A Bunch of Stiff-Necked People

 “The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are’.”

Luke 15:1-10  Exodus 32:1-14

What was that I said about Exodus in my introduction?  Something about a common theme of redemption and God continually recreating us to be as God intends.  Here we have Aaron as a spineless, people-pleasing priest, people who fall into wild orgies, God acting like a petulant child and Moses as the only stable adult.

As I read and re-read, I could almost hear Moses say, in the stern but loving voice of a grandfather; “This is not a story about me. It is a story about you and the world you live in today.  You need to make sense of this if you want to understand God or yourself.”  You may think I am crazy for sharing this imagined conversation with Moses, but it is a tough story of chaos and presents an image of God that is so hard to digest I’d rather dismiss it.

16th century reformer, John Calvin, wrote in the Christian Institutes: “true and sound wisdom consists of two parts, knowledge of God and of ourselves.”  What we think of ourselves and how we act is indicative of what we believe about God, and this belief about God either constrains or liberates our ideas of who we might become.

The book of Exodus records a story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God. The first four are to revere God – do not create idols; do not slander the God’s name, and so on. The rest are how to behave toward fellow humans – you shall not commit murder, steal, covet, etc. Interestingly, missing from the commands are any if/then statements or threats of punishment, just “you shall.”

The first statement, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt and slavery,” defines God’s authority, and the reason for the Israelites to be obedient.  Continuing, “You shall have no other gods before me,” acknowledges the Israelites probably thought other gods existed. At the time, the people would have worshipped a god of the harvest, a god for rain, a god for fertility – gods and idols they thought governed particular places and activities, gods that were easily understood.  Now, they were to revere a transcendent God, above any other deity or object of devotion.

The first command concludes, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptural image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.  For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God (Ex 20:2-5b).”

The Israelites are not to worship or place their faith in anything other than the one who created everything, chose them and had the power to save them. They needed to forget the idea any other gods existed or seek to limit God in human-made perishable forms.

After Moses gave the Israelites the commandments, the people said, “All these things the Lord has commanded, we will do (Ex 24.3).”

This particular story exemplifies our inability to do what we are told, and have committed to do.  As well, it shows how easily we push aside what we are prohibited from doing, kind of a repeat of Adam and Eve in the garden.

Moses has been on the mountain with God for a long time and the people are wandering.  They complain to Aaron about losing the security of the Moses and the God behind him they had grown to trust.  Although Moses always positioned himself merely as God’s messenger, they had a hard time comprehending the presence of God without Moses or an image for God.  In Moses’ absence, they grow afraid and decide to create something tangible, something they could control, and most of all comprehend.

It’s understandable how they fell into this common mind.  Think about being in the desert wilderness, you become acutely aware of your frailty and dependency on structure and others.  With the threat of starvation, exposure and wild animals, you lose illusions of self-sufficiency. You also know others are as fragile as you are.

The fear that arises can become infectious and lead to chaos.  Whipped into a frenzy, the people created something to rally around.  In Egypt and other places, a golden calf was worshipped.  You can imagine them thinking; “let’s get us one of them for our security.”  But, they were doing exactly what God had told them not to do – place their faith in something small and something far less than God.

No matter how many times I read this story, I am struck by all the miscommunication. Making the golden calf was blatantly wrong, and they became confused; was it an image of God, did this represent other gods?  Aaron really blew it.  The conversation between God and Moses is equally disturbing; who was responsible for the people?  God or Moses?  It appears as though God disowns the people.

The toughest part of the story is Moses arguing with God and needing to change God’s mind about that bunch of “stiff-necked people.”  The Hebrew word translated as “stiff-necked” also means headstrong or obstinate. Regardless of the descriptor, the people disobeyed God and no longer deserve God’s protection or God’s faithfulness.  They had a deal, a covenant from the time of Abraham, which they broke.

Does Moses change God’s mind?  The footnotes in my Bible are no more informative than your Bible and my knowledge of Hebrew does not lend any more insight.  If Moses really does change God’s mind, what does that say about God and what does that mean for us?

This past summer, I was fortunate to attend a writers’ workshop at Northwestern University.  It had been quite some time since I had been in a large group of people who were our congregation, other Presbyterians or ministers.  I was in the real world.  I’d missed it and I loved it.

During one class, we were asked about our primary writing.  Among the variety of genres; fiction, screenplays, non-fiction, I was the only one who quietly said “sermons.”  Afterwards, some writers gravitated to me to share Biblical illusions they’d embedded in stories.  Other writers practically ran away.

At one time, we were to partner with the person sitting next to us and tell a story.  The face of the woman next to me immediately darkened, as if she were trapped. Constructing a wall, she related a story of her daughter finding and wearing a rubber bracelet her daughter thought said “I love justice.”  But, when more closely examined, it said “I love Jesus.”  This woman then tried to reason with her daughter that since they don’t believe in God, they believe in science, she should just throw it away. Apparently, she experienced, in childhood, fundamentalist Christians who drew boundaries between faith and critical reasoning, professed the only road to salvation was through literal interpretations, avoiding sinners, and sin.

Rather than deny her daughter the bracelet, she hoped her daughter would just lose interest in it, and rationalized with her, “I love Jesus” means about the same thing as “I love justice.”

It gets worse, (for both of us).  Her real crisis emerged when her younger son asked for his own bracelet and announced he believed in God. I’m not sure if she just got lost telling her story, or if it was my patient listening or her curiosity, but she softened and wondered if I could coach her on how to un-teach about God, since I was one who taught about God.

My stomach turned.  But, I thought to myself, respond with “loving kindness, loving kindness” as I described the Jesus I knew and followed was not a metaphor for justice. Jesus embodies mercy and love, which sometimes opposes justice.  I also confided, we really don’t need to teach kids about God, in their innocence they readily grasp God and God’s love. What we want to teach through religion is how to continue to experience God amidst hostilities and fears.

Our Gospel reading from Luke, if you recall, has two parables, told to religious authorities who criticized Jesus for eating with social outcasts – tax collectors and sinners.  Rather than debate with his accusers or defend his actions, Jesus tells them stories about being lost and then found. As parables, it is not always clear who exactly is lost.

The shepherd searches for the one sheep, a stubborn but precious animal, which has wandered from the flock. In the second parable, a woman lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and patiently and diligently works until the coin is found. She does not give up on finding something that in the grand scheme of things is small.

Jesus’ paints a portrait of God who is persistent in securing what was lost and then rejoices in finding the lost soul, never requiring repentance, not caring about justice. God simply rejoices.

Jesus challenges the religious authorities’ notion of God, revealing a portrait of God much bigger and more loving than the authorities held.  Yes, the parable implies God chases after the outcasts, but God is also chasing after those stiff-necked Pharisees.

The Pharisees were like the Israelites who had wandered in the desert and created a golden calf, only the Pharisees pooled their ideas to create an intellectual notion of God, a false god, who was only concerned for a particular people – them.  This god was one they could please – almost as if they created and worshiped a god who allowed them to worship and justify themselves.

Either fear or arrogance gave birth to a god, just like the golden calf, they could discern and control.  What a contradiction.  In both instances, the people created a really small god they had to protect all the while they ignored God, who protects and loves them…no matter how disobedient they became.

To love someone who is unfaithful is heartbreaking; and the people wandering around with a golden calf broke their promise to God.  The Pharisees diminished God.  Despite their disobedience, God kept God’s promises and forgave serious sins. We may wonder if God’s mind was changed, but God has never changed or wavered in loving them.

Jack Mills was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a biography, entitled simply, God,  the life story of God from the point of view as the protagonist of the Hebrew Scriptures. Commenting on the story within Exodus, Mills writes:   “God is like a director whose actors never seem to get it right, and who is, as a result, often angry…When the actors get it wrong, God too gets it wrong, until finally they get it right more or less, and God calms down enough to admit it.  Getting it right is, in the Bible, not just a matter of mankind’s observing the law of God.  It is rather, and much more broadly, a matter of mankind’s becoming in the image of God (87).”

We have two, human-like images of God in Exodus and Luke, images that reveal the one God who loves us passionately.  We also have two images of people – stiff-necked, fearful and lost.

Allow me some liberties.  Imagine if the first commandment were a bit more descriptive: I am the Lord your God, not your finite creation or confined in history. I am the Lord your God and cannot be limited by your religious laws, doctrines or priests.  I am the Lord your God whose love is more abundant.

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  In other words, I am the God who created you and am the only one who can free you from what enslaves you – your perceived deficiencies, your shame, your small-mindedness, I also have the power to enable you to be more than you ever thought possible and rejoice in you.

Whom do you adore?  A god who is scarce as gold or a God abundant in all of life, seeking and finding you no matter how stiff necked you may be.  Your God rejoices in you.  Adore God.  Amen.