The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached in December 2021*
The classical myth of “Icarus” has become synonymous with the concept of human arrogance, a defiance of natural limitations, and the ensuing consequences that come with it. Icarus and his father, Daedalus, are trapped on an island and together create a pair of wings out of wax and bird feathers. Icarus ignores his father’s warning of not flying too close to the sun and soars higher and higher, causing the wax on the wings to melt. Icarus falls out of the sky and crashes into the sea, causing him to drown and perish. The myth has become a cautionary tale of the danger of foolish pride, of thinking the limitations that apply to others shouldn’t apply to you. We may soar for a moment, but when we lift ourselves higher than we ought, we tumble downwards.
If classical Greek isn’t your thing, there is another more fanciful illustration of this found in the children’s book Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Suess. “On the far away island of Sala-ma-sond, Yertle the turtle was the king of the pond.” Yertle, hungry for more power, decides that the small stone he sits upon for a throne is too small; he wants a higher throne so that his kingdom can expand, so he commands the other turtles to stack themselves into a throne he can stand upon. The turtles dutifully obey and create a turtle throne for their turtle king. Despite the pleas from other turtles to let them go free, he continues to command more and more turtles to come to him to make his throne higher and higher, gleeful that now his kingdom expands as far as his eye can see. Until he sees the moon in the sky. “‘What’s THAT?’ snorted Yertle. ‘Say, what IS that thing that dares to be higher than Yertle the King? I shall not allow it! I’ll go higher still! I’ll build my throne higher! I can and I will! I’ll call some more turtles. I’ll stack ‘em to heaven! I need ‘bout five thousand, six hundred and seven!’” However, as soon as Yertle issues this command a small turtle at the bottom of the stack burps which shakes the whole throne and causes Yertle to fall into the mud and brings a shameful end to Yertle’s reign. The story is cute because it is written for children and Dr. Suess is a master of whimsical rhyme, but Dr. Suess later explained that the Yertle was based off Hitler and his lust for power and eventual downfall.
It is a story that we find repeatedly throughout history: try to raise yourself up to heaven and you will find yourself humiliated and cast down.
I want to examine today the deadly danger of fame, power, and self-importance. We have spent the last two weeks looking at Micah 6:8 and its threefold command: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
It is the final phrase, “walk humbly with your God” that we want to consider today. The word used to for ‘humbly’ is not the normal word used in the Bible for “humility” (used only one other place, Prov 11:2). The word specifically means to acknowledge human limitations, to avoid presumption towards God, and to live modestly in light of that. I want to examine this concept more deeply by looking at a story from the book of 2 Chronicles, so look with me at 2 Chronicles 26:
And all the people of Judah took Uzziah, who was sixteen years old, and made him king instead of his father Amaziah. He built Eloth and restored it to Judah, after the king slept with his fathers. Uzziah was sixteen years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty-two years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jecoliah of Jerusalem. And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that his father Amaziah had done. He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God, and as long as he sought the LORD, God made him prosper.
He went out and made war against the Philistines and broke through the wall of Gath and the wall of Jabneh and the wall of Ashdod, and he built cities in the territory of Ashdod and elsewhere among the Philistines. God helped him against the Philistines and against the Arabians who lived in Gurbaal and against the Meunites. The Ammonites paid tribute to Uzziah, and his fame spread even to the border of Egypt, for he became very strong. Moreover, Uzziah built towers in Jerusalem at the Corner Gate and at the Valley Gate and at the Angle, and fortified them. And he built towers in the wilderness and cut out many cisterns, for he had large herds, both in the Shephelah and in the plain, and he had farmers and vinedressers in the hills and in the fertile lands, for he loved the soil. Moreover, Uzziah had an army of soldiers, fit for war, in divisions according to the numbers in the muster made by Jeiel the secretary and Maaseiah the officer, under the direction of Hananiah, one of the king’s commanders. The whole number of the heads of fathers’ houses of mighty men of valor was 2,600. Under their command was an army of 307,500, who could make war with mighty power, to help the king against the enemy. And Uzziah prepared for all the army shields, spears, helmets, coats of mail, bows, and stones for slinging. In Jerusalem he made machines, invented by skillful men, to be on the towers and the corners, to shoot arrows and great stones. And his fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped, till he was strong.
But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the LORD his God and entered the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense. But Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the LORD who were men of valor, and they withstood King Uzziah and said to him, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Go out of the sanctuary, for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the LORD God.” Then Uzziah was angry. Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead in the presence of the priests in the house of the LORD, by the altar of incense. And Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead! And they rushed him out quickly, and he himself hurried to go out, because the LORD had struck him. And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper lived in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the LORD. And Jotham his son was over the king’s household, governing the people of the land.
Now the rest of the acts of Uzziah, from first to last, Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz wrote. And Uzziah slept with his fathers, and they buried him with his fathers in the burial field that belonged to the kings, for they said, “He is a leper.” And Jotham his son reigned in his place.
Uzziah begins to reign at the young age of 16. His father, Amaziah had recently been deposed as king. Amaziah had begun his reign mostly well; He establishes the kingdom and leads Israel to military victory, but eventually succumbs to idolatry (2 Chron 25:14-16). Finally, he arrogantly challenges the northern half of Israel to battle for no reason which leads to Jerusalem being ransacked, leaving 600 feet of its wall torn down, the temple being plundered, the king’s treasury being emptied, and many hostages being kidnapped and taken away to Samaria (2 Chron 25:17-24). The remaining residents of Jerusalem are understandably angry at Amaziah and eventually put him to death (2 Chron 25:25-28), then make his son, Uzziah, king.
So, around the time you got your driver’s license, Uzziah is now responsible for leading a nation. And not only that, but leading a nation that has just been gutted by a humiliating and avoidable military blunder—they now have no defenses, they have no resources, and the temple has been defiled. And, not to forget, the people who have just put him into power just finished executing his father for his failure and foolishness. If you were in Uzziah’s shoes, how would you feel? Likely, you would feel a great desperation: I need help!
Fortunately, Uzziah isn’t alone but receives instruction from the priest Zechariah: “He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God, and as long as he sought the LORD, God made him prosper,” (2 Chron 26:5). What does it mean for Uzziah to seek the Lord? It means to recognize that though he is king over Judah he ultimately answers to the King of Kings. Uzziah must conform his life to what God requires of him; he is not free to simply to do whatever seems intuitively right to himself, but must submit to God’s Law. A very important concept for someone with the kind of power a king has.
But not only this, seeking the Lord does not merely mean a conformity to God’s Law but also, much more importantly, seeking the Lord means a relationship. Uzziah is to long for God Himself, to love Him, to desire Him—Uzziah was made, as we all are, to know God, to behold Him, to commune with Him. So, there is a young, scared teenager thrown into an unparalleled position of power, required to lead Judah at its most confounding and weakened state, when it is at its greatest need for sage wisdom and stately governance. The people are groaning from the heavy costs of his father’s sin, the city lay in ruins, its defenses levelled, the city is vulnerable to invasions from foreign nations, and the king’s coffers are empty. What is a young Uzziah to do?
Seek the Lord. That is the first thing, that is the main thing. And, wonderfully, as long as he does that, he prospers. Jesus teaches us something similar when exhorting us not to be anxious about our food or clothes or anything else we need for life, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you,” (Matt 6:33). Friend, do you want a fool-proof plan for your life? Young people, do you want a guarantee that your life will be prosperous and meaningful? Seek God, seek His kingdom, seek it above anything else, and God will take care of you. This means that you let God set the standards for your life, you aren’t in the driver’s seat anymore. When we seek God’s kingdom first, we let His priorities become our priorities, what He says is “good” becomes what we say is “good.” Are there commands from God that you chafe at? Have you considered that your resistance to it flows from a proud heart that thinks it knows better than God does?
This is the gift of weakness. The weaker you are, the easier it will be for you to see that you need God’s help, and the easier it will be to submit to Him. Uzziah went into his position with a profound understanding of his need, of his weakness, of his limits. And because of that, He sought the Lord.
If we are to walk humbly with God, we must begin with seeing our weakness and seeking the Lord. Friend, I wonder what weakness you are experiencing in your life right now. Do you see your weakness as an opportunity to turn to God in a way you maybe haven’t yet?
The chronicler begins detailing the military conquests of Uzziah, showing his victories over Jerusalem’s enemies, which is a rather surprising turnaround from the situation when Uzziah became king. The kingdom had been devastated, but now Judah is winning battles, and not only that but this section reminds one of Solomon’s reign and the nation’s prosperity. Uzziah constructs large towers and fortifies Jerusalem (26:9); he has large flocks and herds, farms and vines (26:10); and he has an impressive army in both size and armaments, constructing war machines to defend the city (26:11-15). Verse eight summarizes the rule of Uzziah: “The Ammonites paid tribute to Uzziah, and his fame spread even to the border of Egypt, for he became very strong,” (26:8). How could this happen? How could a nation at such a weakened, humiliated state achieve such feats?
Verse seven subtly clues us in, “God helped him against the Philistines and against the Arabians who lived in Gurbaal and against the Meunites,” (26:7). Uzziah sought the Lord, and he prospered. And it was Uzziah’s weakness that led him to seek the Lord the way he did, and God helped. If there is one theme we see repeated over and over again, it is that God delights in pouring out His help to the most helpless and dire of situations.
God is not limited by what we are limited by. You and I are limited by our resources, by our time, by our energy, by our ability. And when we are clear-eyed about life, we admit that when we look at the storehouse of our resources and the enormous price tag on the responsibilities and duties of life, of the calling of a Christian, we can despair. How am I going to raise godly children, be faithful to my spouse, work hard at my job, put my sin to death, evangelize my neighbors and co-workers, stay current on news of the day, read books, stay healthy, have a consistent devotional life, be a good member and serve at church, and not overextend myself? Just thinking about all of that makes you want to have panic attack! So what do we do?
Seek the Lord. Bring your weakness to Him, and there find strength.
This is what Paul discovered when asking God to deliver him from his weakness: “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong,” (2 Cor 12:9-10). Paul views his weakness as a portal into strength. This isn’t because there is some kind of a weird mechanism in the universe that automatically transfers weakness into strength or that we should pursue weakness, necessarily. No, Paul sees that weakness leads him to depend on God in a way that strength doesn’t. And when he depends on God he finds strength.
If we are to walk humbly with God, this means we not only acknowledge our weakness, but we bring our weakness to the Lord and look to Him to provide the strength we need. In our prayer gathering last week we had four or five people share with us ways that God had answered prayers that we had been praying for. Prayer is one of the supreme ways we get to acknowledge our weakness and simultaneously proclaim God’s abundant help.
You catch that subtle warning at the end of verse 15: “And his fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped, till he was strong.” He was marvelously helped till he was strong. Verse 16 transitions to Uzziah’s tragic end: “But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction,” (26:16a). What a sad twist to the story. Uzziah was put in the position of receiving abundant help from God and this led him to grow strong and famous. But rather than humble Uzziah at God’s abundant kindness, the strong liquor of fame, wealth, and power, however, sadly go to Uzziah’s head, to his own destruction. Uzziah attempts to burn incense at the alter of incense in the temple, something only priests are to do (Num 16:40), something no king had ever done. He is confronted by Azariah the priest and eighty other priests, but rather than repenting and humbling himself, Uzziah stands his ground and grows angry. Immediately, God intervenes and strikes Uzziah with leprosy, forcing Uzziah to immediately leave the temple since he is now unclean. Uzziah then spends the rest of his days quarantined off from everyone else and is relieved of his royal duties.
Why would Uzziah do that? What would make him think he could offer incense on the altar? Surely, he knew that kings were not permitted to do such a thing. Yet, his pride had blinded him. The leprosy that appeared on his forehead was simply a physical representation of the sickness within his heart. Uzziah no longer regarded God’s law, no longer thought that he too was subject to its strictures. This is the fatal destruction of pride—the rules no longer apply to me. The circumstance for Uzziah’s pride was his strength, it was “when he was strong, he grew proud.” Well, hold on, you may think, wasn’t it God who made him strong, who gave him this position of power? Why punish him then? The strength and help God had given Uzziah should have humbled him even further, should have made it clear to Uzziah that all of his strength was given to him by the sheer grace of God. God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance (Rom 2:4). But Uzziah’s heart became haughty and unfaithful to the Lord.
Friend, where do you feel strong? Our strengths, of course, are not inherently bad. God made Uzziah strong. Perhaps God has given you strength; we should rejoice over that. The issue is what that strength leads you to—does it make you praise God for His kindness to you and lead you to deeper reliance on Him, or does it lead you to think that you don’t need the Lord’s help? What buoys your inner sense of self-reliance and independence that makes submission to God hard? It could be your job, your parenting, your politics, even your appearance. It could be your intellect, your friends, it could even be your morality—the Pharisees were very proud of how moral they were. If you want a quick test to see where your heart is, where you are tempted to pride, look at: (1) where do you feel like the rules don’t apply to you? (2) what makes you look down on others most? and (3) what are you most sensitive about?
If we are to walk humbly with our God we must acknowledge our weakness, seek the Lord, and repent of our pride.
We are now in the Christmas season where we are celebrating the arrival of Jesus, which is really just a giant reminder that God’s heart is so inclined towards the meek and lowly that He himself incarnated as one who was meek and lowly, to the point of becoming an infant. This was how much God associates with the weak. And not only that, Jesus lived and died precisely because we weren’t only weak, but sinful through and through. The good news, the heartbeat of Christianity is that human beings could do nothing to make themselves right with God, we were totally incapable. So God took on flesh to become a substitute, to take the guilt of our sins and to pay their penalty, to absorb their debt, and then credit to those who believe in him, His righteousness.