Jars of Clay
In January 1947, three shepherd boys found themselves scampering after a goat that had strayed too far into the hills. It was growing late in the day, and the boys’ fathers would be very angry if they did not get their flock home before sunset.
So, one of the boys climbed into the hills to retrieve the contrary goat. There, he came across a cave, one of thousands in the desert where he lived, that he had never explored. Thinking some treasure might be hidden deep within, he ventured inside. There he found a collection of old, clay pots, wasting away in the dark.
These pots contained some old, musty scrolls, and nothing else; a disappointment for the three impromptu treasure-hunters. The boys took the scrolls home any way. And for a while, they were kept on a pole inside the family’s tent, until finally an uncle encouraged the boys to take the papers to the market at Bethlehem and sell them for a few a dollars.
This they did. Those papers, pulled from the old clay jars, were sold by a shepherd boy for seven British pounds. And that is how the most important ancient manuscript discovery in the last thousand years, came to be.
Those documents, uncovered by a Bedouin and his goat, have become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. They include the oldest known surviving copies of the Old Testament, written down before the time of Jesus. They are one thousand years older than any other biblical manuscript in the world. It was an absolutely stunning discovery.
The Apostle Paul didn’t know about the Dead Sea scrolls, but he certainly would have been familiar with the method that preserved them. Precious materials, books, parchments, family treasures: In the first century the only way to store these things was to put them in a jar of clay, a delicate, ceramic pot, seal it as tight as you could and bury it in the ground – like our grandparents burying money in the backyard in an old coffee can.
It was an exercise in contradiction: Expensive, priceless treasure, crammed into breakable, so very, very fragile containers. And it is within that exact contradiction that Paul says we all live. Outwardly, we are cracked pots (and crackpots), but within us is the light, glory, and treasure of God – something that cannot have a price tag attached to it.
The flimsy clay jar that is our body is always under attack. We are pressed on every side by troubles. We are perplexed and confused by life. We are pursued and chased by difficult circumstances. These susceptible containers are fragile, at best.
“But, we are not destroyed,” Paul says. We have suffered, yes, but we still have hope; because in the tearing and in the breaking, the cracking and the vulnerability, the glory of God is revealing itself. It is shining out into the darkness like a priceless treasure.
Here, then, is the glorious but terrible news: Without the breaking, there is no glory. Without the crushing weight of difficulty, there is little chance of the God-stuff getting out. Without suffering there is no reward; without the trials of life, there would be little display of the greatness of God in our life.
We’ve been told, “no guts, no glory.” That’s not exactly right. Rather, it is “no grief, no glory.” For it is in the destructive forces around us, the very things that threaten to obliterate us, that actually release God’s grace and power.
Of course, not everyone accepts their troubles as the means to something great. We can look at what life has dealt us and be angry, bitter, mad-at-the-world, frustrated with ourselves, and bearing a grudge against everyone from God to the mailman.
In doing that, we waste our difficulties rather than learn, grow, and develop into a more Jesus-like person through them. As the appointed trustees of our lives, it would serve us well to be good stewards of our pain. It is the only way to achieve a glory that outweighs all of life’s troubles.