For the Lord had said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, and I will decide what to do to you.’”
Exodus 33:5 (NRSVCE)
One of the ironies of this period of COVID-19 pandemic is that everyone has been stuck inside with nothing to do, but because the quarantine includes actors, crews, studios, and production companies there’s been nothing new to watch on television! So, Wendy and I have been extra excited to have new episodes of Yellowstone airing the past three weeks.
If you haven’t watched Yellowstone, it’s about the patriarch of the largest ranch in the United States that also happens to be some of the most valuable and sought after land in the world. Kevin Costner plays the widowed, wealthy, and powerfully connected rancher John Dutton who struggles to control his dysfunctional family and protect his ranch from a host of enemies who want to take him down and get their hands on his land. Wendy and I have both observed that it’s a lot like a modern-day Godfather, but rather than Italian mobsters in New York it’s cowboys in Montana.
One of the subtle, recurring themes in the show is that of wild horses that need to be broken. In the first season, we’re introduced to Jimmy, a drug-addicted, two-strike loser going nowhere. As a favor to Jimmy’s grandfather, Dutton takes Jimmy on as a ranch-hand. In an iconic moment, Jimmy is tied and duct-taped onto a wild horse that no one else could break. All-day long Jimmy is bucked, spun, and tossed on the back of the horse. By the end of the day, the horse is finally broken, and so is Jimmy.
Today’s chapter is a sequel to yesterday’s story of the Hebrew people abandoning Moses, and the God of Moses, by making an idol for themselves and reverting to their old ways. In response, God calls the people “stiff-necked” (other English translations and paraphrases use words like “stubborn’ or “willful”). One commentator I read stated that the imagery of the original Hebrew word was an ox, bull, or another animal that was unbroken and wouldn’t yield to being yoked. I couldn’t help but think of poor Jimmy duct-taped to that horse.
One of the things I’ve observed in certain human beings is an unbroken spirit. I recall Wendy sitting with a toddler who was determined to climb up our bookcase at the lake which, of course, would have been a dangerous thing to do. The little one had revealed a habit of willfully proceeding whenever an adult said “No.” Wendy sat there and repeatedly pulled the child’s hand and foot off of the bookcase over, and over, and over again as she gently and firmly repeated: “No.” I remember Wendy explaining to the child that she would sit there all day and repeat the process until the child understood. The child cried, wailed, and threw a tantrum in frustration as Wendy calmly continued to deny the toddler’s willful, stiff-necked desire.
Of course, adults can be simply grown-ups who are stuck in childish patterns of thought and behavior. One of the most fascinating things about the story of the early Jesus movement is the transformation in the strong-willed, stiff-necked followers such as Peter, Paul, and John. With each one there was a process involved in the spiritual transformation that included moments of their strong-wills being broken and their spirits humbled as they learned what Jesus meant when He said things like “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” and “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.”
In the quiet this morning I am looking back on my nearly 40 years as a follower of Jesus. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs. Life has tossed me around a time or two. Some stretches of the journey felt like I was spinning in place. But I’ve come to realize that the spiritual journey is just me being poor Jimmy on that horse. I’ve found God to be a lot like Wendy at that bookcase repeatedly and gently telling a childish, stiff-necked Tommy “No.” The breaking of my will is a prerequisite for discovering God’s.