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"Victory & Vanity: Two Sides of Pride"

A Sermon based on Mark 14:25-38

Today, my sermon is about “pride.” Two weeks ago at our Thank God It’s Tuesday Bible Study at the McNeil’s home, Jim asked me about “pride.” He wondered why it was included in a list of sins. The text we were discussing was Mark 7:20-23.

Jesus said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, & foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile the person.”

Eleven of those behaviors are easily seen as “evil” attitudes or actions. But Jim correctly noticed that “pride” isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, not to have a healthy sense of pride is often what damages a person. (!) Isn’t there a “good side” to pride?

Jim’s question is what gives rise to today’s sermon title: The Victory and the Vanity of Pride. We’ll get into both sides of the story, and we’ll use Simon Peter as a case-study.

So, right up front, let me say that it is important that people have a healthy self- concept, which includes facing the facts of “who we are” and seeing the consequences of our behavior.

A person with a healthy self-esteem will not downplay their abilities with a false humility (which we call: “fishing for compliments”), nor will they feel the need to “puff themselves up” beyond what they know to be true.

A healthy self-concept does not let itself feel overly responsible for the opinions others may hold, nor does a self-secure person waste much time trying to live up to someone else’s expectations. They know who they are, and they feel free to be who they are. That’s the healthy side of pride -- self-awareness and self-love.

But all that is easier said than done. Many of us have very insecure egos (perhaps even an “inferiority complex”) rather than a healthy, whole, self-esteem.

And so, I start this sermon on “pride” with the sincere hope that any of you who may have come to this service feeling insecure about yourself (self-hating, self-rejecting) that you would begin to know yourselves as God knows you: unique and precious -- you are made in the very image & likeness of God, for God’s good purpose -- one for whom Jesus lived and died, so deeply are you loved! God wants you to feel good about your lives. Our church wants you to go out from this service, reassured that God goes with you, and that you can make a difference in the world.

And it is for that purpose (so that you can feel good about yourself!) that we cannot sidestep the discussion of “sin.” That’s because if we harbor attitudes of ill-will, or carry the emotional baggage of memories of wrong-doing (whether known by others or still secret in our own minds), our self-concept will suffer. You have to be able to love yourself before you’ll be able to love anyone else.

In the face of a society that would prefer to forget about sin, Jesus does not let us pass the buck! Sin is real, sin is personal (arising from within the human heart, says Jesus, in all those dozen despicable ways!), and sin is strong as it takes hold of you, from the inside out!

Back in the Middle Ages, the Roman Church came up with a list of “seven deadly sins” – greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, wrath, envy, and pride. Pride, they said, was the chief of all sins -- the head, the origin (and if I may be permitted to use a plant image for a very human issue), pride is like “the trunk of the tree” from which all other sins branch forth and from which they draw their strength.

Pride comes first because it can make the other six deadly sins deadlier. Pride makes envy greener and anger meaner. It makes greed greedier & lust lustier. And unlike the others, pride infects our virtues as well as our vices.

Pride alone among the seven “deadly” sins has the power to turn each self-sufficient virtue into its opposite, making even the best in us -- our knowledge, our talent, our beauty; our wealth, goodness, or power (everything that could lead us to “victory”) -- into a means of doing harm.

Pride is a “sneaky” sin, for it uses the strategy of attacking us not on our weak points, but on our strengths. It presumes to place ourselves, instead of God, at the “center of the universe.” The prideful person (the narcissist) thinks he (or she) is at the center of gravity (the world revolves around them!), thereby throwing everything else out of balance.

In Latin the word for “pride” is “superbia.” Superb! Proverbs 16:18 reminds us that “pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (The popular saying has shortened that proverb, namely: “Pride goes before a fall.”)

The Hebrew Bible actually has six different words which are translated into English as “pride” -- and they all carry meanings such as “high & lifted up” -- but one of them (as I mentioned to the children) literally connotes “camel-nosed.”

Have you ever seen a humble looking camel? Of all animals, the camel’s nose is high & lifted up! “Stuck up” would be a fair translation. “Looking down your nose” at someone... We all know what THAT is like!! “High brow” proud... “Nose in the air” kind of proud… the self-satisfied smirk of one who knows “he’s better than you!”

The dictionary also offers a definition of “pride” as “in-ordinate self-esteem; inordinately pleased with oneself.” And I know we have all seen those folks. (!) The chest is swollen. Their walk turns into a strut. We may even say: “She’s as proud as a peacock.”

Of course, when we say that (most of the time) we don’t mean it to be a put down, or suggesting that she was sinning.

After all, there is that good side to pride! Some of you have been as proud as a peacock announcing the birth of your first grandchild. Rightly so! I’m proud of what this church offers by way of loving one another, and our generosity to the community; the quality of our Bible studies, and our active social concerns.

If conceit & vanity were all I meant by “pride,” then I could quit preaching right now, because vanity is its own worst enemy -- trying to make itself so beautiful, so noteworthy, so ostentatious! Thinking they’re smarter than anybody else; Mr. Know-It-All! Of course we can see right through all that! Vanity is empty, and we know it! Boasting is a major turn-off!

But pride has a good side! If it didn’t, none of us would be tempted by it! Pride (as I said) draws upon our strengths. Pride finds its source among our greatest “victories” -- but turns them, twists them, into a temptation to rely on them for our self-identity, to boast in them, to rest secure on our successes (to rest on our “laurels”). Pride moves into the realm of sin when our VICTORIES become our VANITIES.

If the sin of pride is an “inordinate” self-esteem, then by definition there must be a proper amount of self-esteem, of self-respect, self-worth. As I said at the start of this sermon, you and I must know ourselves, and love ourselves, before we will successfully love any other person. (Jesus implies this when he says you must “love your neighbor as yourself.”) There is no sin in self-love, if it is accurate, realistic, “warts & all.” But the Apostle Paul’s warning to the Roman Christians (Romans 12:3) is also to the point: “not to think MORE HIGHLY of yourself than you ought to think.”

The problem with pride is that it blinds us from knowing the truth about ourselves, and pride gets us thinking we are so much more than we really are. In our pride, we commit ourselves to courses of action that we cannot follow through... and others are then hurt when we fail them, and we are hurt when we fall. Remember Proverbs: Pride goes before a fall... Pride can so quickly turn our humble self-esteem -- our honest self-evaluation -- into an inflated opinion of ourselves. Pride draws on our strengths, our victories, and sets us up for an un-real (& thus ineffective) future.

Isn’t that shown in the life of Simon Peter, as he followed Jesus through the years? From his humble beginnings, the big fisherman “Simon” grew to become “Saint Peter” foremost among the disciples of Jesus. Jesus gave him the nick-name “Petros” (the Rock) upon which his future hopes for their movement rested. Peter was “the Rock” upon which Jesus’ church would be founded.