Treasure in Earthen Vessels – September 7, 2014
Jeremiah 18:1-11, II Corinthians 3:17-4:12
September 7, 2014
We’ve skipped ahead quite a bit in Corinthians today. We were in First Corinthians 13 last week. This week we’re in Paul’s second letter to that Church, almost the fourth chapter. And here we find Paul in the middle of a long discourse. Yeah, there’s a surprise, huh? Paul was often in the middle of a long discourse!!
Well, in this case, it’s a discourse about the New Covenant. And what I want you to see at first is the way he makes a comparison between the “Old” and the “New.” And keep in mind that all this is “old stuff” to us. It doesn’t phase us to hear Jesus compared to famous people like Moses and Abraham. It just makes sense for us to hear that. But just try to imagine how shocking that would have been to these people hearing it for the first time! Those were the biggies! Jesus was being put on a par with the great patriarchs of their faith! And Holy Cow, this was a Pharisee writing this stuff. It would have been shocking – almost scandalous! (I had a New Testament professor once who loved that word! “Scandalous!”)
Well, in this case Paul is talking about the “Old Covenant,” the covenant given to Moses on the holy mountain, and he’s comparing that to the New Covenant of Yeshua – of Jesus! And that may have been the most scandalous thing of all! To the people of Israel, the giving of the Law was the most important event in their history! That was the foundational event for their nation and their race! That was the time God himself met them on the mountain and gave them the object that made them who they were – the sacred tablets of their Law! The Ten Commandments. The Torah!
So, just prior to the part we read, we find Paul – the Pharisee – talking about that Law, and referring to it as “the dispensation of death!” Really? The dispensation of death?? What he meant by that was that the Law showed the people their sinfulness. It defined for them what God expected them to do and to be. It showed them their failures, and their need for God’s forgiveness and mercy. And that’s all well and good. But! “The dispensation of death!?” Can you imagine how the people would have reacted to that?
Well, his comparison then, was about the “hope we have” in Jesus – the “New Covenant.” And he said how that was “not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so the people would not see the ‘splendor’ of God.” Remember how the face of Moses glowed when he had been with God? And the people were frightened by that! There was an understanding that we can’t see the full splendor and glory of God face to face, or we would surely die! So Moses wore a veil over his face so the people wouldn’t see that glory. And of course they all knew that story!
“But now,” Paul says, “things are different.” And I intentionally included the end of chapter three in our reading for today, because there we find these words – which are perhaps the highpoint of his comparisons between the Old and the New Covenants. He writes “And we, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness, from one degree of that glory to the next!” My computer has no stronger punctuation than the explanation point! And I didn’t want to break it right there by hitting it too many times. But I easily could have! “With unveiled faces, we behold the glory of the Lord,” and not only we are not dying, “we are being changed into his likeness!”
I wanted you to see all that first today. Because as we begin chapter four, we find the word “therefore.” And as I was told years ago, that when you see the word “therefore,” it’s always good to find out what it’s “there for.” In this case, it’s about how, in Jesus – in the New Covenant – we are beholding God’s glory and we are being changed! And not only are we becoming more “godly” people, we are becoming people who are more like God! So, we should never settle for simply becoming “better people.” We should resist the temptation to reach a certain level of righteousness, and then say, “there, that’s good enough.” We are being changed “from one degree of glory to the next!”
So then, because of that, Paul says, “we renounce disgraceful and underhanded ways.” I think the word “disgraceful” here is being used in its purest sense. It’s not the same as “disgusting,” but more in the sense of “un-graceful” He’s saying it’s important that, “We speak and act in ‘graceful’ – Godly ways.” Because we have the greatest of news! And because we are growing in the glory of God!
Do you know that about yourself? Do you know you are “growing in the glory of God?” Sometimes I think that’s the easiest thing for Christians to forget. Or maybe it’s just the hardest for us to fathom. We are becoming like Christ! That’s such a daunting thought! And too many Christians either forget that, or they think it so daunting that they just don’t bother trying! But that’s what Paul tells us we are doing. We’re becoming more and more like Christ!
However, lest we “think too highly of ourselves than we ought,” he brings us back to a most important reality! And this is where I’m drawing our focus for today. He writes, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels!” The glory of God is in us, but we are like clay pots – common, fragile. And I wonder if those words brought to the minds of his readers the story of “The Potter and the Clay” we read in Jeremiah 18? God is the potter, we are the clay!
In all this, the understanding is that we are mortal people. We are flawed. We are fragile. And Paul wants us to be sure that, no matter how much we are being changed into the likeness and glory of God, it’s not about our own glory. It’s about God! “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the ‘transcendent power’ belongs to God and not to us!” The “Supreme power,” the “power that is able to change us into his likeness” belongs to him!
That puts all of this in the proper perspective, doesn’t it! The power is God’s, not ours. But that also gives us hope! Because, I don’t know about you, but I know I can’t do that on my own! I can only trust God. I can only trust that God is doing it! Because I know that when I try to rely only on my own power, that’s where I fail. I hope you know that, too!
That’s hard to see sometimes, isn’t it? But when we do see it, we can also see the benefits of relying on God’s transcendent power. Paul goes on to say, “Because of that ‘we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.’”
Are you ever afflicted? Have you ever been perplexed? Persecuted? Struck down? I’ve been those things. God never promised that we wouldn’t be those things! In fact, this is where I wonder where some Christians get their theology. They want to make it sound like, “Once you follow Jesus you will have none of those things.” Or worse, they make it sound like, if you have those hardships, it’s because your faith isn’t strong enough!
This letter, this passage stands in opposition to that! And I’m so glad! We do have the treasure of God “in earthen vessels.” But the “transcendent power does belong to God and not to us!” It’s not a matter of being able to avoid those difficult things if our faith is strong enough! It’s a matter of God’s power being at work within us, no matter what the circumstances!
That’s what Jesus promised us! He said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world!” He said, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age!”
That’s the Jesus we follow! That’s the Jesus of the New Covenant! With unveiled faces we behold his glory, and we are changed into his likeness. And we have the “treasure in earthen vessels,” knowing that the transcendent power belongs to him, not to us!
And to him be all glory and praise, now and forever, Amen
Eternal God, we are your people by your power at work within us. Help us to know that power. Help us to feel your Spirit in our hearts. Help us to know you are indeed with us, to the close of the age! We lay our lives before you, and give you our honor and praise, in Jesus’ name, Amen.