David A. Davis
October 27, 2019
Last week we left Moses and the whole congregation of the people if Israel at Mt Sinai. God had spoken the Ten Commandments. The people stood at a distance as they had been told. Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. Moses went further up the mountain. What follows in Exodus is more laws, more instruction about the Covenant. God sends Moses down to tell the people and to bring Aaron and few others back up to ratify, to ritually seal the covenant. Then Moses goes up again by himself. The bible says Moses went up for forty days and forty nights. This time God gave Moses all the instructions related to the tabernacle and the priesthood. Forty days and forty nights might just be a biblical way of saying this trip was the perfect amount of time for God to tell Moses all that God had to tell, or a biblical way of saying this trip took a good long while. However long it was, for the people down the hill, it felt way too long. Based on what was going on down at the foot of Mt. Sinai, it was way too long.
It was long enough for the whole congregation of Israel to go from “yes, we are all in, we are on God’s team, we will do everything you say to a raucous, wild partying, idolatrous golden calf making people. Moses was ticked. Aaron gave a silly excuse: “The people were bent on evil. So I told them to take off all their gold. I tossed it in the fire and out came this calf!” Moses asks “Who is on the Lord’s side” There is a command to the Sons of Levi to kill one another which I can neither explain nor explain away. Then Moses tells the people he will go back up to God to see if he and God can work something out, can salvage this mess.
Moses asks God to forgive the people. God threatens to blot them out of the book but then tells Moses to go and lead the people to the place God promised. Just for good measure God sends a plague on the people because of the golden calf. Then the Lord says to Moses “Go leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt and go to the land I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob….Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go among you or I would consume you on the way, for you are stiff-necked people.”
Stiff-necked. That’s a great bible word. Like homage and sore afraid and cubit. Stiff-necked. Stubborn. Hard-headed. Strong-willed. Stiff-necked. It’s a great bible word but not a common one. In the Book of Acts, Stephen invoking the tradition of Moses called the people stiff-necked for opposing the Holy Spirit and for betraying and killing the Righteous One foretold by the prophets. He called them stiff-necked and they stoned him to death. Other than that, stiff-necked is pretty much reserved for the people of Israel and the golden calf debacle. God sends them on their way to the promised land and plans to stay behind, knowing that their stubborn, hard-headedness would eventually cause them to be consumed by God’s either by God’s holiness or by God’s wrath; probably depending on what day it was.
But God and Moses at an extraordinary conversation. The setting of the conversation was the tent of meeting. A cloud would settle on the tent and Moses would know to go in. The Lord would speak with Moses as it says in Exodus “face to face as one speaks to a friend.”
One has to think the conversation was a whole lot longer than twelve or so verses; That there was a whole lot more to the conversation than is portrayed on the sacred page. At some point, Moses says to God, “look, you have told me to bring this people up but you haven’t told me who you are going to send with me. Remember when you said to me‘I know you by name and you have found favor in my sight?’ If that’s true, if I have found favor, show me your ways so I can know, so I can still find favor. And don’t forget this nation, the people, the people are your people.
God responds to Moses, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest along the way”. But Moses isn’t ready to go. Moses isn’t convinced. Moses isn’t finished. “if you are not going to go, don’t send us away from here. How will anyone know that I have found favor in your sight, your people have found favor insight, how will anyone know if you’re not there? If you’re not with us, what makes us distinct, what sets apart? If you don’t go, I am not going. We are not going. What makes us who we are, what shapes us, what identifies us, is you. You and your presence. We are your people when you are with us.” And the Lord said, “I will do just what you ask of me. For you have found favor. I do know your name. Yes, I will go with you.” In other words, God says to Moses, “Okay, Okay, I’ll go”
A stiff-necked people and the relenting presence of God. A stiff-necked, stubborn, hard-headed, strong-willed, idolatrous, running wild people and the identity-forming presence of God. Uniquely stiff-necked at least when it comes to the use of the old lovable bible word and yet, so utterly common and ingrained and passed on and recognizable in you, me, the people of God, and all of humanity. Stiff-necked. Never changes, really. What is not stiff-necked here in Exodus is God’s relationship with Moses. The one who is not stiff-necked here is God. And God is the one who is supposed to be omnipotent and the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. A stiff-necked people and the “un” stiff-necked God.
Stiff-necked. The word is not used all that often in scripture but it’s easy to remember. When you remember it, then you ought to remember the contrast, the difference, how the people’s hard-headedness contrasts the character of God revealed. Yes, Moses goes to God to try to work something out. Yes, Moses intercedes for the people of Israel way over their heads in their own sinfulness. Yes, Moses pushes back on God, tries to hold God to God’s own word, and pretty much demands that God goes with them. But Moses is also yearning to know God more. Moses wants more not just from God, Moses wants more of God. Moses wants to go deeper. Moses wants to learn more about God’s character. Moses even asks to see God’s glory. “I can’t get enough of you. I haven’t had enough of you, God, show me your glory”. And God showed him a bit of it. Moses had a glimpse there on that rock when God’s glory passed by. And the God who started with Moses way back at the bush saying “I am who I am”, God tells Moses, “My name is the Lord, and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” Moses longs for depth in his relationship with the Lord. And God, God hears his cry, his plea. Moses did not see God and God’s face fully. Moses came face to face with God’s mercy and grace.
Many parents have come to that realization that with an empty nest comes a new relationship one with another. Every young adult who lives at home the summer after freshman year of college knows the discomfort of parents who want the relationship unchanged after a yearlong whirlwind of change. And a whole lot of folks have realized that when the whole extended family of origin gathers for a holiday, the hardest part isn’t staying in the room you grew up in that hasn’t changed since high school. The hardest part is that when you’re all together, you realize again and again the relationships and the dynamics haven’t changed 30 years later. Your sibling still relates to you like you are thirteen, or your mother still treats you like the favored eldest or the youngest who got away with everything, or just as the one who could never do anything to please. And those old friendships that “pick up right where they left off”, those are the ones that actually have the love, care, devotion, and listening to adapt and grow amid decades of change.
We all know healthy relationships, over the long haul, change and deepen and grow. We all know change is necessary, even healthy. Exodus tells of Moses and God and their deepening, growing, changing relationship. But experience tells me that rather be intrigued or inspired, readers are more prone to be puzzled, to be troubled, to be wary of any notion of a changing God, an “un” stiff-necked God.” God never wavers from the promise. God’s movement is always toward salvation. It’s the relationship that deepens, grows, morphs, changes. Jesus said unless you have faith like a child you cannot enter the kingdom. I don’t take that as a warning not to yearn for a deeper understanding of God and a mature relationship to guide you in the complexities of life. The Apostle Paul wrote, “when I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child. I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face.” Then we shall see, then on that Great Getting Up Morning. But I for one, have longed for God to wipe some of the dimness off that mirror before THEN. To learn, grow, deepen, see something of the glory of God in the hear and now.
Everyone knows change and congregational church life don’t always go together like a fine pairing of wine and cheese. “We never did it that way before!” As I have learned from studies of leadership in the corporate world, leading change is hard but organizations that don’t change die. But it occurs to me that the bigger challenge for congregational life, for the church in general, for the life of discipleship, for the whole congregation of the people of God, the bigger challenge is a relationship with God that never changes, grows, deepens. A collective lack of a desire, a longing to scratch at the character of God, to know more. An understanding, a relationship, a theology that just sits there getting stale like an unchanged high school bedroom. The greater risk when it comes to relationship with the living God of mercy and grace is a stiff-necked people.