10/25/2021 11:43:18 AM
A Cautionary Tale
Pastor Joel Leyrer - The Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost - Sunday, October 24, 2021
Dear Friends in Christ, By definition, a “cautionary tale” is a story or the remembrance of a real-life event that serves as a warning. We find them throughout the literature and folklore of every age and every culture and, in one form or another, parents today still use them when giving guidance to their children.
The classic cautionary tale is composed of these three parts, in no particular order: A warning or an implied warning, a story or narrative of someone who disregarded the warning, and then a report on the sad consequences that follow.
The purpose of the cautionary tale is to help us learn from the past mistakes of others so that we do not repeat them in our own lives and bring harm upon ourselves.
The Bible – especially the historical portions of the Bible – is full of cautionary tales. This isn’t by coincidence; it’s by design. For example, in his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 10), the Apostle Paul recalls a time when God’s Old Testament people had actively rebelled against God in a number of different ways and by their actions brought severe judgment upon themselves.
After telling the story he writes: “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall. No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.”
Our text for today took place some 2700 years ago in a distant time and place. Historically speaking, it is one of many cogs in the big wheel of God’s overarching plan to preserve a nation through whom the Savior of the world would eventually come.
But it’s more than a simple record of history. And it’s more than a random story of an obscure king. Like Paul told the Corinthians, it contains a warning for us, which means it clearly fits under the category of
A CAUTIONARY TALE
Let’s talk about what God is teaching us through it.
A little background. Uzziah is hardly a household name. Even the most faithful Bible readers can be forgiven if they can’t remember who he is or where he fits in the big picture. But based on what we’re told in the 15 verses that immediately precede our text, we find that he’s a pretty interesting and impressive guy.
You may remember that the nation of Israel split into two kingdoms after the reign of Solomon. The northern half retained the name Israel; the southern half was known as Judah. Uzziah became king of Judah when he was only 16 years old, and he reigned in Jerusalem for 52 years.
During his years, he accomplished a lot of stuff. He expanded the borders of his kingdom. He rebuilt cities destroyed by previous military campaigns. We’re told “he loved the soil;” as a result, agriculture and livestock flourished, which translates into having plenty of food on hand. With ample food on hand, you can support a full-time standing army, which he did, and which he also outfitted with the latest fighting equipment. He fortified the corner towers on the walls of Jerusalem and equipped them
with machines that hurled rocks and arrows upon invaders.
In short, Uzziah was one of the most energetic, prosperous, and successful kings of Judah. His fame spread far and wide. However, what was most impressive about him was the fact that he was a devout believer. We are told “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord,” and he sought the instruction of a God-fearing spiritual leader, whom we are told “instructed him in the way of the Lord.”
Sadly, over time things changed. That’s where we pick up our text. It begins with this statement: “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God…” Our text then goes on to tell us how his unfaithfulness played itself out. In the interest of time I’ll summarize it.
In the Old Testament God very clearly defined, down to the finest details, the manner in which he was to be worshiped and who was to do it. God got this specific not because he has OCD or control issues; rather it was because there was symbolism of great spiritual truths behind everything he decreed.
As a devout, instructed believer and ruler of God’s people, Uzziah, of all people, would have known these things. He knew exactly what he could and could not do, even as king. But as his power and fame grew, and in a growing sense of entitlement and self-importance, Uzziah took it upon himself to perform an act of worship that was not his to do. When he was confronted (courageously we might add) by the priests, he became angry and began raging against them because they dared to call him out.
Then God stepped in. Uzziah was immediately struck with “leprosy on his forehead.” The Hebrew word can actually refer to a broad range of skin diseases, but the point is that from that moment on Uzziah retained a visible reminder of his prideful actions. He still remained king, but he lived and ruled in isolation for the rest of his days.
Did he lose his faith over this? The final verses of our text tell us he was buried in a graveyard rather than in the traditional tomb of the kings, but we’re also told “he rested with his fathers.” Which would seem to indicate that Uzziah came to an understanding that, difficult as it was, God used this event to bring about his repentance and restoration.
Thus concludes the cautionary tale of King Uzziah. What do we learn? What are we warned about?
First, we are warned about the danger of personal pride and the insidious tendency to think we are the ones behind the successes and achievements in our life. The warning is to not get so full of ourselves that we don’t give credit where credit is due.
Uzziah would have done well – and we would do well – to remember the words of Moses recorded in the book of Deuteronomy and spoken to the People of Israel as they were about to enter the Promised Land. After reminding them of how the Lord had miraculously taken care of them during their forty years of wandering in the desert, and how he was now about to set them in a rich and abundant land far beyond their expectations, Moses said this (chapter 8):
10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God…. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery… 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth…
The lesson: God expects us to use the talents and gifts he has given us. He expects that we will work to
the best of our ability. And while the world extols the virtues of a “self-made man/woman,” the truth is there is no such thing. God is the One who blesses us according to his will and according to his measure.
Uzziah lost sight of this and it moved him away from God with disastrous results. Therein is the cautionary tale. God is the gracious giver of all that we have; we are only the grateful receivers. God is the owner of all our possessions; we are only the managers.
When we forget that, we grow distant from God. When we remember that, we move into an increasingly closer relationship with our God, and one which is grounded on humble thanks and praise for the blessings he showers upon us.
There is also a warning against spiritual pride. Uzziah’s faith in God at some point moved to a sense of entitlement from God. It seems that Uzziah believed because of who and what he was, he had some kind of leverage on God. This led him to think he could give God direction, rather than live under the direction God had given him. In essence, Uzziah was engaged in a spiritually dangerous form of role reversal: He as the creature was giving orders to God, the Creator.
Do you remember that passage from Paul mentioned at the very beginning of the sermon? “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall. No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.” That was a warning against any form of spiritual pride…
Spiritual pride can manifest itself in a variety of different ways, and we must be on high alert against any and all of them. Sometimes it’s the thought that because I am a child of God or because I read my Bible or because I go to church I am or will be exempt from certain kinds of temptations. Not true.
Sometimes it is a sense of entitlement that because I am a Christian God should spare me from any hardship or difficulty, or give me preferential treatment over others, especially those without faith. Then, when God in his wisdom and for his purposes does allow difficulty into our lives, we can find ourselves thinking this isn’t fair, which can lead to disappointment with God.
Sometimes spiritual pride can exercise itself in an overestimation of its strength, leading to a lack of spiritual maintenance. Before long, Bible reading or the devotional life or faithful worship is relegated to “when I have time” or “when I can fit it in” to an already overscheduled life. You get the picture.
How do we conquer spiritual pride? By not having faith in our faith, but faith in our God and his promises which we turn to again and again. By finding firmness not in the mere fact that I am a Christian, but by fortifying myself with Word and sacrament. By not overestimating my own sense of strength and power, but rather never underestimating the strength and power that comes through a committed, cultivated relationship with Jesus.
Which leads us to a final lesson. Uzziah was a king who got things right for a while but eventually strayed. By contrast he reminds us of One who got it right all the time and never strayed.
Hours before his crucifixion, Pontius Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king. Jesus said yes, but that his kingdom is not of this world. Christ is our king. In this king we see no pride in his position. In this king we see no indignant hint of “don’t you know who I am?” In this king we see no sense of entitlement.
What we see is our king humbly suffering and eventually dying as the substitute sacrifice for the sins of the world. And on that cross was nailed all my sins and your sins of personal and spiritual pride, as well as every other sin of every other stripe or hue. And when he said, “It is finished,” it was. Our salvation is complete. As a result we live a fulfilled life now – and for all eternity.
That is not a cautionary tale, but a tale of pure grace. And in his grace, God has written us into that story. Amen.