My wife often has a cricked or stiff neck when she wakes up – probably through having to put up with me during the night. But her stiff neck is relatively easy to rectify. I simply put my hands round her neck – gently! – and under her head and then slowly yank upwards until there's a click. Now that remedy may sound pretty dangerous but in reality that sort of stiff neck isn't a serious or even deadly condition and the cure is straightforward.
But a biblical stiff neck is very serious. In fact, it's one of the most serious ailments that can affect the people of God. It also reveals a much deeper disease, a universal disease, which has spread to the whole of our body including mind and soul – the disease of stubbornness before God. Now you say why is stubbornness such a concern in Scripture. Can't there be positives to stubbornness? Perhaps you're stubborn. It's often seen as an endearing quirk – each family has a stubborn mule whether old or young – and you or they may cause some discomfort, but its liveable with. It's not deadly – or is it? Well a stiff neck and stubbornness before a good and glorious God is far more serious than you can possibly imagine. Proverbs 29.1:
"He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing."
In Exodus 32 we start to see how serious this ailment really is. We'll see God's own prognosis of this seemingly harmless disease of stubbornness before our gracious God. And we'll see the gravity of this disease, when we're stubborn before the one true God. So let's start with a diagnosis. We're going to test ourselves. To see if this disease of a stiff neck towards God has come upon us. So first
1. The Symptoms of This Disease
beginning with a) Stubborn Unbelief
Look at verse 1 of chapter 32:
"When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, 'Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what's become of him.'"
Now to see how serious this first symptom of unbelief really is, we need to realise where we're up to in Exodus. Those who say this to Aaron have just seen God wonderfully rescue his people out of slavery and from the most powerful nation of the day - Egypt. They've heard his voice. They've seen his provision and glory day after day. Yet their response is, make us gods who shall go before us. Breath-taking isn't it? While Moses is at the top of the mountain hearing God making plans to be with his people; down in the valley they're responding with stubborn unbelief. Despite seeing God's glory at work at the top of the mountain, despite his provision every morning with everything they need, they're deeply stubborn towards a good God. An unbelieving stubbornness caused by a stiff-necked lack of sight. They just can't see how God is out for their good. It's a deeply irrational response. Deeply stubborn.
If we're seeing this clearly then it will start to expose our own stubbornness before God. You see are we not the same? While God is providing for our every need, every day, we often fail to see that God is good. Instead we keep looking for a god right in front of us, who will go before us, who will prop us up, who will give us what we think we need. And while God has wonderfully redeemed us by sparing not even his own Son to meet our deepest need – our need of forgiveness and peace with God - we in our faulty vision feel that we need that less and less as each day goes by.
And even in our future. While God is preparing a place for us to dwell with him, a place beyond our imagining, a place 1 Corinthians 2.9 says, "no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him." We instead busy ourselves with what our imagination can cope with. We're tempted to settle for an earthly heaven – a heaven of our own making. So, symptom 1 of a stiff neck is a sinful stubbornness towards God's goodness because we don't trust God's goodness. Even though it's all around us in our past, in our present and wonderfully in our future. Despite this extravagant goodness towards us we go in search of a god who we think we see might go before us in life. And in that we see the second symptom
2. Wanting A God We Can See To Go Before Us
Here we start to see just how sinfully stubborn before God we can be when we're stiff-necked before Him. You see the problem with a stiff neck is that your vision is very much restricted. It becomes very narrow and shallow. If we're like that before God we fail to see the depth & width of his grace towards us. So, we set off for what we want rather than what we need from him.
This search for what we want is quite simple when we have a stiff neck. What we want is just in front of us. With a stiff neck that's all we can see anyway. If you put something in front of a little child they want it (unless it's food). In fact, it's what they've always wanted even though they've never seen it before! Chris, my eldest son was like that at 3 – we put Postman Pat videos in front of him and he wouldn't watch or do anything else for a whole year! Well that's what we're like with a stiff neck toward God - what we want is what's right in front of us – we're too stubborn to look further and beyond. We see this in Aaron as he fashions a god out of what's in front of him, verses 2 to 4:
"So Aaron said to them, 'Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.' So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'"
If we have a stiff neck before God then the things right in front of us become our god, things that to us are precious, good to have and appear to bring us good – they become the gods that go before us in this life and that we depend on. Such as
The God of Money
You may be saying O come on - tell me about an idol I don't know about! But you know there's a great danger that we become familiar with our idols. There was an American who was a great enthusiast of Grizzly Bears. Every summer he went and played with the bears for a season until one year – instead of leaving them he stayed on and what happened? He was then destroyed by the bears. And we can do that with the god of money. We're so familiar with it but it doesn't make it any less dangerous especially when we love it more and more. Do you see? We can allow our necks to stiffen and get stuck. That's where the danger lies. We humans generally choose the powerful and good things to make gods out of, not the bad and the weak things. Money is power. It makes us able to do things in life - to have things. All the targeted advertising on facebook and 'insta' are all things you and I could have want for. Facebook knows this! And this is where the god of money comes in handy as the god of money goes before us to make it happen.
Money also makes us able to solve things, not just personally but also nationally. The Golden Bull outside the New York Stock Exchange symbolises the power of the money markets. And did you know - people lay hands on that bull and pray for the financial well-being of the USA. We pray to the god of money because we believe it can solve our financial problems. It also makes us able to protect. We can worry endlessly about coronavirus & our investments or lack of them, mortgages, interest rates and pensions. So the god of money becomes our safety net in life. In the end its the trappings of money who become the gods who go before us, that we can see - that tell us what we can have, solve and protect and we grow to trust their capacity more than our one true God's. Trappings – ever wondered why are they called that? The Bible knows why. 1 Timothy 6.9 says that people who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap, which leads to ruin and destruction. The good and powerful gifts God gives us make miserable gods. Traps in fact. Then there's
The God of Sex
What a gift. What a good and precious gift sex is within heterosexual monogamous marriage, from a wise and fun God. The Scriptures know how good sex is. The very first command in the Bible to Adam & Eve is to have sex. It's a powerful gift. Dynamite even. But the danger of this gift is that the god of sex can become the one going before us. We idolise things that are right in front of us. Those with their eyes fixed on sex can often no longer see the good purposes of God. One guy I knew who seemed so committed to Christ then suddenly began to only see how good his new girlfriend made him feel, yet it didn't last. He threw away eternity for that. Yes, the god of sex can make us miserable. Again, a good gift but it makes a miserable god. And this isn't just a danger for unmarried people. In marriage it can become something that's just wanted rather than given. Then there's
The God of Position or Status
Who are you? What is your role? Is the god of position your God? The god of position can go before us, such as the stiff-necked and stubborn Christian who complains of stress, overwork and of not seeing the family yet won't change their role. It's out of the question, they say. Why? Because my role's important, I've worked hard to get to this position and I'm making a difference. But who are you without your role? If you can't answer that then maybe the god of position is your god. When we fail to trust God's goodness, we want a convenient god – one who makes no demands on us – no confrontation – no challenge - no judgement such as the golden bull. The calf's not going to hold me to account or judge me. A stiff neck leads to human self-assessment, but the problem with human self-assessment is that it's full of self-justification and delusion.
3. Excuses… Excuses
Look at the excuses of Aaron as Moses comes down the mountain verses 22 to 24. We are masters of downplaying our sin and blaming others. There's no sense of grieving over our sin and that the burden of our sin is intolerable. But our God is too kind not to tell us the truth, verse 7:
"The Lord said to Moses, 'Go down for your people have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it and said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt"… this people is a stiff-necked people…'"
We divert blame and deny reality. Aaron says the people made me do it. They're evil. I can't be held responsible. They gave me the gold I threw it in the fire and out came a cow. What are the odds. Hey presto it just happened. It was natural. How sinful it is not to trust our God and to seek after other gods. It reveals how corrupt we are. We weren't made to glory in the puny gods we make rather we were made for the glory of the God who made us. Without living for him we're forever bent out of shape. God also tells us the truth about
The Consequences of Idolatry
"And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to the derision of their enemies)."
Aaron had allowed the people to run wild and they became a laughingstock to the nations, all as a consequence of idolatry. Breaking loose sounds good but that's a delusion. It's not running free but running with the bull – which is a dangerous exercise. We all too often underestimate the power of our idols to destroy us. The consequences of the sin of idolatry are not small. Verse 27:
"And he said to them, 'Thus says the Lord God of Israel, "Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro, from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbour."' And that day about three thousand men of the people fell."
When God in judgement gives us over to the consequences of our idolatry it destroys everything dear to us. Do you see who dies? Those close to us. Our brother. Our friends. Our neighbour. Those we love. Our relationships are destroyed. What a tragedy it would be if we gain so much financially but shipwreck our faith. What a tragedy to impress your colleagues at work but destroy your marriage. If we're stubborn against a good God that's the serious disease that could afflict us. And without remedy it will destroy us and very likely those close to us. So finally
How does God respond to our stubbornness towards him? He does the most incredible and powerful thing. He makes himself known to us. He shows us his glory so that we won't mistake the gifts he gives us for a god. Why is this such a good cure for a stiff neck? Because it gloriously gives us what we need most. Let me show you what I mean. Moses goes back up the mountain and pleads with God for this stiff-necked people. He's looking for assurances that stiff necks may be turned round. God's answer is to show him his glory. Exodus 33.18: I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you. Exodus 34.5-7: The Lord came down in a cloud and stood there and proclaimed his name the Lord and he passed in front of Moses. The compassionate, gracious and loving God. Slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness. Maintaining love to thousands and forgiving sin. That's who I am, says the Lord. God's answer to stiff necks is to jolt them by showing us his glory, his goodness.
This Spring and Easter allow God to proclaim his glory to you. How? Did you know that every time you open the Bible God proclaims his glory to you. In Exodus 34.5-7 it's not the glory we often think of such as a spectacular view – but all the words he uses to describe his glory are relational for he desires a relationship with us - and you'll see his compassion and love for you and his faithfulness to you. The more you allow God to proclaim his glory to you the more you realise who God is to you – and the clearer you'll see your sin – as a refusal to see his good for you – as a refusal to trust his love for you, as a walking away from his faithful friendship. And the more your sin is exposed, the more you know how much you need his forgiveness, which echoes what Moses says in Exodus 32.31 what a great sin these people have committed - blot me out of your book. Do you want to see what a glorious friend God is. Try this. Moses goes up offering his life for theirs, but God won't accept it – it's not good enough. And you know why. Because in Jesus God himself will go up the hill for us. He will carry our sins on his back. God himself will offer his life for ours. What a glorious friend he is. You'll then see your need for him. The one true God who goes before you. He won't just be what you need but also what you want. You'll want for his ways both personally and for wider society because you'll know they're good. You'll want to be his because he's good to be near, even through the valley of the shadow of death.