2 Corinthians 4:1-12 – Jars of Clay

“Since God has so generously let us in on what he is doing, we’re not about to throw up our hands and walk off the job just because we run into occasional hard times. We refuse to wear masks and play games. We don’t maneuver and manipulate behind the scenes. And we don’t twist God’s Word to suit ourselves. Rather, we keep everything we do and say out in the open, the whole truth on display, so that those who want to can see and judge for themselves in the presence of God.

If our Message is obscure to anyone, it’s not because we’re holding back in any way. No, it’s because these other people are looking or going the wrong way and refuse to give it serious attention. All they have eyes for is the fashionable god of darkness. They think he can give them what they want, and that they won’t have to bother believing a Truth they can’t see. They’re stone-blind to the dayspring brightness of the Message that shines with Christ, who gives us the best picture of God we’ll ever get.

Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you. It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.

If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us. While we’re going through the worst, you’re getting in on the best!”

I have never thought much about the phrase “jars of clay” until this week in preparing for this lesson. Somehow, I had thought Paul was talking about all of us have clay feet or we are “only human” or we should be tolerant with each other’s flaws and weaknesses. I thought it might even be Paul talking about our leaning toward sin and the power of the flesh over us. I don’t think that is it at all. Let’s look at it with fresh eyes this morning.

1.  “We have this treasure in ordinary earthen containers to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

He is saying that we carry a treasure around in an unadorned clay pot of our ordinary lives. There is nothing in our outward appearance that would lead people to believe we are carrying the most precious and powerful cargo in the world. On the outside we are unremarkable but we have been given a responsibility to carry underneath our appearance something that can only be described as treasure. But don’t let appearances fool you. God has chosen the ordinary to convey the miraculous. Isn’t that the whole message of the New Testament? God becomes mortal and lives with us. God descends in humility and instead of being recognized immediately for who he is He is rejected as inconsequential. God in our world is not spectacular but ordinary – and that is why we miss it. We are looking for fireworks and He shows up in disguise.

The ordinary is the container of the treasure – not the treasure itself. The treasure is hidden in the ordinary and because the ordinary is so unremarkable it does not distract people from the treasure. But, we want to have extraordinary and exceptional containers that almost become a rival to the treasure itself. We want them to be Faberge eggs and not jars of clay.

People were always surprised by the difference in Paul’s appearance and the results of his concentration on the power of the Cross. How could anyone so unrefined produce such power? Jars of clay always surprise.

The ordinary is a discipline that requires humility that allows it to settle down and live with people. Paul says in 2 Thessalonians that he shared his life with them. He did not put himself above them or make himself special. He joined in their lives. He was connected with people in the most basic areas of their lives – not just the religious.

The ordinary is a gift even though we are expecting the gift to be remarkable and large.

“The Bible is full of evidence that God’s attention is indeed fixed on the little things. But this is not because God is a great cosmic cop, eager to catch us in minor transgressions, but simply because God loves us–loves us so much that we the divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless workings of daily life. It is in the ordinary, the here-and-now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is “renewed in the morning” or to put it in more personal and also theological terms, “our inner nature is being renewed everyday”. Seen in this light, what strikes many modern readers as the ludicrous details in Leviticus involving God in the minuitae of daily life might be revisioned as the very love of God.”
-Kathleen Norris

Paul says much the same in the same letter to the Thessalonians: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands…so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders.”

There is something about daily that sounds boring, doesn’t it? But, the Bible speaks of daily bread and of daily mercies and of a daily renewing of our minds. So much of Scripture points to the dailiness of our lives but we see it as tedium or not moving fast enough or not focused enough on the future.

The ordinary is freedom from pretense and deception. See what Paul says about speaking the truth plainly without embroidering it or impressing people with his wisdom. “On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. We are not interested in the flattery of men. We speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed – God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else.”

You probably remember Eliza Doolittle’s complaint in “My Fair Lady”:

“Words! Words! Words!
I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do?”

The Church – then and now – has always been filled with those who use words to trick, deceive, and cover up their greed for approval, success, fame, or money. All the things that Paul avoided are the natural enemies and permanent traps for pastors and other leaders today. We love praise and attention. We are prone to self-promotion and visible success and we often have hidden agendas for the people we are commissioned to serve.

Instead, Paul was like the Quaker George Fox who said, “I was plain, and would have all things done plainly; for I did not seek any outward advantage to myself.”

Paul trusted the power of the plain Gospel to accomplish its work. It did not need anything other than a plain wrapper. Paul did not have to be a politician measuring out every word carefully for the effect it would have. He had the freedom of speaking plainly and not being constrained because he spoke out of love and conviction – not deception.

The ordinary is digging a well a little bit deeper each day and not installing a sprinkler system. The purpose of all discipline is to come to maturity and maturity only comes through the daily experiences of life. We want the extraordinary and the showers of blessings but more often than not it is the patient digging of wells that brings maturity.

The ordinary is accepting the struggles as normal and not to be avoided or even spiritualized as being personal lessons. The world is fallen and the god of this world is determined to make us lose heart. What does Paul say? “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Two things to see here. First, Paul understands he has been given a responsibility to carry this treasure no matter what. It is chained to his wrist and his only purpose is to see it through. His sense of having a great task gives him courage. Second, he realizes he does not have a charmed life. He is not excused from the consequences of daily life. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” He doesn’t expect anything else, really.

The ordinary is a tool for escaping the constant distractions of the world. I read a review of a new book titled, “Why Baseball Matters” and the writer praises the slowness of the game – something I do not fully appreciate!

But more than this, it will thrive by embracing its fundamentals, the very qualities that those in a hurry often shun: patience, concentration, and the alluring sense of possibility bounded not by a clock but simply by performance (and getting that last out). In other words, rather than contorting itself to accommodate our Age of Distraction, baseball should provide a sanctuary from a culture that needs to slow down. And it is baseball’s timeless remove from the speeds and appetites of everything happening outside the stadium that will ensure its appeal.

“This,” Jacoby writes, “is why baseball matters and why it matters even more today than it did in the past. The game stands up and out in the lowest-common-denominator American culture of distraction, disruption, and interruption.” Samantha Power in reviewing “Why Baseball Matters” by Susan Jacoby

The ordinary has a focus on something outside itself. We have turned personal development into an idol. I was listening to a podcast yesterday on the way to Dallas and the speaker turned everything that had happened in their life into God’s desire to make them healed and healthy. Loving others was a means to personal fulfillment. The suffering of others was a path to contentment. The normal anxieties and obstacles in life had become wounds to be overcome. Everything was measured by how it contributed to their life. That is not what Paul says about the ordinary life of being responsible for God’s treasure.

“Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” 2 Corinthians 11:29. The Church was not a means of personal development for Paul but a heavy responsibility.

The ordinary is an escape from pride and the trap of earning God’s love or the attention of others. We are not the treasure. We carry the treasure and do not look to attract unnecessary attention to ourselves. We do not have to do something great for God. The ordinary is not looking to change the world or make the world over in its own image and preferences. It is, as Rod Dreher writes in “The Benedict Option”, “not trying to save the West. We are only trying to build a Christian way of life that stands as an island of sanctity and stability amid the high tide of liquid modernity. We are not looking to create heaven on earth; we are simply looking for a way to be strong in faith through a time of great testing. The Rule, with its vision of an ordered life centered around Christ and the practices it prescribes to deepen our conversion, can help us achieve that goal.”

All the things that Paul describes in being “jars of clay” have been changed. Instead of ordinary we have gold crusted images and art that worships the artist. We have replaced plain with ornate and turned what was simple and human into icons. We have made shrines out of everything associated with Jesus, Paul, Peter and the early disciples and created institutions to replace the Spirit. We have, with all the best intentions, eclipsed the treasure of the simple light and replaced it with our own understanding of treasure that must be seen and not hidden. We cannot understand the plain, the ordinary, and the hidden. We want, instead, what is obvious, entertaining, distracting, instant, and superficial.

Do you remember the attraction of the Ring in the “Lord of The Rings”? The power of it was not obvious by its appearance to anyone.

“Gandalf held it up. It looked to be made of… solid gold. ‘Can you see any markings on it?’ he asked.

‘No,’ said Frodo. ‘There are none. It is quite plain, and it never shows a scratch or sign of wear.’

But, it was a plainness that fooled everyone – especially those who desired to possess it. Like Frodo, we are entrusted with a powerful treasure that is disguised in plainness – not richness. And, like the Ring, those who want to possess it are lost. They are destroyed by envy, greed, power, and pride. The power of the Ring will corrupt those who want to own it or claim it as theirs or are not satisfied with being jars of clay. They want to share in the value of the treasure instead of being faithful to the task. They want to be as valuable as the gift and not merely ordinary.

But, the good news of the treasure is we carry it by His design in our ordinary selves and, over time, it begins to have an effect on us. It is like a constant dose of good radiation. Just the effect of carrying it begins to change us from the inside out. Instead of being tempted to possess it we are increasingly comfortable in the privilege of carrying it. We are still ordinary but we begin to be more and more like the gift itself. We begin to shine just like Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with every increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

We are, every day in ordinary ways, beginning to shine like the treasure we carry. We are being conformed gradually and often imperceptibly to the likeness of Christ by the renewing of our minds by the gift that is hidden in our ordinary and unadorned jars of clay.

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