Stiff-necked and stubborn

Have you ever tried to reason with someone who just didn’t want to listen? You know the frustration. Their mind is made up, and they don’t want to be bothered with the facts. At least, your facts. It’s like talking to a brick wall, hard and unmovable. Your words just bounce off.

Usually, though, it’s not just that one person is reasonable and blameless, while the other is unreasonable and blameworthy. We may think we’re the calm and rational one. But something we’re saying or doing may feel threatening to the other person, even if we’re not aware of it. If we want them to drop their defenses, we need to be patient and speak the truth lovingly.

Even then, we may not be able to break through.

Relationships. They’re complicated.

Even when God is the one who’s trying to break through.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin included a retelling of Israel’s history, including the disastrous episode of the Golden Calf (Exod 32).

Because of the people’s disobedience, Moses angrily smashed the original stone tablets he had received from God. God wanted to destroy the people, but relented when Moses reasoned with him (Exod 32:11-14). Later, when it was time for the people to break camp and move on, God threatened to not go with them, lest he destroy them along the way for their stiff-necked stubbornness (33:3-4). But again, God relented when Moses interceded for the people.

Apparently, God was willing to listen.

Even if the people weren’t.

God called Moses back up the mountain. He gave Moses a glimpse of his glory and replaced the broken tablets. Moses admitted how stiff-necked the people were (Exod 34:9) and asked for God’s forgiveness and favor. In response, God renewed his covenant promise.

Years later, Moses told the story again as he prepared the people to enter the Promised Land. God listened to me, Moses said, and didn’t destroy you. Then he told me to lead you to the land he had promised to our ancestors.

So what did God want in return for all that he had already done for them, for all that he was about to do? Moses told them:

So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. (Deut 10:12-16, NRSV) 

“Fear the Lord your God.” As we’ve seen recently with the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a righteous, powerful, and holy God is not to be trifled with. The God who can part the sea and destroy armies is rightly to be feared.

But that fear goes hand in hand with love.

Listen to how Moses says it: Everything in heaven and earth belongs to God, but he set his heart on youStop being stiff-necked! Don’t bank on the kind of circumcision that’s only an external ritual. Circumcise your hearts in loving devotion and obedience: that’s what God really wants.

Surely, the members of the Sanhedrin already knew all this.

But that’s why Stephen’s final words cut them to the quick:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it. (Acts 7:51-53)

All the worst things about Israel’s history? That’s you, Stephen says.

We’ll take a closer look at his accusations in the next post.