09-22-2013 message by Pastor Rich Doebler

This past week the Roman Catholic church has been in the news over some surprising statements made by Pope Francis. Some news analysts are speculating that perhaps the church is trying to reinvent itself and catch up with modern thinking. Others wonder if the Pope has gone soft on current topics like abortion, homosexuality, and contraceptives.

If you listen carefully to his comments or read the actual interview, however, I think you’ll find that he hasn’t really redefined church doctrine or shifted church dogma. I think you’ll find that he is simply speaking to a dilemma as old as the church itself: How do we reach out in love to a broken world? How do we speak in an encouraging, uplifting way to those who see the world—indeed, who see “truth”—differently than we see it?

Nearly 2,000 years ago the apostle Paul wrote a letter to a church caught in the currents of a society very similar to ours, a hedonistic society. The Greek city of Corinth was known for its “anything goes” attitude. It had a reputation for immorality. With thousands of temple prostitutes, it was the place to visit “for a good time.” And Corinth was situated on a primary trade route; merchants and business men from all over the world passed through the city. The Greek-speaking world even coined a phrase: to “korinthianize” came to mean taking part in extreme or shocking immorality. Just like today, if I were to say, “What happens in Vegas…”  The city had a reputation.

So Paul wrote this letter to the church in Corinth—where it was trying to bring God’s light to a very dark place, where the church was trying to proclaim God’s Good News to a society that specialized in X-rated news, where it was trying to speak to people who refused to listen.

In his letter Paul described the challenges of ministry in such a place. And I think we can see a number of parallels to the challenges we face in our times—the kind of challenges that Pope Frances was addressing. Paul said…

2 Cor 4:4-9 (NIV). 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 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 God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay [common clay pots] to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed [afflicted (NASB)] on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

Did you catch the picture—the illustration—Paul gives to describe what we are like as we try to live for God in this broken world? He says we are like common clay pots containing an incredible treasure inside.

Jars of clay (earthen vessels, in some versions) are made out of a very ordinary substance. Clay is as common as dirt. It’s dug out of the ground. In that sense, clay is like us. God digs us out of the world; he reclaims and redeems us; and then he “calls” us to a special assignment for his purpose.

A special assignment—we heard about that this weekend at our church retreat—we are each “custom designed” to fit into God’s plan.

So Paul says we are like common clay pots—but we contain God’s incredible power, God’s “all-surpassing” power. The treasure we contain is God’s grace, God’s glory, God’s light. It’s the supernatural  life of God contained in natural human beings. Amazing!

But we often don’t see that or feel it. We have a problem! We see our clay-like nature too well—our human-ness—so we often forget this miracle within. We don’t always remember that we have God’s life and power shining within our clay pot. We don’t always feel powerful. In fact, we often feel what Wendy Berthelsen described last week; we feel foolish, weak, inadequate.

We look at ourselves and see ordinary, common clay pots. But when God looks at us, and he sees what we can be when he dwells within us. He sees the potential of what we can be when he fills us with his Spirit and his extraordinary power. We may feel ordinary, but clay pots with treasure inside are anything but ordinary.

So why do we feel foolish? Weak? Inadequate? Because we mostly see the physical—the outside, the clay. We see what we’re going through in this world; we see the the troubles, the sicknesses, the brokenness, the disappointments, the challenges.

We don’t see the inner, spiritual treasure as well as we see the outer, material clay.

God looks at us and—because of his grace and power within—sees that we are “not crushed…not in despair…not abandoned…not destroyed.” We look at ourselves and see “hard-pressed…perplexed… persecuted…struck down.”

  1. Hard-pressed. NASB says: “afflicted”; the original word (thlibō) literally meant “to crowd”—we might say, “he’s in a really tight spot” or “he feels the pressure” or “he’s carrying the weight of the world.” So the word came to mean afflicted or “troubled” (which is how the KJV translates it).

Now, I don’t know if Paul used these specific words for a specific point or not, but they offer several parallels to what happens to clay as it is transformed from dirt and made into a usable jar or pot. I talked to Fay Haataja about the techniques required to turn common clay out of the ground into an earthen vessel—and I learned a few things…

If you were a lump of clay, there are times you’d feel hard-pressed. Once you were dug out of the ground, you would have to go through a process called “wedging,” where you would be pressed down and kneaded like bread dough, over and over until you had a uniform consistency. Inconsistencies—little pebbles or inflexible pieces—would be removed. In ancient times, potters would do this with their feet—tromping the clay down.

When we feel hard-pressed, going through troubles, we may miss the fact that it’s a process God uses to prepare us to be a usable clay pot, containing his incredible, all-surpassing power. We get discouraged. We feel defeated. But God is just beginning!

The next time you feel like you’re overwhelmed or hard-pressed by troubling circumstances or afflictions, remember that God is doing something awesome within you! We will be “hard-pressed…but not crushed.”

Sometimes (often?) we pray to escape the troubles, not even realizing we may be trying to get out of God’s plan to prepare us for something more or bigger or different. We need to see that being hard-pressed can accomplish something in you that nothing else can.

For the clay, though, there was more to come. If you were a lump of clay on the way to becoming a usable pot or jar, you would also be…

  1. Thrown down. Which is the actual definition of the word translated in the text as “struck down”: kataballō (translated in the KJV as “cast down”) with “ballō” (to throw) being the root for our word “ball.”

The potter takes the clay and throws it down onto a hard, flat surface (called a “bat”). Placing it there wasn’t good enough. It has to be thrown down hard enough so it sticks, otherwise it will fly off the potter’s wheel when it’s being shaped. It is thrown down and then it is pressed again—all the edges of the clay pressed against the bat.

Paul says, “We are hard-pressed on every side… [we are] thrown down, but not destroyed.”

We know what it is to be human. Human beings stumble and fall. We get tripped up by temptation. We land flat on our spiritual faces. Some situations in life knock us down. Life is often a battle.

But if we see and understand the power of God within, we can overcome circumstances. We may see only clay, but let’s learn to look beyond. There’s more to come! We may be “thrown down,” but we are not destroyed.

Phillips paraphrase of this verse says: “We may be knocked down but we are never knocked out.”

So you’re a common clay pot? So what? When you come to Jesus, he makes something beautiful out of that clay. And he puts a treasure inside! The grace and glory and light of the Holy Spirit. Inside that pot is the all-surpassing power of the Almighty God!

But we face more challenges…

  1. Perplexed. Other versions use words like “confused…in doubt…frustrated…puzzled…unsure… bewildered…”

Let’s look at the clay again. After it has been hard-pressed and thrown down, it is put on the potter’s wheel, where it is spun around at high speed while the potter shapes it into a bowl or jar or pot. Spinning round and round.

Remember when you were a kid and you spun around until you were so dizzy you couldn’t stand up? You became so disoriented that when you stopped spinning, the room kept on spinning. You thought you were standing up straight, but you went careening across the room and fell over. You lost your sense of balance.

That’s a bit like what happens when we become spiritually perplexed. We can become spiritually disoriented and confused.

There will be times when you won’t understand what God is doing. You’ll feel like you’re caught in a maze of unanswered questions: Why is this happening? What are you trying to do, God? When will this ever end?

Have you ever felt like that? Like clay on the wheel. We’re perplexed. But if we have the power of God’s Spirit within in, we won’t be in despair.

The LB says: “We are perplexed because we don’t know why things happen as they do, but we don’t give up and quit.”

Some years ago while vacationing in northern Minnesota, we visited a small county fair near Babbitt. It was morning and we were about the only ones visiting the carnival rides. So when I climbed into the Tilt-O-Whirl with my three kids, we hoped the operator would give us a decent ride—even though we were the only ones on it. Little did we know what we were getting into.

The first few minutes were fun. We laughed and enjoyed the funny feeling inside our stomachs. But after a while, it got to be not so much fun. And after some more time—way past the length of an ordinary ride—I began to feel queasy. Sick, even. I felt like a lump of clay on a wheel: Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?

I wanted to stop the ride, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t jump off: we were going too fast. Besides, the centrifugal force had me pressed firmly against the back of the car. I was immobilized. Trapped. Every time we spun past the operator, I looked pleadingly at him. “Please! Read my eyes! I need to get off!” But he wouldn’t stop. I think he may have been laughing maniacally, but he was probably just waiting for more customers to show up.

The ride became miserable. The funny feeling inside my stomach had turned into a churning concoction that had a faint resemblance to my morning’s breakfast. I had no control over my life. I was caught, going around in circles, held down by a merciless carnival employee.

Only after what seemed like three or four hours did he finally relent and stop the ride. I’m sure I looked completely green by this time. I staggered off the platform and made it about 20 feet, where I bent over and lost my breakfast. Of course, my kids gathered around, cheering me on. They thought this was the best part of the ride.

I think that must be something what it would feel like to be a lump of clay on the potter’s wheel. Life is like that. It sometimes leaves you sick and disoriented. Perplexed. But that’s because we are jars of clay. At times like that, instead of focusing on the common clay, we need to see again the uncommon power of God. We may be ordinary people, but we’re called to live extraordinary lives.

One last word…

  1. Persecuted. Literally, “pursued.” If someone is “hounded” by someone, they are hassled and bothered—like a fox in the old style fox hunt, chased relentlessly by the hounds.

Other versions: “harassed…hunted down…terrorized…”

Do you know what would be terrorizing? To be a lump of clay that’s been hard-pressed, struck down, spun and shaped on the potter’s wheel, and then being put in the fire—fired in the kiln at extreme temperatures. Nothing like turning up the heat and going through the fire to describe persecution.

But Fay suggested another part of the persecution process—where the clay is placed up on the shelf to dry out before it’s fired. As the newly formed pot sits on the shelf and dries, it will shrink. And as it shrinks, there is a risk it will crack.

Do you ever feel spiritually dry? Like you’ve been abandoned on the shelf, overlooked and ignored? Like you’ve been sitting so long, unused, unappreciated, alone—that you’re about to crack?

Sometimes we can feel pushed aside. Sidelined. Paul says we may be persecuted but we’re not abandoned. God has a plan for us—and a time for us. And as hard as it is for us to accept it, the waiting time—the drying process—may be exactly what he wants us to go through. It’s only for a season. He hasn’t abandoned us; he’s preparing us.

Sitting up on the shelf, if the pot cracks, it’s ruined. And if it’s cracked, the process has to begin all over again—back to the beginning. You mix the clay with water again and once more put it through the process of pressing and shaping and spinning.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like I’ve been through the process more than once. Maybe I’ve cracked during the dry times of my life—and the Potter, out of love and grace, begins to work on me all over again. Sometimes I have to relearn lessons I knew a long time ago.

But once we’ve gone through the dry times, feeling alone, feeling persecuted and hounded—once we’ve gone through the fire, what happens? Ordinary, common clay becomes a functional, usable container for God’s uncommon power.

You and I—ordinary people by worldly standards—are filled with God’s Spirit. Earthen vessels are filled with the surpassing greatness of God’s power. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

So people can see the all-surpassing power within us is from God and not from us. The more common the pot, the more spectacular the treasure inside. Think of it! Our “clay-like” nature (weak, flawed, cracked, broken) is the means God uses to reveal himself to others…

Maybe you’ve been so wrapped up with the troubles of being a common clay pot that you’ve missed the possibilities of containing a treasure—the power of God.

Have you been living an ordinary or an extraordinary life? People (family, co-workers, teammates, friends) will always see our “clay-ness.” But can they also glimpse God’s power within—his light, his grace, his goodness?

Common People, Uncommon Power