right down into the depths of the Sinai desert, which is a pretty bleak place. And life is hard down there. And as Moses writes very simply, the people became impatient on the way.

By this time they had come out from the Sinai desert. They were heading towards the Promised Land, just on the wrong side of the Dead Sea, and going around the land of Edom, south-east of Israel. So they were kind of in the right direction, but still in an arid place. They became impatient and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”

Now, on the one hand, we should be sympathetic. We should understand. It was hard work. They had been waiting. Two weeks had become years already. There was no food and no water.

And they said, “We load this worthless food.” They had had the same diet all that time: manna. It was not just any old food. It was food literally from heaven. Every morning manna would fall from heaven. They would collect it on the ground. God had been feeding them all this time. When there was no food, he gave them manna. When there was no water, he gave them water out of the rock.

As they were leaving Egypt, God had sent the ten plagues on the on the Egyptians. He had opened up the Red sea so that they could walk across the Red Sea on dry land. When they had been attacked by enemies, God had given them victory. And however impatient they were, for them to say, “Why have he brought us out here to die in the wilderness?” was pretty unreasonable behaviour.

God had given them life. God had brought them out of slavery. And yes, it was a harsh environment, but they were free and they were heading in the right direction. And at every turn God had shown that he was looking after them and he was caring for them. And if it required a miraculous supernatural intervention to keep them alive, he was willing to supply one – more than once.

And so God was rightfully angry and he sent a punishment there and then: fiery serpents. They were venomous and they bit the people and many people died. I’m sure that for a lot of people’s worst nightmare would be to fall into a snake pit, to be surrounded by venomous creatures that can destroy you with just one bite. And now God sent these snakes into the camp of Israel. You can imagine the panic and the grief as people watch their loved ones being bitten and dying.

And at that moment, a little bit late, they realized that they had done wrong. “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you.” And at this point they dared not pray for themselves. They realized that they had turned against God, and so they went to the man of God to say, “You pray for us.”
“You pray for us, Moses!” So Moses prayed. And God gave them not just instant relief, but he gave them a sacrament. God gave instructions to create something that was visible, so that the people could look to this bronze serpent, this bronze snake lifted up on a pole, so that everyone could see it. And as many as looked at the serpent, the bronze serpent, would live.

You can just picture the scene of people kind of sitting in their tents, cradling a loved one who was dying of the bite of a venomous snake, and doing everything they could to get them to open their eyes – “Just look at the snake over there” – to get them to be saved so they wouldn’t perish. You can see fathers and mothers or husbands and wives. “Just look at the serpent.” And as many as looked at the serpent did not die but lived. And, as has often been pointed out, this sacrament was a strange sort of sacrament in that the bronze serpent was a lifeless creature. It was just a lump of metal. A lifeless creature. But when the living who were dying looked at the thing without life, they received life from this lifeless creature. How can a lump of metal give life to poisoned people? The answer is the same as the answer always is with the sacraments: “It’s not the bronze, it’s the promise.” God had said. God had promised.

In just the same way that water without the Word of God is just plain water. But with the Word of God it is a water full of grace. It is an instrument of the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Bread and wine without the word are just bread and wine. But with the word they are the body and blood of Christ, a life giving means of refreshment, of forgiveness, of salvation, of new life. And so also it was that this bronze serpent, because of the promise of God, became, in spite of its own lifelessness, a means of life. It is almost as if the dead thing absorbed death by power of the promise, so that those who were living things would remain living things.

But we know something that they did not. They they knew what they had there. But we know more: Jesus himself said that just as the bronze as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, the Son of Man would be lifted up. Jesus himself would one day be raised, not on a pole, but on a cross, so that people might look to him and be saved. Not from venom that kills so that you might live another day and die of something else, but of the venom that brings death into the whole world, the venom of sin itself.

And this time there is a different, opposite, surprise in store. The original surprise was that the dead thing might bring about life. Now, the surprising thing is that the Eternal One might die. He who is the author of life, by whom we live, died, so that by his death we might have life.

Therefore, the task of the church and of Christians has been the same task as the task of all those people cradling loved ones bitten by a snake. “Open your eyes. Look. Look here to your salvation. Just look here and so that you might not die in your sins.” The preaching of the gospel throughout the centuries has been the same task: to take dying people in a dying world and say, “Look to the salvation. Look to Jesus.” By faith in him, we will not die, but we will live, because he takes away the venom of sin and death and cleanses us and makes us living. In the sacraments of the church – in Holy Baptism. in the Lord’s Supper – Jesus comes to us to deliver the antidote, the antivenom, to cleanse us and to give us new life.

We’re here at Brighton Mission. After 13 years of a kind of wilderness wandering, we have gathered once more. Some of you have gathered here faithfully almost every month for as long as you have been coming here, and we have seen people come and people go. We have seen the congregation grow and then shrink again. And it seems that, for the time being, we have come to a kind of an end of a road; not for the Christian life, nor for our participation in the life of the church, but in the work of this mission.
We are a small mission in a small church. And like the Israelites, we might be tempted to become impatient – impatient with God. We continue to gather; the Word of God is preached; the sacraments are administered; we pray. And yet we remain small, and the world goes on its merry way while nobody seems to notice us. And when we ask people to look with us at Jesus, they are not interested. To become impatient, to become disenchanted, disillusioned, disheartened, happens easily.

When that is the case, and on days like today, you do well to be mindful of the example of the Israelites. The Israelites had left one place, they were on the way to the other place; and that they left and that they arrived was all in the hands of God. And if you took any moment on that journey, and you judged the whole journey on the basis of that moment – “How’s it going today?” – and you’re up at 6.30 in the morning collecting manna in the wilderness for the 937th day in a row, knowing that this is your food today and tomorrow; and yesterday you were looking at one bit of the desert and today looking at a different bit of a desert; and you’re still nowhere, seemingly nowhere nearer to arriving in the Promised Land – a land flowing with milk and honey, but no milk and no honey for you – with no indication of exactly when you would be arriving there. You can hear the whole people of Israel spending 40 years saying to Moses, “Are we there yet?” And the answer was, day after day, “Well, not yet.” And in fact, they would had to wait until a whole generation had passed.

If you judged the whole journey on the basis of any one day or any one week, it looked like a hopeless, miserable affair. And yet, for us, looking back on that journey, we look to it as this great story of salvation, where God took a people out of slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness into the Promised Land. We look at how wonderful it was. When you read the rest of the Old Testament, they keep going back to that particular journey saying, “Look at the wonderful work that God did.” Even though the experience of it each day was hard.

The whole journey was a wonderful work of salvation and redemption, and that manna that they had to eat day after day, year after year, remained a picture of God’s gracious provision so that Jesus himself, many years later in Capernaum, would speak of the manna from heaven. “Moses gave you manna from heaven, and here is more manna from heaven, a greater manna from heaven, in my flesh and blood.”

So also in our Christian journey, if you take any moment of it, any slice of it, and it might look mundane at best, discouraging at worst. 13 years, and instead of opening up a new church, we are closing down our little mission . We’ve all grown older in the process, and it seems like we are known no nearer to the destination than we were at the beginning.

But that is not true. We do not judge the journey by its moments. We judge it by the work that God is doing. He has taken us out of a far greater oppression than the Israelites: the oppression not by a pharaoh, but by Satan himself. And he has redeemed us from it and is taking us to the fulfilment of his promises. And some of us may well be destined to walk in small groups all the way, small parties rather than great crowds, and through hard terrain rather than the easy coastal highway; and to experience more hardship than elation along the way. That may be so. No matter. We keep following, not a pillar of cloud and fire; looking, not to a bronze serpent; heeding, not a prophet. But we keep looking to the Son of God who leads us himself, who is our guide, who is our food and our drink along the way, whose words we heed, and who has drawn us so close to our Heavenly Father that we need not turn to another and say, “You pray for us”.

We have sinned. But he gives us such confidence that we can say, “We have sinned: we had better pray,” knowing that he will hear us in spite of our sins, because in Christ we have become his children, that we are one with Jesus. He doesn’t lead us from a distance. He’s not simply the goal, but he’s our guide. In him, we live and move and have our being, day after day. Therefore we need never – in fact, must never – be discouraged, but always draw near to Jesus. And as we go our separate ways this afternoon, and as we continue our lives as God’s children in this world, one thing must remain the constant: that we continually keep looking to Jesus. That we continually keep gathering wherever there are two or three gathered in Jesus name – wherever the word is being preached, wherever the sacraments are being administered – because there Jesus is himself.

We might be in Brighton, we might be in Fareham, we might be in Petts Wood, or we might be somewhere else. But wherever Jesus is, there is life. In fact, our whole life is a moving oasis, and that oasis is the gathering of God’s people, the presence of Jesus. And there no fiery serpent, no accusation, no arrow or dart from Satan’s evil army – none of our own sins, no powers in heaven, on earth or in hell itself – is able to overthrow us because we are members of the body of Christ, the Church of Christ, against which the gates of hell will not prevail.

So, dear friends, make it your life’s number one mission always to be within sight and earshot of Jesus, who became for us a sign against all sin and against death. Make sure that you are always within earshot of his promises, that your faith may not wilt and wither, but rather be strengthened and grow. And always make it your business to be in places where you can be fed and nourished by his body and his blood, being strengthened and encouraged in the company of fellow members of his body in the Church of Christ.
When you are part of that herd, gathered by Jesus himself – however small or large the particular flock in which you find yourself at a given time is – you can know that you will be safe from all attacks of the evil one, because he cannot overcome the one who overcame death for us, even Jesus Christ. And we will, by God’s grace, find ourselves in the great triumphal procession on the day of his coming, when sin, death and all their ill effects will be abolished for all eternity. And we will feast eternally in a land better than that flowing with milk and honey: in the city of gold, prepared for us by our crucified and risen Lord. To him be glory amongst us and in the whole church, now and forever. Amen.

Now may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.