“Stiff-Necked”

Good Sunday morning, 21 June 2020. Here is a moment of faith-based reflection, as usual on Sundays.

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.'” (Exodus 32:1).

The behavior of the Israelites during the Exodus is full of what I call “mirror moments” – those times that you see others behaving and you are struck by two things: 1) how distastefully it strikes you, and 2) how often you do it too. How many sermons have been given on the faithlessness, impatience, and impetuousness symbolized by the Golden Calf? We look down our noses today and shake our heads in derisive judgment. But before we do that, let’s look around.

In Exodus 31, God tells Moses that He has given skills to certain people that were to be used for the construction of a place of worship and the Ark of the Covenant. God specifically discusses “…artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.” (Ex. 31:4-5). The people then used these skills to make an idol in spite of the God that granted them.

Which of God’s gifts are you using for His glory and His Kingdom? Which ones have been used to build idols for your own edification and comfort?

In chapter 32, when the people ask for the idol, Aaron, God’s high priest, doesn’t even hesitate. He orchestrates the construction and even builds an altar in front of it, saying, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” (v. 5), knowing full well that animal was not God.

Which of God’s promises have you sold for your own immediate gratification? How often have you led your fellow man into poor choices because you were just too frightened to oppose them?

You see, the Israelites didn’t just come up with the idea of the calf that night. It was so easy to suggest that an idol should be built because we are all, always, just one step away from building one, every day. If I could tell you all the times I’ve torn down idols in my own life, only to turn around later and find that they stand once again – maybe in a different form, maybe with a different look – but there, still.

And without question, it is a dangerous thing to point these out to your fellow man. Aaron could have stood firm and told the people to be patient and steadfast, but he likely would have been physically attacked and overthrown. I’m sure he thought he was just buying time, fooling them until Moses could come back and save the day. But this is how idols proliferate. We come to tolerate them and then they simply “blend in” to our faith until we can’t tell which is which. So, when you attack someone’s idol, be warned – they will think you are attacking the very core of their faith.

But the saddest verse in this story is actually Exodus 32:9: “’I have seen these people,’ the Lord said to Moses, ‘and they are a stiff-necked people.'”
Stiff-necked? Odd word. But if you look in the original language, both words are there, so it’s a literal translation. But let’s dig deeper. The word for “stiff” is “qasheh” (Hebrew is hard to change to English). By itself, it is often used to mean “hard” or “severe”, but combined with the following word in the text, the two most common translations are “obstinate” and “churlish”. These two words in English describe a rebellious attitude that is rude, cruel, and stubborn.

Let that sink in for a moment. God said to Moses that His people were rudely and cruelly rejecting Him and His gift of freedom from Egypt. He looked down at what should have been thankfulness and He saw stubborn anger, like a child that gets what he asked for and then complains about it. Have you ever spent so much time on a gift for someone and then that person just tosses it aside? Think about that feeling for a moment….

The people of Israel deeply hurt God.

Our idols don’t just make us feel better right now. They hurt God.

Our idols don’t advance the Kingdom or point to God. They hurt God.

Our idols don’t make church better or make the world better. They hurt God.

Today, in a quiet moment, have the courage to ask yourself where your idols are. What makes you look elsewhere but to God? When do you use God’s gifts for yourself? How have you compromised God for what makes you feel better now?

Identify them. Line them up. Try to get rid of at least one today. Then try again tomorrow. Don’t be discouraged if they come back – they’ve been there a long time. Just keep at it – you can do it. But when you start to fatigue, remember how it feels to imagine hurting God’s feelings.

Have a great Sunday.

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