Whenever our daughters fought when they were younger, there was a lot of stair stomping and door slamming. and they would fight with one another about who had the right idea, invariably, someone would stomp off with one yelling, “I’m leaving!” And the other yelling back some variation of “GO ahead! See if I care!” When I read the passage of Moses and the people in the Book of Numbers, and all of the whining and grousing of the people about the food and the water and oy! I wonder if it doesn’t go through God’s mind to just say- “Go ahead, you stiff necked people, see if I care!” And it is disturbing to imagine that God would subject them to the poisonous snakes. Although in another sense, perhaps God who has been watching over them in all their kvetching while helping them overcome obstacles may in fact just be deciding to stop holding back the snakes. Because normally those snakes would have been around. And maybe until now they have been kept at bay, but now, they are set loose. In the anger and hurt and sense of betrayal. and maybe just like perhaps we have as parents sometimes decided, let the rebellious experience what they seem determined to experience.
When Moses comes to God in prayer for the people it may even feel like a pointless prayer, as he too has been the subject of their complaining. But he prays. God still responds and tells Moses how the people can be healed and live. They are reminded what got them there to that troubled place, and what there is no place for. But the last word is what God has overcome for them. The last word is love.
When I worked as a chaplain I was paged to a modern day situation like that. A mother was in her daughter’s room in ICU, grief stricken and angry. The daughter who hadn’t been in good health for a variety of lifestyle reasons had come to live with her Mom who wanted to take care of her and help her. But because doing so often involved a clash of choices, it was often confrontational. And on a particular day, the daughter, whose whining had reached epic levels and the mother who frustration matched it, had a shouting match which ended as the daughter pronounced she was leaving and the mother shouting at her- Go ahead! And knowing that her daughter was really sick, she also said words she probably meant to keep in her head, but they came out anyway followed it up with- You can die for all I care!
Words borne as much out of grief as prediction, because the daughter seemed determined to buck all efforts to live.
Well, on a hot day, this sickly, overweight daughter, blood pressure soaring, stomped off down the street, on a hot, humid summer afternoon in the city. And it was only a matter of time before she collapsed from a combination of the heat, diabetes and toxins. She ended up in the hospital, potentially not expected to live. Near death at the hands of the modern day serpents in her life. Proof that God who gives us freedom will let us have all of the hell and poison we want if we are determined to have it. There we were.
The mother had called for a chaplain, barely able to contain her emotions. Wanting healing for her daughter, she was also wracked with sadness at having the possibility of the last words her daughter heard her say be those poisonous words. That the last moments were hearts cracked and broken and toxic.
I asked her what she would say to her daughter if she could, and it wasn’t - boy did you screw up! It was- I want to tell her that I love her and I want her to live. And in that moment, the mother glimpsed the heart of God. The heart of a God who wants us to be healed and saved. This is the love we hear of in the Gospel- that even in the midst of colossal mistakes and heartaches and sin, God sends Jesus because God loves us and wants us to live.
Just like that mother wondering why on earth her daughter rebelled so often against what was life giving, God wonders how anyone would choose another way. Rob Bell writes, “How could someone choose another way with a universe of love and joy and peace right in front of them? We see it all the time. And we choose it when we isolate ourselves, give the cold shoulder to someone who has slighted us. When we hide knives in our words and harden our hearts in defiance of what we know to be loving and good and right. That impulse lurks in all of us…if we want isolation and despair…if we want nothing to do with love, we are given that.”
And then it is easy to imagine God whose ultimate purpose is to condemn and to punish. Because somewhere in our hearts there is a crack, there is a poison and brokenness that needs to be healed.
Healing began for the mother in the hospital even as her daughter was being healed. There would be more words between them. She let go of the toxic and those cracks in her heart began to mend as we prayed- and she joined in by telling God she didn’t know who the lady was that came to the room, but she knew what God wanted her to see, what mattered and to be forgiven. To know that even though the journey would still be hard, more than anything she wanted her daughter to wake up so she could say “I love you.” As the days passed and the daughter improved, I prayed it was hopefully the start of a new story for them.
“When we crave the light, are drawn to the truth, and are desperate for grace, God gives” us what God’s heart longs to share-that Jesus was sent not to condemn but to save. Lifted up on a cross to show us both the depths of our sin uncontained and God’s victory over all that robs us of life. So we can live a new story.
God’s love in the cross creates a new relationship of uncontainable things- love, and joy and grace. In those moments when we experience it, truly, we can’t help but share it. Jesus invites us into the heart of God and a new promise. An ongoing story of new creation and healing and transforming our hearts to be closer to God’s. This is who God is, what Christ shows and accomplishes for all.
And God’s love for us is why “God continues to come, year after year, to person after person…to show us an expansive and indestructible love that’s been ours all along- every single one of us.” Even the ones we’d just as soon say “see if I care!” to. Jesus is endlessly inviting us to trust, accept, believe, embrace and experience it again and again. God comes to save- whenever we believe that, it changes everything- how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how we see God.
So again this day we look at the cross, picture Christ and the new life we are given. And then keep believing that a love “as wide as the sky and as small as the cracks in our hearts we think no one knows we have” is God’s love for the whole world.