Monday, June 26, 2006

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost: 2 Cor. 4:5-12

I forgot to post this one last week, I gave a sermon on Father's Day. I love you Dad!
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In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the epistle reading, 2 Cor. 4:5-12,

For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you. (NKJV)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

I wonder how many of you here have treasures that you value greatly. Perhaps some family heirlooms or jewelry that has a sentimental or historic value. What do you keep them in? I imagine some are kept in beautiful jewelry boxes; some perhaps in a safe or in a safe-deposit box at the bank. Most likely a treasured painting would be set in a beautiful frame. Then again some might have their treasure concealed in a plain box or container, hidden away in an unlikely place. But unless our purpose is to conceal, we probably wouldn’t keep our treasure in a cheap, unattractive, or fragile container.

But in today’s text, we read that it is precisely this sort of container that God uses to hold an incomparable treasure—the treasure of the Gospel of Christ! St. Paul says that we have this treasure in earthen vessels, or clay jars so that the “excellence of the power may be of God and not from us.” Clay jars aren’t remarkable by any means. They are easily broken, and inexpensive to make. Among the great variety of shapes and sizes, not all clay jars are very attractive. So who would keep treasure inside a clay jar anyways? Especially since they’re so fragile? Who values a clay jar?

Judging by appearances, a clay jar doesn’t have much worth. Here Paul’s metaphor translates into the human experience in a way that we can readily understand. If we take honest stock of our sinful human nature, we realize that it falls woefully short of being counted as a “worthy vessel.” Paul especially made himself an example of this, describing later in 2 Corinthians how some were saying of Paul: “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is of no account” (2 Cor. 10:10). We might be inclined to agree with a commentator, who noted that after seeing all the persecutions, beatings, and suffering that Paul endured, “He hardly serves as an attractive endorsement for the advantages of becoming a Christian. They would perhaps, more readily accept the counsel and censure of someone with a more regal bearing and a greater show of wisdom, strength, and honor” (Garland, 224). But then we are reminded that the “gospel is not about Paul and his strength and virtue. It is about Christ, who imparts strength and virtue to frail, weak human beings, and delivers them from Satan’s bondage” (Garland, 213). Remember how the text began? We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ the Lord!

As with Paul, so also with us. Our sin and sinfulness can get in the way or present itself as an ugly thing to the world. Sometimes the Gospel is obscured by our sinful lives, so that people only see the sinful exterior, the clay jar, and not the treasure of the Gospel that we carry. Has anyone ever remarked cynically, “And you call yourself a Christian?” Though we all are experts at hiding our sin, being by nature sinful and unclean it inevitably comes out sometimes. And those very people we would like to evangelize, see that ugly clay exterior. A burst of anger that causes us to sin. Laziness or cutting corners on the job. Dishonesty. Selfishness. Lust. It doesn’t take long for those who know us to find out that we are sinners!

And so we wonder, “Why does God choose to use such clay vessels to bear His message? Why me? Why not a more glorious vessel?” Because God wants to use us “clay vessels” so that the Gospel is’nt obscured in such a way that it seems that any of the power comes from us! We can’t dress up the Gospel or make it more beautiful than it already is, or make it any more “effective” or “relevant.” The power does’nt come from us! It’s here that we must become contented with how we’ve been fashioned, and let God put us to whatever use He would have us, not presuming to think we know better than Him. When we examine ourselves and consider how worthless we are in our sinful estate, we are greatly humbled that God should so greatly esteem us to use us as vessels to carry His Gospel. How great a love to redeem such a fallen and broken life, and put it to such an honorable purpose! With such a deep knowledge of our sinful hearts, of all our failings and weaknesses, that He would still elect to use us for His glory, as bearers of the Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection!

I asked before, “Who values a clay jar?” Now we see that it is’nt the estimation of others that gives a clay jar its worth, but the estimation of our Maker, God the Father! He is the One who values us so greatly as to send His Son to redeem us by His blood. It’s He who puts us to a higher use. As St. Paul writes to Timothy, “in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:20-21). Notice from these verses that becoming a vessel for the honored use of the Master does not come by being changed from a clay or wooden vessel into a golden or silver vessel, but by being cleansed! And we’ve been cleansed from our sin and its dishonorable uses in our Baptism into Christ, where we were set apart, sanctified for holy use. It’s through this—being redeemed and joined to Christ that we have value in the eyes of our Maker, and so we’re entrusted to carry His Gospel.

Since it’s only by seeing the treasure of the Gospel that we really recognize the value of a clay jar, it’s often difficult for us to give one another the honor and value that is deserved. We’re so prone to judge by appearances, as well as by what is “convenient” for ourselves. If you’ve any doubt, just look at how we treat the weak, the aged, and the infirm. Our culture has become so “compassionate” for the most vulnerable members of society, that we’d just as soon eliminate them or at best push them out of sight, out of mind so that we don’t have to face them or care for them. Tiny infants in the womb, especially those that are deemed “defective” or “inconvenient” are as readily disposed of as a misformed clay jar would be thrown in the trash by a potter. Those whose clay jar is worn, weathered, and aging from much use, we count of little value and often neglect. In churches we commonly assume that congregations of mostly older people are less “vibrant” than those with more youth, or alternatively that we think that we’re therefore incapable of participating in God’s mission. We determine a person’s value by what they can “do” rather than the fact that they are a redeemed child of God. Does God value an older person any less than a child or young adult? Does He value them any more? No, God counts us valuable because of Jesus Christ and His redemption of us—all alike are of value to God.

St. Clement of Alexandria spoke beautifully of this truth about us “clay jars”—that the visible appearance “cheats death and the devil; for the wealth within, the beauty, is unseen by them”…death and the devil cannot recognize the “‘treasure in an earthen vessel’ we bear, protected…by the power of God the Father…the blood of God the Son, and the dew of the Holy Spirit.” He warns us Christians also, not to be deceived by outward appearances, but contrary to the way of the world, we should gather for ourselves an “unarmed, an unwarlike, a bloodless, a passionless, a stainless host, pious old men, orphans dear to God, widows armed with meekness, men adorned with love” (see ref. in notes). Clement reminds us not to despise the lowly or humble Christians, but rather to gather them about us as guards for our bodies and souls, as through their prayers the might of demons is crushed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful indeed, and we’ve shamefully denied this truth in our culture by despising the aged and the infirm. Truly God does not value us by the condition of our “earthen vessel,” but sees us as precious in His sight for the sake of His Son.

On a brighter note, I’d also like to remind us of another variety of “clay jars” among us: namely our fathers! This Father’s Day, we give thanks for our fathers here on earth. Like any clay jar, we’ve seen their fallibility and sinfulness at times, but we’ve also seen them at times when they’ve modeled our heavenly Father—in their caring for us, their hard work to keep us fed and clothed, and in raising us. Their disciplining of us; as fathers who love us will do. We see in them a reflection of our Heavenly Father when they still love us through the times when we’ve been disobedient or stubborn—thought we knew better than them, but later proved wrong. Especially for those who have been blessed with a Christian father, we’ve seen the love of Christ exemplified in their self-sacrifice and love for their wife, our mother. By showing a Christ-like love for his wife, the husband in a small way depicts the love Christ has for His church. And most importantly, our fathers have the great and solemn responsibility to bring us up in the faith. Luther even wrote his small catechism for the explicit purpose of having fathers use it to teach the basics of the Christian faith to their household. And for those who have neglected this important duty, this is a reminder of one of your most important responsibilities as a father. Mothers, pastors, and teachers all participate in this task, but your leadership and example in this role is vital. So it’s fitting this day that we give our dads our thanks and appreciation.

In all these examples, if we can see them by faith, we learn what God is teaching us. He doesn’t use us humans, mere clay jars, because we are powerful, strong, and beautiful. He uses us because clay jars don’t obscure the surpassing power of God. Rather, they show forth that surpassing power of God, and how it’s able to preserve us from all evil. Paul speaks about how we may be hard-pressed, perplexed, persecuted, or struck down. Paul endured much of this, even to the point of despairing of his own life (2 Cor. 1:8). But he assures us that God won’t permit us to be crushed, left to total despair, or to be abandoned or destroyed. In all of our trials we may be put at considerable difficulty, but it won’t be beyond what we can bear—even if we don’t think so at the time. All this happens so that the power of God may be made more evident through our weakness! Hear again these words of Paul:

[we are] always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you.

Suffering as a Christian indeed means “carrying about…the dying of the Lord Jesus,” but this is so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in us?

Puzzling, isn’t it? Yet it’s especially in our sufferings that the life of Jesus is made evident in our bodies, as the power of the Gospel produces in us an uncharacteristic love and endurance. In Christ we are able to show forth a love that is far greater than any human compassion can muster. Consider for example, what an incredible testament to the faith it was when the apostles suffered so much for the sake of the Gospel! How that must have bolstered the faith of the believers. Imagine if you saw your own pastors undergoing great persecution and suffering for the sake of the Gospel, as is happening in many parts of the world even now. How much we would be reassured that this Gospel we believe is indeed THE Truth worth dying for, and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was not something that could be taken away from them, even by force and great pain. To see another Christian bear up under suffering with patience, or to respond to hatred and malice with love and forgiveness—we would see the life of Jesus evident in them. For this is a love and patience that no human being can supply, it comes from Christ alone. But in all this, we must remember that whatever sufferings we or any Christian endure, it is not redemptive. We can’t contribute anything to the perfect sacrifice that is our completed salvation: Jesus’ death.

Indeed, by all appearances, Christ’s death seemed like the breaking of an ordinary clay jar. The glory of Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t visible to worldly eyes. Though He appeared to worldly eyes as but a clay jar, He was in fact the most priceless treasure! His death portrayed anything but beauty and value, but in His precious death His dying vessel bled the most precious healing blood, that forgave the world’s sin. His body was the vessel for blood of priceless worth. But unlike our clay vessels, Christ’s body, life and death was the very demonstration of the surpassing power of God! His death unveiled that long-awaited treasure, but a treasure seen only by the eyes of faith, which could see in a dying man the Divine Savior. But the surpassing power of God couldn’t be held in a tomb! And it’s this Resurrection life, and the all-surpassing love of the God who would choose fragile, unattractive clay jars for His use, that shines like a glorious treasure, even in our dying bodies. This life of Jesus is made evident in our mortal flesh, until that day when our bodies are refashioned after His more glorious vessel. In Jesus name. Amen.

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