Questioning Authority

Heritage Presbyterian Church

September 27, 2020
17th Sunday after Pentecost / 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture readings: Exodus 17:1-7 and Matthew 21:23-32

I want to begin today’s message by reviewing a Gospel story that was not covered in the Scripture readings.  However, it contains a specific point that I want to address today.

Recall that meeting between Jesus and Satan after Jesus had fasted in the desert for 40 days.  At the end, the Bible tells us that “Jesus was hungry.”  Actually, I would bet that physically, Jesus was beaten down, exhausted, and on the verge of collapse.  In other words, this was the only way that Satan would dare to take on Jesus in this way.

Recall the three temptations that Satan threw at Jesus:

  1. “Turn this stone into bread…I know you’re really REALLY hungry.”  Jesus responded by saying that “Man doesn’t live by bread alone.”
  2. “Throw yourself down from the top of the Temple; if you’re REALLY the Son of God, then God won’t let anything happen to you.”  Jesus responded by saying, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
  3. “I can give you the whole world…if you will bow down and worship me.”  Jesus responded by telling Satan to get lost.

Let’s go back to the second one for a minute.  Jesus told Satan: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”  Satan may have been just fine challenging the authority of God, but the Son of God was not going to – even in his greatly reduced state following forty days of fasting in the desert.

Let me be clear: when we put the Lord our God to the test, we are questioning God’s authority. 

We are saying, “Prove it – and then I’ll believe.”

It almost seems that those wandering Israelites who followed Moses in the desert for 40 years challenged God every time we read a story about them.  In fact, in the Book of Numbers, we are told in chapter 14, verse 22, that the Israelites challenged Moses, Aaron, God, and anyone else who they could reach no less than ten times!  Ten times in which they conveniently forgot what they had seen previously, what had previously been proven to them, what they had previously had demonstrated in very concrete ways – that their God was indeed God enough to handle anything.  

And yet, they kept doing it…challenging God…questioning God’s authority…they just kept doing it.

In fact, we don’t have to read just the book of Exodus to learn this.  I found no less than 5 other Old Testament passages in which the people of God challenged God to do something or prove something to them.  When Jesus told Satan that he would not put the Lord God to the test, he was actually quoting Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 16.  Jesus quoted it word for word.

It seems that the people of God have a habit, a history, a pattern of behavior in which they challenge God and question God’s authority.  They do other things to annoy and turn against God, but demanding that God prove Godself seemed to be a regular thing.

It should come as no surprise that the religious authorities of Jesus’ day did the same thing to Him.  Those authorities should have known better; after all they are identified as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the elders, the Chief Priests, and the Teachers of the Law; no matter their titles, they knew all the instances from the Torah in which the people challenged God.  They knew all the passages I have cited and referred to.  They were experts in those passages and in their interpretation.

So they should have been better at recognizing Jesus as someone with God-given authority.  Instead, it seems they challenged him and questioned him out of jealousy, fear, and anger – anger that none of them seemed to have the same God-given authority to do anything Jesus could do.

In the Old Testament, the people challenged God at least 10 times.  In the Gospels, the religious authorities directly challenged Jesus every single time he spoke, healed someone, or got within ten feet of them.  My personal favorite was when Jesus healed the woman who was bent over by an evil spirit; when she straightened up for the first time in 18 years, the religious authorities challenged Jesus because he did this healing miracle on the Sabbath – and in the Temple of the Lord.  A double-whammy of authority questioning! 

“Jesus…just who do you think you are, healing on the Sabbath and doing it here while people are trying to worship?”

Can’t you just imagine it?

It’s a good thing we have all learned from these Biblical lessons.  We don’t challenge God.  We don’t put the Lord to the test.  We don’t question God’s authority. 

Or do we?

  • “I’m not buying flood insurance; it’s never flooded here and besides, God will protest us.  I prayed about it.”
  • “I’m don’t always wear a seat belt unless I have to.  They are uncomfortable and they wrinkle my good clothes.  Besides, I make a regular offering to the church for protection.”
  • “Who needs a mask?  I’m not a sheep.  Besides, those so-called experts don’t know what they are talking about; 

I saw a preacher on television who said if we prayed hard enough, God would protect us.  That’s in the Bible, you know…”

This kind of thinking is uncomfortably close to the thinking of the ancient Israelites, as well as the religious authorities of Jesus’ day.  In each case, despite what we can see for ourselves and what we know, we choose to announce that we know better.  We know how God thinks and therefore, we are completely safe.  This kind of thinking sets God up for a test, holds God hostage to our very strong opinions, and makes a deal with God that is conditional upon God acting in a certain way that we insist upon:  

  • “If God will do this, then I will believe.”  

Its uncomfortable cousin is when the condition we put upon God is not met.  Then we say or hear: 

  • “If you had more faith, that never would have happened.”

It almost seems as if Americans have the gene for questioning authority in our DNA.  We have the right in the Constitution to do the ultimate, or what I call “The-King-is-a-Fink” actions.

We have the constitutionally guaranteed right to stand in front of the White House, the Congress, the Supreme Court, or the President and say, “I don’t trust you” or “I don’t believe it” or “You’re not the boss of me” or whatever is your equivalent of being able to call the King a fink back in the royalty days.  

Imagine being able to do that when kings and queens ran the world…no wonder it’s in our Constitution.

We can say it, write it, publish it, distribute it, proclaim it in speeches, go on television or the radio or the Internet and sing it if we want to.

But we sometimes take that right, that privilege too far when we apply it to our relationship with the Lord God.

God is not looking to force us to believe.

God does not wish to coerce us either.

But I think God has proven God’s case throughout the long history of God’s people.  God has nothing to prove at this point.

So when God doesn’t do what we want, we can lament; we can be upset; we can ASK questions. 

But we don’t get to question God’s authority.

We get to wait for God’s response.  It might be worth waiting for.

I once heard a truly wise elder say the following:

When you ask God for something, there are only three possible responses:

  1. Yes.
  2. Not right now.
  3. No, but wait and see what I am going to do instead.

Notice there isn’t a number 4, in which we get to question God’s authority.  Number 4 is when we wait in faith.