Treasure in Clay Pots (2012)

This article was first published in Ministry Today — Ministry Today 54.

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Treasure in Clay Pots
Ministry Today 54 (Spring 2012) 5-10
This sermon was preached at Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford, in July 2011 at a
service of infant dedication.
Geoff and Amanda, I wonder, what kind of parties your Zachary will be into in future years?
Our children have particularly liked pirate parties.
The first pirate party was years ago when our eldest son, Jonathan, could not have been
much older than five or six. I remember we had to confiscate all the swords as the guests
arrived – their weapons were lethal! Believe it or not, that must have been a formative
party for Jonathan, for one of his academic interest is pirates. Indeed, we had a pirate
party for him last year when he turned 40, but this time without swords! Needless to say, it
was particularly enjoyed by his nephews and nieces who turned up for the occasion.
This year we have constructed a pirate galleon in our garden, although for some strange
reason one visitor thought it was Noah’s ark – but I have never seen a Noah’s ark with a
skull and cross bones! So, with the pirate galleon newly installed, our eldest grand-
daughter has asked for a pirate party to celebrate her 7th birthday. What’s more she has
asked for a treasure hunt, because you can’t be a pirate without hunting for treasure.
All this came to mind when I was considering my text for this morning: “We who have this
spiritual treasure are like common clay pots, in order to show that the supreme
power belongs to God, and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4.7).
Here Paul likens the good news of Jesus to ‘treasure’. Paul, of course, was no pirate. He
wasn’t in the business of pinching other people’s treasure. Rather he was in the business
of offering treasure. What, of course, was true of the Apostle Paul is true of any Christian
preacher. We are in the business of giving away treasure to those who would receive it –
and the treasure is Jesus. Compared to what Jesus has to offer, nothing else is of value.
So this leads me to my first point:
1. Here Is Amazingly Valuable Treasure!
Jesus is the world’s greatest treasure. Winning the lottery, becoming the top-dog at work,
making a name for oneself – you name it, compared to Jesus, it is as nothing.
Indeed, when writing to the church at Philippi, Paul said that everything else in life was as
‘garbage’, ‘refuse’ (GNB) – fit only for the bin (Philippians 3.8).
Jesus said something similar in two of his parables (Matthew 13.44-45). He spoke of the
man who found treasure hidden in a field, then covering it up again and selling everything
he had in order to buy that field. He spoke, too, of a dealer in precious stones, who spent
his life traveling across land and sea to enrich his collection. One day in a market he
suddenly came across the most perfect pearl. To buy that one priceless jewel, he sold
everything he had. “The Kingdom of heaven”, said Jesus, “is like this”. Compared to
what God offers us in Jesus, nothing is of worth or significance.
In what way is that so?
1.God in Christ has dealt with our past. Jesus, by dying on the Cross, is able to
offer us forgiveness for all our wrong-doing. It doesn’t matter what we have done,
the good news is that in Jesus we can start again. So many people are haunted by
the past, they are shackled by the past, but in Jesus we are set free.
2.God in Christ can deal with our future. For God raised his Son from the dead,
and, as a result death no longer need be a ‘dead-end’. For those who put their faith
in Jesus, death is but a gateway to a new and better world. That really is Good
News.
3.God in Christ enables us to deal with the challenges of the present. As we
shall see, Paul goes on to say in this very passage, life may be tough, but for the
Christian it is never impossibly tough. There may be times when we are knocked
down, but we are never knocked out. By his Spirit Jesus is present in our lives, and
he makes all the difference.
When it comes to the things that really count, we find that they are found in Christ alone.
No wonder Paul later in this letter speaks of Jesus as God’s “priceless gift” (2 Corinthians
9.15). Jesus is the world’s greatest treasure.
It was this conviction that made Paul a preacher of the Gospel. It was because of Jesus
that Paul was prepared to travel all over the known world tell people about “the infinite
riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3.8).
And what was true of Paul, must surely be true of all of us. We have treasure to share –
the treasure of God’s love for us in Jesus. When I say ‘we’, I don’t mean just professional
preachers, but all of us who have discovered the difference Jesus has made to life.
What is true of all of us, is true of you, Geoff and Amanda, not least with regard to your
task of sharing with Zachary how precious Jesus is. Remember, religious education
begins in the home, not in the church.
2. Here Are Very Ordinary People
“We who have this treasure are like common clay pots”
The “common clay pots” Paul had in mind were the small pottery oil lamps to be found in
any home of that time. The metaphor Paul uses has a double-focus:
•On the one hand, the cheapness of these clay lamps represents the very
ordinariness of those to whom the message of the Gospel has been entrusted.
Treasure in common clay pots – what a contrast.
•On the other hand, the fragility of these clay lamps represents the frailty and
weakness of those to whom the message of the Gospel has been entrusted. The
message of God’s power is entrusted to fallible people – what a contrast.
Yes, God has entrusted the amazing good news of Jesus to very ordinary and, at times
very fragile people. What an amazing thought.
Although today we now regard the Apostle Paul as a giant of a man, he knew that he had
feet of clay – indeed, not just feet. He was very conscious of his short-comings.
Some of his critics were not slow to point out his failings. To quote the words of one critic
found in 2 Corinthians 10.10: “Paul’s letters are severe and strong, but when he is with
us in person, he is weak and his words are nothing”. Physically Paul appears not to
have been an impressive character. He wasn’t a guy to lead a rugby pack.
But Paul knew he had other short-comings too. He could never forget that he had once
persecuted the church of God. So he wrote to Timothy: “This is a true saying, to be
completely accepted and believed: Christ Jesus came into the world to save
sinners. And I am the worst of them” (1 Timothy 1.15). When he compared himself to a
common clay pot, Paul was not exhibiting false modesty – I believe he was sincere in
recognizing his own weakness and fallibility.
What was true of Paul is true of us all. All of us are weak and fallible people. From the
outside some of us may appear to be strong characters, but in fact we are essentially
fragile creatures. Let me elaborate on this point a little more. Christians can be weak and
fallible people. Christians do not pretend that they are better than others. No Christian this
side of heaven has attained perfection.
Would that people outside the church realized this. I feel like putting a sign up outside this
church: ‘This church is for sinners only’. The only difference between people in this church
and the people out shopping in the High Street is that we know that in God’s sight we are a
bunch of failures.
Would that people inside the church realized this! Some Christians have unrealistic
expectations of their fellow Christians, with the result that they get easily disillusioned
when all of a sudden they discover that not every church member is not exactly a paragon
of virtue. To use the pirate metaphor, the church has always been a motley crew.
Incidentally, one day Zachary will wake up to the fact that his parents aren’t perfect either.
And yet, God willing, he will realize that in spite of their failing, there was something
special about them – and that something special was the presence of Jesus in their
lives.
3. Here Is Extraordinary Power
“The supreme power belongs to God, not to us”
Life can be tough, and not least when we are seeking to be followers of the Lord Jesus.
This was certainly true for Paul. In the very next two verses he wrote: “We are often
troubled, but not crushed; sometimes in doubt, but never in despair; there are many
enemies, but we are never without a friend; and though badly hurt at times, we are not
destroyed” (vv.8-9). Paul knew what it was like to be under pressure. Listen to Eugene
Peterson’s paraphrase:
“We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not
sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually
terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t been
broken”
Time and again, Paul had found himself in some amazingly hopeless situations, but none
was able to produce the killer blow. Like a cork in the water, he always came up to the
surface. Often ‘knocked down’, he had never been ‘knocked out’ (W. Barclay).
In the course of fulfilling his God-given calling, he ran into all sorts of trouble. Later in this
very letter he wrote:
“Five times I was given the 39 lashes by the Jews; three times I was whipped by the
Romans; and once I was stoned. I have been in three shipwrecks, and once I spent 24
hours in the water. In my many travels I have been in danger from floods and from
robbers, in danger from fellow-Jews and from Gentiles; there have been dangers in the
cities, dangers in the wilds, dangers on the high seas, and dangers from false friends.
There has been work and toil; often I have gone without sleep; I have been hungry and
thirsty; I have often been without enough food, shelter, or clothing” (2 Corinthians 7).
At this point it is tempting to switch off. Paul’s experience of life was so different from ours.
And yet there are two underlying principles which are of relevance to us:
1.God does not promise his servants a trouble-free life. Life can be tough, indeed it
can be down-right unfair – even for those who love God and seek to serve him. If a
spiritual giant like Paul was not spared trouble, neither will we be.
The fact is that we live in a fallen world, where sin has well and truly messed up and
distorted the life God intended for us.
2.God does not leave us to our own resources. When trouble hits, we do not have to
simply grin and bear it. Rather God gives us the inner strength to cope.
Listen to Paul “We who have this spiritual treasure are like common clay pots, to show that
the supreme power belongs to God, not to us”. The power in question was the power with
which God had raised Jesus from the dead.
For Paul the resurrection of Jesus was not simply a doctrine to be believed, but a power to
experience. We see this right at the beginning of this letter, where he mentioned that at
one stage he never thought he would survive the trouble he was in: “We felt that the
death sentence had been passed on us. But this happened, so that we should rely,
not on ourselves, but only on God, who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1.9). Here in 2
Corinthians 4.10, Paul describes his sufferings as almost ‘killing him’ (nekrosis – the
process of being put to death), – yet in the midst of the ‘dying’ he experienced the
resurrection ‘life of Jesus’.
The good news is that Paul’s experience is not unique. The God who empowered Paul in
his weakness is able to empower us in our weakness. God through his Spirit is at work in
the lives of his people today. God does not leave us to our own resources. Our moments
of weakness are opportunities for us to experience God’s power at work in our lives.
Amanda and Geoffrey, I have no idea what the future holds for you. I certainly have no
idea what the future holds for Zachary. But if your lives are like the lives of many of us,
there may well be times when life is marked by stress, suffering, and sorrow. At those
times remember that those who have put their trust in Jesus are not on their own.
In conclusion: Jesus makes all the difference to life. In the words of the Apostle Paul: “we
who have this spiritual treasure are like common clay pots, in order to show that the
supreme power belongs to God, and not to us”.
Amen.

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Who’s Paul Beasley-Murray?

Paul is the chairman of Ministry Today, as also the College of Baptist Ministers, and from 1993 – 2014 was Senior Minister of Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford. He can be contacted at paul@paulbeasleymurray.com.

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