“Treasures in Jars of Clay”

The Second Sunday after Pentecost (Series B)
“Treasures in Jars of Clay”
June 3, 2018
Text: 2 Corinthians 4:5-12

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There is an old Jewish parable about a man who was raising his daughter to place a great deal of importance upon her physical appearance, her beauty and her charms.  Once she even asked her older Rabbi, who had seen better days, “Why would the Lord give such wonderful treasures in such an ugly vessel like you?”

Well, one day she was pouring her father’s best wine into clay jars to get ready for a great feast when the rabbi came by.  He said to her, “I see that you are pouring that fine wine into those ugly clay jars.  You know, it would look so much better at your father’s feast if the wine was served in fine silver chalices.”  And so she thought about what the rabbi had said, and she poured the wine into the large silver and even gold chalices that her father owned.  When the wine was served at the feast, it had soured in the silver and gold and the girl’s father was furious.  He asked her, “Why have you done this?  Why did you store the wine in these chalices, and not in clay jars?”  The girl explained to her father what the rabbi had said.  So her father went to the rabbi and demanded of him, “Why did you tell my daughter to store my best wine in silver and gold, and not in clay?”  The rabbi responded, “I told her no such thing.  I only called her attention to the appearance on the outside of the jars, in much the same way that you call her attention to her appearance on the outside, at the expense of her hidden attributes, her character, her integrity, her honesty, and her honor.”

St. Paul makes many points in our epistle lesson this morning, and one of those points is precisely this: one of the challenges that we face every day is the challenge to look past what is seen to focus on the unseen.  What is seen is temporary, it passes away.  What is unseen is the eternal that never passes away.  As such, what is unseen is what is most important, and should have a higher priority for us.  That is challenging precisely because it is unseen.

Here we must be careful, because the Bible does not teach that what we can see is not important.  Heaven is our home, but we are not there yet, we still have one foot in the world, and we’re here for a reason.  Therefore, the things in the world that we see and have to deal with are important, and how we deal with them even has eternal consequences.  We have jobs to do or schools to attend, families to take care of, bills to pay, votes to cast, finances to manage, choices to make, things to buy and things to sell, our bodies to care for, people in need to help, and on and on the list goes.  For example, in my job I design controls for conveyor lines that make roofing shingles.  And I cannot simply do my job with an attitude that 200 years from now that production plant will be in ruins and the shingles will be long gone and so none of my work matters and quality is not important.  I should always remember that the things of this world are passing away.  But what happens in the here and now, and what happens tomorrow and two weeks from now and two months from now is important, important enough for the Lord to make the world the way it is right here and now and important enough for me to be here right here and now and I need to pay attention to that.  This is Luther’s theology of vocation, you are where are and when you are for a reason so pay attention to that and do your job, chiefly because the Lord is shining His light in the world right here, right now, through you.

This is Paul’s real point – we are faithful to the eternal and unseen God we live for and serve by honoring Him in the temporary things that we can see.  Paul is speaking here specifically of the ministry of the church.  As you may know from your Bible, Corinthian is another word for naughty.  Paul spends a great amount of time in both letters to Corinth setting them straight on many issues of doctrine, practice, and behavior in which they had fallen prey to error.  In speaking to them in this manner, Paul uses the tool that many ministers have used over the centuries – these are not my words, these are not my ideas, this is not my wisdom, this is the Word of the Lord, and as such, it has authority, no matter what you may think of me.  This is Paul’s purpose in the entire fourth chapter of this letter, to set forward his calling and qualifications in speaking to the Corinthians this way.

There is a two-edged sword here, for both the ministers of the church and for the people of God, and we have to work together to keep each other honest and humble.  The first edge of the sword is for the pastor.  Before any pastor speaks a word that he says is the Word of the Lord, he must be careful to make sure that it really is the Word of the Lord, and not just him pushing some ideas that seem good to him.  That is why Lutheran ministers have always been so cautious about delving into issues such as politics.  It is an easy call when politics ventures into realms such as marriage or abortion.  It is not so easy when politics ventures into realms such as tax policies or how many battleships we should build.  We have no clear word from the Lord about how many boats the U.S. Navy requires, and so we are silent on that issue.  Any time any pastor speaks any word to you that he claims is from the Lord, and you have doubts about it, it is incumbent upon you to speak to him privately, with humility and respect, and inquire where that word from the Lord is found in the Holy Scriptures.  In so doing you may be instructed in the faith, or he may be corrected in his ministry, or perhaps both blessings may occur.

The other edge of the sword is for the people of God – when the pastor speaks a word from the Lord to you, you must heed it.  You may not like the pastor.  He may even be a Packers fan.  You may not care for the manner in which he speaks it – perhaps, you think, he should be more humble or gracious in his words.  Maybe he’s 40 years younger than you and hasn’t seen enough of the world to start telling you about the way things are.  It doesn’t matter.  Maybe he’s 40 years older than you and doesn’t understand what it’s like to be in high school today.  It doesn’t matter.  When he brings the Word of the Lord to you, he doesn’t matter.  All that is left is you and the Holy Spirit speaking to you through the Word.  What you do with that is something that you and you alone are responsible for, and for which you and you alone will have to bear the consequences.

Thus St. Paul speaks to the Corinthians, some of whom seemed to have some personal issues with him and some resentments towards him.  St. Paul says, I know that I am flawed, imperfect, fragile, I am nothing in and of myself, I am an ugly clay jar – but I deliver to you what was first given to me, the treasure of the Word of the Lord.  I carry in my body the death of Christ, so that I might deliver to you the life of Christ, made sure by the One who through His power raised Christ from the dead.  That is why you should listen to my teaching.

This has particular relevance for us today because of what this congregation is beginning to embark upon – a 14-month period leading up to Pastor Hein’s retirement, when we will be spending some time studying and discussing the Office of the Ministry in preparation for calling a new pastor.  Who are we calling, why are we calling him, how we call him, what are we calling him to do, what are we committing ourselves to in issuing this call – all these and more are the questions that we will be facing as we prepare to call a new clay jar, a human being with all his faults and imperfections, who will be tasked with carrying to us the treasure of the Word of God, who will carry in his body the death of Christ in carrying the burdens of and responsibility for the congregation of St. Paul’s, while He delivers to us the life that Christ has for each of us in His resurrection from the dead.

One of my seminary professors said to us, I actually hope that some of your sermons are boring, because it’s not your job to be an exciting and enthralling entertainer.  We try to write and deliver the most engaging, thoughtful, and interesting sermons that we can – but the danger in that is that the people of God can spend too much time admiring the pastor’s sermon, and therefore even the pastor, instead of heeding the Word of God delivered in that sermon.  It’s not my job to be a shiny gold jar, full of razzle-dazzle and all kinds of fireworks that make you say, wow, that was awesome, like the Fourth of July.  It is my job to be a simple clay jar, just like any other clay jar, with all my problems and faults, to cause you to say, what an awesome Lord we serve, Who ignores the mighty and beautiful angels in heaven to give the life of Christ through simple human beings who are wrong about so much, and often so wrong about how we speak even the things that we are right about, simple, fallible, sinful human beings like myself, like Pastor Hein, and like you as you share the Word with your family and your neighbors.  What an awesome Lord we serve, who not only calls us into His kingdom, but actually sees fit to give us some work in that kingdom for the good of the whole world.  Let the world sit back and admire the razzle-dazzle of the great entertainment out in the secular world.  We will have none of it in the church.  We worship the God Who bestows His grace and mercy through what is hard to admire and praise, because we look past the seen and the temporary to what is unseen and eternal.

Of course, like so many of these passages of St. Paul where he teaches about his calling and his work as an apostle, we find applications of these truths in the lives of every Christian.  We are all jars of clay that carry within us the treasure of the life of Christ.  We are just like any other people in the world.  We are not getting better and better.  We are getting older and older and we feel it.  Our minds are slower, our eyesight is weaker, and our hearing isn’t what it used to be.  Any real wisdom that we have acquired over the years has only taught us that the more we know, the less we understand.  The verdict of science is firm – anyone on the wrong side of 22 is on the downhill slide towards death.  Nor have we become more perfect children of God.  Our sins still plague us daily, and where some sins may have been put away, others have raised their ugly heads to haunt us.  Satan still opposes us and dogs our every move.  To quote someone I used to know, everything is getting worser and worser.  We carry in our bodies the death of Christ daily, in all our sufferings and imperfections.

But what a great calling we have all received in this world.  As we suffer in this life, we are called to join Christ in His sufferings.  He Who died upon the cross, carrying in His broken body all the sins of all the world, your sins, and my sins, did so so that He could be united with us and carry us in our sufferings and failures in this world.  This jar of clay, seen by the world, is so flawed and fragile and brittle and sinful, but it is passing away.  And what is unseen by the world is the treasure within, the life of Christ, which shall never pass away, made sure by the power of Him Who raised Christ from the dead.  It’s not too long after Easter to repeat it, is it?  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

And so our calling is to live as the light of the world.  We do not have the calling that the world accuses us of, and the calling to which many Christians mistakenly call themselves.  We are not called to be holier than everyone else, smarter than everyone else, more worthy than anyone else.  We are called to show the world, “I am just like you.  I don’t want to, and I try not to, but I sin and I fail.  I blow it, but I try to apologize afterwards.  I’m not right about everything.  I’m not always kind in the way I disagree with people.  And I feel the need to have opinions about all kinds of things I know nothing about and should just keep my mouth shut about.  I am a sinner.  I am dying.  I am a jar of clay, just like you.  No better and no worse.  But within me, unseen, is the greatest treasure in all creation – the call to be the redeemed child of the Crucified One, and the blessing of eternal life that He alone gives.  And that can be for you, too.”

That is our calling – to live as jars of clay, showing the surpassing greatness and mercy of Jesus Christ in that He loves us and forgives us and He’s coming back for us someday, even though we are just simple, ugly, flawed, and fragile jars of clay.  We live to show how loving and good He is, and to give glory to His Holy Name.  Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

“Treasures in Jars of Clay”

06/03/2018 Rev. Richard Bellas

St. Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church, Lockport, Iliinois