Sunday, May 13, 2012

Potters and Vessels: Jars of Clay

The potter/clay image is used through the Bible to describe our relationship with God.  Jeremiah talks about God as the potter and the nation of Israel as the clay; in 2 Corinthians, Paul talks about how we as Christians hold the treasure of Christ’s presence “in jars of clay” so that we can’t  boast about how awesome we are.


There were plenty of potters reading the biblical texts when they were first written; they knew how pottery worked.  It could be pliable and workable in the hands of the potter, or it could be hardened and unworkable.  If the clay was hardened and dried (but not yet fired in a kiln), revitalizing it was possible, but the process required time and patience.  The clay had to soak up water to make it malleable enough for the potter to make - or in this case, remake - something beautiful.

We, the “jars of clay” that can become spiritually parched and unworkable, require the same solution, but with a different kind of water.
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In the Bible, we see a “water” image used for:
  • ·      the Word of God (Deuteronomy 32:2; Ephesians 5:25-26)
  • ·      the power of God (Isaiah 59:19)
  • ·      the cleansing presence of Christ (Hebrews 10:22-23)
  • ·      life that flows from the throne of God (Revelations 22:1-2)
  • ·      the faithful presence of God’s people (Proverbs 18:4; Psalm 133:3)
  • ·      the reality and presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33)
 God is the Potter; all of us are clay. God keeps us moldable through his presence, his Word, his Holy Spirit, and his people.
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    According to Acts 17, when Paul was in Thessalonica his presence instigated riots.  He went to the synagogue and preached the gospel of Christ, and a lot of people were converted.  Those who were unconvinced caused such a tremendous riot that the Roman authorities made Paul’s friends pay a security deposit to guarantee there would be no more riots. 

     So when Paul wrote to the Thessolanicans about how to live well in their town, it’s interesting that he did not say, “Go and preach like I did in the Jewish temple.  If they riot, it’s a sign that you are doing God’s work!  The more the hate you, the more blessed you are.”  He often says a version of "imitate me as I imitate Christ," but not in this case. No, Paul has an entirely different bit of advice:

“Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and be dependent on no one.” Thessalonians 4:9-12

        Thessalonica was a tough place for Christians to live.  It was full of hardened people and souls.  What should have been beautiful and moldable had become parched.  People were a  shell of what they could have been, easily shattered, in desperate need of the spiritual water that would bring new life.

     In this arid place, Paul gave the church the plan for how God’s people in Thessalonica could bring water to their friends and neighbors so that they could become workable clay again in the hands of God.

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“Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you. Work with your hands so that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and be dependent on no one.”
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Step One:  Love one another.
     Tertullian (ca AD 192) wrote that the Gentiles had noted this: "Behold how these Christians love one another."  The "badge" of Christianity is not an icthus bumper sticker or a cross necklace: it’s love.  True community love was one of the outstanding  evangelistic features of the early Christian church.

Step Two: Lead A Quiet Life
       Philo of Alexandria was a contemporary of Paul.  He contrasted the “quiet” person in Greek culture with someone who was evil:
“Besides, the worthless man whose life is one long restlessness haunts market-places, theatres, law-courts, council-halls, assemblies, and every group and gathering of men; his tongue he lets loose for unmeasured, endless, indiscriminate talk, bringing chaos and confusion into everything, mixing true with false, fit with unfit, public with private, holy with profane, sensible with absurd, because he has not been trained to that silence which in season is most excellent.
     No wonder Paul says, “Hey – don’t be like that. Be different.”  We, of all people, ought to display an inner peace that only comes from Christ.
     There is a lot of fear and restlessness about the economy… the elections…the Middle East…gas prices…doomsday scenarios…terrorism…the housing market…the cherry crop… If Paul were writing to us, he would say, “You should be the calm ones.  If anybody is taking a deep breath and offering stability, it should be you – you have Christ.”

Step Three: Mind your own business
      This carries the idea of focusing your time and energy on being the best “you” you can be.  There are strengths and gifts and opportunities unique to each of us. Instead of wondering why our neighbor is not a better person, worry about yourself.  You can’t control your neighbor’s attitude or character or morals or lawn; you can control yours.
  • I can’t make my neighbor parent well…but I can parent my kids well – and model the love God the Father has for his children.
  • I can’t make my neighbor and his wife quit fighting…but I can treat my wife well – and model the love Christ has for the church.
  • I can’t make my neighbor be generous with his money…but I can be generous with mine – and model the generosity of God.
  • I can’t make my neighbor embrace the same family values that I have – but I can raise my family with the family values of the Bible, and show how God’s design for marriage and parenting is a foundational blessing to the world.
Step Four: Work with your hands
      In Paul’s time, The Gentiles regarded manual labor  as degrading. The Jews upheld the dignity of all forms of labor: every Jewish boy was  taught a trade, and even the rabbis learned a trade. Christianity agreed with Judaism:  work is a holy occupation.
(This is not a verse about those who can’t work, by the way.  There are things like sickness, a bad job market, and injury that can make it hard or impossible to work.)

Step Five: Walk properly  
     This is "having good form.”  If you have ever seen Michael Jordan shoot, that’s good form.  If you are a basketball fan, you can’t help but notice. Even if you don’t like Jordan, you grudgingly admit, “The dude can shoot.”  It's that kind of form in ordinary life. This language is very specifically about how Christians should relate to non-Christians

·      Be honest
·      Keep commitments
·      Be kind and courteous
·      Show respect
·      Go out of the way to do good

     The non-Christian Thessalonicans might not like the fact that followers of Christ had made that decision, but it was going to have to be in spite of their lives, not because of their lives. Your life and your testimony are connected.

Step Six: Be dependent on no one
     In 2 Thessalonians, Paul makes it clear: if you can work, you should work. But this command carries a much broader idea of contributing to the community.
     It’s basically saying, “Contribute as best you can to the flourishing of the community around you.  Don’t rely on others to pick up the slack when you are able to.”  I think it’s within the spirit of this verse to say you can do this by trying to make sure the community benefit because you are there.  Contribute, don’t just take.
    The church has had its greatest opportunities historically when in the midst of hardship, they were ready when people turned to them for help. This isn’t simply a command about “rugged self-reliance,” a concept which is embedded in the American dream.  It’s about purposeful preparation with the goal of helping others.
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     David once wrote of God, “My soul thirsts for you, my whole body longs for you, in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.”  (Psalm 63:1)
     I was at the check-out line at Meijers last night, and on the cover of all  the magazines I saw story after story, and picture after picture, of dried out, shattered shards of clay.   We live in a dry and thirsty land. 
     There are some Paul’s in the world who will go on TV and radio and newspapers and “cause riots” as God equips them to bring the water of life to this land in that particular way.  For most of us,  our calling is not so spectacular, but is equally as powerful. 
     We are called to bring the Water of Life to our community, to join with the Word, the Spirit, and the presence of Christ to immerse parched, broken friends and neighbors so that God can revive what once seemed hopeless and mold something beautiful.

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