While listening to a sermon on the bronze serpent this past Lenten season, a thought came to me: in Numbers God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole so that when the Israelites looked at it, their poisonous snake bites would be healed. 

In Exodus, Aaron fabricates a gold calf at the people's command and they suffer punishment for worshiping it. In both cases "graven images" were cast. One brought salvation; the other condemnation. One might ask, "Why the different results?" 'What made one a means to health and the other a means to punishment?" First, because God commanded one but not the other. Had God commanded Aaron to build the calf, he would have sinned if he hadn't made it. Unfortunately, the idea for the calf came from the people. By urging Aaron to make it, they trespassed. They crossed into an area that is God's domain, namely, how and with what God wants to be worshiped. By following God's command to look at the bronze snake on the other hand, the people exhibited faith in God' promise and were healed. Even though the snake was just as much a human creation as the golden calf, God had attached a promise to the bronze snake: "look at it and you will be healed." No such promise was attached to the golden calf because God had not commanded it to be built. To add another dimension to this, the reader of 2 Kings 18 discovers that many years later, King Hezekiah "broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)" So an item that God commanded for a specific purpose was no longer a means for communicating God's grace. Although its original purpose had long since been fulfilled, apparently the people were reluctant to destroy it. This left open the door for later Israelites to pervert its use by worshiping it. King Hezekiah was rightly commended for destroying it.

So let's ask the Lutheran question: "What does this mean?" In terms of worship, it speak a caution. One cannot attach promises of blessing to practices or objects that have no promise from God. On what basis may one describe a church service as "uplifting" or "inspirational"? God has not attached any blessing to any style of music or to any order. Such blessings come to the participant insofar as the worship centers on God's Word, for promises have been attached to it. As Paul says, "Let the Word of Christ dwell in your richly as you ... sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" (Colossians 3:16). The above episodes also teach that even something which God has commanded for one purpose may no longer be beneficial once it's original use as been fulfilled. Why did the Israelites keep the bronze serpent once the people had been healed? We are still reluctant to dispose of those things which no longer fulfill a salutary purpose! Orders of worship that originally served a good purpose can become worn out through constant use or through changes in language, yet we are reluctant to dispose of them. In our current culture, changes in language have speeded up considerably. I have thought that in addition to passing a hymnal's content through doctrinal review, it ought to be passed through various age segments to ensure that texts are still intelligible. As Biblical literacy degenerates, how many of its word concepts, similes, and metaphors are no longer understood? But even more critical, how many pastors understand this enough to take the time during the worship hour to explain what may no longer be understood? If Paul spoke against speaking in unintelligible tongues during worship, what happens when worship forms are no longer intelligible because people don't know why certain things are done? Do we not then open ourselves to the same risk of idolatry that happened with the bronze serpent?