Sunday 23rd August 2020

In the early weeks of lockdown I phoned a member of the congregation where I was then visiting. She is someone with a number of health issues and so would have to shield until 31 July. How are you doing, I asked. Well, to be honest, I feel very fragile at times, she replied. Yes: that’s how I would put it – fragile! But then I remind myself of II Corinthians 4 v. 7 – and that puts a whole different spin on things. I’m fragile – but I’m so very grateful. II Corinthians 4 verse 7?

We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

That image – jars of clay – was used by Paul to confess that at times he too could feel as fragile, as vulnerable as a flimsy earthenware vessel. Now, just think about this picture for a moment: whatever their shape or their form, objects made from potters’ clay are designed to hold something. Cups, bowls, jugs fulfil their true function when they are used as containers. So too the vessels of our lives were fashioned to hold something as it were, for each one of us has a capacity for God himself. We were created with a space, with a void deep within, that only our Maker can fill. Indeed this is the real purpose behind our existence. You and I have a capacity, let’s call it a ‘heart-space’, for something of immense value: for a pearl of great price!

We have this treasure, wrote the apostle. What treasure? Why: v.6 “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Knowing God, through faith in his Son Jesus. Nothing can possibly compare with this. Yet where is such treasure located? Just as a woman might place her valuable brooch in a rather ordinary little box for safekeeping, so God entrusts this most precious of all gems to what? To jars of clay. To earthen vessels. To ordinary people like you and me.

Some folk imagine that God would choose only superbly-gifted, multi-talented, love the limelight individuals who are successful at everything. So when it comes to serving Him, high-achievers only need apply. Yet just the opposite is true! He can do absolutely nothing with the high and mighty. Because such individuals are full of themselves rather than open to the Spirit. Yes: Paul recognised that he was a chosen vessel – as are all who trust in Christ. But he was also conscious that he was a frail, earthen vessel.

From the evidence that we have, this was true of him even at a physical level. The apostle would never have made a glamorous movie star – for he was quite plain in appearance. There are hints that he was a less-than-average speaker and obviously his health was below par, witness that unidentified thorn in the flesh. Yet none of this deterred Paul. I am just a common or garden utensil, he noted. But that’s good! Because we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God, not from us.

When you receive a present, let’s say for your birthday, it may come wrapped in attractive paper. But the packaging doesn’t really matter. Indeed it is quickly discarded: except by those who remove the sellotape and iron out the creases for reuse! Well, it is like that with the gospel. The wrapping is only of secondary importance. What counts is the gift itself and, of course, the giver. David Prior tells of meeting the late Richard Wurmbrand. This courageous pastor had been imprisoned for over 14 years in Romanian jails: an ordeal that left both emotional and physical scars. “He looked haggard,” wrote David Prior, “with sallow cheeks, pronounced rings under his eyes… and a shuffling, unsteady gait. BUT – from this frail earthen vessel radiated the glory of the living God.”

Like Paul before him, Richard Wurmbrand made a powerful impression on those who met him. Yet the apostle’s use of that word “power” in v.7, in the same breath as ‘jars of clay’ would have amused his critics at Corinth. For as they saw it, any church worthy of the name should demonstrate power, its members should display power, its activities should be clothed with power, all in a very in-your-face kind of way. Weakness of any kind was equated with failure. So they despised those Christians who didn’t quite make the grade: woe betide anyone who admitted to having problems or to feeling below par. But look at Paul’s own testimony in vv. 8 & 9

“We are hard pressed on every side,” he wrote – confronted by the normal, everyday problems of life and also with the burdens of his leadership role. We seem to think that stress is a modern phenomenon (and to say that is not to deny the reality of stress today). But this man was writing almost 2000 years ago about being hard pressed: about feeling under pressure – and he couldn’t just shrug it off with any pious cliches. And I also know what it is to feel perplexed, said the apostle. Yes: Paul could find it tough to make the right decisions. He could be just as confused as you or me when we aren’t sure what to do.

Perplexed. And persecuted: a term that covers every kind of injury and offence directed against people because of their faith. We may face such opposition in its milder forms but Paul had encountered “the lot” – as do many in our world. Here was someone who had been stressed out, mixed up, locked away and (v.9) struck down. The apostle was knocked for six by crises similar to those which leave us emotionally wrung-out: breaking our hearts and even testing our faith.

Here then is someone who shared our challenging experiences and a few more as well. Yet Paul still kept going. For God was with him all the way! Hence the two most important words in his testimony are but not! “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; we’re persecuted, but we’re not abandoned; we are struck down, but we are not destroyed.” The apostle was all too conscious of his own fragility. But he was also deeply conscious of the Lord’s presence in all of this. So he refused to wallow in despair.

Are we under pressure today, for whatever reason? Or are we confused over decisions that confront us? Do we feel imprisoned by our current situation or floored by adverse circumstances? Yet we too can say with the apostle in v.1: “we do not lose heart”. We will not give up! For those who trust Jesus are the ultimate survivors, who know that nothing can ever separate us from His love. Jars of clay?

Yes. But certainly not empty jars: for there is real treasure within. And, while these fragile vessels can be chipped or cracked, they will never, ever be destroyed. Because God’s presence is promised to us – at all times and for all eternity!