In his conversation with Moses, God refers to the Israelites in a peculiar way. He calls them a STIFF-NECKED people.
The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.” (Exodus 32:9)
This term comes from an agricultural setting. It was used for animals that would IGNORE the farmer’s tug at the reins to turn in a certain direction and instead go where it wanted to go. It refers to an attitude of our mind. If a person was described as being stiff-necked, it meant that they were STUBBORN and REBELLIOUS.
In what way was the Israelites stiff-necked? From the context of the passage, it’s not so apparent. All they did was to make the golden calf. They didn’t make it for no reason. They were afraid. Moses went up to the mountain to speak to God, but showed no sign of coming back. They started to get worried. The longer he was away, they became more impatient. They wondered, “Did Moses abandon us?” “Did God abandon us?” Their frustration soon reached its peak.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, 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 has become of him.” (Exodus 32:1)
The Israelites did what seemed best to them. We can only wait so long. They had no idea what else to do. So they made the golden calf. They needed some kind of assurance that they’d be okay. At least the calf was VISIBLE and TANGIBLE.
It wasn’t the making of the golden calf that made them stiff-necked in God’s sight. The calf was no ‘god’. It had no power to do anything. It was what they did with the calf that made them stubborn and rebellious in God’s eyes. They WORSHIPED it. They used it as an ANTIDOTE for their fear. Fear of uncertainty; Fear of not knowing their next steps; Fear of survival. The calf gave them a false sense of control and security. It was their means of coping with the wilderness. They were no longer concerned with God or what he had to say to them. With the calf, they only listened to themselves. What grieved and angered God was their REFUSAL to LISTEN.
Yes – wilderness is a difficult place. We don’t choose it willingly. We prefer to avoid it as much as we can. It is a place of CHANGE and TRANSITION where nothing seems certain. Everything is in flux. We are given no guarantee as to when we will come out of it.
We are experiencing the wilderness now. September is usually a time of change and transition. Some of us are heading back to school. Some of us are in-between jobs. Some of us are transitioning into the next stage of our lives. This week alone, we witnessed two major events that were unexpected and unsettling for many: tragedy in Saskatchewan, and the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. We are also seeing how the state of economy will affect us financially in the near future. It is an anxious and challenging time to be in. We don’t know exactly what to do or how we ought to be.
Refusing to Listen
When we experience uncertainty, we CLOSE UP. We become RIGID. We stick to what we know. We resort to what is easy, logical, and predictable. We become reactive and controlling. In other words, we REFUSE to LISTEN. We stop engaging with our lives. Sometimes, we aren’t even aware of how stubborn we are.
Refusing to listen is never the solution for our wilderness. That’s what the Israelites learned. They thought they knew their way around. But their stubborn refusal to listen led them circling the desert for 40 YEARS. It was during those 40 years that they learned how to listen. How to DEPEND on God who knows their way.
Listening has to be cultivated. It is a DISCIPLINE. To truly listen, is difficult. It requires us to slow down. It makes us set aside what we are doing. It forces us to PAY ATTENTION. In that sense, listening is SPIRITUAL. That’s why it’s hard for us to listen. It’s too tiring to do it well. We find ourselves too BUSY and DIVIDED in our daily life. But as long as we have the desire within us, we can cultivate our listening.
That’s what the Hi-C students experienced at the retreat. They learned how to listen. On the first day, I took their phones away. Some were NOT happy about it. Their one and only safety net was taken from them. They had nothing to hide behind. They had no one but themselves and each other. They had no choice but to ENGAGE.
They looked lost for the first day or two. But they soon started paying attention. They became more IN TUNE and CONNECTED with their surroundings, with each other, and with themselves. Even during worship, they looked more FOCUSED than before. In the span of 3 days alone, I noticed them change. They had more ENERGY. They became more ALIVE. By the last day, they didn’t even ask for their phones. Even though they faced an uncertain future, especially coming out of the pandemic, they came back with a renewed CONFIDENCE and DIRECTION for their lives. I heard that one student told his parents that he really felt ‘God’s power’ at the retreat. It all came from LISTENING.
Directing Our Steps
When we listen, we OPEN UP. We take a step into the world of the unknown. In the unknown, we wait for God to SPEAK into our lives. Through PRAYER, we listen. Through PREACHING, we listen. Through the EVENTS and INTERACTIONS in our lives, we listen. Some of the summer interns have started doing the Daily Examen together. Discerning God’s presence and direction in our lives. With listening comes NEW discovery and realization. All these things shape the way we understand our life. God speaks through them to DIRECT our steps.
The human mind plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps. (Proverbs 16:9)
Wilderness is where we seek God. Seeking God leads to listening to God. That’s what Jesus did each morning. As difficult as it might be to hear through all the noise and distractions, God is always speaking into our lives. God wants to lead and guide us in the right way. No matter how stiff-necked we might have been, God still chooses to speak to us.
That’s the God we see in today’s passage. God whose MERCY is greater than his anger. It’s not that God arbitrarily “changed” his mind. God’s mercy was always there. THAT itself is God’s unchanging character. That is the God whom Moses met. GRACIOUS and MERCIFUL God. God said this to Moses later on—
But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. (Exodus 32:34)
No matter how lost we may feel, let us not be afraid. Let us not be consumed by our fears and worries. Instead, let us seek God and listen. God has led us to where we are. God will lead us to where we need to go. God gave us his Spirit in our hearts. The Spirit is our INNER COMPASS. Through the Spirit, God makes his will known to us. God speaks to us like he spoke to Moses—like a friend. That’s what Jesus taught us.
I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. (John 15:15)
The Next Step
We don’t have to see the whole picture beforehand. In a way, it’s better that we don’t see the whole picture. We would be too overwhelmed! All we need to see is our NEXT STEP. Being content with seeing only the next step is leaving our life in God’s hands. Someone shared with me recently: “I know that’s what I should do, but it’s so hard!” God will show us the next step. We just need to wait and listen. We will find God’s mercy. That is what prayer was for St. Macarius. He was an Egyptian monk (a ‘desert’ father). He chose the wilderness. He learned the essence of prayer in the wilderness.
Some brothers asked Macarius, ‘How should we pray?’ He said, ‘There is no need to talk much in prayer. Reach out your hands often, and say, “Lord have mercy on me, as you will and as you know.” But if conflict troubles you, say, “Lord, help me.” He knows what is best for us, and has mercy.’
God’s mercy is what softens us from our stiff-necked ways. When we experience God’s helping hand every step of the way, we will learn to depend on his mercy more and more. We will be able to navigate through any wilderness of our lives.