A Treasure in Clay Pots

Merriam-Webster is the oldest dictionary publisher in the United States.  For the past 20 years, they have chosen a word of the year – one word that sums up, in one way or another, the prevailing mood of that year.  For example, in 2020, the word was “pandemic.”  The next year, the word they chose was “vaccine.”

            But does anybody know what the word of the year was in 2023?   It was “authentic”.  Because of the popularity of Chat GPT and other artificial intelligence programs, it has become harder and harder to tell what’s authentic and what’s not.  In fact, for all you know, I didn’t even write this sermon.  How do you know Chat GPT didn’t write it?  Whether it’s student essays or deepfake videos or robo-calls that imitate voices — the line between what is “real” and what is “fake” has become increasingly blurred.

            As a result, in social media and marketing, “authentic” has become the gold standard for building trust.  But, as the editor of Merriam-Webster pointed out, authenticity itself has become a performance. In other words, we’re getting very good at pretending to be real.

            But this is nothing new.  For centuries, painters have been forging famous paintings, and sometimes it takes a real expert to know what’s authentic and what’s not.  There’s a TV show called Pawn Stars where people bring what they think are valuable items to have them appraised.  Some items end up being authentic, others turn out to be fakes.

            But when it comes to preachers, how do you identify the preachers who are authentic?  How do you identify the preachers you can trust?  In our culture today, we tend to gravitate toward preachers are eloquent, who have the ability to communicate well.  But not every preacher who is eloquent can be trusted.  Or maybe, we say, we want a preacher who quotes a lot of scripture.  But not every preacher who quotes a lot of scripture can be trusted.

            Now, that’s not just an issue in the twenty-first century.  It was an issue back in the first century.  In fact, one of the things that Paul had to deal with repeatedly was that some people didn’t want to follow him or listen to him because they felt like he wasn’t very impressive.  

            In 2 Corinthians 10:10 (NIV), “Some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.”  Paul himself said, “I am not a polished speaker.” (2 Corinthians 11:6, BER).  And so, in Corinth, there seems to have been a considerable amount of disagreement over whether or not Paul was an authentic minister of the gospel, whether or not he was someone they could fully trust.

            This morning, we pick up in 2 Corinthians, chapter 4, as we continue to work our way through this letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthian church.  In this chapter, Paul has to defend himself as a minister of the gospel, as someone who was an authentic spokesperson for God. 

            Last week, we saw that the new covenant in Christ is far more glorious than the old covenant of Moses.  And so, Paul begins chapter 4 by saying,  

            “Therefore, since God in his mercy has given us this new way, we never give up.  We reject all shameful deeds and underhanded methods.  We don’t try to trick anyone or distort the word of God.  We tell the truth before God, and all who are honest know this.” (2 Corinthians 4:1-2, NLT)

            Paul said, “The reason I’m preaching is because this is a ministry that God gave me.”  This is something that God gave him to do and, because of that, he’s not going to quit, he’s not going to give up. 

            Paul talks about how he conducted himself as a minister of the gospel.  I like the way the Contemporary English Version puts it, “We don’t do shameful things that must be kept secret. And we don’t try to fool anyone or twist God’s message around. God is our witness that we speak only the truth, so others will be sure we can be trusted.” (2 Corinthians 4:2, CEV)

            Apparently, one of the things that Paul was accused of, which his opponents actually were doing, was they accused him of being sneaky, of being deceptive as a leader, that he wasn’t always upfront and out in the open with things. 

            But Paul said, “That’s not the kind of preacher I am.  I don’t change my message to try to get more followers, I just share the pure truth of God’s Word.  It’s our intent to declare the message to you clearly and we want to live in an open and honest way before you.  And Paul says, “If you’re honest with yourself, you know that.  I lived with you.  You know what kind of person I am.”

            Paul is defending his integrity as a minister here.  It’s important for preachers to be authentic in front of people and not try to pretend to be something they’re not, but to be open and honest, and focus on the truth of God’s Word, not trying to hide anything, not trying to cover anything up, not trying to be tricky — just try to help people to understand the truth.  That was Paul’s goal.

            In verse 3, “If the Good News we preach is hidden behind a veil, it is hidden only from people who are perishing.  Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4, NLT)

            Paul acknowledges that there were some people who wouldn’t understand his message.  Not everybody, when they heard Paul speak, immediately accepted what he was teaching.  So, Paul says, “Yes, there are some people who don’t understand.  There are some people who are still have this veil covering their minds.  They’re not able to grasp and to see who Jesus is.  But it’s not because we’re being unclear.  It’s not because we’re not doing a good job of sharing the gospel and speaking it in a simple and clear manner.  It’s because there’s a spiritual battle going on. 

            Paul recognizes that there is a spiritual force in this world that blinds people to the truth.  He calls Satan “the god of this world”.   Many of us here this morning have known Christ for a long time.  We’ve understood the importance of being a Christian maybe even from childhood when we first were introduced to Jesus and we believed in him — and that’s always been a part of our life.  And now, we want to share the message about Jesus with other folks and we sometimes don’t understand why they don’t get it.  I mean, “It’s right here!  It’s as plain as day.  Why can’t you understand?  Why don’t you get it? 

            We need to understand what Paul understood, that it’s not just about getting the facts straight and trying to get people to understand them the same way that they would understand other facts.  There’s a spiritual dimension to understanding who Jesus is and what he has to offer, but the god of this world blinds people to that truth.  Satan doesn’t want people to be set free.  He doesn’t want people to experience eternal life.  He wants to hold them in bondage. 

            And so, Paul says, “If there are people who don’t understand what we’ve been teaching, it’s not because we haven’t been clear and honest and straight forward.  It’s because Satan has blinded their eyes so that they can’t see what we’re talking about.  There’s a spiritual dimension to this that we just can’t see.

            Paul talked about this back in chapter 3.  Remember, he said, “All those who don’t believe have this veil covering them and they can’t see, but the veil is taken away when they turn to the Lord.”   Sometimes it doesn’t matter how good I am at explaining it or even how well I live out that truth in front of people.  Until they have a desire to turn to the Lord, my preaching isn’t going to do them any good.  In verse 5, Paul makes it clear what the subject of his preaching was.

            “You see, we don’t go around preaching about ourselves.  We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Corinthians 4:5)

            Paul said, “We have one very clear and simple message: It’s that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Jesus Christ is our Savior.  It’s through his death, burial, and resurrection that we have eternal life.  Our focus is on him.  That’s our central message.  And we are not elevating ourselves.  We’re just servants. We’re slaves.  We’re following in the parade of the conquering King.  Our job is just to serve Christ, the one who has redeemed us and saved us.  So, we don’t elevate ourselves — we elevate Christ!  We talk about Jesus.  We preach about Jesus.  Everywhere we go, it’s all about Jesus and we’re just his servants doing whatever we can so that others can some to know this truth.

            But today, because of the Internet, because of social media, we now have access to more preachers than we ever have before.  When I was growing up, even when I was in college, if I wanted to listen to different preachers, I either had to travel to where they were, or I had to listen to their sermon on this obscure thing called a cassette tape.  Or I could go to the library and listen to LP records of the really old-time preachers like Marshall Keeble.

            But now, I can listen to literally thousands of preachers by going to my computer and doing a search on YouTube.  And because there are so many preachers on the Internet, on TV, writers who have books, it is more important than ever to ask ourselves the question:  How do we evaluate and understand whether this is somebody who really is proclaiming the truth?  How do I decide whether or not this is somebody that I ought to listen to, that I ought to read their material or that I ought to listen to their messages? 

            Well, one of the guidelines that Paul gives us is this, “Do they elevate Christ and diminish themselves, or is it the other way around?  As you listen to them preach, as you read what they write, are they putting the attention and the spotlight and the focus on Jesus Christ or does the spotlight tend to be more on themselves?” 

            And unfortunately, I’ve listened to a lot of preachers, a lot of so-called “faithful” preachers, who can preach an entire sermon and not mention Jesus Christ even once.  They can preach on baptism without talking about Jesus.  They can preach about the church without talking about Jesus.  They can preach against all the sins in the world without mentioning Jesus.  So, let me give you this bit of advice.  If you ever hear me preach a sermon without talking about Jesus, you need to call me out.

            When you listen to someone preach, you need to ask — do they want you to be impressed with Jesus and they look at themselves simply as a servant who is doing what God has called them to do?  Or is the focus on them?  It’s important that we evaluate the preachers that we listen to, to know whether or not we ought to follow or believe what they say.

            And I think that’s one of the reasons why God designed the local church to be the primary way for the gospel to be carried to the world.  Because, in the local church, we live in a community and the leaders are known by everyone as they walk and live among the congregation.  You don’t have a clue when you watch somebody on television or the Internet or read their book whether or not they actually live out what they’re saying.  You don’t know what their character is, and honestly, there are lot of charlatans and hucksters out there who have found a way to elevate themselves and make a profit using Christ.  But Paul said, “It’s not about us, it’s about Jesus.”

            And then, in verse 7, Paul used a familiar object to illustrate this.  “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

            Let me tell you about a lady by the name of Jean Preston.  By all accounts, Jean lived exactly the kind of life you might expect for an English librarian to live.  She never owned a car, took the bus everywhere she went – which was mostly to work. She lived on frozen dinners and bought all of her clothes from mail-order catalogs.  She never married, and lived out her life frugally in a very ordinary red-brick house in Oxford, England.  And, when she died in 2006, at the age of 77, she left behind a few relatives who wouldn’t have thought that there was anything at all out of the ordinary about “Aunt Jean.”

            But they were wrong.  Jean Preston’s ordinary little house contained some very extraordinary treasures.  Art experts and auctioneers went in and cataloged the numerous works of art Jean had hoarded in her home all her life.  The auctions made a total of nearly 8 million dollars.

            Among her treasures were two paintings by the 15th-century Italian Renaissance master Angelico.  In the kitchen hung a 19th-century watercolor by Rossetti. In the sitting room, above the fireplace, hung a work by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.  Buried in a wardrobe was a rare edition of the works of Chaucer.

            The auctioneers said, “We often go into fabulous homes to evaluate artworks, but in this case the house was just so modest from the outside….It’s just rare to stumble across something quite so breathtaking.”

            I like that story.  Maybe because there’s something about a treasure hidden in the most unlikely places that stirs up your imagination, that makes you want to knock holes in the walls of your basement or tear up the floorboards of your attic. (Or at least the walls and floorboards of your relatives….)  We think, if Jean Preston’s unassuming little house could hide such treasure, well, there could be treasure anywhere. The most ordinary of places could conceal the most valuable items.

            But there’s another story of hidden treasure in ordinary places. We call it the gospel.  Paul says, “We have this treasure in jars of clay.”  Clay jars were so common in that day that pieces are found aal over the place at every Middle East archaeological dig.  They’re so common that pieces of broken clay jars served as the scratch paper of Paul’s day.  Clay jars were ordinary vessels.  They weren’t worth much.  But they were capable of holding something of great value.

            You and I, we’re like clay pots.  We’re like Jean Preston’s house.  You may not look like much.  People may think you’re nobody special.  But God has placed his treasure within you.  God uses broken and imperfect people, to accomplish what he wants done in this world, not through our power, but through his power.

            But while that makes you similar to Jean Preston, there’s another way that you are not like her at all.  It appears that Jean hoarded what she had.  She hid her treasure behind the doors and in the closets of her home.  And apparently, very few people were ever invited to see the treasures she kept for herself.  Now, you can choose to do the same thing with the treasure God has given you, but God didn’t give you the treasure of the gospel so that you would keep it hidden.  He gave it to you so that you might share it with others – with people who otherwise might never know about it.

            Paul says, “You know, out in the world and even in the religious world, there are a lot of people who are trying to impress others with who they are and what they can do.  But God chooses to give his gospel to ordinary, weak human beings so that it will be evident that the greatness of the power is not of our doing.  Paul said, “We’re just ordinary clay pots, but we have this incredible treasure of the gospel dwelling within us because of what Jesus has done for us.”

            And I think that should give hope to all of us.  For us to know that it doesn’t matter that we may not be very impressive on the outside, we may not have a lot of great talents or abilities.  But, that’s the kind of people that God loves to work with.  He loves to put his treasure in ordinary weak human vessels so that it will be evident to everyone that the greatness of the power is from God and not from us. 

            A lot of times, we’re trying so hard to be an impressive witness for Christ instead of saying, “You know what, God?  This is all about you and your power.  This is not about me and how good I can share your message.”  Because we do sometimes think it’s about us.  We don’t talk about Jesus to others because we feel so inadequate.  We’re afraid to talk about Jesus because we don’t feel like we have what it takes. 

            And God says, “You’re absolutely right.  You don’t have what it takes.  But it’s not about your talent.  It’s not about your ability.  It’s about the treasure that I’ve given you.  And when we allow God to living in us as weak human vessels, people will recognize that there’s something different about us, that what we have is not coming from ourselves but it’s coming from God. 

            So, Paul says, “We may not seem very impressive, but we’ve got a message to share and we’re not going quit.  No matter what happens.  In verse 8, “We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair.  We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God.  We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.  Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10, NLT)

            Paul faced a lot of difficulties in his life and that may have been one of the things that caused the Corinthians to say, “You know, I’m not so sure that this guy is legitimate because, if he was, wouldn’t everything be great for him?   I mean wouldn’t God just bless him in every way?  Wouldn’t everything be smooth sailing?”

            Maybe that’s even what some of Paul’s opponents were promising — that they had the health and wealth gospel, and maybe they said, “Hey look, everything is going smooth for us.  What about this Paul?  I mean he’s constantly afflicted.  He’s in trouble.  He’s imprisoned.  Why would you want to follow somebody like that?”

            But Paul says God’s power was evident in the midst of his struggling and suffering.  It wasn’t that God immediately took him out of his struggles, but that God was with him in the struggles.  Yes, we’ve pressed on every side, we’re perplexed, we’re hunted down, we’re knocked down – but we are not abandoned by God.  God is with us, even when things are rough, especially when things are rough.

            And Paul says that what he experienced was similar to what Jesus experienced.  Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus.  Paul says, “You know, the life I live is very much like the life Jesus lived while he was here on this earth.  When Jesus came to this world, one of the things that completely confounded the nation of Israel was they were looking for a powerful king — somebody who would be impressive, someone who would walk around victoriously, someone who would act like a king.  And Jesus came along as a suffering servant and they stumbled over that. 

            Paul says, “We follow in the steps of Jesus.  Like him, we’re willing to lay down our lives.  Jesus ultimately laid his life down to give us eternal life.  But we, as his followers, lay our lives down so that others may see Jesus living in us and be drawn to the Savior.   Paul said we’re going to do whatever God asks us to do, whatever he requires of us in this physical life in order to proclaim him and to see him exalted and to help people believe in him. 

            So, Paul says, “Yeah, you’re right, there’s nothing impressive about us.  The truth is, we suffer, we struggle, we’re perplexed.  Things don’t go well for us a lot of the time.  But we’re willing to do whatever we have to do.  We lay our lives down.  We do whatever it takes so that Christ can be seen in us.  He emphasizes that again in verses 11 and 12:

            “Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies.  So we live in the face of death, but this has resulted in eternal life for you.” (2 Corinthians 4:11-12, NLT)

            Paul says, “If my physical suffering and struggle results in you having eternal life with God, then it’s all worthwhile.  I’m willing to do whatever God calls me to do.  I’m willing to walk the life of Jesus here on this earth so that you might be able to experience the eternal life that comes from him. 

            In verse 14, “All of this is for your benefit.  And as God’s grace reaches more and more people, there will be great thanksgiving, and God will receive more and more glory.” (2 Corinthians 4:14-15)

            This morning. in every country this weekend — and in every country of the world — in almost every language, hundreds of millions of people are doing what we’re doing here this morning.  They’re praising Jesus Christ.  It’s because of Paul’s sacrifice and his willingness to be a messenger of this gospel that you and I sit here this morning.  Hundreds of millions of people around the world this morning are proclaiming the name of Jesus, they’re worshipping Him, they’re following Him — because Paul and others like him were willing to walk in the steps of Jesus, to do whatever needed to be done to share this incredible, glorious message of life in Christ.

            And now, we have received this message.  We are now the clay jars that contain this treasure.  And we can either hide that treasure and keep it from everyone, or we can make the commitment like Paul did to do whatever it takes so that others can experience and know what we know.  To be willing to suffer whatever we have to go through in order for people around us to come to know Christ and to watch them grow up in Christ.   And we need to do whatever it takes because we have experienced that amazing transforming power of God and we want others to experience the very same thing. 

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