If you ask a ten-year-old to clean his room, you’d better believe that some things are going to get shoved under the bed. When it comes to dealing with our own messes – our sins – adults aren’t always better. But healthy disciples of Jesus have to grow in our ability to acknowledge, confront, and repent of sin. How do we do it? The narrative of the Israelites in the desert helps us:
“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient 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 we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And 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. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 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” (Num. 21:4-9).
The Israelites got impatient with their circumstances and grumbled and complained against God. This was not simple lament, but rather rebellion–and it led to death. In a new sense of desperation, they cried out to God and Moses, acknowledging and repenting of their sins. God sent a rescue plan in the form of a bronze serpent.
Isn’t it interesting that the way of God’s rescue was for them to gaze upon an image of the very thing that terrorized them and the very consequence of their own rebellion? God could have had Moses make a bronze teddy bear, but he deliberately chose the serpent. I think there is a lesson for us to consider in this: part of the repentance process involves us being willing to gaze upon the ugliness of our own rebellion and the consequences of it in our lives and the lives of others.
Jesus tied himself directly to this story in John 3:14, referencing his death on a cross: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” In order to receive the rescue of Christ, we have to gaze upon that cross. We have to take in the sight of God’s wrath for our own rebellion on display in the broken and bloodied body of Jesus. We have to contemplate the separation from God meant for us when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Then, we must also reckon with the love and mercy of a God who would endure all of this for our sake, to deal with the ugliness of our sin.
In counseling, they say, “If you want to heal, you have to deal.” We have to face the snakes. Thanks be to God that he sent us the better bronze serpent today in Jesus! Let’s not hide our sin, but trust that Christ’s sacrifice can set us free.