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Mercy in the Wilderness

July 4 2022

Book: Numbers

Scripture: Numbers 21:4-9

Text: Numbers 21:4-9

Title: Mercy in the Wilderness

Melvin Manickavasagam

Christ Fellowship, Horn Lake, MS

July 3, 2022

Point 1: Discontent Misdirected(4-5)

  • Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey.
  • The people spoke against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.”

Point 2: Discontent Redirected (6-7)

  • The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.
  • So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people.

Point 3: God’s Sufficiency for the Discontented (8-9)

8 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.”  9 And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.

Opening Illustration:

Carl Trueman, “Boring ourselves to Life” on the importance and necessity of being bored

Trueman makes reference to Blaise Pascal, the 17th century philosopher, who even in his own day noticed this idea of avoiding boredom at all costs. Pascal noticed that people did this in two ways. One he called distraction by finding novel ways to entertain themselves. And Pascal moved among the social elites of his day, and he says, look, I get why the poor distract themselves from their meager existence by the odd dance here or there, but why does the king, surrounded by evidences of his greatness, need trivial entertainment?

The second way that people avoid boredom, Pascal says, is what he calls divergence. Rather than entertainment, he noticed that people tended to clutter their lives with a host of duties. People were led to believe that they will never be happy if their health, honor, and wealth, and those of their friends, are not in a satisfactory state, and that if one element is amiss they will be unhappy. So they are given offices and duties which keep them hectically occupied from daybreak.

Numbers 21 context:

  • From Egypt to Canaan
  • Focus on the journey part, not on the deliverance or inheritance part
  • Our identity as sojourners or pilgrims
  • Discontent is inevitable, and the journey is difficult
  • Illustration: My family’s visit to southwest United States: Desert: A whole lot of nothing; and everything can kill you
  • Novelty has run out; become mundane The life of God’s people had become boring. And my challenge to you today is to allow yourself to be bored. Not during the sermon. After. Because it might be the start of considering where my discontent arises from

We will look at this passage under three headings:

Point 1. How God’s people’s discontent is misdirected (4-5)

Point 2: How God redirects our discontent (6-7)

Point 3: How God meets us in our discontent with His sufficiency (8-9)

  1. Our discontent misdirected (verses 4-5)
    1. Red Sea and Edom: Like they never moved
    2. Discontent misdirected in three ways
      1. Wistful about their past in Egypt
      2. Fearful about their future progress into Canaan (the Promised Land)
  • Resented their present
    1. Back in the region of the Red Sea making their way around Edom rather than going through it
    2. The meagerness of manna “”miserable” ” “menial” “small-ness”
  1. Ultimately it was a trivializing of God. We cannot make light of God’s provision and not end up making light of the One who provides it.
  2. Illustration: Giving my LEGO set that I had carefully kept since I was 7 years old to my cousin as a gift. This set was no small thing to me. But he mixed it up with all the other bricks. And I felt something, even though I had already given it to him.
  3. New Testament connection: John 6:41-42: After Jesus feeds the 5000
  4. Jesus “the bread of heaven” Jews grumble. Don’t we know where this fellow comes from? We know his father and mother his pedigree, and they took offence at him. ii. They were trivializing (making small) the true bread that came from heaven, just like Israelites trivialized the manna that came from heaven in the wilderness
  5. Application: How is our boredom misdirected today?
  6. Bored with the Bible. “Do we really believe all the supernatural things?

Do we really need to hear the same stories over and over again?” ii. Bored with the church: The present phenomenon of many Christians Deconstructing their faith. One writer pleads, “do not take your discontent and doubt online; Bring it to your church. The people you know and who know you.”

iii. Bored with tradition. Not all traditions are good, but does not mean that new or novel is always better. We can learn and be captivated by ancient things within our Christian story

  1. Discontent redirected
    1. Red Sea region where Israelites were known for its creatures like snakes.
    2. So what God does is to remove the hedge of protection for a time so that they are subject to the miseries of the wilderness
    3. Deuteronomy 8: Why did God bring them through the wilderness in the first place? So that they would know that man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.
    4. New Testament connection: Matthew 4 Jesus’ Temptation in the Wilderness
      1. If those words sound familiar, Jesus temptation was even greater.
      2. If the people in the wilderness had bread and got tired, Jesus was One who was tired and hungry, had nothing to eat to start with and lived by

God’s words

  1. But why these fiery serpents? Serpent was the symbol on the headpiece that Pharaoh wore.
  2. Serpent bite was a stark reminder of the bite of slavery, that in Egypt they were under the sentence of death.
  3. This is a severe mercy, not a punishment.
  4. CS Lewis in his book “The Problem of Pain says, “God whispers to us in our pleasures but shouts to us in our pain. It is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
  1. God’s Sufficiency for the Discontented (8-9)
    1. Moses functions as intercessor once again.
    2. Bronze would be more a copper serpent. Reddish brown metal
    3. Polemic against Egypt. Same as Exodus 6 with Moses’ staff
    4. That which symbolized their suffering in Egypt, their present suffering and death in the wilderness, is now also symbolic of their deliverance.
    5. In the wilderness, the serpent is a suffering symbol
    6. New Testament connection: John 3:14-16—in the reality, we have a suffering servant

Closing: Two illustrations

  1. The wonder of repetition:
    1. A child who is thrown up in the air, an says, “Do it again”.

The nature of a child is to glory in the monotonous

  1. K. Chesterton says, “It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.”
  2. Mundane faithfulness: The contrasting stories of Brittany Maynard and Kara Tippets

Closing invitation:

  • Unbeliever: Are you filling your days up with distractions and divergences, as Pascal say, because you do not want the boredom to show you where you really are and then confronted with the ultimate? Lean into it. Christ meets you in the wildernesss-ness of your discontent
  • Christian, have you become discontent with the wilderness and bored? Lean into it, because there you may be confronted with the reality of your wilderness-ness and perhaps also recover the wonder of the saving cross again..