I’ve encountered the metaphor of being clay in the hands of a Creator before – that I am malleable and being formed into something beautiful by life. I sometimes go running with an iPod playlist with music by Jars of Clay. But I’ve never heard a man diagnosed with a cancer which could take his life speak about 2 Corinthians 4 as I heard today in church by guest Pastor George Redington.
2 Corinthians 4:7 (NIV) reads “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” Pastor Redington explained that our bodies, or our lives, were the jars of clay – regular earthen pots that would be used for daily household chores, and the treasure was from verse 4:6, “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory.” Just minutes before I had heard from him for the first time that he has cancer, a type of cancer that normally carries the life expectancy of three years after diagnosis. He spoke of how he appears healthy to his appointments and doctors shake their heads in awe at how he has survived 10 years past the diagnosis. He is a Jar of Clay carrying what may very well be a terminal disease.
2 Cor 4:11 says “For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” A man doctors expected to already be dead was before me preaching about human frailty. That’s humbling. It makes you think.
I read verses I’d heard many time in allusion or song with a new perspective: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” By no fault or choice of his own, this man carried in him a disease that could end his life. His first chemotherapies changed the quality of his life. He had been hard pressed, perplexed and at times struck down – but here he was in front of me preaching about hope and giving glory to God through the way we live.
I read on in 2nd Corinthians as he preached. Verse 4:16 says “We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” 2 Cor 5:1 says “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”
One of my favorite Biblical verses is written in red in 2 Cor 12: 9 when Jesus tells Paul “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I’d written about this verse recently, and I couldn’t help but feeling that God wanted me to listen in this moment when man who has started death in the face was preaching about our body being like Jars of Clay.
My mother, on her deathbed after a month in the hospital on a ventilator, had the strength of faith to move her hands like a butterfly flying away to reference the hymn “I’ll fly away” to tell us she was ready to remove her life support. She made this motion to me, my father, her mother, her sister – always nodding with what vigor she could when we asked her if she wanted to “Fly away home” “to God’s celestial shore” like in the song. I’ve marveled at the faith of a woman who could live more days on a machine but was ready instead to leave her Jar of Clay behind to meet her Maker. Perhaps my mother knew as 2 Cor 4: 12 tells us, that as “death is at work is in us”, “life is at work in you.”
A jar of clay itself has little value. It is a common object, glorified by what it can contain rather than by what itself is. Not all Jars of Clay are created in the same way, and not all will last as long as another. Jars of Clay were built for different purposes, with different designs. Today, I heard from a man whose body carries a cancer. Our full time pastor was away helping a church transition after their pastor passed away. Our Jar of Clay is transient; our time is not guaranteed. We do not last forever. And retired Pastor Redington, with irregular chances to speak before a congregation again, brought this verse to our attention shortly after finding out he again carries an active spot of cancer which threatens to end his life.
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The beauty of today’s sermon is that a man who faces the frailty of his own Jar of Clay was not focused on mourning or his own hardships, but instead was focused on what can be held within his Jar of Clay. Our bodies may be weak, and may be doomed for the grave, but our Spirits are rich in the mercy of God and the love of Christ.
For a man like Pastor Redington who believes as 2 Cor 5:5 says “Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come,” perhaps knowing an earthen pot will not last forever is not as scary. 2 Cor 5: 6 makes this point, that perhaps it is not so bad that at some point we get to leave our bodies behind: “Therefore, we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” 2 Cor 5:8 is a verse I know at the end of her life my mother would have agreed with: “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
In our bodies we are frail and fallible, and perhaps unworthy of the Grace which can fill our pots. But as we live, we can’t choose how our pot is made, but we can choose what we put in our pot. And perhaps, if while we are on this earth, we choose to “Let light shine out of darkness” and “let light shine in our hearts”, perhaps then we can grow something to His Glory through our lives.
Some may have Jars of Clay which seem to be built a little more sturdy than others. Perhaps some are gifted in having a Jar of Clay others consider beautiful. And perhaps sometimes that makes finding faith harder – that because we are well built, or beautiful, we don’t recognize the need for God in the same way. Paul says “I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).
One of the most pervasive paradoxes of the Bible is that there is strength in weakness, and sometimes there are traps in things which seem like benefits. I don’t envy what happened to my mother, but I must tell you honestly – in her adversity she had her finest moments, and in her weakness I saw the true strength of her faith.
I don’t envy my brother’s inability to walk or his weakened muscles, but I will tell you that the way he was built meant his smile could “let His light shine” in the hearts in the room. In my brother’s weakness, some were able to see God’s strength, to see mercy, love, light and a pure enjoyment of life without complications. Jesus said “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I’ve thought many times that my brother was one of the most pure, beautiful spirits I’ve know for this reason, that’s God’s strength is sometimes most visible in weakness.
Perhaps this is why the boy David slays the giant Goliath, why the Savior is born in a manger to a carpenter, or why we are given bodies meant to fail.
We are given one Jar of Clay, and it may be imperfect, and it may be different. But it is our Jar of Clay, and it was created with a purpose. We aren’t meant to live as Jars of Clay that make it to eternity without cracks or flaws or an outright break, but instead to find that “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here!” Something better awaits us one day, and until that day comes, may we fill whatever Jars of Clay we have with the light of God’s love, grace and mercy.