II Corinthians 4:6-18
June 17, 2018
If someone is described as having “feet of clay,” we know what that means, don’t we? “Feet of clay” is an expression that denotes weakness, or better yet, “vulnerability.” We might be describing a strong person, but a person that has a tragic flaw, a hidden vulnerability, a “chink in their armor.”
Maybe you remember the story of the Greek warrior named Achilles. He was a powerful soldier, but he had one weakness – his heel! Do you remember? When he was a baby, his mother dipped him in a magic river that would make him invulnerable in battle. But when she dipped him, she held him by the heel, and that heel became his place of vulnerability. And that’s how he was defeated! We still name the big tendon going into the back of our heel after Achilles! He was strong, but he had “feet of clay.”
That expression actually comes from this book of Daniel. It was part of the dream that Daniel interpreted for King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was good at that! But in this case he had to be very good! Because the king insisted on having his dream interpreted, without revealing to anybody what the dream was about! They had to tell what the dream was, then interpret it!
Well, that was too much for the king’s regular interpreters, but Daniel came through! Daniel told the king that he had seen in his dream a statue with “ahead made of fine gold, its breast and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, and its feet partly of iron and partly of clay.” And then he gave his interpretation. He told the king that the dream was about the kingdoms that were to come. Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom was the one represented by the head of gold. And the successive kingdoms were represented by the other parts of the body of the statue, down to the feet, that were “partly of iron and partly of clay.” That last kingdom would be a kingdom of strength, but a kingdom with a vulnerability, or a tragic weakness. That statue had “Feet of Clay,” and we’ve used that expression ever since.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he presents this beautiful metaphor!! And he too uses this idea of “clay” as a weakness. He tells us about “the glory of God” which is found in “earthen vessels” – or “Jars of Clay!” Maybe you’ve heard of the Christian band by that name – “Jars of Clay.” That’s where I got the title of this message. We actually did one of their songs this morning!
“We have this treasure in earthen vessels,” Paul writes, “to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” (II Corinthians 4:7) Treasure in earthen vessels – “jars of clay.” I think that’s a wonderful metaphor. I think it’s the greatest example of this expression. It speaks of great power and majesty, paired with great weakness and vulnerability.
So, “clay” has come to denote humbleness, lowliness, meekness. (And by the way, those are very important New Testament words!) That glory through humility is a recurring them, it is the leitmotif, of the way God works. Think about it. It is Mary the peasant girl giving birth to the Messiah. It is Jesus choosing the fishermen as his disciples. It is God in us. It is the Eternal, even wanting to be in us, to have a relationship with “the likes of us!”
At the very least here, we can know that if we ever feel “weak,” if we ever feel “broken,” if we ever feel “unworthy, of God’s love,” well, then we’re right in God’s “wheelhouse.” That’s the kind of people God wants. We’re right in line with his usual way of doing things! That’s what this passage is telling us!
And by the way, I did just use the word “Feel.” Do you ever “feel” weak, broken, or unworthy? I want to say a little bit about that word. What we “feel” is healthy! If we feel unworthy, if we feel like we’ve “messed up,” it may well be true! And that’s a good thing! Because if we have “messed up” our feelings should tell us that!
But(!) We can’t get caught in the trap of thinking we need to treat the “feelings” alone. Feelings show us about the reality of things. Again, the reality of things may be that that we have “messed up!” And if so, we need to fix the “mess up.” We live in a society that tends to deal only with the “feeling” part of this. It gives remedies to fix the way we feel, but it falls short on dealing with the “mess ups” that make us “feel” that we’ve “messed up.” Does that make sense?
Think about it. God’s remedy for our “mess ups” is to tell us that we are forgiven. But that shows us that the “mess ups” – the “sins” – are not ok. They are real. They could even be real bad “mess ups.” But they are forgiven! It’s important to understand what that means. It isn’t as if we “messed up,” we were forgiven, and therefore we’ve “gotten away with it” somehow. It isn’t as if the sins were somehow “ok,” or that they were “made ok.” No! It’s that we have been forgiven, even though we don’t deserve to be! That’s the amazing thing! And it is through that process of recognizing and acknowledging our “mess ups” and that amazing forgiveness of God, that we also see and act on the need not to “mess up” again. Because it’s not “ok.”
And we do “mess up!” Don’t we? Think about clay pots. They are irregular. They are fragile. They have flaws. They can be broken or chipped or cracked. They’re not particularly beautiful to look at. That’s us, isn’t it? We are all those things. But this passage is not about changing that. It’s not about losing our weakness or our vulnerability. This is not about trying to be “fired” in a kiln and turned into nice, shiny, hard ceramic. It’s about recognizing that God is inside of us, even in our weakness, and knowing that is our strength! “We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.”
That’s the “Good News!” And because we have that treasure within us, Paul tell us here that, “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 we are those things, too. Aren’t we? We’re afflicted. We’re perplexed. We’re persecuted. We’re struck down. We all experience those things. But! The good news is that we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed!
As God’s people, we know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s there! That’s the difference between us and those that do despair. We know there’s a light. And it’s the greatest light there is! It’s just that it’s hard to see sometimes, isn’t it? And we need to be reminded. We need to assure each other. We need to do the things we need to do to remember these promises. These letters to the churches in the New Testament are letters to us, too! Imagine we’re reading them for the first time, like they did. Imagine that we’re hearing these great truths for the first time! We need these same reminders, these same assurances that those Corinthians needed, don’t we?!
“We have to be continually reminded of what we believe.” Those are the words of C. S. Lewis from his book “Mere Christianity.” “Neither this belief,” he wrote, “nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed. And as a matter of fact, if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been ‘reasoned out of it’ by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?
“We need to be continually reminded of what we believe.” And I would add that we need to be continually reminded also that we are “earthen vessels” – “jars of clay.” But that in these jars, the treasure of God resides! The first part is not so hard. I know I am a “jar of clay!” I know I’m flawed, maybe a bit cracked! How about you? I know there are times I feel afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. But with regular reminders of the glory of God, I can know that I’m not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed!
I know that I have to be constantly reminded that God is with me. God is in me! There is light at the end of that tunnel. And the transcendent power belongs to God, not to me! That’s what the “practice” of our faith is about. We need to do the things that constantly remind us of what we believe, things like prayer, fellowship, worship. And that’s my exhortation to you today. Do the things you need to do to remember what God has done for you. You are earthen vessels – jars of clay – and in you the treasure of God resides!
Eternal God, we are amazed that you choose to dwell within us. Help us to find you in the daily practice of our faith. Help us to seek you with all our hearts. Help us to know the assurance of your power in our lives. Grant us peace, no matter what the circumstances of our lives. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.