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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Isaiah 2:5-22
July 7, 2013 - Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

         Charlie Daniels sang about the Devil offering a Georgia boy a fiddle-playing duel for a golden fiddle versus his soul. The country fiddler replied,

         “My name’s Johnny, and it might be a sin, but I’ll take your bet,
         And you’re gonna regret, ’cause I’m the best there’s ever been.

So Johnny rosined up his bow and played his fiddle hard… and he beat the Devil saying,

         Devil, just come on back if you ever wanna try again,
         ’Cause I’ve told you once—you expletive deleted—I’m the best there’s ever been.

         It’s a sentiment as American as apple pie. We are good. In fact, we are so good we can even beat the Devil. Stephen Vincent Benét wrote it long before Charlie Daniels in his short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Good old American know-how and skill can whip even the Devil and send him home with his tail between his legs.

         Older countries and people knew better. Germany’s Faust made a pact with the Devil and lost his soul, ruining other lives in the process. But we’ve created the myth that a clever person can beat the Devil at his own game. But his game is pride. It’s not “might be.” Johnny’s brash confidence that he’s “the best there’s ever been,” is the fundamental sin.

         In Christian theology pride is often regarded as the root of all the other sins, the Devil’s own sin of pride in relation to God. It’s the original sin, Eve and Adam wanting to be like God and so eating the forbidden fruit. Pride is also the first in a list Christians call the “seven deadly sins.” We’re going to look at the rest of these this summer, but it all starts here, with the sin of pride.

         Our problem, as you heard from Johnny the fiddle player, is that we are like the people in our text. We’ve made the sin, the vice, of pride into a national virtue. Like Judah in verse 7, despite our economic problems, our land is filled with riches. The average wage in the United States is higher than almost any other country in the world. We’re at the top of some lists, and number 4 after Luxembourg, Norway and Austria on another list.

         Like verse 8 says about Judah, we are totally fascinated by “the work of our hands.” Back then it was literal idols, crafted from wood and precious metals. Now it takes the form of cars and houses, flat-screen televisions and smart phones. We are proud to own and use all these goods and devices we’ve earned and our “own fingers have made.”

         In fact, if it weren’t for the Bible, if it weren’t for our Christian faith, we would probably never imagine there is anything wrong with pride. That’s how the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans saw it. They told stories about great heroes who were proud, courageous, strong warriors and they aspired to be like them. Being humble was weakness. Aristotle, who was a tutor for Alexander the Great, praised the person who had “greatness of soul,” in contrast to the miserable character who was foolish or humble.

         We’ve re-adopted that ancient point of view about pride, making it, as I said, into a modern virtue. We want our children to have self-esteem. We ask employees to take pride in their work. We gather to cheer our favorite team, shouting that they, that we are the best. We even bring that attitude to church with us. I’m guessing that most of us here would like to think that, whatever our struggles, this is the best church in town.

         Sin is always tricky, always deceptive. Most of us don’t set out to deliberately be sinners. We do what’s wrong because somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that it is good, at least for the moment. That’s is especially what we’ve done with the sin of pride.

         In 2001, Jim Collins wrote the business management bestseller, Good to Great. In it he gave us the slogan, “Good is the enemy of great.” If a business, if a person, settles for being merely good, then you will never be great. You will remain in mediocre goodness. A number of Christian voices, even in our denomination, suggested we bring that slogan into the church. Why settle for being merely a good church? Let’s be a great church!

         Let’s not settle for mediocrity if we can in fact do better. Collins has a point. But his slogan is absolutely wrong and the opposite of what Christian faith teaches us. Good is not the enemy great, great is the enemy of good. Great is the enemy of God.

         Look at where our text is. It’s right after a beautiful prophecy in the first four verses of Isaiah 2. When the Lord returns all the nations of earth will seek Him. Verse 4 promises:

         They shall beat their swords in to plowshares,
                  and their spears into pruning hooks;
         Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
                  neither shall they learn war any more.

That vision of peace on earth moves even people who do not share our faith. It’s how we ought to live, without weapons, in harmony and love with one another.

         Now look at how that is going to happen in our text. That day of the Lord’s return is going to be when the Lord Himself goes to war against everything that keeps us from peace, and the first and most basic enemy is pride. Verse 9 says, “And so people are humbled, and everyone is brought low…” Verse 11 says, “The haughty eyes of people shall be brought low, and the pride of everyone shall be humbled.”

         Verse 12 tells us “For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high.” Isaiah goes on to list tall cedar and oak trees, mountains and hills, towers and walls, even the high masts of ships on the sea. But all of those are symbols for the real problem, repeated again in verse 17, “The haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day.”

          If we didn’t believe there is a God who created us and to whom we owe the highest adoration and worship, pride would be just fine. It would be the virtue everyone from Aristotle to Jim Collins to Donald Trump thinks it is. But if there is a God, that means we are not Him. And so pride is totally misplaced adoration. It’s putting ourselves in the place that only belongs to God. The Lord alone is to be exalted says Isaiah.

         We only know pride is a sin because we believe in God, and because we believe in Jesus Christ. William Willimon says, “to tell the truth, I can’t think of much that is wrong with a healthy—within limits—sense of Pride except that Jesus was against it.[1] We are told over and over that Jesus, who had every right to be proud, constantly humbled Himself and asked us to do the same. Not being proud is at least part, if not the major part, of what He meant when He told us to become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God.

         Good is not the enemy of great. Great is the enemy of good. If you try to be great, if you try to exalt yourself over everyone else, to be “the best there’s ever been,” you will end up being neither great nor good. It doesn’t matter if you have all the theological and cardinal virtues, faith like a saint, the courage of a hero, the temperance of Mother Teresa. If you are proud of your virtues, proud of your goodness or greatness, you are not good at all. Pride poisons every good it touches.

         Pride also makes all the other sins worse. It’s one thing to be a liar or a thief, or be envious or lustful. It’s worse to have those other sins and be proud of yourself in spite of them. God forgives us when we sin and then bow our heads in shame and humility to admit we are sinners. But how will we receive that forgiveness if we are too proud to realize there is something wrong with us?

         Thomas Aquinas wrote that sometimes God lets good Christians fall into other sins just so they won’t fall too deeply into the sin of pride. Let us be overcome by a little gluttony or lust and maybe we will realize just how much we need God’s grace, just how imperfect we are.

         Our other texts today are simply the assigned readings for this Sunday. This passage from Isaiah was the only one I specifically chose because it talked about God’s judgment on pride and arrogance. For our purposes, is just a random selection of three texts. But they all touch on the dangers of pride. It’s all over the Bible.

         Psalm 30 moves from verse 6 proudly stating, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved,’” to the end of verse 7, “you hid your face, I was dismayed,” and goes on to talk about how the psalmist feared death and cried out to God for help. Joy comes in the morning, we said together, not by pride in ourselves, but after a night of humble tears.

         Then in our Gospel reading from Luke 10 we find Jesus sending out seventy disciples to preach and heal. In verse 17, they came back joyfully, proudly celebrating, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” But what does Jesus say? “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” In other words, don’t celebrate your own accomplishments, no matter how spiritual they are, celebrate the grace of God that forgives you and saves you from your sins.

         And Paul just says it flat out at the end of Galatians 6, verse 14, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” We’re not saved by pride, nor by seeking greatness, nor by any goodness of our own. As Paul says in verse 15, it’s only by God’s new creation in Christ.

         Examination of conscience at the end of the day, before night-time prayer, is a classic spiritual discipline. Run through the day, remembering the lie you told to avoid embarrassment or how your eyes rested too long on an attractive figure or the words you said when you lost your temper. The point is not to grovel or become depressed or wallow in guilt. The point is to let go of our pride and to remember how much we always depend on the mercy and grace of Jesus.

         But pride can lurk even in such humble discipline as self-examination. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis pictured a man in such an attitude and had one demon counsel another, “smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble,’ and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear.” All we can do is admit that sin too, and throw ourselves back on grace.

         Which is why another part of Christian life is to come to the Lord’s Table. When we receive the bread and the cup, we come with empty hands. That emptiness is a sign of the deeper, spiritual emptiness in all of us. It’s the emptiness we try to cover with pride, telling ourselves there really is lots of good in us, lots to be proud of. But we can’t come and take and eat and drink as our Lord invited us, without laying everything else down, without admitting our own deep brokenness and need for the grace of Jesus.

         As I told the children, at times I catch myself thinking I’ve got a lot to be proud of. Right now isn’t one of those times. For various reasons, I’m feeling pretty empty this morning. So it’s good to be welcomed that way, empty-handed.

         Peter Kreeft wrote that the antidote to the seven deadly sins is found in the Beatitudes. Taking on ourselves those characteristics Jesus blessed, we escape the Devil’s traps. Jesus called our emptiness being “poor in spirit.” Jesus came to save people like that, poor people with little to be proud of. May you and I lay down our pride and be saved.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Sinning Like a Christian (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), p. 37

Last updated July 7, 2013