Life in the Fray: Pride
Midweek Lenten Service
March 18, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
King Ahaz of Judah was a wicked king. The kings of God’s people were supposed to rule in such a way that the people remembered that Yahweh was the true sovereign over the land, but Ahaz treated Judah as if it was any other earthly kingdom. When King Ahaz was faced with the threat of invasion, he chose not to trust in God’s promise to keep Jerusalem safe. The prophet Isaiah explicitly told King Ahaz to trust God to defend Judah, but Ahaz did not listen. Instead, he sought protection at the hands of the Assyrians. That’s like a mouse enlisting a cat to help him solve a dispute with another mouse. Assyria agreed to help Ahaz defend his throne from invasion, but only if Ahaz willingly agreed to make Judah an Assyrian province. That meant not only paying taxes to the Assyrian King, but also paying tribute to the Assyrian gods, setting up high places to sacrifice to the Assyrian deities, even performing such sacrifices on the Alter of Yahweh’s Temple in Jerusalem. King Ahaz wanted to do things himself. Too proud to trust God’s deliverance, Ahaz wanted to do things his way. He trusted earthly politics more than divine protection. He turned his back on the help that God offered and instead sought help from an earthly power, a power which quickly enslaved Ahaz and Judah. Ahaz was a bad king.
But King Ahaz did not live forever. After Ahaz died, Hezekiah took the throne. And according to the book of 2 Chronicles, Hezekiah was a good king. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, much like King David had done. In the first month of the first year of his reign, he repaired the Temple doors. He restored proper Temple worship and destroyed the altars used for false worship that Ahaz had scattered throughout the land. He sent an invitation to the northern tribes of Israel to join Judah in celebration of the Passover, to return once again to the proper worship of Yahweh and to live as his people. But Judah was still supposed to be an Assyrian province as negotiated by King Ahaz. When the King of Assyria heard that the new King of Judah was destroying the altars of the Assyrian gods and that he was not paying tribute as a province should, he sent an army to put Hezekiah back in his place. But Hezekiah and his kingdom had nothing to fear, for they were living in the proper place as the people of God. With the imposing Assyrian army encamped around Jerusalem, and with no hope for escape, Hezekiah did what a godly King of Judah should do: he prayed. He did not trust his own powers and abilities; he did not trust the strength of his army or the strategies of his military mind. He turned the problem over to the Lord, and the Lord answered. That night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. The Assyrians left Jerusalem alone because they were afraid of Hezekiah’s God. Judah was a free people again.
Hezekiah’s humility had given Judah what Ahaz’s pride couldn’t: deliverance from the Assyrians. But after that deliverance Hezekiah grew deathly ill, so ill, in fact, that the prophet Isaiah returned to tell the king to put his affairs in order, for his death was imminent. In the face of his own death, Hezekiah once again humbly appealed to the Lord’s mercy to deliver him, and once again, the Lord obliged. Hezekiah was miraculously healed from the illness that threatened his life, and he was returned to the throne of Jerusalem to continue leading God’s people.
But pride is like a weed. As the snow melts and you look out on your lawn today, you probably don’t see any dandelions yet. But just give it a few weeks. Soon enough, those bright yellow parasites will be everywhere. Pride works the same way. While you may not see evidence of it on the surface, you can rest assured that it is hiding just out of sight, waiting for the right moment to poke through. In the first case, Hezekiah remained humble and trusted God to deliver Judah from the Assyrians. In the second case, Hezekiah remained humble and trusted God to deliver him from his illness. But for pride’s assaults on Hezekiah, the third time’s the charm. In the third case, Hezekiah fell victim to the same pride that was Ahaz’s undoing. After being miraculously restored to health, Hezekiah was paid a visit by a special envoy from the King of Babylon. The king heard of Hezekiah’s sickness and recovery, and he also heard of Jerusalem’s miraculous deliverance from the Assyrians. He heard of the two great things God had done for Hezekiah. It is very likely that the reason the Babylonian king sent these messengers to visit Hezekiah was not simply to congratulate him on being restored to health, but to enlist him as an ally against Assyria. It was a political move, much like Ahaz had been faced with many years earlier. And like Ahaz before him, Hezekiah fell victim to his pride. He may have looked to the Lord for deliverance in times of need, but in times of peace he trusted the kings of the earth. He trusted the things of the earth. He took pride in the freedom and strength of his kingdom, so much so that he opened up his entire palace to the Babylonians, bragging about all his treasures and weapons and medicines. Rather than trusting that the same God who had granted freedom to Judah would keep Judah free, Hezekiah pursued a political solution to the problem at hand, a solution of his own devising. And that pride cost him. That pride cost Judah. That pride was the last straw, and God would put up with no more. So the prophet Isaiah was sent to inform Judah that the wealth of their palace would be carried off into Babylon, as would the sons of Judah. Pride goes before the fall, and the fall was coming.
These two kings of Judah demonstrate the danger that pride poses in the lives of God’s children, the way that pride poisons our actions. Sometimes, like Ahaz, pride shows itself in a brazen rejection of God’s will in favor of a different way of doing things. Sometimes, like Hezekiah, a person who has been faithful to God in times of distress falls victim to pride when the going gets easier. In either case, pride is idolatry of the self. That’s why C.S. Lewis called pride “the great sin,” because pride can lead to any other sin. Sinful pride is the poisonous belief that I know better than God, that my way is better than his. Sinful pride believes I deserve the best, better than anyone else. Or, to quote Lewis once more, “Pride takes no pleasure in having something, only in having more than the next person.”
The poison of pride will corrupt our every thought, word, and deed, but it is not without antidote. The antidote to pride has several elements, starting with an honest confession of who Jesus is and what he has done. Jesus, who though he was by nature God was not so proud that he would refuse to submit to his Father’s will, took on human flesh. He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the painful and humiliating death of crucifixion. He remained silent before Pilate, humbly abiding by his Father’s will rather than defending himself or setting himself free. It was not pride that put Jesus on the cross, but humility. As Jesus prayed in the garden his refrain was, “Father, not my will but yours be done.” He humbly submitted to the Father’s will. He humbly washed the disciples’ feet. He humbly travelled the countryside without a place to lay his head. He lived his entire earthly life in humility, not letting pride lead him to demand that he get his way. Remembering how the Son of God lived when he was on earth is a powerful antidote to pride in our lives.
But an even more powerful element in pride’s antidote is remembering why the Son of God came to earth in the first place. He came to earth because of my sin. The wall of pride breaks down when we make honest confession of the reality that it is my sinful thoughts, my lies, my lust, my greed, my envy, my hatred that brought Jesus out of heaven and nailed him to a cross. Pride seeks to make excuses for sinful actions. Hezekiah and Ahaz both forgot that their time as king was a gift from God, and because they forgot this, they acted in prideful ways. So often we forget that each day of our lives is a gift from God. We forget that we don’t sustain our own life, and that without our Lord causing our hearts to beat and our lungs to work we wouldn’t have today, much less tomorrow. Yet in our pride we treat each day as if it’s ours by right, as if we deserve it. We ignore our sin or excuse it away. It’s easy to do because we live in a world so proud that all sin is simply explained away. Almost any behavior is treated as normal, and those that aren’t normal still aren’t your fault, they are the result of your upbringing or other social influences. But they certainly aren’t regarded as sin, and you certainly don’t need to confess them, not to in the eyes of the world at least. That is fertile ground for pride to fester. But an honest estimation of ourselves based on the standard of God’s word tells us otherwise. There we see that we are by nature sinful and unclean. There we see the depths of our sin – so deep that pride cannot stand.
Remembering who Jesus was and how he lived is a powerful antidote to pride. So also is remembering that the reason he came to earth was to undo the evil that I have done. And yet another element in the antidote to pride is the means by which this forgiveness is brought into our lives. A splash of water. A small piece of bread. A sip of wine. A simple word. These simple gifts shatter my pride because while they do such great things, they are so common. They are available to everyone. They are not so expensive that only the wealthy could be saved. They do not give me access to a super-secret club that exists solely to exclude others. They are for everyone, rich or poor, smart or not, skilled or clumsy. They are not so obscure that only those who live in the right region of the globe would have easy access to them. They are common, universal elements. Bread, water, wine, words. These common things crush my sinful pride, for if God chooses such simple means to accomplish such great things, why do I assume I must be something great before God will to give them to me? These are not prizes given out to the top one percent; these are God’s gifts for anyone and everyone who wants them. In humility, we recognize that though we are weak and helpless, our Lord is not. He is the one who accomplishes anything in our lives. And such a realization leaves no room for pride.
And ultimately, when our pride is knocked down, a true sense of self-worth can be built up. Pride is dangerous because it is idolatry of the self. But that doesn’t mean we have to hate ourselves. What it means is that the worth we see in ourselves doesn’t come from us – it comes from Christ who lives in us. My sin was so great the Jesus left heaven and died for it – that reality crushes my pride. But the fact that Jesus loves me so much that he was willing to undergo such torture shows my true worth in God’s eyes. It is not a value I create for myself by the successes or accomplishments in my life. It comes entirely from being a baptized child of God. Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord. Ahaz wanted his value to come from political savviness, so he ignored the identity God gave him and set out to make his own. Hezekiah, though he had been faithful in times of distress, still craved acceptance from the world so much that when he was finally approached by the cool kids, when he was invited to sit at the table with the global power Babylon, he turned his back on who God has created him to be. Such is the danger of pride: it puts the self in the seat of God. May our Lord grant us repentant eyes and hearts of faith this Lenten season, that we might not fall victim to pride as these kings of Judah did, but that we would rather find our worth always in what Christ has done for us, and in who he has created us to be.