Charming Snakes

This wasn’t the first time the Israelites “murmured” or ‘grumbled” or complained after escaping Egypt. This wasn’t the first time that God sent something like snakes after them, when they grumbled In the Biblical story, it’s actually the 8th time the Israelites whined and complained. That is something that we humans do well.

The Israelites were wandering. They have left Egypt. They were barred from the promised land. And they were stuck in the desert.

Earlier murmurings consisted of the time there was no water, the time they wished they were still in slavery because they thought following Moses would now lead to their deaths. There was the time that they tried an insurrection against Moses. Then there was the time they complained about not having the lovely fish that they had in Egypt. And once they were given bread from the heavens, they complained about that, too.

Our story today of the snakes is not unlike the first time they grumbled about their food in Numbers 11. In both instances divine rath was sent against them. The first time they complained, God set fire to their camps, killing many people. Then Moses’ prays and persuades God to stop the fires. And God stops the killing.

Similarly, when the people of Israel complain in our story today, God sends venomous snakes, Moses’ prayers persuade God to give them a solution to these snakes. He is told to make a bronze statue of a snake on a pole. A rather bizarre request after God tells them not to make a gold calf. But anyways, God doesn’t get rid of the snakes, but if an Israelite is bitten, they are to look at the statue and when they do, they are healed.

If both of these stories feel problematic – you are not alone in feeling that, and I am not going to defend these actions “by God.”

I hear these stories and think. Yeesh. Moses, put a leash on your God. How are the Israelites supposed to learn patience from a God who seems to have no patience, and quickly kills his people if they complain?

Maybe these Israelites need to stop whining and start to take some responsibility. But venomous snakes?

And then, why does Moses need to be the go between. Maybe God and the Israelites just need to talk it out themselves for the change. It’s almost when humans in conflict refuse to speak with each other and instead rely on a friend who is a go between. A solution that rarely works out.

This story is making me think of what its like to live in a family. God, Moses and the Israelites seem like an unhealthy family of three. So I am going to use some family system’s theory and drama triangles to explore this story a bit more. My goal in this sermon is to make it meaningful even if you are not familiar with this things. So stay with me.

I am imagining a family going for a long car ride. One dad is driving the car and is trying hard to concentrate and drive safely. He is starting to get impatient while the kid is whining in the back. The kid is tired of being dragged around everywhere and is tired of sitting in the car, hopelessly stuck for such a long time. The driving Dad starts yelling at the kid to stop whining. The other Dad in the passenger seat is trying to both appease the whining kids to calm them down, and also trying to calm down the driving dad who is lashing out.

Does this car driving arrangement feel familiar?

I could imagine from the perspective of the dad driving the car that he is trying to concentrate, and his kid whining in the back of the car gets annoying. He loves the child, but for God’s sake (literally) can they just grow up for a second.

I can imagine it from the perspective of the husband in the passenger seat. The spouse that desires for everyone to be calm and happy. He is torn between (use hands) supporting his driving husband, who he can tell really wants him to take his side, and the kid who doesn’t deserve to get lashed out at

I could imagine from the perspective of the kid in this situation. Feeling helpless dragged along with your parents, always doing what they want to do, and tired from being in their car for hours upon hours. Stuck.

If you didn’t catch on, I was imaging God as the car driver, sending snake bites to the back seat Kid, representing the Israelites, who complain and whine. Then the passenger seat parent, Moses, tries to make everyone happy and safe. Moses steps in to try to save the kid “Israel”, and calm down his husband “God.”

Whether the family is in the car, or is wandering the the desert, everything calms down for a bit, but in the long run, nothing changes, and the cycle of whining, lashing out, and saving happens again, and again.

Throughout the book of numbers, this is the routine:

  1. Whinny Israelites, who are helpless and hopeless.
  2. An Impatient God critical of his whiny Israelites who can never live up to his standards. Even killing them when they get too whiny.
  3. Moses who is trying to care for his people, and also appease his impatient God. In doing so, enabling them both to be critical and whiny.

And so the cycle continues again and again.

In families, we can get entrenched in our roles. This is why when we go home for thanksgiving, it’s so easy to slip back into the same role as you were as a kid, and all of the conflicts that were present at the time. How do we cut these cycles?

In this story, I can relate to Moses as I think about conflicts in the past with my family.

If one of my parents was in conflict with one of my siblings. I would find myself becoming the go between. I would go to my sibling, get the scoop from them. Then go to my parents, relay what the sibling would tell me, and then hear my parents perspective. Then I would go back to my sibling and try to explain what my parents were thinking, and hear from my sibling what they thought of that. Back and forth and Back and forth. I thought I could save my family and appease them all, like Moses both praying to God and saving the Israelites from the venomous snakes that God sent after them.

How do we get out of these roles in our families?

How can we get out of the roles of being like God -impatient and short tempered – criticizing or belittling others when something goes awry. As long as the Israelites acted whinny and pathetic, God could just keep on being critical of them. And the cycle continues.

How can we get out of the role of being like the Israelites -of thinking that nothing can be done to change what has happened to us. To stop being like the Israelites who blamed God and Moses for the misfortune and are always stopping you from succeeding. As long as Israel stayed whiny and helpless, they could say that God had turned his back on them and that Moses was a bad leader leading them astray.

And lastly, How can we learn to stop trying to be Moses? To stop rescuing folks through taking sides in a family. As long as Moses kept interceding for the Israelites through prayer the Israelites kept the cycle of helplessness and God kept sending snakes, and fires, and armies. Moses kept stepping in to save the Israelites, making them continue to feel weak, when they needed to take responsibility and solve their own stuff.

As a result, Moses, Israel, and God kept this problematic, overly dramatic family routine with never ending conflict and a whole lot of violence.

One way that many of us try to solve these familial conflicts is by cutting off family. By no longer getting together with that brother or sister anymore. Or just showing up once a year at Christmas. Often when there is conflict, the easiest option is to run from it.

If one has experienced any sort of abuse, cutting off may be the best and safest option in conflict. But in other forms of familial conflict running away does not solve the pain in families. Cutting off family members does not heal wounds.

When we run from our conflicts with family, everyone just stays entrenched in their roles. God keeps being critical. Israelites keep whining and blaming others. And Moses keeps trying to rescue the Isrealites. That is why when we go home after a year of not seeing anyone, its just as bad as it was before.

No, the only way to create change in the family system is through being with your family and dealing with the snake bites. Dealing with the problems in the family.

But to do this you have to refuse to play the role that you used to play. For your family members to stay in the roles they have traditionally done, your family needs YOU to play the roll you have traditionally played. As soon as you choose to act in a healthier way in your family, the family system can start to change.

Let me give you an example from my life Instead of me being the go between in my sibling and parents, I have learned to refuse to play that role. The same role that Moses plays. I no longer tell my parents what my sibling tells me. I just tell them, you should ask them. And I tell my siblings that they should just tell the parents. I can still be a good listener to both of them. But in pointing them towards each other, I am changing the system. Over the last 4 years this position has been very refreshing.

How can the roles be shaken up so that we are not continuing these cycles of conflict? It is through pursuing the conflict, but not in the same way you have historically. And to do that, you cannot run from it but dive towards it. You have to move towards the snakes. And their bites might hurt.

I think our New Testament passage might be able to help us with this. Our passage from John today is one of the most famous passages in the Bible

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”

The line that usually gets ignored in this passage, is actually the one that comes right before it.

From John 3:14-15 “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

In this passage, Jesus is being connected to the bronze snake that Moses lifted up, that healed those who were bitten by snakes.

Jesus is taking the form of a snake – the animal that was the deceiver in Genesis. The evil weapon that is used against the Israelites in our story today. The symbol of the pain in their relationships. In becoming a snake, Jesus is not running from the pain in our stories, but is stepping right into it – going to the place that is most feared by the Israelites, the issues that are most feared by us.

Jesus is keeping an ear to the ground. Down on the low places where snakes slither and move. Keeping tabs on the awful things that happen in the world – not running from it. He loves the world so much that he is willing to connect so deeply with the most painful aspects of the world that he even becomes one with that pain.

Jesus does not run from the snakes. Jesus does not avoid evil. But dives straight down to the ground – ready to love.

Paul refers to Jesus taking this route when he writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21 “God made him, who had no sin, to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Jesus shows us the way to the ground. To heal from the pain that exists in the family, the route is the same one that Jesus takes. Straight to the painful ground slithering with snakes. Jesus’ way teaches us not to run from the snakes that are down there, but to keep an ear to the ground.

Instead of criticizing everyone like God in our story, be willing to hear the pain that exists in the family. To listen to the pain that you are a part of creating. Even if it is painful to hear. It might feel like snake bites, but the stories of your family are what make up you. And to experience healing, you have to recognize the snakes that are there.

Instead of being like Moses, stop rescuing family members and being the go between, but point them towards each other. Encourage them to have the needed conversations. You cannot save them from the pain of snake bites.

Instead of being like the Israelites, stop blaming others for your misfortune and start to claim the parts of your family situation that you are responsible for. It might feel like a snake bite to hear those words. But until you recognize your part, the cycle of conflict will only continue, like the cycle in the story today.

Leave the rolls that you are playing and follow Jesus to the ground. Become one with the snakes. Get to know the snakes. If we do not claim our snakes and embrace the occasional bite, we create a world where transformation does not happen. Jesus knows this route well. And maybe after taking it, you may feel as though you have been lifted up like Jesus, and experience a taste of eternal life.

Go, following Jesus, keeping an ear to ground, so that you may someday, like Jesus, find your way back up.