Rev Dr Edgar Mayer; Living Grace Toowoomba Church; Message: Numbers 21:4-9; Date: 13 January 2013

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Danger in Discouragement

 

I read to you from the Bible – Numbers 21:4-9:

 

Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this light (worthless) bread.” So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.

Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “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.” So Moses prayed for the people.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

 

God’s people were on the move – more than one million of them – the descendants of those that had been slaves in Egypt. A generation ago – their fathers and mothers had grumbled, doubted and rebelled against God until their sin had become ripe for judgement. This is what God had pronounced over them:

 

Numbers 14:20-25: The Lord replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked. Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the Lord fills the whole earth, not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times – not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it .... turn back tomorrow and set out toward the desert along the route to the Red Sea.”

 

Numbers 14:28-29: So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very thing I heard you say: In this wilderness your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me.

 

A new generation was determined to leave the past behind them and achieve what their fathers and mothers did not, that is: (after forty years) move from the desert into the Promised Land according to God’s promise. They were marching with new hopes and new determination. Yet, the new generation – people like you and I – stayed very much the same (there was not much renewal evident), did not learn from the past and behaved according to a most familiar pattern. I read to you again the two opening verses [two different translations]:

 

Numbers 21:4-6: Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this light (worthless) bread.”

 

Numbers 21:4-5: And they journeyed from Mount Hor by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom, and the people became impatient (depressed, much discouraged), because [of the trials] of the way.

And the people spoke against God and against Moses, Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, neither is there any water, and we loathe this light (contemptible, unsubstantial) manna.

 

How do these verses strike you? God had always been close to them – Numbers 14:14: “... you, Lord, are with these people ... your cloud stays over them ... you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.” Miracles made up their history – ten plagues in Egypt (bringing their slave masters to their knees), the crossing of the Red Sea when the waters parted for them, the appearance of God at Mount Sinai, daily food in the form of manna and – most recently – victory over the Canaanite king of Arad who had captured some of them – Numbers 21:3: “The Lord listened to Israel’s plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns ...”

The goodness of God to them was significant but – nevertheless – in our Bible reading – we see them discouraged and depressed. Why? Maybe our first impulse would be to wag our finger at them and scold them: “With your history, how can you be depressed? All of us Christians read your story in the Good Book and envy you. We want to experience the pillars of cloud and fire – God’s presence – every day like you did. How can you not skip in the desert with anticipation of what’s going to happen next? How can God be so close and you are discouraged

Easy! Let me give you another version of their history. It is an all too human version – (laced with some self-pity and impatience): First, God gave Abraham the promise to make him into a great nation but he waited in vain for even a single child for most of his life. Then, God told him – Genesis 15:13: “...Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there.” What do you make of four hundred years of enslavement and mistreatment? Is this the fate of a great nation?

Finally – when it was time to be delivered from slavery, a stranger assumed leadership and his first approach to Pharaoh only increased the hardship of the people (Exodus 5). Ten traumatic plagues polluted the land (again and again) and – in the end – brought death into every Egyptian family – their neighbours. There was rejoicing on the day of their departure from Egypt but it was short-lived and replaced with panic – Exodus 14:10: “As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord.”

God rescued them but brought them into a desert which did not hold up in comparison to the lush pastures of Egypt. God himself frightened them – Exodus 20:18-19: “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’”

In the desert, there was heat, dust – a lack of meat, vegetables and water – and – trying to come out of the desert – they discovered that God was failing to deliver the Promised Land on a platter. With his help – it had to be conquered – Numbers 13:27-33:

 

They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large ... We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are ... All the people we saw there are of great size ... We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

 

When the people refused to have courage and shied back from the military campaign, God had them die in the desert for the next forty years. There were years of stand-still – Deuteronomy 1:3-6: “In the fortieth year ... Moses proclaimed to the Israelites ... ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain”

And even when the new generation was on the move again – (in our particular Bible passage) – there was no progress but a God-given route which was a detour in the desert (on account of Edom [see Numbers 20:14-21] – how unreasonable of them to refuse payment for passage but could it have been a God of grace that avoided a confrontation) leading in the opposite direction of the Promised Land. Would that make you happy?

How is your life with God? Can you relate to the frustrated outburst of God’s people?

 

Numbers 21:5: And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this light (worthless) bread.”

 

Despite the testimonies of God’s goodness in your life – a healing, an encounter with God in worship, the gift of tongues, gold-dust on your hands – you feel crushed and empty and unable to go on. Everything is taking too long. The journey is too hard. God seems to dangle the carrot of the Promised Land in front of you but it cannot be reached. (It’s always next year.) You are still in the desert and the desert is unappealing – bare, stony and testing you. Where is the breakthrough even in our church? God has brought us out of “Egypt” and we have many great stories to tell but are we yet in the Promised Land of revival and bringing in a harvest of souls for eternity?

Now – what is legitimate in the desert is to cry out with others in the Bible: “How much longer, God

 

Psalm 13: How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. [Notice how this outburst finishes. We work through our emotions and then agree with the truth in faith.] But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.

[See also Psalm 74:10; 89:46.]

 

Revelation 9:9-11: When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.

 

You can “whinge” a little about the promises that are yet unfulfilled. However, what is not legitimate is to attack and revile what God has done. It is dangerous to criticize the work of God in your life. The people of God in the wilderness went too far. They had been slaves in Egypt and God rescued them from their mistreatment which had made them groan so loudly that God had heard them in heaven and had had compassion on them. They dared to dismiss God’s entire rescue mission – (including the ten plagues, the plundering of the Egyptians, and the deliverance at the Red Sea) – and complained, saying: “God, why did you do it. It would have been better for us to remain slaves in Egypt

Are you doing the same? Perhaps we do. Have you ever had thoughts like these: “Maybe I shouldn’t have become a Christian. All these people in the world chase the good life and they seem to be doing fine but I am stuck with spiritual warfare, the commission to disciple nations (beginning with my neighbour), pray and fast, read the Bible when there are more than a dozen free-to-air TV channels, fellowship in a church family (as if I needed more family issues) and God wants a fair share of my money. Maybe I would have enjoyed ‘Egypt’ better – the pleasures of this world first – and have a life with God later

Are these thoughts familiar to you? God was outraged by them. How can we glamorize Egypt and not see – not remember – the slavery of sin, lust, greed and hopelessness? How can we not value what Jesus has done for us on the cross – making peace between us and the Father – making us clean with forgiveness? Do you really want to face life without God? Will money make you happy or power or lust? Nothing lasts. In a moment, we are gone. Nothing fills the void that only God’s love can fill in our hearts.

God was outraged when his people chose Egypt over the life that he had given them. How forgetful! How ungrateful! How silly and how reckless in their behaviour toward a holy God!

The people also complained about something specific – the daily provision of God’s miracle food – manna. They said:

 

Numbers 21:5: ... there is no food [or bread] and no water, and our soul loathes this light (worthless) bread.”

 

This is interesting. What was the problem with manna which the Bible describes in this way?

 

Exodus 16:13-15: ... in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat ...”

 

Exodus 16:21: Each morning everyone gathered as much as they needed, and when the sun grew hot, it melted away.

 

The manna had to be gathered new each day because it would spoil in storage (except on the Sabbath).

 

Exodus 16:31-32: The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey. Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Take an omer of manna and keep it for the generations to come, so they can see the bread I gave you to eat in the wilderness when I brought you out of Egypt.’”

 

Numbers 11:7-9: The manna was like coriander seed and looked like resin. The people went around gathering it, and then ground it in a hand mill or crushed it in a mortar. They cooked it in a pot or made it into loaves. And it tasted like something made with olive oil. When the dew settled on the camp at night, the manna also came down.

 

Psalm 105:40: The people asked, and He brought quails and satisfied them with the bread of heaven.

 

Deuteronomy 8:3: He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

 

Deuteronomy 8:7-16: For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you.

 

God promised an abundant variety of natural food to be there for his people in the future – in the Promised Land – but (for now) manna – the bread of heaven – did not taste bad. It tasted “like wafers made with honey” – “like something made with olive oil”. In 2008, I met a woman from Canada – Kaye Beyer – who shared how manna kept appearing in the life of her husband (Harold) for many years. One time, he had suffered from a heart attack and God told him to eat the manna as medicine and it cured him in record time (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgSNCyRstnQ) and there was another case of the same method of healing (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLvmFq5UcXg). It could be that the manna was the miracle food which kept God’s people healthy in the desert for forty years.

The manna was plentiful and easy to gather and dependable in a barren land. How do you feed more than one million people in the desert? With manna. However, there was a problem and it may have had something to do with what the people called it: “light (unsubstantial) manna”. Manna was light – unsubstantial – subtle – elusive – came with the dew and melted again in the hot sun – was made into wafers rather than loafs of solid bread. It could not be stored for more than a day.

Do we have a problem with God’s light – unsubstantial – subtle – provisions? Right now – in church – are you disappointed? You may have come here this morning expecting a solid encounter with God – strong emotions – his audible voice – a vision of an angel even – God’s glory weighing us down in ecstatic joy – but – instead – you have “manna” – something light and unsubstantial – the still small voice of God that is always available – the flowing thoughts that are of God – (every day anew like manna). You need to keep the sun of distractions away also from this kind of manna because it also easily “melts” away. Can you see how in times of discouragement and despair this kind of light food does not feel right? We need more solid assurances – a clear booming voice that shows us the way forward.

Then, I have found that gold-dust – (the miracle of gold dust appearing on people’s skin) – is also manna: subtle and insubstantial. While some people get bigger flakes and these flakes can appear all over one’s body (face, arms, legs, torso), most people get gold-dust on the palms of their hands and it looks like very fine body glitter which can be easily mistaken for sweat beads. It’s not always easy to know whether what sparkles is the gold dust or sweat beads which makes a good number of people dismiss this miracle as light – insubstantial – not worthy of investigating further. God should provide more solid miracle fare.

There is the “manna” of speaking in tongues because the difference between your own babbling and God’s gift is subtle. At first, most people are not sure about the gift of speaking in tongues because they suspect that they are making up the sounds themselves. Healings are also “manna” – many a time. God may remove cancer tumours in the person right next to you but how will you know? You cannot see or hear anything and may not believe the subsequent testimony. It may all be in the person’s mind. The manna is there every day but our appreciation is gone because God makes us walk in the opposite direction to the Promised Land which discourages us immensely.

 

[The sameness of the miracle dulls the appreciation and the enjoyment of the miracle never translated into a love relationship with God. They were never understood as expressions of God’s love. (You may compare it to a good-morning kiss from your spouse. At first, it may feel miraculous to be kissed but – without love – it means nothing and becomes boring.) There was a sense of entitlement.]

 

God was not impressed by any of his people’s venting of discouragement – the bitter complaints coming from despair. They could have cried out: “How much longer – Godbut they attacked God and dismissed their salvation and the daily provision of miracle food which prompted God to judge them – severely:

 

Numbers 21:6: So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.

 

Not good! Be careful about voicing your discouragement! Express your emotions but do not turn against God and what he has done for you. Do not be ungrateful. Everyone in the Bible struggled with faith – the hard work of trusting the promises of God against all the odds – this is okay in a sense – but do not blaspheme God by calling into question his holy deeds in your life – your conversion, your past healings, the times when he spoke to you, the provision of a church home, the daily touches of love – a word of encouragement and strength, etc.

As people grumbled against God and Moses (the person in leadership), fiery snakes were allowed into the camp and bit people so that many died. Any unholy talk from our mouths opens the door to fiery snakes – plagues and turmoil but also demons. God may simply give us what we want according to our own words of blasphemy: another taste of Egypt – hardships without God – enslavement – the whip rather than love – the rulership of Satan who is the ancient Serpent.

We may take this as a warning:

 

1 Corinthians 10:6-13: Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did ... We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

 

Yet – before we think that God enjoys judging his people and before we think that he delights in fiery snakes – hear the following testimony:

 

Roberts Liardon: We Saw Heaven, Shippensburg: Destiny Image 2000, p51-52: We left the building, and as we walked along, Jesus began to weep. I was astounded. Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, began to cry! He turned toward me, shedding tears of intercession. Some things are too sacred to repeat, but this one thing he told me I could tell:

“Roberts, I love my people so much that I would go back to earth, preach my three years over again, and die for just one person. If I had not already paid the price for them, and if I thought they wanted to come to heaven, I would do it all over again.

I would not have to know they would make it. If I just thought they wanted to come, I would do it for them, even if they were the greatest sinners of all.”

He said repeatedly, “I love my people so much. Why do people not take me at my word? Do they not know that I have all power in heaven and on earth to back up what I said? It is so easy. I made it so simple. If people will just take me at my word, I will do what I said.”

Then he wept even more and said, “I do not understand why people say they believe I will do something, but when it does not happen in their time, they begin to doubt my word. If they will just believe and say with confidence that I will do it, I will do it at the correct time.”

I knew that Jesus was crying because of our unbelief and lack of faith. Even though I was only eight years old, I knew what unbelief was and how it hurt him. I made a covenant, an agreement and solemn commitment, with Jesus right then never to doubt his words, and let God be God. Now when I am about to think or say something filled with doubt, I remember the tears of intercession that fell from Jesus’ eyes, and I rid myself of doubt and unbelief. Unbelief slaps Jesus in the face; it is rejection of him. He wants us to be filled with faith – strong faith!

 

Jesus – the Son of God – loves us so much that he is shedding tears over our unbelief – the discouragement when the journey is long. This morning – can you catch a glimpse of God’s heart for you? The Promised Land is promised to you and you will arrive there – in his time. There is favour on earth and heaven is worth any effort and sacrifice in the here and now. You can trust his word and you can trust his love for you.

Moses prayed for the people and God provided healing from the snake bites. [Note how God’s healing is communicated through his chosen leadership. Moses prayed for them.] I read again from the Bible:

 

Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “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.” So Moses prayed for the people.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

 

The first key to the people’s healing was their repentance. These days, when snakes begin to bite us, we may grumble even more and blame God for the snakes – how can he add to our misery by sending us another catastrophe? – but – in the past – God’s people – even in discouragement – were wise enough to humble themselves and understand God’s displeasure in their circumstances. [Some hardships are the hardships of the journey to the Promised Land but others are self-inflicted punishments from God. We need discernment.] This morning – please – repent. Humble yourself. You don’t have the right to grumble at God. Fear God and worship him. [Don’t say: “I am too discouraged to repent. I am already feeling bad enough.”]

God had Moses make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Anyone that was bitten by one of the fiery snakes could look at the bronze snake on the pole and he would live. When Jesus – the Son of God – walked the earth, he compared himself to the bronze snake that was made in the past and his words are part of what is probably the most famous salvation message in the Bible:

 

John 3:14-16: 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. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

 

As the people in the desert looked at the bronze snake that was lifted up on a pole, they would live. As you look at Jesus now who was lifted up on another pole – the cross of his death – you too will also live – the new life of forgiveness which grants you eternity with God. The bronze snake in the past prefigured Jesus. I always wondered why Moses made another snake – a bronze representation of something evil and cursed – that would be the means for healing from snake bites. Why not put a positive symbol on the pole: a medicine bottle or prayer shawl or healing oil or a crown for the kingship of God? Why make a bronze snake when snakes are bad for you? It makes sense when we understand that the bronze snake on a pole was to point to Jesus’ death on a cross. The crucified Jesus – tortured, bleeding, dying – was not a positive symbol either but a representation of everything that is wrong in this world: the killing of the innocent (Jesus had no sin which made him the perfect sacrifice for our sins), death and decay, self-righteousness and hatred of God.

The Bible explains that on the cross Jesus himself became a curse for us so that he could lift the curse and curses that are on our lives:

 

Galatians 3:10-14: For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

 

How can you be saved? How were the people in the desert saved from the snake bites? Look at Jesus which is an act of faith. Look at Jesus and trust that from his sacrifice – from his love that suffered for you – healing flows into your life for eternity. When we grumble against God, we doubt him and question his goodness. We think that he is holding back from us and feel sorry for ourselves. If we remain Christians and do not walk away, we do so under protest and with a lack of joy – with bitterness in our hearts – but – this morning – please – change your perspective. In heaven, Jesus is shedding tears because we do not believe what he has spoken over our lives and we do not truly understand what he has done for us on the cross. It cost him to hang on that pole that we would be saved by looking at him. He endured agony, loneliness, the curse of sin and much darkness to bring us into his light. Look at him and see his love. Jesus loves you and he is never forsaking you. Trust him with your life – this year and in eternity.

When you are discouraged, (by all means) feel free to cry out: “How much longer – Godbut do not blaspheme his goodness in your life. Salvation is yours. His promises are yours. He loves you and you can trust him. Amen.