During Christmas (we’re still in Christmas, after all), let’s focus on God’s intimate love. Since we read this week’s Gospel during the celebration of the nativity last week, we have an excellent opportunity to focus on God’s profound love and care in other parts of Scripture.
We turn this week to Numbers, one of my favorite books of the Bible. This often-overlooked book relates the story of the Israelites and the mixed multitude of people from other nations (Exodus 12:38) who went with God out into the wilderness. I love this book because it tells stories of the in-between times. God has rescued the community from injustice and slavery, but they are still learning how to practice justice for themselves. After God took the community away from a land of idolatry and foreign gods, they also don’t know how to be faithful to their God yet. God will later recall this time of wilderness journey as a sort of honeymoon (Jeremiah 2:2)—when young lovers get to learn about and explore each other to really find out with whom they have committed to their life.
God is powerfully present with the people. Indeed, all members of the community woke up every morning and could see God’s presence indicating where they would go that day (Numbers 9:17-18). But even this intimacy wasn’t enough, so God told Moses to tell the priests how to bless the people. They said words that God’s people have used to bless each other ever since:
The Lord blesses you, and keep you;
The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace (Numbers 6:24-26).
The twice mentioning of God’s face is shockingly intimate. Imagine God instructing humans to tell God where to look and with what emotion and intent! The priests essentially tell God to orient God’s body and attention to the Holy Community and to look with grace and peace at the people. This kind of talk is uncomfortable for some, but the use of bodily language for God is used throughout Scripture. I’m sure it isn’t exactly like your body or mine, but God has a face, at least in some sense, and delights at orienting that face toward humans.
The Lord isn’t even remotely cold or distant, but is a passionate, emotional God who purposefully sets up reminders to behold God’s beloved people with graciousness. I recently listened to a marriage podcast that advised partners to be intentional about the daily habit of looking at their partners with love and respect for all that they are. This practice has created so much added love and warmth in my marriage. God does exactly that same thing here. God tells the priests to remind Godself to look at the people with grace and love. While still in the honeymoon phase, God is setting up intentional practices to cultivate and persevere intimacy with the Beloved Community.
The Lord isn’t even remotely cold or distant, but is a passionate, emotional God who purposefully sets up reminders to behold God’s beloved people with graciousness.
God’s name is invoked three times on purpose as well. God instructs the leaders to literally put the name of the Lord on the people (Numbers 6:27), who are to identify as God’s own. This, again, calls to mind a divine wedding, as God takes the people as spouse (a metaphor used throughout Scripture) and both parties come to be identified with the same name. How is it that the God of the universe insists on the divine name being put on a bunch of freed slaves and folks who abandoned the allure of an empire when they saw God move on behalf of the downtrodden? Should not God only share the divine name with kings and the powerful? No, God insists that Aaron put the name of the Lord on the redeemed people—and that the name and identity as the Beloved Community will lead to God’s blessings.
So, as we continue to celebrate the incarnation of Jesus as God’s greatest gift of love to this world, how can we respond to God’s intimate love? First, I would suggest gratitude may be in order. The Psalms, Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2:1-10) or Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55) can serve as fruitful starting points for praise and thanksgiving. Second, we could follow our God and be intentional about loving the Beloved Community that God is profoundly passionate about. In this new year, what practices could you undertake to share the love and grace that God gave to you with others?