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Calf making

Our church just began a sermon series (likely a long one, since the intent is to preach through the whole book) on Exodus. It'll probably be months before we get here, but much of the political drumbeat in our congregation and elsewhere reminds me of nothing so much as the golden calf of Exodus 32.

Israel had been enslaved to Egypt. God heard their cries and called them out, striking their oppressors with ten plagues and destroying their pursuers after giving His people safe passage by parting a sea. Now that He'd saved them (important to note that the salvation came first), He wanted to tell them how to follow Him, bringing Moses up the mountain to meet with him while the rest of the nation stood below, waiting. God goes into tremendous detail with Moses on what following Him should look like, and in the meantime, those below grew frightened without their leader.

Their solution was straight out of the cultures around them: make gods to save us. Use the resources we have, our gold (Aaron's idea) and make something we can see, touch, and trust. No matter what we've seen Him do, this God who delivered us can't be trusted as much as something we make ourselves. No matter His mighty works in the past, only the certainty of our efforts can be trusted with the present.

In the minds of the desperate Israelites, their actions may not have even constituted a full turning away from God:
And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”

—Exodus 32:4-5
The word translated "Lord" was the Hebrew name for the God who had led them out—they'd attached His name to their worship of what they'd created. And as the next verse shows, the implementation of this homegrown salvation brings them peace.
And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.

—Exodus 32:6
The rest, as they say, is history (but history worth reading, with a few twists and turns that are at once surprising and uncomfortably familiar): God tells Moses of the people's sin and talks of destroying them (true righteous indignation). Moses intercedes on their behalf, not on the basis of their goodness but because of God's own glory. When he descends, his own anger overtakes him (also true righteous indignation) and he throws down the tablets on which God has written and destroys the idol. Afterward, Aaron gives a slanted, irresponsible account of his actions, and a cycle of judgment and mercy (shocking to our sensibilities) commences.

There's a ton to unpack in this account, but for now, it's the golden calf and the reasons behind its creation that have my attention. In so much of the political buzz, I fear the desire to craft our own salvation and how that might affect our decisions. For those not professing a trust in Jesus for their salvation, "vote your conscience" is sound civic advice consistent with being good neighbors in our shared nation. For those who do trust Him, not making a golden calf of our government and our role in it is far more important than what box we might check at the polls—this matters so much more than even the most important candidate or issue.

As our pastors were briefly fond of saying, "Please don't hear what I'm not saying." There's nothing inherently idolatrous about being politically interested and active. Indeed, our vote is an important duty. Neither was there anything inherently wrong with:
  • missing Moses and being concerned about his absence.
  • being frightened at the base of the mountain after being led out of freedom (and all things familiar) by an awesome and terrible God, who was up on that mountain.
  • gold.
  • making things.
Where they jumped the track was how they dealt with the uncertainty and what they did with their resources to try to make things more certain and lock down their salvation—even though, to this point, they'd clearly had nothing to do with saving themselves.

Christians are called to live as citizens of God's Kingdom in the here and now as well as through eternity. We're to be ambassadors of the King and represent His reign, which is already in effect. We're to be a blessing for others. It'd be misguided and outright silly to suggest that such a mission calls us to be aloof and inactive—we're called to the good works God has prepared in advance for us to do, and it's reasonable to conclude that means both activity and planning. But if we're more interested in the salvation we can bring about—politically or otherwise—than in the One who truly brings salvation and in being part of His people, then we're likely engaged in calf making (even in His name).

Only God and we know our own hearts, and we always less than He. When we're reluctant to search them with Him, their state is probably already revealed. Whether left, right, or center, our civic religion must never take precedence over the truth of the gospel. Not even during an election season.


This is a great post.

How does one effectively discern and differentiate passion for a candidate vs. calf-making in others? I've seen so many christians strongly imply or outright assert that the emotion and hope people are feeling over Obama means that hope for him is taking precedence over the truth of the gospel. Do you agree with that?

I can't speak to every situation or the state of everyone's hearts, but I do know that our hope, our trust, our faith must only find their home with our Lord. That's my personal belief.

Pray for, love, encourage others - hope in, love, trust Jesus.
I don't disagree with this. I do think there's lots of room in my heart for both. :) But Obama or McCain or a 3rd party candidate or anyone doesn't have the last word on what I'm hoping for, even what I believe they will usher in (good or bad). Only Jesus ushers in what is truly Good.

Don't you love Lee's posts. He should write a book.
I guess I mean that I don't want room for both in my heart. I only want to trust Jesus, hope in Jesus, put my faith in Jesus. I don't want to put it anywhere else, because I don't think there is anywhere or anyone else worthy of it. And I'm really tired of being disappointed, you know? I could do without that.

Lee is one-of-a-kind and I appreciate his insights and his heart.
Why can't we have both? Why can't we put our trust, faith and hope in our leaders while at the same time, acknowledging Jesus to be exactly who he is?
If I may be so bold to answer your question with a question (I feel like I should be postured like a waiter in a fancy restaurant when I said that):

Why do we need both? Why would we want to place our trust in someone/something that can fail us? Why place our hope or faith in something/someone that can fail us? Well, will fail us.

Jesus is who he is regardless of what I do. I only have the power to change who I am and how I come to him.

This is just how i believe, of course. It's also a reflection of where I am right now in my life. But honestly, I hope I stay here forever.

Why we need both is that we need to be able to go on auto-pilot with one another, but most of all, we need to trust that God is involved in appointing who He does to leadership.

Trusting someone doesn't mean we put our entire weight down upon them, but that we trust that she or he has been given the wisdom needed to lead in a particular way? This seems like a benefit of living in a democratic nation.

To suggest that we shouldn't trust people because they can fail us seems really unusual to me. It's like telling the military to not trust the field commander who is radioing directions in the midst of a battle. He could fail - he *could* be a bad guy - so best just to pray and plot our own course through the mess.

The suggestion that trusting other people - particularly leaders - that somehow there isn't room in our hearts to do both - is quite concerning to me.

I don't mean to say that I am distrustful of everyone - only trusting in God. But I do mean that I am not saying of anyone or anything: " You are worthy of my trust and I will not question this.". Auto-pilot hasn't worked well for me or for my friendships.

>>we need to trust that God is involved in appointing who He does to leadership.

This is a tricky statement. It implies that God is going to appoint who he wants regardless of what we do. He isn't. He doesn't do that. One look back into history tells us that this isn't so. Remember Saul? God didn't want that to happen. He didn't appoint Saul. Did he know it was going to happen. Sure. Did he want him as king? no way.

I trust that whoever is in office, God is still in control. I am not willing to say, "I trust this person to do right" or even "I trust this person to do their best". I do say that I trust God to still be God no matter who is in office. And that God will have his way in every way - it's just that his methods to acheive this may look differently depending on what we do.

Re: the field commander: Again, I'm not saying to be distrustful but rather to choose wisely where I place my trust. I mean, I trust that my car will start because there has been a history of this happening. But there is no weight placed on this trust. It is only that i trust it will happen, but not that any other part of my being/happiness/confidence/etc lays with that trust.

My heart belongs to jesus. That really is the end of it for me. Then, with that whole heart that only belongs to the only one with which it could ever be trusted, I can love other people. And that really is all god calls us to do for each other: love one another.
also, i may need to say that the force with which i'm stating this really is in direct relation to the force with which god is changing my heart. i may be coming off a bit strong with it. but maybe you could dig around my words and find my intent in this?

if not, eat a few more brussel sprouts and try again. they're like tiny brains.
Oh and I'm ready for my check and a lil decaf.

i don't know what this means.
On the first question, I think you really, really have to know a person to discern sin if it's not something that would be immediately apparent. And even then, I don't think one can be sure. Conviction of sin is the Holy Spirit's job, and discerning our hearts is something we do with him and in the context of the church (rather than a "Jesus and me"-only approach, which I don't believe is supported by Scripture).

So my question becomes (if you don't see this coming, I'll be surprised): Who are these Christians making these implications and assertions? Specifically, who are they to you (or to whomever they are directing their assertions and implications)?

That question has two major implications:
  1. Some people do need to be able to call us out on our sin and bullshit. Through our relationship with the church, we should have people in our lives who know us and know God intimately enough to be entrusted with being used by Him for our good, including calling us out on our sin. We need that—we've all found dozens of ways to hit the figurative snooze bar on God's voice, and our sin is rooted in ways we distrust God's faithfulness and/or goodness to us. Others who trust and follow Him need to see our lives clearly and deeply enough to call us away from sin and toward the truth. When I say "others," I don't mean every Christian—this an intimate kind of knowledge and trust that should normally be relationship-appropriate (indiscriminate spiritual intimacy is as nasty as indiscriminate physical intimacy). But if no one can do that, I submit that our passion may be suspect across the board, and if we're resistant to letting someone (or anyone) have the authority to call us out, I'd move the trustworthiness of our passion from "suspect" to "highly suspect." Even a stopped clock is right twice daily, but it'd be foolish to suggest that it's working as it should.
  2. Being a Christian doesn't make us subject to everyone else's opinion, nor does it mean everyone should be subject to ours. Since the Holy Spirit is the One who convicts believers of sin, we don't need to be polling other believers for approval ratings of our convictions, nor are we called to spout our own opinions to every other Christian (or non-Chistian). The over-expression of opinion is an absolute cancer, and it's making us hate one another, often because we're trying to save ourselves (bad idea) and save each other (bad idea).
So the bottom line is that we each must be answerable to our Master. The Christian I don't know has to answer Him in the context of their relationship with Him. I, in turn, am not answerable alone to Him, but rather in the context of the church, of the people of God that He's placed me in. If there's no communal aspect to my relationship with Him, then I'm shutting Him out, because that's how He said He's choosing to work in us.

Part of answering to Him is being among His people, and they do get to speak into my life. I also must be willing to speak into theirs. If this is happening, I don't really have to listen to the rest. And obviously, there must be love, forgiveness, grace, and humility in an abundance only He can offer for this to be possible. You'd almost think that was part of His plan or something.

(More on the rest in a comment or more soon to come—I just wanted to address the first question first, which, as far as I'm concerned, has very little to do with politics at all once it's examined a bit.)
So my question becomes (if you don't see this coming, I'll be surprised): Who are these Christians making these implications and assertions? Specifically, who are they to you (or to whomever they are directing their assertions and implications)?>>>

Well, some have been on my friends list. Not people I've known well, but from their posts they strongly imply that emotion for Obama - trust and hope in him - means that Jesus is diminished. Which has been both hurtful and surprising.

Some are people I don't know at all but read online, friends of friends on my list, and other forums. And lastly, people in my life who have actually suggested that they actually can draw some fairly strong conclusions based on a few utterances and a few posts.

People's opinions of us (and opinions of our opinions…no wonder so many of us are going nuts) have an effect that's proportional for who we need them to be in our lives and how we want to be seen and understood by them. Honestly (this is just my own opinion, and I want to own it as such), I don't think internet opinion/discussion/debate/relationship should count for much. When it does, I wonder if something is out of alignment or proportion and what it would take to get things into a more grounded place. I know you're not saying it's all internet stuff, but since lately I'm tuned in to how that's been severely miscoloring my view of reality and the people in it, I've got some sensitivity there. Here on the 'net we respond to pieces as if they're wholes. And the wholeness of anyone really doesn't belong here, in my opinion.

But neither do I want to let people who are being jerks off the hook for their actions and reactions. That kind of crap just sucks and I'm sorry you're experiencing it.

I hope you won't let people who aren't close to your heart get close to your heart with these statements—whether they happen to be Christians or not. They haven't earned it and they can't be trusted to work for your good there (regardless of their intent) unless they really are close to both you and God. But we all do need someone(s) there, and I believe (on good authority) they need to be fellow believers in Jesus who know you intimately enough to give commentary. No one else understands what kind of house He's building in your heart or trusts His authority and goodness as its Architect and Builder.
Being a Christian doesn't make us subject to everyone else's opinion, nor does it mean everyone should be subject to ours.>>>

I'm not sure that I agree with the first part of this sentence entirely. I remember as a Catholic during the pedophile scandals, how so many people demanded me to *speak out* against the priests who abused children. I didn't want to associate with *that* part of my church, because it had nothing to do with me, nor did I feel accountable to the evangelical christians who were using it as a means to justify their own bigotry regarding Catholicism. Slowly, I realized that it did, that I did need to address their opinion. I don't get to be just about one aspect of Catholicism - to many people, if I choose to be a part of it, I represent all of it. It was important that I speak up and out against it, and doing so felt like I was betraying the whole of the church. But looking back, I'm really glad I did that, I'm glad I listened to the opinions of those atheists and "recovering catholics" that were vocal about my silence.

Peoples' opinions of us *not* being that can often be 100% their own stuff, filtering the light out, so that's where I agree with you. But I do believe we are on a stage and that we have critics that are offering fair and valid reviews. We are the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the light on a hill. I believe it's way more than christians who get to speak into my life.

The over-expression of opinion is an absolute cancer, and it's making us hate one another, often because we're trying to save ourselves (bad idea) and save each other (bad idea)..>>

This feels really right to me, it's one of the most favorite parts of this post. The problem as I see it is that the only thing we have outside of our opinion is what we believe together. And more and more, I'm realizing that a ton of us believe very different things.
I hear you, but I'm wondering if you may have read my statement differently than I intended when writing it. In "Being Christians doesn't make us subject to everyone else's opinion" the "everyone else" isn't intended to mean non-Christians—it's everyone. I think there's this idea that's especially pervasive among Christians that our faith means we have to run around responding to the opinions of anyone and everyone, Christian and non. That's craziness. How can anyone live like that and not be crazy? Jesus didn't live that way.

What we do need are those people who are following Jesus with us who can check us. Again, it's pretty common not to have that. So we have a bunch of Christians running around, responding to and dishing out all kinds of opinions, with no one letting themselves be known by, loved by, or answerable to anyone. No wonder we're neurotic, tired, mistrustful, and all the rest. That's no way to live.
This frames this much better for me. (I love these posts, but I also hope it's OK that I'm pushing back, I don't take what you say lightly so that is why I do this).

I loved loved loved this, it's actually quite helpful:
I think there's this idea that's especially pervasive among Christians that our faith means we have to run around responding to the opinions of anyone and everyone, Christian and non. That's craziness. How can anyone live like that and not be crazy? Jesus didn't live that way.

This is quite ironic that I'm asking your opinion on this, but I am anyway. Do you believe people who aren't following Jesus can check us? Do you think God can use them to check us?

I don't think they're the church. They're lots of other things, and God uses them (and us for them, yadda yadda…). But they aren't the church. Accept no substitutes.
This is where you and I disagree. Going back to my Catholic church example. It was those outside of the church that demanded accountability, while many in it demanded that the image of the church be protected at all costs, and saw my decision to not give money anymore or to say "This is an absolute act of spiritual abuse that needs immediate repair." as a betrayal. In that case, it was those outside of the Church who were more tuned in to the truth than those inside of it.

It's my experience lately that those in the Church are pretty focused on defending her instead of listening to our critics and honestly asking ourselves if they're right.
We may disagree (though not too much, I'd wager)—I just don't see an alternate body and bride of Christ in Scripture. It doesn't mean that there are no other helpful viewpoints, but there's no other body and bride. Nothing else can step in and fill that space, and if we put anything else there, that's idolatry.

Others can check us, yes, absolutely. But they can't be who the church is to be for us as Christians. We can't stop needing the church, and we can't love Jesus without loving His church (it's never offered as an option). Loving His church may mean being one who calls it on its abuses as you did—that's an act that can absolutely be motivated by and done in love. And as long as the church, in some form or fashion, can also call you to account, that's the glorious mess God has ordained us to be in.

I say this over and over: The miracle of the Gospel is that, in Christ, God has forgiven and redeemed the church. Not just Joe and Jane as individuals, but an entire people who are sinful and broken both individually and corporately. If it would take a miracle to trust that God is at work in and through His church, then that miracle has already been accomplished, and God is all the more glorious for it.
lee, i'm literally tearing up.
Aw...now you're gonna make me weepy. I think I forget how amazing and wonderful that really is because I'm soaking in it (personally and professionally) all the time. It's so good to be reminded. I need the reminders to stop taking so much of God's grace to me for granted.
Have you heard Derek Webb's song "The Church"? Perfect partner to this comment of yours.
Yeah, it's hard (other than Scripture itself) to put it better than Webb does. Interestingly, he came up again today, so I posted a link (among others).
So on the second question (my answer obviously must be very informed by my response to the first one): I know very few people well enough to make that kind of implication or assertion with any level of certainty. The danger of idolatry is there, of course, so it's a legitimate and open question, but I think it must and should remain open. The desire to close it—in the negative or the affirmative—is troublesome to me. If I am in Christ, who can condemn me? If someone else is, doesn't the Holy Spirit have the first and last word in convicting them of sin? I'm all for raising the question of idolatry with any and all Christians (even in this "broadcast" format), but the context of really wrestling with that question belongs in my relationships with God and within the church—not just with anyone and everyone who may cross my path.

Being excited about a politician or politics in general isn't idolatry. Leaning on him/her/it to save us is. There's plenty of guilt to go around for that, I think, and neither the left nor the right has cornered the market.

Here's another test (I'm just trying this on for now, so I don't know how it'll hold up or that I even agree with myself on it): Am I willing to sin to pursue my goal/good thing? If so, it's probably an idol, isn't it? Indeed, Christianity for its own sake has often failed that test.

The relationship this culture has with hope, however, is fascinating to me in new ways since Obama branded it in his campaign. Now that it's OK and even noble to hope, might people be more open to hearing the reasons for the hope that we have as Christians? That would be exciting…
What does "leaning on him to save us" look like specifically?
That's what only you (or I, or anyone) and God know for sure. And actually, probably only God. As Obama said, that answer is above my pay grade, but it's a great question for God. Sin isn't about breaking a rule so much as it's serving a master other than God (that's from this morning's sermon; I can't take credit).

Praying about that second test might help, too: What am I willing to do to pursue a thing? How much of my time/thought/energy/devotion/etc. does it get? How does that compare with what I give God and His people? I don't mean to suggest that anyone has (or has ever had) this down, but our failings aren't an excuse to keep an idol in our hearts. If God exposes one, we have to trust that He can and will fill the space it was occupying. That's really hard, because it probably got there because we didn't trust Him to do that in the first place.
This is an excellent post. I keep feeling like so many people get so caught up in elections, and I just want to shake them and be like, you know, if the other candidate wins- God is still in control! Like you, I'm not for abandoning our civic duties, I just don't want us to forget where Salvation truly lies- and, as Derek Webb so aptly put it, we'll never have a savior on Capitol Hill.
Exactly! I agree with you, and Derek, and God, and everyone else who shares that viewpoint. And I totally get the importance-bordering-on-obsession for non-Christians—to them, this may really seem like the best shot we have at a savior. But for us, the context is completely different, yet we forget to act like His people. Good thing being His people isn't based on our remembering, or on anything we do.
You are the only person whose post I mail out to other people. Just thought you should know that.. because this one's getting sent out today.
Wow, I'm honored…and I'd better be careful!
And what's been said in the comments (by you) has made me all weepy. I've been getting this way when ANYONE says ANYTHING in support of communal church existence. I was beginning to believe that no one wanted to support it anymore.
well said, thank you so very much...
i love when you post. thank you.
If my posts are always this long, it's no wonder I don't do it more often. Everyone probably needs a post-reading nap. Well, I do, anyway.
You're welcome—honestly, I feel scattered and uncertain about all the implications I wrote about here (hence the length and rambling), but I had to write to work it all out somewhere slightly outside my own head, and it forced me to think a lot harder about it all to translate it into words. Glad it's readable by someone other than me!
Good post and comments. I love discussions like these, and only wish we had them more in the church. I also like the line from Derek Webb, where he wrote about where his first allegiance lies, and that is "to a King and a Kingdom". Anything coming before that will never do.
He's been getting some good buzz on that; I posted a link to his reoffer of Mockingbird today.

The church is so much more important than a politician, election, or nation. She will abide as His Bride when those other things pass.
You said "unpack".
I'm so emergent it hurts.