The Wilderness, The Serpent, and Our Savior: A Lenten Journey


Sermon Text: Numbers 21:4-9

As we gather this evening, amid the reflective season of Lent, our attention is drawn to a remarkable narrative found in the book of Numbers—a narrative that recounts the final chapters of the Israelites’ 40-year sojourn in the wilderness. Here, in Numbers 21, we see a people who have witnessed God’s miraculous deliverance and provision. However, they fall into grumbling and discontent against the Lord and Moses. This ancient account may seem remote, even irrelevant to our modern lives. Fiery serpents and bronze images sound strange and mysterious to us. Yet, we find in this story a reflection of our own nature – a nature inclined toward ingratitude and rebellion. We also find the extravagant grace of a God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6).”

The Israelites are journeying towards the Promised Land, moving from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea to go around Edom. Despite having been rescued from slavery in Egypt, they grumble against God and Moses over their circumstances—over their food. They are dissatisfied with God’s supernatural provision to care for them in the wilderness.

“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.”

Numbers 21:5 (ESV)

Have you ever found yourself loathing what God has brought into your life?

This grumbling is not just about physical hunger—it reveals a heart condition that we, too, share. It is a discontent that goes beyond the stomach to the soul. It’s a longing for something more, something better, something that perhaps we remember from a past life or imagine could be found in a different set of circumstances.

Lent is a time for fasting. We deprive ourselves of something physical—something tangible. In a way, this connects us with the wilderness journey of our forebears. The Lenten journey is 40 days long, and the Israelites wandered for 40 years. The Israelites’ lack of Egyptian food uncovered their discontent. Our fasting is a means by which God opens our eyes to our own discontent. It is a time to recognize the ways we grumble against God’s provision—and to confess our longing for the ‘Egypt’ we’ve left behind. It’s a powerful reminder that our ultimate fulfillment doesn’t come from the things of this world—whether that’s food, comfort, success, or even relationships—but from God alone.

The story takes a dramatic turn when God sends fiery serpents among the people in response to their rebellion and lack of faith – their sin. Many Israelites are bitten and die. Our own sin, our own grumbling, our own discontent can bite us just like those serpents. When you entertain and become comfortable with your sin, God will send fiery serpents into your life to discipline you. Because He loves you. This discipline is meant to turn us back to God, and away from our sin.

The Israelites acknowledge their sin and ask Moses to pray to the Lord to take the serpents away. The people turn to their mediator. Moses prays for the people, and God instructs him to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. God promises that anyone who is bitten can look at the bronze serpent and live. Moses obeys. When those who are bitten look upon the bronze serpent they are healed and live.

In this moment of judgment, God’s grace shines through. Salvation comes through judgment. This is a striking foreshadowing of the Gospel. The people turn to their mediator, who raises up a serpent in the wilderness. A symbol of their judgment becomes their salvation. In the same way, we look to our Mediator, Jesus Christ, who was Himself lifted up on the cross. He bore the wrath of God in our stead. He became our sin, He took on our judgment, and He offered us healing and salvation. All we must do is look to Him in faith.

This is the heart of the Lenten season—coming to terms with our sinfulness and our need for a Savior and turning our gaze to Jesus.

But what does this mean in practical terms? How do we ‘look to Jesus’ in our daily lives? First, it means recognizing that every desire, every longing we experience, is ultimately a desire for Him. Whether we’re aware of it or not, our hearts are searching for the peace, joy, and fulfillment that can only be found in Christ. Lent is an opportunity to align our desires with our true need for Christ.

Second, looking to Jesus means embracing the Gospel in its fullness—not just as a ticket to heaven but as the transformative power that changes us from glory to glory. It’s about allowing the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection to penetrate every aspect of our lives—allowing it to transform our relationships, our work, our ambitions, and our very identities.

Finally, it means living in the light of the resurrection. The story doesn’t end with the Cross. Easter morning brings the promise of new life—a life that is now ours in Christ. We are no longer defined by our sins, failures, or past. We are defined by the resurrection of Jesus, which secures our hope, our future, and our identity as children of God.

As we journey through Lent, let us reflect on our wilderness experiences—the times we’ve grumbled against God, the ways we’ve sought fulfillment in the things of this world. Let us confess our need for a Savior and turn our hearts to Jesus, looking to Him in faith for our healing and salvation. And let us live in the joyful anticipation of Easter, embracing the new life we have in Christ.

Dear God, it is so hard for us to fight against ourselves.

It is very difficult to overcome an enemy that lies so close and hidden within us as our flesh does. And unless you arm me with divine power, I am in great danger of yielding to this treacherous foe.

Help me die to myself daily, I beg you. Do not let me be eternally separated by the attractions of the flesh from the life that is in Christ my Savior.

Preserve me this day in your fear and favor, and in the end bring me to your everlasting kingdom, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Robert Parker1
  1. Robert Elmer, ed., Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), p. 264. []