In the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” Toula, thirty-something daughter of Greek parents, wants to go to travel agent school but knows her father won’t like it. Enlisting her mother’s help, Toula complains, “Ma, Dad is so stubborn. What he says goes. ‘Ah, the man is the head of the house!’” In response, her mother leans in close and says, “Let me tell you something, Toula. The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.”[i]
Whatever your opinion of the gender dynamics pictured here, let this little interchange draw your attention to a body part we might take for granted—our necks. Necks are marvelous, if you think about it. They have the flexibility to turn our heads almost any direction. We’re not owls, of course, able to turn our necks 180 degrees, but we can usually turn and look over a shoulder to see what’s behind us, helpful when backing a car out of a driveway! Take a few seconds and try out your own neck this morning. Is it feeling flexible? Can you turn to look at the people sitting on either side of you, maybe, or behind you?
No doubt Toula’s mother was also aware how the neck is not only the conduit of vital breath and nourishment, but in a way it also acts as the bridge between the head and the heart, between our inner life and its external expression. The neck is like a telephone switchboard by which our brains communicate with the rest of our bodies, making connections between ingoing and outgoing calls, a “mediator” between “feelings and thoughts, impulses and reactions.”[ii]
Trouble comes when the neck’s lines of communication get overloaded; tension and lack of flexibility result. Maybe we’ve literally been carrying something too heavy, or maybe we’ve suffered whiplash, emotional and spiritual stress can also lodge in our bodies. A build-up of anxiety or the feeling overburdened might lead to the painful lack of flexibility most of us have experienced at some point: a stiff neck.
“This is a stiff-necked people,” Moses says in Exodus 34. That phrase that first came into the conversation between God and Moses a couple of chapters earlier, when Moses’ first 40-day sojourn on Mt. Sinai—also called Horeb—ends in disaster. The people of Israel have sinned against God. They have broken the covenant God established with them, asking Aaron to make a golden calf, which they worshipped in place of God. God tells Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.” It’s not so much a medical as a spiritual diagnosis he’s making, and it certainly isn’t a compliment!
The words “stiff-necked” translate a Hebrew a figure-of-speech derived from oxen that refuse to be led in plowing a field. An ox with a stiff or hard neck could not be turned or guided in the necessary direction. To call the people “stiff-necked” is to say they have a stubborn spirit, unresponsive to God’s guidance.[iii]
Now, there’s no doubt that what they’ve done is awful. But I can’t help but feel some sympathy for the people of Israel. Some of us get stiff necks from one night tossing and turning on a hotel bed; these folks have been taken quite a bit further from the familiar. For four hundred years, the parameters of their lives were dictated by Egyptian slave masters. Now, encamped at the foot of a desert mountain, their leader has begun teaching them new ways to live in relationship with God and one another, but then he disappeared into a “devouring fire” on the mountain. Will he ever come back?
In their place, I’d be feeling the neck pain of unbearable anxiety. And what remedy could they find for it in this unknown place? Vast promises of a future they can barely imagine are little comfort. They need something tangible to focus upon, something to give them a sense of control. So they turn away from waiting on an untamable and unpredictable God, by “defaulting” into the habits and practices of Egypt, the kind of “do-it-yourself” religion of the ancient world, offering prayers and sacrifices to appease the whims of capricious gods.[iv]
Sometimes, when I have a stiff neck, if I’m patient, the problem will resolve itself. Other times, I try everything I can think of to fix it myself. Maybe if I stretch it this way or that way, the kinks will work themselves out. Should I put hot or cold on it? (I try both). Maybe I take a pain-reliever, then try to massage the spot for myself, so that, soon, I also have a stiff shoulder and arm!
Eventually, I discover that I just can’t help myself. I need someone else, a chiropractor or physical therapist, to help me return to normal flexibility and maybe even teach my body new ways to hold and release the stress which caused the pain.
In yoga class, it occurred to me that we might name such a person an “inter-stretcher.” I’m playing on the word “intercessor” here, someone who negotiates between two parties who might otherwise be unable to communicate.[v] In the case of a spiritually stiff neck, I think the remedy is an “inter-stretcher,” someone to helps us stretch through and beyond the fear and insecurities which lock us up so that we can respond with flexibility and turn and follow the leading of the Spirit of God.
The good news for Israel is that they have such an inter-stretcher. Before he comes down to deal with the golden calf, Moses intercedes for the people with God, such that God relents from destroying the people and starting over with Moses. But now, while God says he will keep his promise to send an angel before them to the Promised Land, God’s presence will no longer go with the people and dwell in their midst. Yet, Moses knows it will not suffice for God to be merely “for” them,
God must also go “with” them. The ways of slavery are so entrenched in people, they cannot imagine the new life God is promising them.[vi] To move through their fear and embrace the habits and practices of God’s chosen people, blessed to be a blessing, to learn to trust and be shaped by God’s purposes, they will need a constant sense of God’s presence dwelling with them. Without God’s presence, there will be no distinction between Israel and any other nation.
Moses returns to God, again interceding for the people, first offering himself to atone for the people’s mistakes. God does not accept that offer, but is open to dialogue. Remarkably, Moses just keeps at it, reasoning and petitioning. His work as inter-stretcher, it seems, is not only to help Israel move through their stiff-necked resistance to God’s purposes, but also to help God stretch God’s mercy beyond all expectations.
Anyone who’s ever wondered if their prayers really mean anything ought to pay attention here. God is not offended but responds positively to Moses’ persistence; God has entered into an intimate relationship with Moses in which this kind of dialogue is welcomed,[vii] and God takes what Moses says very seriously.
So it turns out, even more remarkably, that the true remedy for a stiff-necked people is a God who is anything but stiff-necked himself! In ongoing relationship with people like Israel and people like us, people who are often frozen in fearful resistance, God reveals himself to be open to change which makes a new way for us and for the world. This may seem to contradict traditional notions of God as unchangeable. But, as scholar Terrence Fretheim notes, “It is this openness to change that reveals what it is about God that is unchangeable: God’s steadfastness has to do with God’s love; God’s faithfulness has to do with God’s promises; God’s will is for the salvation of all. God will always act, even make changes, in order to be true to these unchangeable ways and to accomplish these unchangeable goals.”[viii]
Ultimately, God changes God’s mind again, and agrees to be present with the journeying people, even proving that willingness to Moses. Moses comes back up the mountain for a second 40-days,and nestled in a cleft of rock, God covers Moses’ eyes with God’s hand passing before him that Moses can see, not God’s full glory, which would kill him, but God’s goodness, summed up in the proclamation of God’s name:
‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,yet by no means clearing the guilty,but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’
This is a seminal moment in Moses’ journey, and in ours: the God who delivers people from slavery, the God we so grievously disappoint in our stiff-necked stumbling, is a God so good that he freely wills to change rather than forsake the people he has chosen.
This God is untamable and unpredictable, worthy of awestruck worship and obedient regard; but this God is never malicious or capricious, only faithful and forgiving, characterized most completely by his freely given, steadfast love.
God takes relationship with us with terrible seriousness, desiring for us the fullness of life in covenant with him. When we break that covenant, God steps in again and again to make us right with him. And we here know just how far God is ultimately willing to stretch to be with and for us on our life’s journey. God is willing to stretch all the way from heaven to earth, to be with and for us in Jesus Christ, boldly stretching out God’s mercy with God’s own arms on the cross.
The Lenten call is to return, to turn our heads back from whatever way we’ve gotten disoriented, to face our loving Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. The good news is that, even when we cannot make that turning, when our necks have stiffened up with anxiety, despair, or just plain lack of imagination, when the bridge between our heads and our hearts is broken, God turns toward us and makes a new covenant in Jesus Christ, stretching with and for us and making for us a way through the pain.
Friends, let us now receive with humble gratitude God’s loving “inter-stretching” in Jesus Christ, that we may move through and beyond our stiff-necked stasis, and turn our heads to face with courage the road God is leading us to walk. Let us, in turn, stretch out our own arms with and for all the others we encounter, people in need of God’s gracious love all along our journeys. Amen.
[ii] Ken Dychtwald, Bodymind, New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1970, 189.
[iv] Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994, 257.
[vi] Alan J. Roxburg and M. Scott Boren, Introducing the Missional Church, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009, 116-118.
[vii] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus. Interpretation Series. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990, 285.
[viii] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus. Interpretation Series. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990, 287.