By Justin Rossow
Editor’s Note: This sermon was first preached at the Installation of Rev. Matt Hein as Senior Pastor at NewLife Community Lutheran Church near Flint, MI on 16 August 2020.
For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,”
is the One who has shone in our hearts
to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God
in the face of Christ.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels,
so that the surpassing greatness of the power
will be of God and not from ourselves.
(2 Corinthians 4:6–7, NASB)
I. Evoke the Source: Treasure in Earthen Vessels
In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul says we have a treasure; in fact, Paul talks about the surpassing greatness of the power of that treasure. But you find that treasure, where you least expect it.
I mean, I know where a treasure belongs: in a treasure chest! Treasure chests are big, and strong; treasure chests are heavy and reinforced with iron; treasure chests are put away in a secure or hidden place to keep the treasure safe. In fact, that’s you call a modern day treasure chest: a “safe.” That about sums it up. A safe keeps your valuables safe by being strong and hidden and inaccessible.
A safe is where you would expect to find valuable treasure. But Paul says this treasure is found where you least expect it; this treasure of surpassing greatness comes in earthen vessels, in jars of clay.
For Paul and for the Corinthians, these earthen vessels would have been ordinary, inexpensive, everyday objects. And it’s a good thing they were inexpensive! Because these ordinary objects were made out of common clay. These earthen vessels were not kept safe or hidden; they were used all the time, by everybody. These jars of clay were not reinforced with iron; they were useful, but also fragile. You can chip or crack or even shatter an earthen vessel in exactly the same way you can’t shatter an iron safe.
And Paul says, we have this treasure of surpassing great value in the last place you would expect; in earthen vessels; jars of clay.
At first, I thought Paul might be saying that the container doesn’t matter; that this treasure is so valuable, so surpassingly great, so powerful that you could stick it in a Meijer’s shopping bag and not diminish the treasure’s value. And while that may be true, that’s Paul is after something more.
You see, this treasure is where you least expect it on purpose. You have “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” shining in your hearts; and a light does no good shining inside a safe. A light has to be out—out where the people are, out where the darkness is—if the light is going to do any good.
You have this treasure in earthen vessels, NOT because the container doesn’t matter, but because it is absolutely essential that the container is common, everyday, ordinary, and vulnerable, so that the treasure is accessible; so people can get to it when they need it; so you can need it every single day.
You have this treasure in earthen vessels, on purpose, so the treasure isn’t kept locked away in a safe.
II. Map to the Target (A) The Gospel
God’s Word is like that. Matt, the Gospel you have been called to preach; Hein family, the Gospel you have been called to live out; NewLife, the Gospel you have been called to carry into the Flint area: the Gospel has surpassing great power that comes in earthen vessels. The Gospel has to come in, with, and under fragile human words and on humble human lips so that the Gospel can be accessible to real human beings.
The Gospel promise comes in ways that are fragile enough for some people to disbelieve it, so that it can be accessible enough for you to believe it.
The Gospel promise comes in ways that are humble enough for some people to reject it, so that it can be human enough for you to receive it;
God made the Gospel promise so vulnerable
everyday people can misunderstand it.
But God made the Gospel promise vulnerable, on purpose:
so that real,
everyday people can understand it,
and trust it,
and hold onto it for dear life.
If God’s Word were kept locked up in a safe, you could protect the Gospel from people who will ridicule it and misunderstand it; but you would also be keeping it away from people who desperately need it.
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
(1 Corinthians 1:18, NASB)
No one lights a lamp
and puts it in a place where it will be hidden,
or under a bowl. [Or, I might add, in a safe.]
Instead they put [the lamp] on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light.
(Luke 11:33, NIV)
Unless the Gospel were vulnerable enough to seem foolish, you would not have access to its surpassingly great power; if the light were safely locked in a treasure chest, it would do no good in the dark.
III. Map to the Target (B) Jesus
What’s true of God’s Word, the Gospel, is true of Jesus, God’s Word in the flesh. You know the beginning of John’s Gospel: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, MSG).
When Jesus came to shine light in the darkness, Jesus entered into our fragile, ordinary, everyday routine. Jesus didn’t play it safe.
Jesus took on common human clay and made himself vulnerable.
Jesus made himself vulnerable to hunger and exhaustion;
Jesus made himself vulnerable to abandonment and betrayal;
Jesus made himself vulnerable to spitting and beating and mocking; vulnerable to bleeding and torture and death.
Jesus made himself vulnerable on purpose: so that this treasure can be accessible;
so you can get to Jesus when you need Him;
so you can need Jesus every single day.
It’s power of surpassing greatness, where you least expect it;
treasure you can access all the time.
IV. Map to the Target (C) Us
What’s true of God’s Word of the Gospel is true of Jesus, God’s Word in the flesh; and, by God’s grace and the power of the Spirit working in your life, what is true of Jesus often becomes true of us, too.
With the light of Christ shining in your hearts, you have become light in the darkness; you have God’s power of surpassing greatness at work in you.
And if the light were safely hidden away, it would do no good in the dark.
The treasure comes in earthen vessels on purpose—
you live a fragile,
so that the Word and the Jesus you bear
is accessible to ordinary people
who desperately need it in their ordinary lives.
V. Explore Life with a New Lens
It’s funny how backwards we can get this gift of power in vulnerable packaging, how easily we can misunderstand treasure in jars of clay.
I mean, Matt and Jennifer, Gideon and Miriam and Eden and Silas: I want you to be happy you came to NewLife! I know these people, I love these people—we go way back!—and I want you to have joy in your ministry here!
NewLife, I want you be happy you called the Hein family to ministry and relationship with you! I know these people, I love these people—we go way back!—I want you to have joy in your ministry together!
And because I want your joy, I would protect you from vulnerability, if I could. If it were up to me, I would have you safe, maybe even iron bound, definitely locked away somewhere so you couldn’t be broken, or damaged, or hurt. Because I know you, and I treasure you, and I want you to be safe, and I want you to know joy.
But I’ve got it exactly backwards! Joy does not come from being safe.
I’ve been reading a book lately by Brené Brown. She’s a world-renowned author and research professor at the University of Houston. The book is called Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Honestly, it reminds me of your leadership style, Matt—so I got you a copy as an installation gift (because sometimes you might need to be reminded of your leadership style, too…) Dr. Brown says two things about vulnerability that got my attention thinking about treasure where you least expect it.
The first is this:
Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we feel.
And that’s saying something,
given that I study fear and shame.
When we feel joy,
it is a place of incredible vulnerability—
it’s beauty and fragility and deep gratitude and impermanence
all wrapped up in one experience.
And the second is like it:
Vulnerability is the birthplace
of love, belonging, and joy.
Joy is the most vulnerable emotion; and vulnerability is the birthplace of joy.
And that’s what I want for you, Matt. That’s what I want for you, Jennifer, and Gideon, and Miriam, and Eden, and Silas. That’s what I want for you NewLife.
I want you to experience love, and belonging, and joy as you shine the light of Jesus into a dark and confusing and broken world.
There’s a secret to finding joy in your calling as Church and as pastor.
Brené Brown knows the secret. She writes: Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy.
Before Brené, Paul knew the secret. He writes: we have this treasure in earthen vessels.
Before Paul, Jesus knew the secret.
Jesus, who took on human flesh and made himself vulnerable to human suffering—
Jesus, who took off his outer garment, and wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed his disciples’ dusty feet as if he were the bond-servant in the room—
Jesus, who told those disciples, while their toes were still squeaky clean,
“I am the vine, and you are the branches;” who said that you can do absolutely nothing apart from complete dependence on him; who claimed that the same Spirit who was at work in his ministry, would be at work in you, too and commanded the kind of love that becomes a bond-servant to others and lays down your life for your friends—
That Jesus, as he finishes his teaching on dependence and vulnerability and humble service, says:
These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you,
and that your joy may be made full.
(John 15:11, NASB)
God is sending the light of salvation into the dark lives of people who live and work and do their grocery shopping in and around Flint, Michigan. God is sending the power of life and forgiveness, the power of restoration and renewal.
In order to deliver the surpassing greatness of that power, God chooses you.
You have this treasure in common, ordinary, everyday, vulnerable earthen vessels. (Sorry.)
It turns out, that’s the only way the people who desperately need that treasure will have access to it at work, and in their neighborhood, and at their local Meijer’s.
It also just so happens to be the best thing ever for jars of clay.
Treasure, where you least expect it; vulnerability, that bring joys.
Grant this, Lord, unto us all. Amen.
This sermon follows a variation of the Metaphorical Movement sermon structure. For more, see the blog article “Source and Target, Target, Target Domains” or the book Preaching Metaphor: How to Shape Sermons that Shape People.