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When God is replaced - Ezekiel 28:1-19

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 21st September 2014.

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Why is the world in a mess? That was the kind of question which produced a considerable amount of correspondence in the Times many years ago. The most penetrating and succinct answer was given by the Christian writer, G. K. Chesterton. ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ the editor asked, the reply came, ‘Dear Sir, I am’ yours sincerely, G. K. Chesterton. What is the heart of the problem of evil which plagues our world with its suicide bombings, its muggings, its sexual abuse and anti-social behaviour? Well, says the Bible- it is the human heart. And nowhere is this better illustrated than Ezekiel 28 and the tragedy of the King of Tyre, which, as we shall see, is also your tragedy and mine.

 

The very first thing that we are presented with is man’s folly -vv 1-5. ‘The word of the LORD came to me: "Son of man, say to the ruler of Tyre, `This is what the Sovereign LORD says: "In the pride of your heart you say, "I am a god; I sit on the throne of a god in the heart of the seas." But you are a man and not a god, though you think you are as wise as a god. Are you wiser than Daniel? Is no secret hidden from you? By your wisdom and understanding you have gained wealth for yourself and amassed gold and silver in your treasuries. By your great skill in trading you have increased your wealth, and because of your wealth your heart has grown proud.’

 

In the figure of the King of Tyre we have the epitome of pagan man. And this paradigm of pagan man has an enormous self-esteem problem, viz. the problem of his enormous self-esteem; ‘God says, ‘Your heart has grown proud.’ The fact is that the Bible sees the problem of high self esteem to be much more serious and far more dangerous than the problem of low self-esteem. The question is: where did the King of Tyre get his high self-esteem from? Well, it flowed from his great achievements -v4. By his wisdom and understanding (so he thinks) he has amassed great wealth and because of his great wealth, v5, his heart has grown proud.’ Here, then, is the self-made man par excellence. Rupert Murdoch has nothing on this fellow! You have to realise that Tyre at this time was a very prosperous and highly influential city state. So when you hear the word ‘Tyre’, think: Washington, Bonn, or London. This means that this King was a major player on the political world scene and he knew it. He was successful and secure; prosperous and proud. And- as far as he was concerned- he had every right to be.

 

Let me tell you something: was the outlook which dominated most of the 20th century and is still very much with us in the 21st century. It is the maxim of the 5th century BC Greek philosopher Protagoras, that ‘Man is the measure of all things.’ It is the promethean arrogance of Leon Battista Alberti during the Renaissance that ‘A man can do all things if he will.’ It is the optimistic humanism of President Kennedy’s inaugural address that ‘since most of the world’s troubles have been caused by man most of the problems can be solved by man.’ Not that much has changed. The predominant outlook is that with the right knowledge, the right resources, and the right will, crime on our streets will be reduced, terrorists will be hunted down and brought to account, poverty will be abolished and our environment will be made safe. Isn’t that so? Undoubtedly as human being we have achieved so much but therein lies the danger, that it is by our achievements that we measure our self-worth and bolster our self-confidence.

 

But you say, what’s wrong with that? We all want to achieve something- good exam results, a happy marriage, a peaceful society, even a successful church. Well, in and of itself there is nothing wrong with achievement as such. It is better to achieve rather than underachieve for sure. But this drive for achievement rarely exists ‘in and of itself’ because such aspirations are often poisoned by pride. That is the real problem.  It is the myth of self-achievement, self-sufficiency, self-aggrandisement. The problem is that such thinking invariably excludes God because our focus is on self. As a result we begin to focus too much on ourselves as our wants, our plans, our feelings begin to fill our horizon and God is squeezed to the periphery. In short, we begin to see ourselves as gods- independent and autonomous, with no one more ultimate than ourselves. When challenged about something we have decided to do, against the advice of others, don’t we defensively respond with: ‘Well, it’s my life, I will do with it what I want.’? In some cases this is even encouraged, ‘Believe in yourself, you can do whatever you want to do, be whatever you want to be’- not so much the power of positive thinking but the folly of wishful unthinking. And it is when we have achieved things, especially by amassing wealth and all the power and prestige which accompanies it, that the delusion is fed that we are in control, as we think, ‘If I have done this, then what is to stop me achieving more in the future? What’s God to do with anything- I am the master of my own fate the captain of my own soul.’

 

But the real trouble comes when we move from thinking that we are gods, with a small ‘g’- v2  to acting as if we were ‘gods’ Now this doesn’t mean that we go around saying ‘I am god, I am god.’ like children in the school playground running around saying, ‘I am Spiderman’. No. But the behaviour we often display reveals that deep seated inclination, that we occupy the centre of our horizons even in the small things. For example, suppose someone were to produce an old school group photograph of your class. Who does your eye immediately start searching for? It’s yourself isn’t it? We think, ‘Where am I in this picture?’ That may be a fairly innocuous and mild expression of how egotistical most of us are, but with some people it goes even further and with catastrophic results.

 

Take the case of Pablo Picasso. In her book, ‘Life with Picasso’, Francoise Gilot who was forty years younger than Picasso, tells the story of her ten years as his third mistress. She said that for him there were only two kinds of women- goddesses and doormats- and sooner or later everyone went from the first category to the second.  Gilot once told him he was “the devil”- whereupon Picasso branded her with a cigarette held to her cheek, only stopping because, as he put it, “I may still want to look at you.”

 

Picasso once told Gilot that “Every time I change wives I should bury the last one. That way I’d be rid of them.’ Now what has this got to do with the claim that we act as if we were god? Well, in this way: Picasso believed he had the right to do whatever he wanted with whomever he wanted if he was powerful enough. He was and so he did. That is, his behaviour was linked to his beliefs which were atheistic. Picasso was an avowed follower of Nietzsche, who, as we saw last week, claimed that God was dead. But if God is dead who is going to replace him? Picasso had the answer- himself. Who else was there? In fact, one day, Gilot records, Picasso was heard muttering to himself, ‘I am God, I am God’. That is the mindset of the King of Tyre and sadly, the natural mindset of all of us if we had the audacity to voice it.

 

And this defiance of the real God who lovingly gives us every breath we take and live in his world as if he were an irrelevance, can all be traced back to the root of all sin which is pride- the word which forms the two bookends of this section in vv 2, ‘In the pride of your heart’ and v 5 ‘your heart has grown proud’. Now what’s the big deal about pride? Why doesn’t God round on the King of Tyre for his greed or his cruelty, both of which were considerable?  Well, it is because it is pride which gives rise to these other things and expresses most vividly the anti-God state of our minds. If you want to know how proud you are then ask yourself this question: ‘How angry do I get if I am snubbed or ignored?’ If the answer is ‘quite a lot’, then you have a serious issue with self-esteem. The problem, as C.S. Lewis observed, is that each person’s pride is in competition with everyone else’s pride. Pride by its very nature is competitive. It must have someone else to look down on in order to thrive. You have to ask: why is it that an incredibly rich person wants to get richer? After all you can only enjoy a certain number of cars, dresses, homes and so on. Well, it is because in order to feel really good, you have to be richer than someone else. And on and on it goes- I must beat that person in the exam, this person at sport-not because it is the aim of the game, but because it makes me feel better knowing that there is  always someone down there I can measure myself against and that way I can feel like a god.

 

C.S. Lewis in his own inimitable way put it like this: ‘Pride has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together, you may find good fellowship and friendliness amongst drunken people. But Pride always means enmity-it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God. In God you come up against something which in every respect is immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that-you do not know God at all.’  Now, you maybe here this morning and not yet a committed Christian, may I ask, why? Could the reason be that there is something in your life that you will not surrender because you want to be ‘god’ over that particular thing- maybe a relationship, an idea, a career perhaps? Isn’t the real reason for not considering Christianity seriously because of pride-even, in some cases, intellectual pride?

 

So what is God’s verdict on all of this? It is this: that it is he and not the King of Tyre, nor us, who will be God- vv 6-10. ‘Therefore, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: "Because you think you are wise, as wise as a god, I am going to bring foreigners against you, the most ruthless of nations; they will draw their swords against your beauty and wisdom and pierce your shining splendour. They will bring you down to the pit, and you will die a violent death in the heart of the seas. Will you then say, "I am a god," in the presence of those who kill you? You will be but a man, not a god, in the hands of those who slay you. You will die the death of the uncircumcised at the hands of foreigners. I have spoken, declares the Sovereign LORD.' "

 

We so easily deceive ourselves don’t we? You know, at the turn of the 20th century people really did believe that with science and technology at their disposal they were going to bring about paradise on earth. Blake’s dream of building Jerusalem on England’s green and pleasant land’ was sung with gusto and conviction in our public schools. The result? Many of those boys were left dead, dying or maimed on the killing fields of Paschendale and the Somme. The science which was going to save mankind and usher in a new era of unprecedented prosperity, simply devised more efficient ways of destroying people. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme 20,000 British troops were killed and 40,000 were injured.  The 1914-18 war was going to be the war to end all wars, but within a short space of 20 years the world saw an even bloodier war and even greater atrocities. This time science was used to bring about the ‘final solution’ in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Belsen. This too was a time when God was pushed out of the picture and the conceit of man blossomed without restraint. But do you see what God was doing? He wasn't being inactive. God hadn’t passively vacated his rightful position as ruler of his world. No. Rather he was allowing the overweening pride of man to follow its logical course-as he was doing here with the King of Tyre, as if to say, ‘You think that you can manage the world better without me, you are so wise, so proud and powerful, then go ahead, meet others who are also wise, proud and powerful and they will beat you.’ Hitler said ‘He was a god’- although he didn’t look too much like a god as his charred remains were dragged out of the Reich stag bunker in 1945- v9. And the truth is; none of us look very much like gods when we shake our puny fists in defiance against the one who made us and loves us, when we think we can outsmart him and do a better job of running the world than he can. Tell, me, can you think of anything so ridiculous and pathetic than that? To really believe that we are wiser than God, more ingenious than God, have a better understanding of human flourishing than God? It is the outlook of the madhouse. But each time we think such a thing, and do such a thing- which we do daily- I certainly do- that is when we follow in the footsteps of the King of Tyre.

 

Which brings us to man’s tragedy- vv 11-19. The prophet now changes his tune, quite literally into a song of lament which contrasts what the King was with what he has now become. Let me read vv 12-17, from the NRSV, which I think is a better translation and helps us get to the meaning of the passage, "Son of man, take up a lament concerning the king of Tyre and say to him: `This is what the Sovereign LORD says: "`You were the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you: ruby, topaz and emerald, chrysolite, onyx and jasper, sapphire, turquoise and beryl. Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared. With an anointed cherub as guardian I placed you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you. Through your widespread trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned. So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, and the guardian cherub drove you out from among the fiery stones. Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendour. So I threw you to the earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings.’ Now, who is he talking about? The King of Tyre, he has already said so in verse 12. So what is all this talk about Eden, of being a ‘model of perfection’, of being ‘blameless in all your ways’ and of ‘living on the mountain of God’? Well, in effect the prophet is saying, using poetic language, that we are never going to understand the tragedy of the King of Tyre nor the tragedy of our lives unless we realise what humankind was like when God originally made us. When you think about it, what we have just read is also a description of Adam, God’s ruler, in the Garden of Eden. And the King of Tyre, and all of us, are children of Adam. This was the time when a man was truly King, the pinnacle of God’s creation, made by God to live consciously in the presence of God and delighting in God, reflecting the beauty of God. And friends, these are the heights from which we have fallen. Did you know that the Bible views us as a little lower than the angels- Psalm 8- but we now view ourselves as a little higher than the apes, and in some cases much lower than they, because as far as we know apes do not rape, apes do not torture and apes devise all sorts of evil in their hearts as we do- v 15 and 16 ‘wickedness is found in us….we are filled with violence and we have sinned.’  Sure, the prophet is using poetic language to depict the utter desperation of the King of Tyre by linking his situation to Adam, and so you get a moving back and forth between the two- ‘walking amongst the fiery stones’ and in his ‘widespread trade’ being filled with violence. But the point is this, that we cannot really understand why the world is in such a mess, why our lives are so often messed up, unless we see it as part of the bigger and much more tragic picture of mankind’s devastating fall away from its Maker.

 

I tell you most solemnly, the human tragedy, which is your tragedy and my tragedy, as it was the King of Tyre’s tragedy, is the greatest tragedy in the universe and heaven weeps for us.

 

Now if that was all that God had to say, the tragedy would be even greater for we would have no hope whatsoever. But he does have something else to say, through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ and here we have God’s remedy. You see, the King of Tyre is the exact opposite to the King of Kings. Jesus came to reverse the tragedy of the King of Tyre which is the tragedy of humanity by bearing our tragedy on a cross. How does Paul put it in Philippians 2, ‘He did not consider equality with God something to be grasped at, but made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place.’ You see, God does the exalting, not us. Let me ask: deep down, do you want to be restored into the presence of God? Do you want to regain some of the dignity and value you have lost- to become a child of the King? Then there is only one person you can go to and that is the Lord Jesus Christ. Do you want the cancer of pride reduced and replaced with the jewel of humility? Then there is only one place you can go to and that is the cross. You cannot strut at the cross, you can only kneel.

 

Why is the world in a mess? Because of us. Why is there hope for the world? Because of Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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