Monday, June 02, 2014

Earthen Vessels (embrace your inner duck)

I want to talk about two things this morning. One is the fundamental rebellion against God that is part of all of our lives, and two is the shape that our lives take—not good or bad, but often things that we really want to change. The first area, our rebellion, requires God’s intervention to help us turn from our rebellion and be saved. The second area, being the imperfect way we are, does not need change with anything like the same urgency. Sometimes we need to embrace the way God made us, whether or not we like it.

The Text (Read Text: 2 Corinthians 4:1-7)
There are at least two basic issues in 2 Corinthians with which Paul deals. One is that Paul has had to exercise discipline against someone in the Corinthian church. In chapter two he notes that he was staying away for a time in order not to make that discipline too painful. So chapter 2:
1 So I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you. 2 For if I grieve you, who is left to make me glad but you whom I have grieved? 3 I wrote as I did, so that when I came I would not be distressed by those who should have made me rejoice. … 5 If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you to some extent – not to put it too severely. 6 The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. 7 Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.”

Two is that the Corinthians were questioning his authority as an apostle. Other teachers had come to them claiming that they had greater authority and could show greater spiritual power than Paul. In chapter 11:5 Paul sarcastically calls them “super-apostles”. Much of this letter is given to showing that God’s greatness and goodness are most visible in our apparent weakness. That note comes through in chapter 4.

In the first chapters of 2 Corinthians, Paul talks a lot about the glory of God, which is the answer both to those who would allow sin to go unchecked in their lives and to those who want to talk about how great they are. God is the only one full of glory. We are becoming like God in his glory through the gift of the gospel of Jesus. So God’s glory frames all of our conversation about how to live in this world.

You notice that way that Paul talks about our rebellion in the passage that we read:
V. 2: We have renounced secret and shameful ways. (He refers to deceit in ministry--but the application can be broader.)
V. 4: The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers …. (leading to rebellion against God).
V. 6: God … made his light to shine in our hearts …. (leading to the end of rebellion).

I have been reading through the book of Judges (a hard book for a Mennonite to read). One commentator observes that the book descends from a setting in which God would call a judge such as Ehud, who responded and delivered Israel, to a situation in which the judge was someone like Samson, who cared more about his own pleasure than doing God’s will. The book comes to a conclusion with these words: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” 

These words describe our world accurately. A brief survey of the news reminds us of the results of human rebellion against God. We have enshrined personal liberty above all else, so that every person tries to be his/her own god. That rebellion is idolatry and leads only to trouble. The cure for this rebellion and darkness is the light of the gospel, which shines in the hearts of those who have given themselves to God in Christ. 

The light of the gospel is the reason that we are gathered together this morning. Jesus took our sins and rebellion on to himself on the cross, and the light of his resurrection is the best good news ever to be heard in our world. Have you ever paid attention to the stories of deliverance, stories that we used to tell in testimony meetings? Here is a small one from my family. My great-great-grandmother was Abigail Barnhart Climenhaga. She had a brother named Peter Barnhart. Peter smoked a clay pipe, a foul-smelling habit that made life miserable for his family. When people told him he should stop smoking the pipe, he said, “Show me in the Bible where it says the clay pipe is wrong.” Well, such verses are hard to find. Then one day during revival services in the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, where he lived, God got hold of him, and he went down to the altar to pray. That night he took out his clay pipe and let go of it forever. On the way home in their horse and carriage, Peter suddenly said to his wife, “Mary, I stink!” “Yes Peter”, she replied, “you do.” When they got home, Peter walked around the house and said, “The house stinks!” His wife agreed. The next day he went out and bought some carbolic soap and scrubbed down the whole house and repainted it. And that was the end of the clay pipe. Clay pipes are a small thing, but God has set countless people free from sin and rebellion. When you turn your life over to God, Christ cleanses you and makes you new and shines the light of the gospel into your life. This light then shines through you into the lives of people around you.

On Friday I met Kirit Debbarma. He is an Indian pastor just north of Calcutta, India in the state called Tripura.  He described the ethnic and religious conflict that goes on around him and then said, “That’s why I preach the gospel. Peace between the castes and ethnic groups of India can come only through Jesus.”

The light of the gospel shining in our hearts is something we should seek more and more. This requires a constant unchanging focus on Jesus at the centre of our lives. Only God’s Spirit working in us can do this. And yet we often obsess about things that don’t matter nearly as much as open rebellion, while allowing our rebellion to continue unchecked.

The Way We Are
Have you ever noticed how we worry about things we can’t change that really don’t matter, and make excuses for things we should change that God wants to take care of? Let me illustrate with my own life. My grandparents went to Zimbabwe in 1921. My grandfather came to be known as “Iskwabayile”. As best as we can tell, the name refers to the way that he walked: “He walked like a duck.” My parents went back to Africa in 1946, and my Dad came to be known as “Umgamuli”, one who struts around as though he is really important”: Another way of saying, “He walked like a duck.” I went to Zimbabwe in 1972, when I graduated from college. I met an older woman at the mission where my grandparents had lived. She asked me, “What’s your name?” I told her. “What’s your father’s name?” I told her. “What’s your grandfather’s name?” I told her. She finished with: “You walk like your grandfather.” Ouch!

We were talking about this story with our sons, and one of them said, “I’m trying not to walk like a duck.” Guess what: you don’t have much choice! You walk the way that you learned to walk by watching your father. Guess what else: It doesn’t matter! God made me that way, and it’s okay!
A side note: Another way of understanding the walk is that it conveys the idea of self-confidence and the willingness to lead people forward. That’s more positive than “like a duck”—and it still doesn’t really matter!

How often do we try our hardest to change something about the way we look or sound or act? We go on diets, exercise frantically, pay for plastic surgery, and generally put great energy into changing things that really don’t matter. When I was in college, one of my teachers had a nose that was really red from the veins in his nose. I remember thinking, “I am so glad I don’t have your nose!” Now that I am older, I’m getting a similar nose. I asked the doctor if there’s anything he could do. He said that there is cosmetic surgery that would restore my nose to its former glory, but it costs quite a bit. Why would I pay that money?

Now there is nothing wrong with looking our best. It is a good thing to work out and take care of ourselves. But whether you are an extrovert or introvert really doesn’t matter. If you wish you were taller (why can’t I be 5’11’ instead of 5’7”?), it doesn’t matter! I have trouble with organization and remembering what I’m supposed to do next. It is good for me to learn to make lists, but being disorganized is not sin.

So we take care of ourselves and generally cope with the way God made us. That’s good. But do we put the same energy into dealing with our real problems? Do we seek God’s deliverance for outbreaks of temper that hurt people, or for a tendency to lie that destroys relationships, or for the many other real signs of rebellion in our lives? Let the gospel act in your life changing you from glory into glory (3:18), and don’t worry so much about what are really minor imperfections on the surface.

Here is how Paul describes these surface imperfections:
V. 7: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay (or earthen vessels) to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” This quality of “earthen vessels” may mean “redeemed sinful human beings”, but  it also brings in the idea of being less than perfect in all areas—not just referring to our moral imperfection.

We have this treasure of the gospel in our bodies and personalities filled with imperfections. That’s good! I wonder if in some sense the “thorn in the flesh” that Paul describes in chapter 12 isn’t something like this. Perhaps Paul really wanted to become a nicer person to live with, and finally realized he would always be cranky and over-zealous. God didn’t heal that, because he didn’t need to. Paul was a clay jar, an earthen vessel.
Another side note: This is a less likely possibility for Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”. Just saying—Paul was imperfect, and that was fine with God. We are ‘earthen vessels”.

Let me recap. 1) God wants to change us from glory into glory, removing our sin and rebellion and remaking us with God’s glory shining in and through us. 2) We sometimes start to focus on minor issues of personality and appearance and ask God to change that. God saves us. He takes care of the fundamental rebellion of the human heart and reconciles us to himself. God does not change our height or weight or nose shape. We remain ourselves with all of our imperfections; we remain earthen vessels, jars of clay.

Recently I read a column by Hilary Price. (I don’t know the original source.) Hilary’s (Charles Price) is the pastor of People’s Church in Toronto, and she has her own ministry with People’s Church. (You can read more about them at
A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on an end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water in his master’s house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect to the end for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream.
“I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.” “Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?” “I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don't get full value from your efforts,” the pot said. The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion he said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again the Pot apologized to the bearer for its failure.
The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pots side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you've watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my masters table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”
The flaws that make us earthen vessels or clay pots are not our active rebellion against God. Setting ourselves up against God is simply wrong and leads to great harm. But you don’t have to be like anyone else for God’s glory to shine in and through you. God made you the way you are, and that’s good. “Embrace your inner duck!”

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