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Imperfect Pastors / Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 32:1-14

    7And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them.

I don’t mean to shock you with this revelation first thing in the morning, but there’s no such thing as the perfect pastor. And in the words of one of you, there are no perfect members of Bethel Lutheran Church. Much as I hate to admit it, we all have room for improvement. That’s why every pastor needs leaders who will hold them accountable. Most pastors are grateful for honest, constructive criticism. But, like any leader, sometimes pastors get less-than-helpful feedback from their people.

People complain about their pastors and sometimes those complaints are bonkers. I found a list of some of the more unusual complaints people have brought to their pastors:

“I don’t like the brand of donuts.”

“Our expensive coffee is attracting too many hipsters.”

“You need to change your voice.”

“Your socks are distracting.”

“We need to start attracting more normal people at church.”

“Did you see me waving in the back of the worship center? You preached too long. It was time to eat!”

And my personal favorite. . .

“Not enough people signed up for the church golf tournament. You have poor leadership skills.”

One day, technology may solve the problem of imperfect pastors. In fact, it may become a reality sooner than we think This year, there was a major religious convention in Germany at which the sermon was delivered by a digital avatar powered by artificial intelligence.

Every two years, there’s a convention of Protestant clergy and lay people in Germany that attracts tens of thousands of people. At the convention this year, an artificial intelligence chatbot, preached a sermon on “leaving the past behind, focusing on the challenges of the present, overcoming fear of death, and never losing trust in Jesus Christ.” According to one of the attendees, the chatbot delivered “a pretty solid church service.”

One woman who attended the service wasn’t pleased, claiming there was no heart or soul. A young Lutheran pastor who brought his youth group said he was surprised how well it worked. But he also said there wasn’t any sense of emotion or spirituality. A woman who studies ethics in technology said she thinks artificial intelligence could be used to bring religious services to people who couldn’t otherwise access them. As if livestreaming isn’t enough. However, she said, the challenge that I see is that AI is very human-like and that it’s easy to be deceived by it.

The man behind the chatbot pastor, says it wasn’t his intention to replace pastors, but to show them how to use technology to be more productive. For instance, he envisions a day when pastors regularly use artificial intelligence to help them write their sermons. But he doesn’t see technology replacing spiritual leaders anytime soon. As he said, the pastor is in the congregation, lives with them, buries them, knows them from the beginning. Artificial intelligence can’t do that. It doesn’t know the congregation.

And I’d like to add one more concern to this list: artificial intelligence doesn’t know God. It doesn’t have the Spirit of God guiding and shaping it. No matter how well-organized or relevant its message might be, a chatbot has never wrestled with its faith. Does that matter? So long as it says the “right things” about God, does it matter if the chatbot has never experienced God?

This article on the chatbot pastor made me think of our Bible passage today from Exodus 32. Last week, we looked at Exodus 20, the story of God giving the Ten Commandments through Moses. After delivering the Ten Commandments, Moses went back up on the mountain to receive more of God’s Law for the people. And in this absence of leadership, the people got restless and took matters into their own hands. Our passage reads, when the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.

And that brings me to the first thing I got from this passage: Sin is always the result of choosing a shallow substitute for God or God’s will. The problem started back in Exodus 20, the passage we studied last week. The people saw the thunder and lightning on the mountain where Moses spoke to God, and they were afraid and “stood at a distance.” They told Moses to tell them what God had said, but do not let God speak to us, or we will die. (vs. 19). Moses told the people not to be afraid, but verse 21 reads, And the people stood at a distance as Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

We’re not so different, are we? We like the idea of spirituality, but we don’t like the idea of God. We’re afraid of an actual encounter with God because an encounter with God will change us. It’ll change our priorities. Our relationships. Our agenda. God asks hard things of His people. Who needs that?

It’s so much easier and quicker to make gods we can control, gods that fulfill our agenda. The Israelites had no hesitations about worshiping the golden calf because they’d never had an actual encounter with God. That means they had no foundation of faith to sustain them when they were stuck in a time of waiting, uncertainty, or fear.

Have you ever visited Disney Studios, the movie studio who made movies like Flight of the Navigator, Honey, I shrunk the Kids? You can ride a tram through the movie lots and see the sets from famous movies. Although the sets look realistic and sturdy, most of them are just facades, lightweight, external front pieces with no actual building behind them. They have an impressive appearance, but no lasting substance.

The point is that many Christians are like those movie lots. They may go through the motions of attending church, but they have no relationship with God. There’s no reverence for God, no relationship with God, and no responsibility to God. There’s no solid foundation of faith.

Sadly, when we choose a shallow substitute for God or for God’s will, we throw away blessings that God intended for us.

Notice that Aaron agreed to the Israelites plan, even convincing them to give up their gold earrings in order to make the idol they would worship in the place of God. In Exodus 12, God placed in the minds of the Egyptian people a fear of the Israelite God. When the Israelites left Egypt, the Egyptian people gave them items of gold and silver to help pay for their new life as free people. So, the gold earrings the Israelites gave up represented God’s goodness to them in the past and God’s provision for them in the future. They also threw away God’s blessings when they chose a shallow substitute for God.

Remember the 13-year-old boy who got stuck inside a claw machine, and medical personnel had to unlock the machine to set him free. How did a 13-year-old boy get stuck inside one of these machines? He was trying to steal a prize. He didn’t want to pay to play. He didn’t want to put any effort into getting the prize. He just wanted the prize. And he ended up trapped in a situation of his own making.

The good news is God is merciful and will restore our relationship if we turn back to Him. Because of His people’s idolatry and sin, God told Moses that He would destroy them. And Moses pleaded for mercy for the Israelites, not because they deserved it, but because of God’s character and God’s promises. God had made a covenant relationship with them, and God is always faithful to His promises.

So how do we give up our fake substitutes for God and find the relationship God made us for? There are three steps to conversion: repentance, faith and new birth. Repentance is turning away from our former life. Faith is turning towards God. And new birth means becoming a child of God, which will cause us to “love the good (we) once hated and hate the sin (we) once loved.” Repentance is always the first step.

The call to repent is a message we all need to hear. God desires that we come to repentance, not to control us with His law, but to comfort us with His grace. God wants us to come to Him in sincere repentance so that He can come to us with the forgiveness His Son came to win on the cross, and the promise of eternal life that His Son came to win by His resurrection.

That’s been God’s plan since the beginning of creation: to lead us from slavery to sin and death into the freedom of eternal life with Him through the merciful sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. When we repent and turn back to God, we receive the fullness of God’s character and promises, God’s mercy and grace. And there’s no substitute in the world that can compare to the joy of knowing and serving God.

We can spend our lives in church and still not know the God who created us in His image, the God who loves us with an everlasting love, the God who gave His own life to save us and restore us to Him. There are plenty of shallow substitutes we can choose to give us some sense of control or happiness or security. But when fear or trouble comes, those substitutes will reveal what they really are, empty facades. We will only find abundant and eternal life in our relationship with the one true God.