Treasure in Clay Jars

by David Baer, June 12, 2016

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Text: 2 Corinthians 4:1-15

On a recent episode of The Antiques Roadshow, a gentleman brought in an old wooden table. It had been his grandfather’s desk, when his grandfather worked at the parish courthouse in Louisiana, but the man’s father had inherited the desk and put it in the barn. And the man’s father had stored paint cans on top of that desk over the years and hadn’t thought much of it. But now it belonged to this gentleman who had brought it into the exhibition hall in Baton Rouge to be appraised by a specialist. It turns out this desk was a prime example of French colonial furniture-making. It was expertly crafted in the early 1800s from native cedar wood, and it was worth between $3,000 and $5,000.

That’s the fun of The Antiques Roadshow. It’s exciting to think that there are hidden treasures in our homes—not just that there might be a piece of furniture or art worth a lot of money, but that an ordinary object we look at or hold might be connected to important historical events or trends. Have you ever discovered something valuable in an overlooked corner of a family home? How did it feel, when you realized that this treasure had been there the whole time?

Today’s scripture is about a kind of hidden treasure too. We’ve been reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians over these last few weeks. Here’s the recap: Paul had a falling out with this congregation in the city of Corinth, probably having to do with issues of trust over money. One individual in particular confronted Paul publicly during a visit, and Paul was so upset he simply walked out. After an exchange of letters, the Corinthian believers have had a change of heart. They have disciplined the individual who spoke out against Paul, and Paul has urged them to forgive him. Now Paul is planning another visit, as part of a fundraising appeal for poor believers in Jerusalem.

One of the sticking points between Paul and the Corinthian church was that they had challenged him to produce a letter of recommendation. It was a common practice in the ancient world to be introduced to a community or individual through a letter of recommendation from a respected person. How can we trust you or your teaching, someone may have said, unless you can show us that you have the approval of a person we already trust?

But Paul wants to insist that no letter of recommendation is needed. It would be one thing if Paul were preaching about Paul, trying to get people to put their trust in Paul. But Paul isn’t tooting his own horn. “We do not proclaim ourselves,” he insists, “we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” And the message of the good news of Jesus speaks for itself. It recommends itself. It validates itself. That’s what Paul means when he says, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” When people in Corinth hear the good news, then they hear that the Son of God loved them deeply enough to lay down his life for them, that in Jesus they can die to sin and live with him now and forever, something deep inside them resonates. The creative power of God that brought light out of darkness at the beginning of time also creates faith, not through letters of recommendation, but directly in the hearts of those people whom God loves and saves.

Maybe you’ve experienced something like that too—a sure and certain sense that you are loved, you are forgiven, you are accepted, you are in the hands of a God who is shaping you day by day into a more generous, loving, and beautiful self, even if you have a long way to go before you’re finished! Somebody may have told you these things, but you didn’t believe them just because they told you. Something inside you said, “Yes.” And that something is the creative light of God inside you. And this security, this hope is present, not because of anything you did, not because of the authority or trustworthiness or goodness of another person in your life, but because of God.

It’s like a treasure in clay jars, Paul says. It’s something immensely valuable hidden inside a container that is not just ordinary, but incredibly vulnerable and fragile. And so the more Paul is shown to be vulnerable and imperfect and all too human, the more you understand that unkind words pain him, that he sometimes doesn’t know what to say, that he lacks a charismatic presence that some other preachers have—it just shows all the more that the good news was never about him, but about Jesus. The “yes” spoken inside you, the light that shone in your heart, says Paul, was real, and it didn’t come from me. I mean, look at what a mess I am! And if I have to show you even more of my flaws, my weakness, my anxieties, in order for you to believe it’s not about me, in order for you to see how awesomely powerful God is, then I’ll show you my cracked clay. But in spite of troubled relationships, persecution, beatings, and imprisonment, Paul finds that somehow through God’s care, he’s still standing, and his trust in God is unshaken. Paul quotes a verse from the psalms which doesn’t really make sense until you have the full quote from the original: “I kept my faith, even when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’”

What does it look like to live with treasure in a clay jar?

When I was in college I was part of a group that stayed in New York City for a week, working at the soup kitchen at Broadway Presbyterian Church. There was a man by the name of Peter who came in every day for a hot lunch. He was not an easy guy to help! He bickered with the soup kitchen staff and the other guests, and I was told he’d been kicked out more than once. But on this one particular day he strolled into the dining hall at the church, looked around, and said, as loudly as he could, “Friends, don’t you feel blessed?!”

Peter had a treasure in a jar of clay. He had very little in the way of possessions, and his day-to-day life was incredibly challenging. He was probably the last person you’d expect to talk about blessing. But somehow he was the one to name the reality that all of us were present in that moment in a place where we had food for our bodies and companionship for our spirits. We were blessed, and the fact that it was Peter that said it made it all the more real.

You have a hidden, valuable treasure too. It’s not sitting in a barn under paint cans, or locked away in your cabinet. You are a different kind of person because you know just how much you are loved, forgiven, and cherished by God. And here’s the paradox… The more aware you are of your vulnerabilities, your imperfections, your weakness… the more challenging life is for you, or the more you identify with and walk beside people who are afflicted with illness, grief, homelessness, or any number of other things life can throw at us… the more you live with hope through your own suffering, or enter the suffering of others with courage, the brighter that treasure shines. Because your witness to your neighbors, your lifting up of the good news is not about you and your abilities or successes. It’s about the power of a good and loving God who raises the dead to live again.

What does it look like for you to claim that treasure, to look up and say to the rest of us, out of the most unlikely circumstances, “Friends, don’t you feel blessed?” Paul writes this about his ministry of bearing treasure in clay jars: “Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” Like Peter from the soup kitchen, like Paul with the church in Corinth, may your life increase others’ thankfulness and faith, and may it glorify and honor the God who loves us and lavishes treasure on us all. Amen.

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