The two stare each other down— until the cornered man, in one last bout of desperation, darts to flee. A muscle flinches. A finger presses the trigger. The hammer strikes. The bullet fires from the barrel. A criminal slumps to the ground.
Whether you are watching James Bond take down a super-villain or a detective bringing a criminal to justice on your favorite television crime show, you watch a tense scene like this and the first thought that floods your mind is?… “He got what he deserved!” If someone breaks the law, then consequences follow.
Maybe that was your initial thought from our Old Testament selection. The Israelites traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. Picture (in your head) a map of present-day Israel; Mount Hor is just south and east of Israel. For over forty years the nation inched through the desert to reach the southern border of the Promised Land; they’re on the cusp of entering! All that stands between them and a new life is the nation of Edom.
So, an Israelite delegation meets with the king of Edom. They request to use the public highway running through their territory. Israel promises not to use any water, food, grazing grass, or land to rest in— nothing belonging to Edom. In fact, you would never know Israel had even been there.
But the king refuses. He even stations a powerful army along the border to deter Israel from marching in (Numbers 20:14-20). The only way forward into the Promised Land now is by heading backwards. In order to head north, the nation must travel south to skirt around the nation of Edom. Picture it: imagine driving to Midland from Clare, but [the city of] Coleman will not let you use HWY-10; you cannot go through the city. So, you must drive back to Clare, up northbound US-127 to Harrison, east across HWY-61 through Gladwin and to White Star, and then head south on HWY-30 into Midland. Do you know how irritating that would be? Your traveling time doubles. You use more energy, more gas. You get exhausted quicker! And as Israel restarts their journey, the people grew impatient on the way.
Very soon that impatience boils over into criticizing and grumbling. They spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert?” Can you hear it? Fingers pointing, hearts whining: “God, life was excellent as a slave! You should have just left us there!” They quickly forgot why they left. Exodus 2:23 says: The Israelites groaned in their slavery[…] and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. You see, God did not yank Israel out; the nation cried for help and God answered them (2:24). In fact, right after Israel walks through the Red Sea, they rejoice in their newfound freedom! (Exodus 15) No one complains when God was in the act of delivering them. Only when life did not meet Israel’s expectation did the nation find fault with God.
That’s why they gripe: There is no bread! There is no water! After all, they are in a desert. So, God provides water from a rock (Numbers 20:11). When the water is polluted, God purifies it (Exodus 15:23-25). Not to mention, every morning he sends manna. Manna— those little thin wafers of bread— litter the desert floor, and you could simply eat it or use it for any baking needs. Then at night, God sent in quail for meat (Exodus 16). You don’t find much water and food in the desert, but God makes sure to provide for them— and he does this for over 40-years. But they detest this miserable food!” “This food is for the dogs!” they complain, “We deserve so much better! God, [Y]ou brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert!”
Wow… talk about ungrateful. They had lacked nothing! And so when you read: the Lord sent venomous snakes among them, you might think: “Yeah, those spoiled little brats got what they deserved.”
Did they? If you ask me, I do not think they got what they deserved. They deserved so much worse. The minute they curse God, he could have zipped right into heaven. Left them all alone— crickets chirping, tumbleweed bouncing through the desert, abandoned and forsaken. “You don’t like my food? You don’t like me giving automatic victories over your enemies? You don’t like me freeing you for life in a brand new land you did not work for? Fine! Have it your way! If you don’t want me, then you don’t have me!” That’s what they deserve.
Do you know what makes that a truly terrifying thought? It’s easy for me to point my finger at them and smirk: “Yeah… they got what they deserve!” Yet, are their complaints much different from mine?... from yours?
Do you realize that God hands you daily bread? You pray for it in the Lord’s Prayer. Gas for the car, money for the rent, (at least?) three meals a day, multiple sets of clothes, a roof over your head and heat to fill the house, toys and video games and smartphones to put in your hands—and still, someway, somehow, out of the mouth comes: “Oh, gas went up $.20 (about $2.00 extra for 10 gallons). Woe is me! God, I have no offering because everything is just so expensive! I have nothing to give you because you gave me nothing!” Is that really true? Has God really handed nothing—like you’re scrounging through dumpsters just to make ends meet?
Do you realize that God graciously brought you into his family of believers? He has called you to faith. He repeatedly stresses: “Your purpose in life is to enter heaven” (Luke 21:28; 1 Timothy 2:3-4). He promises: “I’m with you always—to the very end of life” (Matthew 28:20). And someway, somehow comes out of the mouth, “God, where are you leading me? Don’t you see the violence around me? Don’t you care about my health? Will you not finally silence the enemies who attack my faith?”
You see, God is not upset that Israel complains (as though God is terribly annoyed listening to them). Rather, grumbling rejects God’s many promises; you refuse to believe that God is with you. Complaining accuses God of not giving good gifts; you fault God for your greed. This arrogance accuses God of not caring. “God, you led me into this world to just watch me die!”
And you know what? God would be completely fair to leave you alone. He would be completely fair to let Satan’s bite of sin so thoroughly infect your heart and soul leaving you to die in hell.
That would be fair. Yet, God Is Unfair! He does not treat us as we deserve. Catch that? God does not treat us as we deserve. What we deserve is death. Yet, God treats us as we do not deserve.
The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” What the nation (and we) deserves is for God to say: “No! I’m done with you. You’ve grumbled too much. You’ve lost it. Sorry!” Yet, in his mercy, The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” Notice who answers Moses: the “Lord” (in all capital letters). That’s not a typo; the “Lord” (in all caps) is intentional. That name tells you two things about your God: (1) He will carry out his threat to punish everyone who rejects him. (2) He has compassion on those who turn from rebellion; God forgives (Exodus 34:6-7).
God treats Israel as they do not deserve. When anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. Understand, the bronze serpent did not heal (as though it contained a special power). For anyone to look at the serpent meant that they admitted their rebellion was wrong. They looked because they trusted God would heal them. God promised; people believed. Their act of looking demonstrated faith in the promises of God.
God has spoken to you (and me) as well. Satan’s deadly venom so saturated your (and my) soul. That venom is what moves us to gripe and complain that God does not have our best interests in mind. That venom chokes our trust in God. So, God raises up his Son on a cross, giving us what we do not deserve.
Jesus suffers the effects of Satan’s venom. He is bitten on the heel (Genesis 3:15). The One who never opens his mouth to complain dies for us who grumble. The One who trusted God above all things—even when he has no place to lay his head—dies because we fail to trust. The One in whom Pontius Pilate finds no moral fault is the One struck dead. Jesus removes death from you (and me). Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15).
God raises up Jesus to rescue you from the death sin deserves. God treats you and me as we do not deserve. That’s why we call it “grace.”
Grace means “undeserved love.” So, when you admit: “God saved me by grace alone,” you’re really saying, “God, you saved me by sending Jesus to endure my punishment. I don’t deserve that, but you still gave me Jesus.” When you hear: “You have been saved by grace, through faith,” God hammers home this point: Jesus did everything needed to save you.
God’s grace enters your heart through faith. How do you know you have faith? Do not look to yourself—to your own morality (as though you deserve forgiveness). Do not think you made a decision to accept Jesus as Savior; you are conceived and born spiritually dead. It is God who creates life in you through baptism. Yes, it looks so simple! Splash a little water on someone’s head? How can that change anything? It changes nothing--except, except, God takes regular water and packs a powerful promise to it: He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). God makes it clear: baptism saves you.
Then, in the Lord’s Supper, he strengthens you faith. Yes, you receive a little wafer of bread and a shot of wine— but that’s not all. God makes it clear (in the Bible) that you receive the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins (1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:25-29). Sound too good to be true? Yes! Yes it does! God is Unfair. He treats us as we do not deserve.
Just think about that! God is Unfair! He does not treat us as we deserve. He treats us as we do not deserve. Holding that thought in your life every day changes the way you live.
You recognize that you deserve no good gifts from God, but he still blesses you every day. It fuels your appreciation to receive your money, clothes, home, and food with thanks. Never griping, but living content with what God has given you. You recognize for all the times you left God, he never left you. You trust God’s guidance even when you do not know the future; you take him at his Word.
What amazing grace! God has made you his child and assures you that you remain his. Inside of you now grows this gratefulness. Rejoice! Because God is Unfair! He does not treat us as we deserve. He treats us as we do not deserve.