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Treasure in Jars of Clay

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Text: II Corinthians 4:1-12

Theme: We have treasure inside our cracked clay pots

Doctrine: God uses the weak

Image: clay pots

Need: image adjustment on the importance, or lack their of, of the denomination

Message: “rejoice” in the treasure the CRC holds

Treasure in Jars of Clay

II Cor 4:1-12 (esp. v7)

This year is a very special year for our denomination. The Christian Reformed Church of North America is 150 years old, it is interesting to think that the CRC is a decade older than Canada! It is truly something to celebrate this milestone, and to honour the work God had done through this little gathering of believers. God has blessed us by allowing us to partner in some truly incredible things over the years. Often we look back with rose coloured glasses, thinking it was better back when ... . Other times we look forward with trepidation, worrying about the future, if our church will still be around in another fifty years. Today, however, I want to take a moment and have a look at the denomination as it is today. There are many people who are not happy with the way things are going. They are not satisfied with the decisions that are made when the church gathers in a body to discuss issues every year. The denomination is no longer the immigrant church it once was. Most of the overall membership were born and raised in the US or Canada. We are truly a North American Church. There are divisions as people cannot seem to get along very well. People are leaving and going places where they feel more comfortable. There are a large number of congregations which do not have a pastor. There are people crying out that we have to return to the church of old, while there are others who are calling for a bold change for the future. We had a goal at one time of 200 000 professing members by the year 2000, but then a bunch of infighting caused us to lose members left and right, leaving us with a little over 183 000 in 2000.

The structure may not be the best, after all what structure is? There may be times when we find it hard to get along. We may find ourselves arguing more than we ought; we are all still a bit sinful, are we not? But we do have something to celebrate. We do have something to rejoice over. That is the wonderful message of grace which all Christians proclaim. “[W]e have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

Treasure, in jars of clay. For many people it would seem foolish to place a treasure inside a jar of clay. It does not make much sense to hide something of value inside something that is not worth very much. Pottery is something that is almost ubiquitous. Pottery is common, it is relatively easy to make, it does not cost all that much. Paul would have been surrounded by pottery, used for all sorts of things. He would have eaten from clay pots, drank from clay cups, and carried water in clay jars. A jar of clay was not something spectacular. By comparing himself to a clay jar he expresses his fragility, inferiority, expendability. If a clay jar was broken or cracked, it could not be fixed or put back together. It was simply thrown away and a new one purchased.

It is very possible that Paul is defending his own authority here. Much of this letter to the Corinthians is devoted to Paul's discussion of his ministry. His opponents seem to be arguing that a person truly sent by God would not be someone like Paul. They would not be small and frail. They would not be poor speakers. They would not have had so many bad things happen to them. If Paul were truly sent by God, if he truly had authority, then he would be a much more imposing presence. Paul, however, is saying the opposite is actually the case. The proof that it is God who is using him is that Paul is a weak vessel. All the success of his ministry, all of the churches he has planted, all of the people accepting Jesus as their saviour cannot be attributed to Paul; since he is weak. All of these successes are attributed to the power of God in him.

Paul tells the Corinthians about many the difficult problems he has had. He is “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Cor 4:8-9) Later on in this letter Paul directly attacks those who argue he is not a servant of Christ using his suffering as his evidence. “Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (2 Cor 11:24-28) After all of this I am sure Paul was not the prettiest person to look at. He declares himself to be a jar of clay.

We are each jars of clay. Each and everyone of us feels the fragility of life on a daily basis. “For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.” (2 Cor 4:11) We are constantly reminded of our mortal condition. Our dying here does not refer to our daily putting to death the sinful nature, but it refers to our constant realisation of our mortal condition. Reminders of our mortality become more common as one gets older. In the last few years I have lost all of my biological grandparents. Just a couple of weeks ago we had a funeral here for John VanderWal. As I look around this morning there are very few of us here who have not been touched by reminders of death in the past week. This reminder of our own mortality gives us more and more opportunities to tell people of the hope we have in Jesus. Our own frailty allows us to tell others of the hope that we have within us; “so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (2 Cor 4:10).

Our personal frailty is often reflected in the frailty of the things that we are a part of. It is an amazing achievement that our little immigrant denomination has reached 150 years. It is all the more amazing because of the weakness that is prevalent within it. In the March issue of the  Banner Rev Sam Hamstra wrote an article entitled “A Modest Proposal” in which he suggested we realise the mortality of our denomination. He writes;

“My recommendation? Let’s celebrate our 150th birthday as if we were a 95-year-old, not a teenager. You know the difference. One looks back and the other looks ahead. One thinks this may be the last and the other plans on many more. Still, both celebrate.So let’s celebrate what God has done through the CRCNA for a century and a half, while recognizing that the denomination’s death may open the door to a new form of congregational collaboration, one that exists for the purpose of serving its local congregations, which God has called to be the hope of the world.”

I am not going to get into the discussion about whether the denomination will be here in 50 years or not. It is important to realise that there is much pain in the CRC at the moment. There are people are various sides of many different issues who think the others are wrong and the denomination is not doing enough. People who want to have more congregational autonomy are not happy with the current structure of the administration, but neither are those who want more accountability between congregations. People on both sides of the women in office issue view the discussions and decisions with pain. Many worry that our Reformed heritage is being thrown out the window in an effort to reach the current culture, while many others worry that we are slowly becoming more and more irrelevant in a rapidly changing society. We need about 200 new pastors to fill vacant pulpits within the CRCNA, with more pastors expected to retire in the next 10 years than graduate. In 1970 there were over 300 full time CRC missionaries in about 30 countries, now there are less than 100. There is much to be worried about as we think about the current state of our beloved denomination.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” And though there is much to worry about, there is also much to celebrate. Though people may wonder about the state of the church, we have a rich inheritance which will not be thrown away easily. We have treasured the Reformed heritage that was passed along to us by our parents. We take joy knowing that the CRC is considered to have one of the best theologically trained clergy in the world. We rejoice over the primacy the Word has in our services and in our lives.

I have a couple of friends from the seminary who came into the CRC from different Pentecostal traditions. They were enthralled by the rich Reformed tradition that they learned at the seminary. They fell in love with the overarching narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption, Recreation which is the guiding force of all of our theology. They found their daily lives enriched with the Reformed world and life view, a view which allowed them to live their whole lives, and not just their Sundays, in service and worship to their creator and saviour. These are people who are committed to the sustaining and refining of this rich tradition.

But it is not just these individuals who feel this way. There are many of us who are committed to working within this denomination. There are many of us who are committed to making her grow and develop; committed to serving her members in whatever way we can. We are committed to the view of the church as expressed by Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 54.

Q: What do you believe concerning 'the holy catholic church'?

A: I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member.

I could outline many more things that the denomination is doing which are furthering the kingdom of God. I could talk about the millions of dollars used by the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee to alleviate pain and suffering in the world. I could talk about the ministry of the Back to God Hour. I could tell you how it proclaims the message of Jesus Christ to listeners all over the world in nine different languages. I could tell you how Hundreds of millions of people around the world are able to hear The Back to God Hour broadcast in a language they can speak and understand. All these are good things, but they are not the true treasure of our denomination. The treasure we have is not the creeds and confessions that we adhere to. The treasure is not the great ministry that we do, or the great people who have come out of this denomination.

The true treasure that our denomination has within its cracked and crumbling clay walls is the gospel message of Jesus Christ. The thing that gets me most excited about the prospects of this denomination is it commitment to Biblical preaching. So many of my friends who are looking forward to ordination are fired up for the gospel and cannot wait to spread the good news of the message of Jesus to all his people. The professors at the seminary are committed to ensuring that our ministers are well prepared to present the message of the cross. The treasure that we can celebrate is the salvation that we have from Christ. The treasure that is within this denomination is something which does not separate us, or make us distinct from other Christians, but it connects us with them. The true treasure that we have within the CRC is an unflagging commitment to the message of salvation.

“[W]e have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” This treasure is not meant to make us feel superior to others. It is not meant to allow us to stay in our bubble and not interact with the world. It is not meant to have people look at us and exclaim at our greatness. This treasure we have is placed within this cracked clay pot to show that the power belongs to God. It is not through our own strength, or incredible fund raising abilities that we are able to send out missionaries, or provide millions of dollars of aid, or spread the gospel message around the world through radio and television. It is through the strength of the Spirit, who is given to us by the Father and the Son. It is through the power of the Spirit that we individually go out to our neighbours and invite them to come to Christ. It is through the power of the Spirit that we go to those who no longer attend church and express to them the love and care of Jesus. It is through the power of the Spirit that the light of the gospel shines into this dark world. “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.”

There are times when we may feel discouraged with ourselves, with others, and with our church, and there will be more of them. Our churches are not perfect, because we are not yet perfect. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

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