Treasure in Clay Jars
2 Corinthians 4:7-5:5
1 Samuel 3:1-4:1
For the next two weeks we will be focusing on a couple of chapters in 2 Corinthians. In May, many of my sermons emphasized the importance of the cross in our Christian lives. The concept of dying spiritually in order to live spiritually is central to the Christian life. When we experience the dying and rising of the Christian life, God brings healing and transformation into our lives through it. And then sends us out, to walk with others in their suffering, so that they can be raised to new life and experience the healing and transformation from God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. In chapters 4 & 5 of 2 Corinthians Paul describes in details this paradox of the Christian life: dying with Christ in order to live for Christ.
Paul begins our passage this morning talking about treasures in clay jars. The treasure that Paul is talking about is the power of God at work within us. The Holy Spirit lives in us and helps us to will and to work for God. We must remember two things about this treasure. First of all, this treasure is God’s power - at work within us - but it is God’s, not ours. Second of all, as we learned on Ascension Sunday, God’s power is love. Let’s read verse 7 from our passage in 2 Corinthians: “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” What does Paul mean when he says clay jars?
Clay jars were common place in the ancient world. They were used as containers for everything. For example, they were used in priestly duties regarding sacrifice, and also to gather water from wells, which was women’s work. However, clay jars broke all the time. They were fragile and unreliable. They were also cheap. If you broke one, it didn’t matter, you’d just get another one. (Lois Malcolm: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3669)
And this analogy, clay jars, is what Paul is using to describe us, human beings. We, fragile, prone-to-brokenness human beings are the vessels in which God chooses to dwell. Let me say that again. We, fragile, prone-to-brokenness human beings are the vessels in which God chooses to dwell. Let’s read verse 7 again, “But we have this treasure [God’s transformative love] in clay jars [that’s us, broken people], so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
God is working to bring the reconciliation through Jesus to the world through us. What might this look like? I heard that Ian preached on the same passage from 1 Samuel last week, but I planned to preach on this passage, too! Ian talked about how Samuel was called by God. It was a way of being called. We are all called by God, even if we don’t hear God’s voice with our ears in a radical way like Samuel did. We are called by God to be clay jars bringing God’s transforming love to the world. Samuel is a great encouragement to us because he was only a boy. This is a good reminder to us to listen when our children tell us about their encounters with God. God calls children. And if God calls children, God certainly also calls us-adults as well.
What kind of calling did Samuel have exactly? What was his task and what was he up against? He had a difficult calling. He was left at the temple by his parents and raised by Eli. But Eli also had his own sons. Eli’s sons were supposed to inherit the priestly duties, but in verses 12 and 13 of our 1 Samuel passage we learn that God will not let that happen. God said to Samuel, “On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.” Uh-oh. Samuel is being called into a position of leadership because the powers-that-be have been unjust and God is saying that it is time for a change of power. And THAT is never easy to be in the middle of.
What did the sons of Eli do? In 1 Samuel 12:12-25, we learn that the sons of Eli were stealing money from the offerings given to God and that they were having sex with the women who served at the entrance of the tent of meeting. We also learn that Eli knew about this. He talked to them but they didn’t listen to Eli. What we learn from Samuel’s calling is that God was upset with the sins of the sons. God was also upset with Eli, because in God’s eyes, simply telling them to stop was not enough. God wanted Eli to restrain them, to act for justice to protect the offerings and to protect the women, and Eli did not do that.
This situation reminds me of the MeToo movement. Just this week there was an article in the Montreal Gazette about the female athletes who had been abused by their ski coach. People in positions of power knew about the abuse, but did nothing to stop it and also told the athletes to keep quiet about it. (http://montrealgazette.com/news/ex-olympian-allison-forsyth-says-bertrand-charest-affair-was-covered-up/wcm/29818563-1462-4b29-9cd9-144271588874)
This is the kind of thing that angers God. This is the reason why Eli’s family was kicked out of the priesthood by God Himself. And Samuel, this young boy, this fragile clay jar, was called to leadership in the middle of this, just as countless people today are standing up against abusers and trying to bring them to justice.
But, when we answer a calling like this, we don’t do it for ourselves, we do it for God, we do it for others, we do it for a downpayment in heaven. And God, who lives in us, our treasure in our fragile clay jars, sustains us and strengthens us for the journey. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;” And next we have the connection with the dying and rising with Christ that is central to the Christian life. In all of this, Paul says in verse 10, what is actually happening is that we are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” When we follow a calling like Samuel’s, or Martin Luther King’s, to bring justice where injustice has reigned, we often suffer in the work so that others don’t have to.
This is what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins so that we don’t have to die on the cross for our own sins. Jesus often calls us to bring transformation to the world where there is brokenness and when we answer this call, it is a kind of going to the cross, suffering through the difficult work, so that others can experience healing and new life. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:11-12, “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” As Paul suffered for the Gospel, he did it so that the Corinthians would have new life in Christ. Just as when we work to right an injustice in Jesus’ name, we suffer so that others might have new life in Christ. In this way, the dying of Christ, the transformative power of the cross to forgive and reconcile and bring new life, is made known to the world through us. When we do this difficult work in the world, us fragile clay jars, it is clear that it is not us, but God working through us to bring transformation, justice, healing, and wholeness to this world. These are signs of heaven in this life, when the darkness, and the brokenness, and the death (all things mortal, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:5) when these things are swallowed up by life.
We are clay jars: fragile and broken human beings. And yet, God chooses to dwell in us. God works in our lives to bring healing and wholeness and then sends us out to bring healing and wholeness to the world. Sometimes that entails answering a call to bring justice where there has been injustice. Answering that call is difficult and is like going to the cross. God strengthens us for that journey so that God can bring new life through us so that all the brokenness in the world can be swallowed up by life. Amen.