A Sermon Preached by Rev. Gregory Hall at 
Clarence Presbyterian Church on August 20, 2017.

EARTHEN VESSELS

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.

        
       Monarchs have governed England for more than one thousand years.  One can trace the succession of kings and queens from Egbert of the House of Wessex who came to the throne in 802 AD through to Elizabeth II of the House of Windsor who is the present Queen and head of State.  The crown has been passed down from generation to generation and from family to family in an almost unbroken chain.

The one great exception to this pattern came immediately following the English Civil War.  The English Civil War was a political/religious struggle between high Church Monarchist’s and Puritan supporters of Parliamentarian power.  The forces of parliament defeated the armies of the King and in 1649 Charles I of the House of Stewart was executed.

For the next eleven years there was no Monarch in England.  The man who had brought victory to the forces of Parliament, a man named Oliver Cromwell, led the nation.  Cromwell is one of the most fascinating personalities in English History.  He has been both loved and vilified both during his lifetime and by historians through the years.  He refused to be crowned.  

One of the great stories about Cromwell comes from a time that his official portrait was to be painted.  In those days it was the practice of a painter who was commissioned to do a portrait to make the client look as good as possible.  Just as photographers use a variety of tricks to make a person look good in a photograph, so painters made their subjects look better in oil than they did in real life.

Cromwell would have none of it.  He told his artist:

I desire you would use all your skill to paint your picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughness, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me; otherwise I will not pay a farthing for it.

One of the reasons that I believe in the truth of the Scriptures is that it presents God’s people warts and all.  Unlike the recorded history of other ancient peoples, the Old Testament tells us the straight story without any touch ups.  Unlike most other religious documents the New Testament does not romanticize the early followers of Jesus.   The Bible gives us the straight story of the people of God with all the rough edges and failings plain to see.
In the Old Testament God tells others that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  One would expect that these must have been holy people.  Yet, when we read their stories we discover they are fallible human beings.  In our reading for today from the book of Genesis we began the story of Jacob.  It is not a holy picture of family values.

Jacob is born the second of twins to Isaac and Rebekah.  Esau was born first and thus was by custom to get the greater inheritance and become the leader of his people.  But Jacob was cunning.  In our story he takes advantage of his brother’s hunger and shortsightedness and trades a little food for the birth rite.

We learn later in the Jacob story that Rebekah loved Jacob better than Esau, so she along with Jacob conspired to gain Isaac’s blessing with out his knowledge.  Isaac gradually lost his sight, as he grew older, so Rebekah put a form of camouflage on Jacob so he could pretend to be his brother Esau.  Jacob then went to his father and conned him out of Esau’s blessing.

The whole story of Jacob reads more like a storyline from a soap opera or a Life Time Television movie than it does the story of God’s chosen people.  Yet God worked through Jacob in creating his people.   Jacob is not unique.  The Bible tells both the good and bad about all those God uses for his purpose.

Think of Moses.  Moses is one of the great leaders in the whole Old Testament.  God used Moses to liberate the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  It was to Moses that God gave the Ten Commandments on Sinai.  Yet when we read his story Moses was not a super hero.  Many times in Moses life he resisted God’s call or complained about God’s faithfulness.  In the beginning of Exodus Moses makes up many excuses why God should choose someone else to go to Egypt.  Moses listed his many weaknesses.  Moses told God he was not religious enough or eloquent enough to be of any use to God.  Yet God used Moses with all his imperfections to bless the world.

Or think of King David.  David is considered to be the greatest of all the kings of Israel.  Yet David had so many faults and failures in his life.  He had enemies murdered, he committed adultery, and his family was at each other’s throats.  Yet David is called a man after God’s heart.  

We might think all well and good that is the Old Testament.  Those were rugged days where God at times seems to be pictured as a warlord.  He would use a rough crowd to enforce his will.  But the New Testament is different.  It is the story of God’s love given fully to the world.  Surely Jesus must have worked through loving faithful men and women.  

Yet again the New Testament presents us with servants of God who are fully human.  Jesus did not go to some Monastery and call a dozen holy men to be his disciples.  Jesus called fisherman and tax collectors to follow him.  These were men who knew everyday life and were not perfect people.

Think of some of the great leaders in the early Church.  There was Paul who started out as a harsh man who sought to persecute the followers of Jesus.  He had a dramatic experience of Jesus on the road to Damascus.  This turned him into a follower of Jesus, but like many people who have dramatic changes in their lives he became almost a zealot for Jesus.  Paul was probably not an easy person. He shared his opinions all too easily.  Yet for all his faults, God used Paul to plant the Gospel all around the Roman world.  

Or think of Peter.  You know the Pope seeks universal authority in the church because of the claim that he is the successor to Peter.   While the popes claim to be Peter’s successor I doubt they would like to be thought of as like Peter.  So often in the Gospels Peter just does not seem to get what Jesus is talking about.  He appears to be a little slow on the uptake.  Peter does not seem to have much of a backbone.  He could at times blow with the wind.   Peter’s primary role in the story of Jesus’ passion is his denying three times that he even knew Jesus.   Yet Jesus made Peter a part of his inner circle and relied on support from Peter.  Peter also helps to spread the Gospel.

We can trust the Bible because it portrays God’s people warts and all.  This is good news for us.  It reminds us that God uses ordinary people to do his will in the world.  Paul tells us we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.

This continues to be true to our day. Last weekend we saw some horrible images In Virginia. A racist fringe group used the excuse of defending a civil war statue to spew racial hatred that turned into violence.  As despicable as it was I would remind you that fifty years ago it would have been the police, beaucrats and politicians not only shouting hate but also perpetrating acts of violence not a fringe group.

This change in American was brought about by courageous men and women who struggled to bring equal rights to all.  This movement had a leader who incarnated Jesus’ call to love our enemy.  Martin Luther King Jr.  led a movement of non-violence and love.  He taught his followers to overcome hatred with love.  This example and teaching helped to change laws and attitudes.  Of course we have not ended all racism, but real progress has been made.  Martin Luther King was not a perfect person.  Stories came out later.  He was a flawed human being, but God used Martin Luther King Jr. to do a marvelous thing.  The Holy Spirit guided Martin in expanding freedom for all Americans.

This is good news to you and me.  The followers of Jesus are not special people.  They are not people with perfect characters or unique powers or super human morals or above average brains.  They are everyday people.  They have the same problems and weakness as everyone else.  Yet God uses them for his purposes.

God uses ordinary everyday things for extraordinary purposes.

On the first Christmas Eve that I served as your Minister we had some three feet of snow.  It started during the first service.  People came and went with ease.  Most people were able to arrive at the 8:00 pm service with little problem, but the snow increased during that hour so it was hard to get out of the driveway onto Main Street.   By the time that the 11:00 pm service was to begin we had about 25 to thirty people present.  We celebrate communion at that late service, but the Deacon who was to bring the elements for the Lord’s Supper could not get out of her driveway.  What to do?

I asked Jim to go down to the kitchen and the food pantry to see what he could find.  He came back with what appeared to be Wonder Bread.  He also said we had a choice of either prune juice or papaya juice.  I chose the papaya.  So we remembered Jesus coming into the world with thirty hardy souls around the table and celebrated the Lord’s Supper using ordinary lunch bread and orange colored juice.  Yet in many ways it was one of the most meaningful services I have experienced. In some way we cannot fully understand God uses every day elements for a special purpose and makes himself present to us in a unique way.

    In a like manner God can use each one of us for a special purpose.
        It does not matter how many gifts you have, 
            It does not matter how many times you have failed God in the past, 
                It does not matter if you are smart or not.
    It does not matter if you are ten years old or ninety     
                        It does not matter if you are rich or poor or in between
            It does not matter if you are good looking or not.
 
        You may have a lot of faith or feel estranged from God
You may feel good about yourself or feel unworthy.

        It does not matter, God can use you.  Just give yourself to God, give all you are good bad and indifferent to Jesus and he can use you for his purposes.  Just as he used Jacob, Moses, David, Peter, Paul and Martin Luther King Jr. so God can use you for his plan.  

        If we offer ourselves to Christ we learn the truth that we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.