The Foolishness of the Pole
“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).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It doesn’t make sense. It’s a crazy way to save. How could looking at a bronze serpent hanging on a pole bring healing? It’s a severe challenge to faith. It smacks of superstition, magic and mysticism, maybe even crass idolatry. And just how gullible do you have to be in order to try it? Gullible or very desperate.
But here’s a greater mystery: Why would God save a people who are so opposed to Him? Why would God send any sort of healing for men and women so wicked and rebellious that He must send fiery serpents to chastise them in the first place? Why? The answer is short and sweet: sin and grace. The foolishness of the pole is all about sin and grace.
Let’s admit it up front: the world and the majority of people in the world will deny this truth. The reality of sin and sinfulness is generally rejected, but especially in our time. Sin is dismissed as “a mistake” or “a bad choice” or “none of your business” or “an alternative lifestyle,” rather than a transgression of God’s holy Word and will. It is considered more a matter of a minor indiscretion than a spitting in God’s face kind of thing. So, it should not be surprising that where there is no recognition of sin there is no recognition of the need of grace either. There’s no application of forgiveness necessary in a world where sin is denied.
However, this morning we are not speaking of the world out there. We are speaking of those called by God to be His people. They have been delivered from bondage through their baptism and are on their way to the Promised Land. They are on their way, but they have not yet arrived, and life is not easy as they wander in the wilderness until the proper time. I’m sure you can probably relate.
Like many of their fathers and mothers some forty years earlier, some of God’s people become impatient and they begin to grumble. And as you know well, grumbling can be one of the most contagious and pernicious infections in the congregation. The chorus of complaints crescendos. And because God seems so far away from them, their ire is directed against God’s servant, their shepherd, Moses. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
Notice what is happening here: The people of the congregation are not having their felt needs met and they are in the process of rejecting God and God’s servant of the Word. Certainly this is a sin against the Lord God—the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Commandments. They are not fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things. They are not calling upon God’s name in every trouble, praying, praising, or giving thanks. And they are certainly despising God’s Word and preaching, failing to hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it.
As often happens, such rampant rebellion and unbridled unbelief is manifested by the sin of coveting. The complainers want what they do not have and do not want what they do have. You know what I mean. You’ve probably been there yourself. As Jake Owens sings in his latest country hit: “We all want what we ain’t got.” The grumblers long for “the good ol’ days” back in Egypt. They covet the rations of bread and water that they had back in the land of their bondage; and they detest the bread that is graciously given to them from heaven and the water that pours forth freely out of the rock. Each one of them would be more than willing to go back to Egypt, climb into their own fetters, throw away the keys, and die under the influence of other gods. In the New Testament, Peter describes this natural sinful inclination to depart from the presence of the Lord and go back to bondage with a pair of pithy proverbs: “A dog returns to its own vomit,” and “a sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud” (2 Peter 2:22).
The Lord sends venomous snakes. Many die because they are bitten by the snakes. At this point, the improved attitude of this new generation can be seen. Sure, they bellyache just as loud and long as their parents, but when chastised they quickly confess their sin and boldly appeal to the Lord’s grace through Moses: “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that He take away the serpents from us.”
God cannot simply take away the sin without there being the punishment of the sin paid. Even as He displays His grace, God’s justice must be satisfied. So listen to what happens next. It is strange indeed, but it is marvelous to our ears. Probably the last thing any of these people want to see and last thing they expect for a cure is another fiery serpent—a reminder of their sin and its consequences. But that is exactly what they need. “So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”
What Good News! Here, life is given where death ought to be. Here one is restored to God when that one deserves to die forever. It sounds too good to be true, this “foolishness of the pole.” I mean, think about it. A bronze snake fastened on a pole. It’s not even alive. How can it save anyone? But before you dismiss this lifted up one, take a closer look. For this one does not bite and from its mouth no poisons issue forth to kill. God Himself, in His Word of promise, provides the way to escape, just as He will with the Lifted Up One and His cross, the crucified Christ, to whom this bronze serpent and pole point and foreshadow.
Dear baptized, lift up your eyes and see the One lifted up in your place. “His name is Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). He is on the cross and He spits no venom; rather He is absorbing the fiery wrath of God into Himself. The Son of God does not use His mouth to bite; rather He speaks to His Father concerning your forgiveness. And, in order for you to have life with God, Jesus the Christ must die. This is “the foolishness of the pole.”
It’s a plan so outlandish that it could only be hatched in the mind of a mad man, or a con man… or in God Himself. It’s a plan that could never work—unless it is the very Son of God Himself who, out of love and grace, hangs on the cross for the forgiveness of the sins of the world. The cross is the place where our sin and God’s grace meet. It doesn’t make sense, does it? It’s a crazy way to save. It smacks of superstition, magic, or even crass idolatry. And how gullible do you have to be in order to believe it? Gullible or very desperate. But that’s just it; we are that desperate. It’s just that we are born so dead in our sins and blind to the truth that we don’t even realize our plight until the Lord opens our eyes, reveals our rebelliousness, and patiently draws us to look up to His cross.
In his blog, The Flying Scroll, Chad L. Bird tells of reading a book to his young children that foreshadows his own rebellion and restoration. I remember reading “The Runaway Bunny” to my own children and having some of the same thoughts about how it reflects God’s love for rebellious people like you and me. But Chad tells the story so much better that I’ll just use his words.
My daughter was on my left, my son on my right, as I began to read. “Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.”
How was I to know that I was reading my future to my children that day?
The story continued: “So he said to his mother, ‘I am running away.” ‘If you run away,’ said his mother, ‘I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.’”
I didn’t even bother to tell my Father that I was running away. I just did. Packed up my things, wrote no note, left the door hanging wide open. Never looked back. How was I to know that my Father said, “I will run after you”?
My daughter and son listen as I read on. “‘If you run after me,” said the little bunny, ‘I will become a fish in a in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.’ ‘If you become a fish in a trout stream,’ said his mother, ‘I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.’”
If God ran after me, He would not like what He found. He’d have to go slumming, poking around in the gutter, digging through the dunghill to find his runaway boy. And God wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t go that far. I didn’t mean that much to Him.
I turned page after page. The little bunny became a rock high on a mountain, so the mother became a mountain climber. The bunny became a crocus in a hidden garden, so the mother becomes a gardener. The bunny becomes a bird, so the mother becomes a tree that her little bird could come home to.
I was beginning to think I’d never outrun God. To my surprise, and disappointment, I couldn’t seem to get away from Him. I became an adulterer, a drunkard, a blasphemer, and a violent man, but every place I went, soon I’d look over my shoulder and see Him bearing down on me, in hot pursuit.
Finally the little bunny says that he will become a boy and run into a house. And the mother responds. “If you become a little boy and run into a house, I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.” To which he responds, “Shucks, I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.”
But it was too late for me. I had already left. This was no cute conversation between me and my Father in heaven. Some what-if scenario. I had turned from being a little boy into being a serpent. Crawling on my belly in the dust. Slithering from sin to sin. Poison on my lips. A bite that could wound and kill. I was coiled in anger, looking through two slit eyes that saw the world from the perspective of prey and predator.
And I knew that pursue me though He might, God would never stoop so low as to become a serpent. No, not even to find and bring home his little lost boy. God wouldn’t go that far.
And then one day I heard these words, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15). And my mind drifted back to the story of Moses, how God told that old man to make a bronze serpent and fasten it to a pole, so that all the Israelites who were bitten by the fiery serpents might look to that bronze serpent and be healed.
And I wept, a serpent of a man shedding tears in the dust that I had made my home. I looked up at the cross and saw what God had become to bring me home. He had become what I was. He who knew no sin became sin that in Him I might be become that righteousness of God. Jesus became an adulterer, a drunkard, a blasphemer, and a violent man—He became all of me on the cross, all of what was wrong with me, all of what was wrong with our fallen race. He became a serpent, and was lifted up, that He might draw all men to Himself.
We meant that much to Him. He would go that far. He would go to the gutter to find and bring us home, transformed back into His children.
Now, every night, my heavenly Father tucks me into bed, kisses me on the forehead, and says, “You’re home again. My son, my child, you’re home again.”
How far would God go to save you? He would become a serpent! He would soak up all of your sins into His holy, righteous body and carry that awful load all the way to the cross. Hanging on that cursed tree, He would suffer the taunts and jeers of a world that refuses to believe in such foolishness as sin and grace. Betrayed and abandoned by His own disciples, and forsaken by His Father, the sinless Son of God would suffer God’s fiery wrath as the just punishment for your sin and rebellion. Contrary to reason and the laws of nature, Jesus would rise from the dead three days later, proving all His Word and promises are true.
What’s more, the risen and ascended Lord Jesus keeps saving you in ways that the world considers foolish and weak—His means of grace. He speaks through the mouth of His called and ordained servant, a fellow sinner who is just as much in need of the Word of sin and grace he proclaims to you as you are. In the water and Word of Holy Baptism, Christ shares His own death and resurrection, granting you the forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life. In His Supper, Christ feeds you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.
Call it the foolishness of the pole or the folly of the cross. I call it the grace of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake—His suffering, death, and resurrection—you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.