What's wrong? - Ezekiel 28

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 20th October 2002.

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Josef Vissarionovich was personally responsible for the deaths of over 40 million of his fellow countryman. Of course he is better known by the name of Stalin, which means 'steel' a name given by his contemporaries who fell under his steel like will. Believe it or not Stalin once trained for ministry in the church and then made a positive and determined decision to break with his belief in God. Instead he embraced Marxism and became Lenin's notorious successor. Always keen to drive a point home, once Stalin decided to use a visual aid to impress upon his comrades a valuable lesson in social engineering. Forcibly clutching a live chicken in one hand, he systematically started to pluck it with the other. As the chicken struggled in vain to escape, he continued the painful denuding process until the chicken was completely stripped. 'Now watch', Stalin said as he placed the chicken on the floor and walked away with some bred crumbs in his hand. Sure enough, the fear crazed chicken hobbled towards him and clung to his trousers. Then Stalin threw a handful of grain at the bird and the bird dutifully followed him around the room. He then turned to his henchmen and said, 'This is the way to rule people. If you inflict inordinate pain on them they will follow you for food for the rest of their lives.'

Stalin was an atheist. Or was he? According to his daughter Svetlana, as Stalin lay dying, plagued with terrifying hallucinations, he suddenly sat up halfway in bed, clenched his fist towards heaven, fell back on his pillow and died. So perhaps he was not so much an atheist, but an anti-theist- openly defying the God he really did know to exist.

Now this may seem shocking, but the Bible's assessment of the human race is that given the power and the opportunity to live as if there is no God, then anyone of us could find ourselves doing what Stalin did. What is there to stop us a part from lack of power and opportunity? Conscience? But what is that but the product of blind ,meaningless chance? Within each one of us, you see, there is this drive to be a god.

Why is the world in a mess? Well, that was a question that 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 and suffering which plagues our world with its bomb blasts, its muggings, its drug abuse and behavioural breakdown in schools? Well, says the Bible- it is the human heart. And nowhere is this better illustrated than in Ezekiel 28 and the tragedy of the King of Tyre, which as we shall see is also your tragedy and mine.

So here we have 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.'

Here we have in this figure of the King of Tyre the epitome of pagan man and woman. And this model 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 Bible sees the problem of a high self esteem to be much more serious and much more dangerous than the problem of a low self-esteem. Now 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 he has amassed great wealth and because of his great wealth, v5, his heart has grown proud. Here, then is self-made man. Tyre was at this time a prosperous and highly influential city state - it is Washington, Bonn, or London. This King had political clout and he knew it. He was successful and secure, for him the future wasn't simply orange it was positively pink!.

When you think about it this is the outlook that dominated most of the 20th century and is still very much with us in the 21st century. It is the maxim of the Greek philosopher Protagarus, that ' Man is the measure of all things.' It is the optimistic humanism of President Kennedy who said that 'since most of the world's troubles have been caused by man (and on that score he was absolutely right) most of the problems can be solved by man.'- and on that score he was absolutely wrong, for that breezy optimism was sorely put to the test 40 years ago when the world teetered on the edge of a nuclear conflagration with the Cuban Missile Crisis. And not that much has changed has it? The predominant outlook is still that with the right knowledge, the right resources, and the right will, crime on our streets will reduced, terrorists will be hunted down and brought to account, poverty will be abolished and our environment will be safe. Both individually and globally we measure ourselves in terms of our achievements. We live for the future because we hope to achieve something in it. That is the case with the King of Tyre.

But you say, what is wrong with that? We all want to achieve something- good exam results, a happy marriage, even a successful church. Well, in and of itself there is nothing wrong with achievement as such. But it rarely exists 'in and of itself' because such thinking is often accompanied by- pride. It is the myth of self-achievement, self-sufficiency, self-aggrandisement that is the problem. For such thinking inevitably excludes God. Instead we begin to believe too much in ourselves as our wants, our plans, our feelings begin to fill our horizon-individually and as a nation. In short we begin to see ourselves as gods- independent and autonomous. We say, don't we 'It is 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 when we have achieved things ,especially by amassing wealth and with it power and prestige, it does feed that delusion that we are in control, we think ' If I have done this, what is to stop me achieving more in the future?' But what happens when people start thinking that they are gods, with a small 'g'- v2 ? Well, pretty soon they start acting like 'gods' Now this doesn't mean that we go around saying 'I am god, I am god.' like children in the school playground. But the behaviour we often display reveals that belief. The writer Don Carson gives a helpful illustration of this. He says, remember when you have just had an argument with someone and you have lost. What do you do? Well, you go home and you re-run the argument again in your mind. You think of all the things you should have said. All the things you could have said and would have said had you been quick enough to think of them. Now, in the re-run-who wins? I have lost many an argument but never a re-run. Why? Because I want to come out on top- I want to be god. And when a father in a family acts like this- we have abuse; when a group in a society act like this we have race riots, when a country or a movement act like this we have Belsen and 911.

And it 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 and 5. Now why is this? Why doesn't God attack the King of Tyre for his greed or his cruelty? It is because it is pride which gives rise to all these other things and portrays most vividly the anti-God state of our minds. If you want to know how proud you are then ask yourself: ' How much do I dislike being snubbed, put down, or patronised by others?' If the answer is 'quite a lot', then you have a serious self-esteem problem. The point 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 to thrive. Why is it that an incredibly rich person wants to get richer? After all you can only enjoy an finite 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 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-there is someone down there I can measure myself against and then I can feel like a god.

CS Lewis puts it this way: '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. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud person is always looking down on things and people; and of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.' You maybe here tonight and you are not yet a committed Christian-why? What is it in your life that you will not let go of because you want to be god over that particular thing- a relationship, an idea, a future career. Isn't the real reason pride-even intellectual pride?

So what is God's verdict? It is that 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 and grammar schools. The result? Many of those boys were left dead, dying and maimed on the killing fields of Paschendale and the Somme. The science which was going to save mankind simply devised more efficient ways of destroying mankind. Of course the 1914-18 war was going to be the war to end all wars, but within a short space of 20 years (which is only the distance in time from Boy George to Robbie Williams) the world saw an even bloodier war and greater atrocities. This time science was used to bring about a 'final solution' in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. This too was a time when God was pushed out of the picture and the conceit and hubris of man blossomed without restraint. But do you see what God was doing? He wasn't being inactive. He was allowing the overweening pride of man to follow its logical course-as he was doing here with the King of Tyre. '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 burnt body was 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. And yet isn't that precisely where we find ourselves as a society as we look around us?

Now some of you may be wondering why some of us in the Church of England seem to be making such a big issue of the Archbishop of Canterbury elect's belief that in some cases gay sex is OK. Why this issue? Why is it such a big deal? Well, the reason it is such a big deal is this: as Creator, God made this world to operate in certain ways which he deemed the best. Fundamental to that ,as we saw last week, was the creation of humankind as male and female, so that psychologically and physically we were to complement each other and in so doing reflect something of the nature of God himself, unity in diversity, and then later Christ's relationship to his people, as a husband to a bride. By saying that same gender sex is permissible and good is to openly defy God and go against his created order. It is to deny that the Creator had got it right. It is tantamount to an attack on the image of God itself. It is put forward as one of the most blatant and open acts of rebellion we can engage in-according to Romans 1. In terms of what happens when we turn away from God, when we set ourselves up as in effect god's by defying God's natural order as originally intended and normalising that which is by definition abnormal-testified to by our own anatomy-male sex organs are made for female sex organs and not for anything else, then we are shaking our fists in the face of our Maker. That is why it is so serious in having a world Christian leader believing, teaching and in one instance at least, blessing such a thing. It is an act of open defiance- in a word it is sin. It is not what one expects from Christian leaders is it-telling God he got it wrong? But of course it follows when in our pride we think we know better than God. Oddly enough we can dress it up as humility. So Rowan Williams can write of the Bible, 'In Scripture is God's urgency to communicate, here in scripture is our mishearing, our misappropriating, our deafness and our resistance.' In other words, the Bible writers got some things wrong-they wrote down the opposite of what God wanted to communicate. But as with the King of Tyre we see what happens when we think we know better than God or the Bible writers he inspired-eventually we will pay the price, as a church, as a nation, as a world ,as individuals -and we are- with a continual spiral of moral and spiritual decline. It is simply heartbreaking. I take no pleasure from this at all and I hope that you don't.

Which brings us to the third section- man's tragedy vv 11-19. This is a lament contrasting what the King was with what he has become. Let me read vv 12-17, from the NRSV. '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.' Who is he talking about? The King of Tyre, he has already said so. So what is all this talk about Eden, being a model of perfection, blameless in all your ways- living on the mountain of God? Well, he 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. This is also a description of Adam in the garden of Eden ,and the King of Tyre and all of us are children of Adam. This is when a man was truly King, the pinnacle of God's creation, made by God to live consciously in the presence of God. And these are the heights from which we have fallen. The Bible views us as a little lower than the angels- Psalm 8, 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 , torture, and 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'

Now, we no longer live in Eden, we are East of Eden, lost ,wondering, homeless- far from living in the presence of God we are busy hiding from God. The human tragedy is the greatest tragedy in the universe and heaven weeps for us.

And if that is 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.' God does the exalting, not us. 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? Then there is only one we can go to and that is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is no tyrant who will pluck us like live chickens, he is a loving King who is humble enough to take us as we are and slowly change us into the kind of people God wants us to be.

Why is the world in a mess? Because of us. Why is there hope for the world? Because of Jesus. Why don't you come to him?

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