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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.
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 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…
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!
well said, thank you so very much...
i love when you post. thank you.
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.