Authority, Divine or Otherwise

Read Psalm 91 to start. Then open in prayer.

1 He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say of the LORD, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. 3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. 4 He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler. 5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; 6 Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. 7 A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee. 8 Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked. 9 Because thou hast made the LORD, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; 10 There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. 11 For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. 12 They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. 13 Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet. 14 Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name. 15 He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him. 16 With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.

The passage we just read is actually one of my favourite Psalms. I’m not doing a study on that Psalm today, but we are going to reference part of it in a few minutes. But right now, I have question to ask. Have you ever heard the term confirmation bias? It’s something we all experience, but may not realize it. When we encounter new information, we tend to use it to confirm what we already think. What’s more, confirmation bias says that we are a lot more likely to listen to answers that we already agree with or expect. We hear what we want to hear. We interpret things to agree with us, and we generally want to hear voices that agree with us. This is a common and normal thing, we generally don’t like to be challenged about what we think, what we believe.

I don’t watch American TV news channels, but they provide an easy example of this. There are several US news channels, and depending on where you fall on the political spectrum, you might find one channel agreeable, and another channel, not so much. If you agree with most of the commentators, you’ll want to watch that channel, and if you don’t agree with them, well, you’ll probably switch to a different channel. We like listen to voices that agree with us.

We do this with people as well. Do you spend most of your social time with people who have wildly different views and opinions than your own? Or, rather, do you socialize with those who have similar interests, and similar opinions, or at least they aren’t particular vocal about the things that are different? Given the choice, who are you going to spend more time with?

Now, we might not always have the choice about who we spend time with. At work and at school we might be grouped with those with whom we do not agree. At work places in particular there is often a wide mix of people from many different backgrounds. But confirmation bias is perhaps even more prevalent in work situations. We’ve probably all had a boss or a supervisor who did not like it when someone disagreed with him. A good boss should listen to dissenting opinions, because maybe he’s wrong, maybe there’s a better solution to a problem, maybe there’s a new approach. Quite often, though, once the boss has made up his mind, he does not want to rethink things. That’s why in many organizations there are people who are referred to as ‘yes men’, people who will agree with whatever the person in charge wants, regardless of how prudent or how foolish it might be. Not-so-good bosses will surround themselves with such people, because of confirmation bias. They want to hear voices that agree with them.

Here’s an example from a famous comedian. I’ll not share his name, but this particular comedian once said, on the topic of helping men understand women, that women do not want to hear what men think. They want to hear what they think, but in a deeper voice.

Yes, that’s supposed to be a joke, and I hope I haven’t offended half the people here. Let me say that while I don’t necessarily agree with that statement, like most jokes there is a kernel of truth there. That being said, I think that it doesn’t apply just to women. Confirmation bias applies to everyone. In general, people want to hear what they already think. What’s more, they would like to hear it in a deeper voice, a voice that conveys authority.

There’s nothing like authority to give credence to what we think, what we believe. That only makes sense. After all, if you are sick, whose authority do you want to trust, whose advice do you want to take, in order to get better? If you are sick, you consult a doctor. That’s someone who is an authority on medical questions. I’m not going to ask a random person at the grocery store if I should start taking a new medication, for example. I’m going to trust the doctor’s authority about that sort of thing.

That’s why people seem to put a lot of stock in what God has said, or more commonly, in what it is claimed that God has said. After all, how much deeper and more authoritative a voice can you get than the very voice of God? If God agrees with what you already believe, then it must be correct.

Of course, not everyone believes in God. Many people don’t, but they are hardly immune from confirmation bias. And they are likewise ready to appeal to authority in order to support what they do believe. It’s not limited to those who believe in the divine, it works perfectly fine for atheists, too. If you don’t believe in God, well, then go with science as your authority. Science says this, science says that. Science says a lot of things.  How often have you heard that particular phrase thrown out there, “Science says” or the ever popular “You can’t argue with science,” as if science is some sort of vault of understanding and truth that you can plug in a question and get out a clean and simple answer.

I don’t have a problem with science. There are many out there who would suggest that if you believe in God then you don’t believe in science, but that is not the case. Science is the systematic study and organization of knowledge about how the natural world operates through experimentation and observation. Science is about knowing and understanding.

People can, and often do, use science to further their own confirmation bias. You can find studies that say the world is warming up. You can find studies that say that it isn’t. You can look at evidence and see what you want to see, to support what you already believe. That’s not my topic this morning, however. This morning I’d like to look at God’s authority, and how people misinterpret, misunderstand, and frankly, how they abuse that.

People like to have authority on their side. We like to think that we are right, that we have made correct assumptions and have chosen wisely. And so we look for authority to back us up, to support and confirm our choices, our ideas, our manner of life. The thing is, authority does not necessarily agree with us. As much as we might like to think that authority has to support us, has to agree with us, because we assume that we are right, that is not really the case. Authority remains the same. Our interpretation can change, but the authority is not compelled to follow our lead. It’s not really authority if it does.

And there is no point in arguing with authority, not real authority. I can believe all I want to that I can fly, but if I step off this platform here, the force of gravity is going to bring me down to the floor immediately. That’s not an authority you can argue with. You can deny the authority all you want, but it doesn’t change a thing. I walk off the front of this platform, I’m dropping down the six or eight inches to the floor every single time.

If you can’t argue with gravity, nor can you argue with the creator of the universe. Well, you can argue all you want, but God is certainly not obligated to agree with you. Even if you think you are following the way He has set out, even then, God is not required to be behind your actions. People would like to think so, and quite often do, even when they are sorely mistaken.

It happens all the time that people pull snippets of scripture out of context and use them to back up whatever they would like to believe. For example, it’s nice to think that God will take care of you in every situation. We know that this is not true. If I close my eyes and walk out into traffic, I shouldn’t expect God to protect me from the oncoming cars and trucks. But I could take scripture out of context and twist it to say otherwise.

Going back to Psalm 91, which is one of my favourite Psalms, it speaks of God’s protection for those who trust in Him, those who love Him and put their trust in Him. Those are good things to do, absolutely. If you have not put your trust in God, I would encourage you to do so. We’ll talk more about that in a few minutes. If you read the Psalm, it’s easy to extract promises from it, promises of protection from sickness and danger and injury and fear, promises of long life and health. I’m not going to go through them all in detail, but all of those things are listed in Psalm 91, all that and more. No evil shall befall thee. No plague shall come nigh thy dwelling. You can go walk around and step on dangerous animals and be perfectly safe. Those all sound like some great promises.

God does protect those who trust in Him. I know I personally have been in situations where I should have come to considerable harm, but walked away without a scratch. Eight years ago I was in a car accident on the way to work. I was crossing the Wood Islands Road at the Kilmuir corner, if you know that intersection you know that the roads are arranged at an odd angle, nowhere close to being 90 degrees, more like 120 degrees. I looked over my right shoulder, but I didn’t see the three-quarter ton Dodge truck coming over the hill, not until he was about to make contact with the right side of my Civic. The driver says he wasn’t speeding, but he hit me so hard that my car spun around like a top and the rear of my car smashed the side of his truck, then my car kept on going and ended up on its side in the ditch on the opposite side of the road, about a foot from a telephone pole.

I remember thinking as the car spun “I can’t die, Laura needs me, the kids need me.” That much I remember. I didn’t die, obviously. I was shook up, but I climbed out of the car on my own power, and used the telephone pole to get down. The car was a write-off, the frame was twisted and buckled. If it had travelled any farther, or been moving any faster as it went into the ditch, the telephone pole would likely have crumpled the roof with me inside. Not so sure I would be here this morning if that had happened.

Did God protect me in that situation because I was trusting in Him? I thank Him that He did, but I don’t know that I was trusting Him in particular at that moment. And it wasn’t even that I was some innocent that desperately need protection, because the accident was at least partly my fault. I entered the intersection when it was not safe to do so. If I had taken a more careful look I would have probably seen that truck. I can think of someone else I knew growing up, a young man who knew and loved God probably as much as I did, who died in car accident that was also partially his fault. He didn’t see the oncoming truck because of early morning glare. Why did God protect me, but not him?

Some people believe that God will take care of you, no matter what, so long as you trust in Him. That’s what we would like to think, that’s how we would like God to operate. So when we see scripture that seems to support this idea, it’s easy to take that and run with it. But that is a mistake. You can’t do that and expect to walk away unharmed every time you encounter danger.

It’s good to trust in God, it’s necessary to do so. But it’s not a matter of trusting God and that makes you somehow into a superhero. People who trust God still get sick. They still get injured. They still die.

Can you think of anyone who trusted God more than the apostles? They followed Jesus of Nazareth for three years, learning directly from the Saviour. They went and preached the gospel at the peril of their own lives. They certainly trusted God. But the apostles all died, and in violent and terrible ways, such as crucifixion, beheading, and stabbing. In fact, only one of them died a natural, non-violent death, and that was John, living in exile on the isle of Patmos, after he had been boiled alive in oil but survived. God did not preserve those men from highly unpleasant fates, even though they trusted Him.

That’s not what we want, though, is it? No one would eagerly sign up that, or for the grace to hold up under suffering. No one would say “I hope I die horribly, I don’t want to pass away peacefully in my sleep.” No one wants that.

And I’m not only talking about violent and untimely death. After all, Paul prayed repeatedly for deliverance from a physical affliction, his ‘thorn in the flesh,’ whatever that might have been, but God did not remove it from him. Instead, Paul was given the grace to carry on despite his troubles. This was a man who clearly trusted God, but God did not give him what he wanted.

There are many today would like to think that God will heal them of whatever ill might befall them, if only they should have enough faith. After all, Jesus did say that if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you could move mountains. It’s in Matthew chapter 17. If you can think of how large an individual grain of mustard is, that’s pretty small. So therefore it shouldn’t be some massive and unimaginably difficult level of faith in order to have miracles happen. People say this, they believe this.

I did a little searching online when I was preparing my sermon, looking for what sort of Biblical evidence people would use to suggest that we should expect and demand miracles of God. It didn’t take long to find it. You can make the Bible say what you want by taking the words of Christ out of context and distorting the meaning. The first example I found uses John 14:12, which says, Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.

Does that mean that if we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that we should expect to be able to do the works that He did, and greater works besides? That’s how the passage reads. Keep in mind that Jesus not only healed the sick of all manner of diseases, He gave sight to the blind, He walked on water, He fed the hungry through miraculous means, and He brought the dead to life again, including Himself. That’s a pretty amazing list of works.

If that’s not enough for you, look at the next couple of verses. 13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.

So that sounds like a bit of a blank cheque, doesn’t it? Whatsoever you ask seems pretty wide open. Ask the Lord for anything you want, anything you need, and it will be provided for you. That’s the definition of too good to be true. If that’s what it actually meant, then why aren’t we all living in mansions and driving around in solid gold Ferraris? Okay, you might be inclined to say that’s ridiculous. It’s rather disingenuous to pray along the lines of “Dear God, I want a gold Ferrari, In Jesus name, amen.” I think even our children would know that’s an unreasonable and so utterly selfish prayer that you couldn’t possibly legitimately pray that in the Saviour’s name.

So let’s try something a bit closer to home. If we can ask the Father for anything, why am I still diabetic? Why aren’t we all in perfect health? If we can ask God for anything, that sounds like a great place to start. After all, God wants us to be healthy, doesn’t He?

People hear what they want to hear. They want to hear that God loves them and that He wants them to be happy, safe, and healthy. And God does love you, He loves me. He would not have sent His Son into this world to live among sinners and then die at their hand in order to pay the price for our salvation if He did not love us. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes on Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. That’s the best known verse in all of scripture. Yes, God loves you. Yes, He would save you, and He does not wish anyone to suffer harm unnecessarily. That is all true. That is all what He has said. But that is not everything that He said.

Luke 13: 1-5 1 There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? 3 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.

We expect to see bad things happen to those who deserve it. Or at least, those whom we deem are deserving of it. And it is true that a lot of bad things do happen to people who have made poor choices. I can’t deny that. I don’t know that anyone every got alcohol poisoning without excessive drinking for example. People who don’t use drugs don’t overdose on drugs. That should be obvious. People who drive recklessly are far more likely to get into serious car accidents than people who do not. When we see bad things happen to others, it’s easy to blame them for what happened.

It sounds like that’s what was happening here. People told Christ about an incident that happened where some people from Galilee were killed by the Roman authorities while they were conducting sacrifices at Jerusalem. We don’t know why it happened. It’s possible those Galileans were disruptive or seditious or something, and this was a reprisal. It’s possible they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In any case, they died in an unimaginably offensive manner. This would have been deeply disturbing to any Jewish person, to see Romans come into the temple and murder people while sacrifices were taking place. This would be like having the police or the army come into a church and start shooting people. Highly offensive and troubling to say the least.

Seeing a building randomly fall on people, that’s also troubling, because it seems so arbitrary. We want to believe that such things happen for a reason. If those people did something to deserve their misfortune, then it makes us feel better about ourselves. It’s easy to look at bad events and blame the victims. That’s very easy to do. We blame drug addicts when they die from fentanyl. We blame girls who are assaulted because we say they were asking for it because of how they may have been dressed. It’s easy to blame victims.

Did Christ blame the victims here? No, certainly not. Most likely that is what the audience was hoping for. Those people were bad and so bad things happened to them. Don’t be bad. But that’s not what He said. He did not say they were perfect, He did not say they were necessarily innocent. But that was not the issue. The issue is that none of us is innocent, none of us is perfect. If we continue in our sins, without repenting, without turning from sinful behaviours, wrong choices, and wicked lives, then we can expect no better fate than those Galileans, or those upon whom the tower of Siloam fell.

It’s easy to see people in the world today, people who claim to believe in God, but do not pay any heed to what God has actually said. All manner of foolish action, all manner of offensive behaviour, all manner of sinful lifestyle, are excused and considered normal because that’s what society would like to see, would like us to accept. Society at large would like to believe that I’m okay, you’re okay, let’s all live and let live. If you aren’t hurting anyone else, then you’re doing okay.

You know what? If we were all doing okay, then why would Christ have needed to come? If I’m okay, then there’s no reason for Christ to die for me. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. And while we can all point to those who are worse behaved than we are and label them as sinners, it doesn’t mean we aren’t sinners ourselves. Just because someone is worse doesn’t mean we’re okay. If you have a balloon, you can pop it with a tiny thumbtack, you can pop it with a paring knife, or you can pop it with a chainsaw. Yes, the thumbtack is far less impressive than the chainsaw, but the balloon is still popped. That’s what sin is like. Small or great, sin is still sin. And God will have none of it. As it says in the book of James, chapter two, verse 10, whosoever keeps the whole law, but offends in one point, is guilty of all. God requires perfection, and we all fall short.

That’s not the news we want to hear. That does not play well with our confirmation bias. We want to think that we’re okay, or at least we want to pretend that, to convince the people around us that we are okay. Maybe we even manage to convince ourselves that we are okay. But we are not. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

That’s what it says in this book. It doesn’t say I’m okay and you’re okay. Because it isn’t true. The word of God is authority that you cannot argue with. Oh, you might want to dismiss it, ignore it, declare it as being irrelevant in today’s society, but that it is not the case. It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgement.

There’s no arguing with that. Sooner or later, we all die. It’s a simple question of the timeline. You might choose to believe that nothing happens after death apart from your body going into the ground, but that does not make it so. We all get to meet our creator someday, whether or not we want to, and whether or not we are prepared.

It’s always better to be prepared. I need to get the snowbrush out of the garage and put it in the van sometime in the near future. If we got a heavy frost overnight and I needed to clear the windshield, I would not be prepared. That’s a minor item in the grand scheme of things, but everyone can agree that it’s important to be prepared for that, and later, for clearing snow off the car.

While I may not have my snowbrush out quite yet, I am far more prepared to meet God. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of which I am one. And so are all of you. If you are not prepared to meet Him this morning, there is no time like the present. He died to pay the price for all your sin, all my sin, all the sin of the whole world. It is required, though, to trust Him. Instead of saying “I’m okay, I can take care of myself, I don’t need to repent,” rather we need to say “Lord, be merciful on me, a sinner.”

That’s not easy to do. That runs against our self-perceived notions, it does not fit with our confirmation bias, to recognize and admit that we are sinners who cannot save ourselves. It does not fit with our self-image. It does not fit with our pride.

If you think that you’re okay, that you don’t need a saviour, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but you are mistaken. If, on the other hand, you know you aren’t okay, then the good news is that Christ died for you. You aren’t okay, but you can have salvation that has already been paid in full. That’s good news indeed.

This morning I ask you to consider what authority you are leaning on, whose power are you trusting in. If your authority of choice is about making yourself feel better, and look better, then it’s time to re-evaluate. We all know that once you have made up your mind about something, it’s very difficult to change it. But not impossible.