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The Value of Clay Pots

August 22, 2010
Sermon:  The Value of Clay Pots
Text:  II Corinthians 4:5-10

 

Hear now the Word of God:

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. 
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed’ perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.

 

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

Juma, fourteen, was like most boys who are fourteen years old.  He liked to climb on rocks and go into caves, just exploring wherever his adventures took him.  Juma was charged with the responsibility of taking care of goats.  One day, some of the goats climbed a little higher than Juma felt comfortable.  He followed them up the side of a steep, craggy mountain.  At a certain point, he noticed a cave and thought he might explore it.  Instead, he picked up a rock and slug it side-arm into the cave, thinking he would hear the sound of rock on rock.  When that rock hit, however, it sounded with a distinct thud.  Clearly, the rock had hit something that was hollow.  He wanted to explore, but he did not because it was late in the day.  Instead, he told his cousins, Khalil and Mohammed, about the cave.  They determined to return the next day to find out what was inside.  The date was January 1947. 

When the boys went inside, they found all along the sides of the cave tall clay jars.  They, of course, hoped that they had discovered some ancient treasure.  When they opened one jar and then another, they were terribly disappointed.  There was no treasure at all, just some old, old scrolls wrapped in a cloth that had turned green with age.  The boys took a couple of scrolls back to their Bedouin tent where they hung for several days. 

When their uncle learned of the scrolls, he took them to an antiquity dealer in Bethlehem.  This dealer recognized that they were old and of some value.  He thought that he could get more money if he cut one into smaller pieces.  One scroll made its way to a man who was part of the Greek Orthodox Church.  He recognized the value of the scrolls, even more than the antiquities dealer did.  These scrolls have been called the greatest archeological find of the twentieth century.  Three boys searching for adventure had discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls, which now have unfolded for us some of the mysteries of Scripture. 

The Hebrew texts found in the Dead Sea Scrolls have taken biblical scholarship back to a time before Jesus.  Prior to this discovery, the oldest manuscript we had, the Hebrew Bible, was dated about a thousand years after Jesus.  This find takes us way back, even before the time of Jesus.  What is so amazing about this discovery is how consistent those manuscripts had been through the years.  It is such an important discovery.  The boys might not have thought so, but what a treasure they found contained in clay jars.  It is an amazing story. 

I do not know if Paul knew anything about those scrolls, but I do know that Paul was quite familiar with clay jars, with clay pots.  In our text for today, he writes about himself and actually about all of us, saying we, too, are like clay pots.

Paul, a scholar, certainly had his parchments.  We see in II Timothy that he asked Timothy to bring them to him.  Important papers and treasures were typically stored in clay jars, but clay jars could have other uses, as well.  Paul wrote in one of the letters to Timothy about the different vessels contained in the house.  He stated that clay vessels were used for garbage, for refuse. (II Timothy 2:20-21).

Clare and I have made a practice for some time of saving our vegetable scraps – foods like the peeling off a peach or a banana and sections of tomatoes having bad spots.  We put those scraps in a coffee container.  When it is full, we dump the contents into a compost bin.  We have been composting vegetable scraps for some time.  This practice makes rich soil for the garden. 

The container we use for compost is very similar to the clay jars Paul described.  In Paul’s day, these were the least important vessels in the house.  If one was broken, it was simply replaced.  Paul was not talking about the value of the vessels, such as those that contained the Dead Sea Scrolls.  He is talking about the contents of the vessel itself. 

When Paul was converted in Acts 9, God spoke to Ananias, telling him to meet Paul.  God said, “Go!  This man is my chosen vessel that my name may be carried to the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.  I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”  Paul possibly knew from Ananias that God had called him a “chosen vessel.”  In his own mind though, Paul was little more than a clay pot. 

This imagery is found throughout the Bible and in the hymns we have sung today.  Our hymn of invitation will also address this very image.  Another reference to pots appears in the Bible (Jeremiah 18) when God told Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house.  Jeremiah watched as the potter fashioned a clay pot.  When the pot became flawed, the potter destroyed it and began again, making a new vessel.  Isaiah wrote, “O Lord, you are our Father.  We are the clay, you are the potter; we are the works of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8).  We also find references to pots in the life of Jesus.  Do you remember the story about his turning the water contained in earthen vessels into wine at a wedding?  What a treasure he had after he performed the miracle.  What a treasure was contained in those earthen vessels!

Many of you know that I enjoy gardening.  I have an enemy, a real pest, in my garden though, one that I do not know how to eliminate.  The plant professor, Charlie Gray, told me the best way to get rid of it would be to move.  I am not going to do that.  My enemy is one that you may have:  Bermuda grass.  If you want green grass in the summertime, hardly anything is better than this type of grass.  It will be green all summer long.  For about six months out of the year though, it is as brown as a paper bag.  It does not make a desirable lawn in this area.  Some golf courses in Florida use it because it stays green most of the time there.  Here in Spartanburg, it is quite invasive.  It sends tendrils out under the ground.  More tendrils appear at every nodule.  I have tried to dig up that grass, but it is an impossible task.  One little root left in the ground comes right back. 

Because of this nuisance in my garden spots, I have begun using more containers:  boxes, baskets, and yes, clay pots.  I have learned to grow beautiful plants in clay pots, which, by the way, are better than plastic pots.  They more approximate the porousness of the soil in our part of the country.  Red clay is part and parcel of every garden.  You can plant something beautiful in a clay pot, and you hardly notice it at all.  We have red geraniums on our front porch, which we love.  When we look at them, we do not say, “Oh, look at those clay pots.”  We do not notice the pots; we notice the flowers and greenery.

If you develop a good hand at container gardening, you learn that three types of plants are positioned in a pot:  the thriller, the spiller, and the filler.  The thriller puts on a big show.  The spiller falls over the edges.  The filler fills in all the gaps.  Using plants of contrasting foliage and then adding a flower like a petunia that spills right over the edge will bring great beauty to an ordinary clay pot.

Paul’s passage in II Corinthians makes the same point about our lives.  It is not so much that we are valuable in our own right.  In fact, I suppose that at one time or another, every single person among the six billion people in the world feels pretty badly about themselves.  As my dad used to say, “Sometimes you feel so low-down you could sit on a dime and your feet would not touch the floor.”  It was his way of saying that in and of ourselves, we really are not worth a whole lot.  What makes our body valuable, what makes a clay pot valuable, is what it contains. 

Both the Apostle Paul, in II Corinthians, and Rick Warren, in his book The Purpose-Driven Life, make this same point.  Paul and Warren say that it is not about you.  It is not about the clay pot that you are.  It is about what God has placed inside you.

In Verse 10 of our text, Paul stated, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”  He was saying that God had placed in him the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He was simply a container with the responsibility of carrying that gospel wherever he went.  Paul – a smart man, a well educated man – knew he was not very valuable in and of himself.  God, however, put into Paul something of great value.  The light of Christ was to shine through him. 

An old adage says that the value of something cannot be judged by its package.  Jesus told a parable about a man buying a whole field just so he could have the treasure buried in the dirt.  The dirt in the field was of no value.  What was buried there was of great value.  Jesus also told a parable about an oyster.  Is anything uglier in all of creation than an oyster shell?  Do you know what is contained in an oyster?  Sometimes a pearl has developed there.  Jesus said there is a pearl of great price, something of real beauty, contained in something that really does not matter much at all.  The same is true for us.  We are the clay pots.  God has put into us something of great value. 

Of all the churches Paul visited in his journeys, the one in Corinth likely gave him more trouble.  He traveled there more frequently, spent more time there, and wrote them more often because they had many problems occurring outside the church and inside the church.  Paul actually wrote to them four times.  The only letters we have are contained in the books known as I and II Corinthians.  I Corinthians reveals that that Paul had previously written them.  He wrote, “Now concerning the letter I wrote to you earlier…”  The book we call II Corinthians gives us clear insight that he had written the church at least twice before. 

One problem the church had was the false teachers who came in and started criticizing Paul’s personal appearance.  If the account – not from the Bible but from a very early Christian writing – is accurate, the criticisms were justified.  The account says that Paul was a little man who was bow-legged, stooped at the shoulders, and bald-headed.  He had a crooked nose and bushy eyebrows that met in the middle.  If that description is true, Paul was not a handsome man.

The false teachers also criticized Paul’s preaching.  If you really want to get a preacher’s goat, criticize his appearance or his preaching.  Do not criticize both.  They criticized both the way he looked and the way he preached.  Paul had to find a way to say, “Listen.  You need to pay attention to what I have told you” without going overboard in defending himself.  Basically, he said, “Look.  You are right.  I am just a clay pot.  I am not of any great value by myself.  What I contain, what we all contain, is worth our attention.” 

Paul, in II Corinthians 12: 7-10, wrote about his “thorn in the flesh.”  He concluded that great treatise on the thorn in the flesh by saying something that sounds like a riddle:  “When I am weak, then I am strong.”  Of course, he meant, “When I get to the end of my strength, when I get to the end of my competence, something else that kicks in, something that is not of me.  The love of Christ strengthens me, compels me, and takes me beyond my own weakness.”

Paul was quite resilient.  Look at what he said here in Verse 8 when he wrote about his weakness:  “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”  I love how William Barkley translated that verse:  “We are knocked down but not knocked out.”  Paul was telling the Corinthian church, “Look, I have had a hard time,” which he detailed in II Corinthians 11:23-29.  Paul told of his misfortunes, emphasizing that life was hard.  Life had been hard for him, but he was not defeated.  He was not defeated because of what he contained. 

I do not know how you feel about yourself.  Maybe the truth is that I do.  I know how it feels to be a clay pot.  Clay pots get broken.  Clay pots wonder if “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can ever put them back together again.”  It is the love of the Lord Jesus Christ that redeems us, that puts us back together, that binds our broken hearts.

Many of you have expressed to me kind wishes for a happy birthday.  Yesterday was a great day to have another birthday, considering the alternative, which is not what I am seeking.  I do not know how you celebrate your birthday, but I try to take inventory each year.  I know that God called me while I was working at a lumberyard.  He prepared me to do one thing:  tell as many people as possible about the love of God, fully revealed in Jesus Christ.  That is the message I contain. 

That message is not just a task for preachers.  It is a responsibility for every single Christian.  Your value as a person in the eyes of Christ is not that you are so good at math or English or that you know seven languages.  Your value as a person has nothing to do with your bank account or your financial net worth.  Your value to Christ has to do with whether or not you reveal this love of God, given to us in Christ Jesus.  If your life does that, clay pot that you are, you contain a treasure, a treasure the world desperately needs.  Believe me.  They need this. 

I have never in my life seen people in living in such fear.  I have never in my life experienced another time when I have seen so many people living with such uncertainty, such anxiety.  These years are hard.  It is a hard time in the life of our country.  It is a hard time in this world.  It is a hard time in personal life, as well. 

Let me tell you something.  God is sovereign.  He is still in control.  He loves you very much.  He wants you to know that love so profoundly in Jesus Christ.  You contain this love.  Your cup overflows with this love of God.  Do not keep it to yourself.  Jesus wants you to share it with other people.  This is our great calling.  This is our value as a Christian church.  This is our value as Christians.

We are the clay pots that contain a beautiful treasure.  We may not be very valuable in our own right.  We might not be much to look at in terms of our physical appearance.  We might not have much to commend us.  We might certainly be broken.  Boy, do we have a treasure more valuable than the Dead Sea Scrolls, more valuable than a blooming geranium.  We have the love of Christ that gives to every single person a sense of value and worth.

Have you accepted Christ as your Savior?  Do you know him as the Lord of your life?  If you have never accepted him, could I invite you to make that decision today?   

 Kirk H. Neely
© August 2010
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