Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

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IDOP – 2 Cor 4:7-9 International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

Governments and mobs persecuting Christians for their faith is not new. From Paul – whose calling, he thought, was to bring a halt to this newly formed group following Jesus of Nazareth – to today, the witness of Jesus can carry with it burdens and exact a price. In this text, Paul is writing to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth who were not known for being persecuted. What he is doing here is to address a range of issues creating conflicts which were upsetting the faith of Corinthian Christians, blurring their focus and purpose in following Christ.

Today, here in this moment, we are focusing on praying for the church under persecution. For those who don’t fear being imprisoned or aren’t anxious that their house may be burned down today, we too face complexities in our world. We too deal with issues that exert pressure and create anxiety. For us all then, there are good reasons for us to read again this insightful text written by Paul the apostle to Christians living in Corinth.

And as we get into the text for today’s message, let me point out how Paul bridges us into this helpful imagery of being a jar of clay or an earthen pot. In the previous chapter he leads into this by describing God’s glory. You may remember that when Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, tablets of stone containing the 10 Commandments, his face was so brilliant he had to cover it. Of course, that brilliance in time faded. Paul here contrasts this fading of Moses brilliance over time with us today: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory.”

So, with that, let me read again today’s text.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who were alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

I wonder what Paul had in mind in using this illustration of comparing us to a dish or container? Here are a few notes on the power of this illustration.

First, a dish, like a jar of clay, has been made. Someone crafted it. Then, not having our kind of dish making factories of today, someone shaped it by hand and baked it in a kiln. Its creation was in someone’s mind. Like you and me. We didn’t just happen. First, we were an idea. The remarkable factor is that we were in God’s mind, and he made us in his image. There is a God-imprint on our lives in his designing of humanity. Then by subsequent DNA it merged to bring you and me into who we are.

Also, this jar of clay is one-of-a-kind. I have brothers and sisters in my family. But as much as we have the same parents, each of us are one-of-a-kind. And while we are all God’s creation, he looks at you as one, like no other. This isn’t to offer some psychological boost to make us feel better about ourselves. It is simply to remind us that God sees us as his own creation. And today as we give focus to our brothers and sisters suffering, it is critical we choose as our starting point, who we are in his creation.

And because we are one-of-a-kind, our lives matter. The enormous price he paid bringing his son into our world, then taking on our evil misadventures, is more than enough evidence to identify how much we matter to him.

Let me note this also about being a jar: we didn’t come into life simply to fill space. Embedded in our birth is purpose. As he instructed our first parents to care for creation, his ongoing mandate to us is filled with purpose and therefore meaning.

Finally, as much as this clay jar is his creation, and while we affirm its value – and remember we are created with purpose – we must not pretend that it can’t break. We are vulnerable. And I’m speaking more than the physical clay jar: our very makeup, personality, that life that now has eternity written all over it, that which will last forever, it is sensitive, vulnerable to attack and persecution.

That’s where Paul begins with a jar of clay. But he adds to that. In that jar of clay is a treasure. “And what is the treasure,” One asks?

To answer that, I suggest a good place to start are with the stars. Can you imagine where you and I are now, in this moment? You and I are far apart, hours by flight, but together we inhabit a tiny piece of dust in this unfathomable and vast universe. We’ve seen recent pictures of our galaxy, and from that we try and imagine the breath-taking breadth of this universe.

With that as a backdrop, we are alerted as to who is this treasure. And this is who it is: the Creator-God, who chose to live in our world so we might get to know him as friend and then in him facing and defeating death, he sprung us from the trap of our own self-destruction into this astounding promise he would live in us today and forever. That’s what Paul is talking about when he says that in our bodies, in these clay jars, there is this treasure of incalculable wealth.

My friend, where else, from what other faith, might we hear that the God of creation not only brought us as jars of clay into life, but then “making himself of no reputation,” plants himself in us. Think about this. He allows what he made to hold him creator of all. At first look, isn’t that simply bizarre? Science fiction couldn’t dream this up. We, the created, get to hold the Creator.

This has surprising implications for us for us today, for those living under the stress and pressure of systemic and episodic persecution. It is also for those who are in daily prayer bringing to the father, daily reminders, on behalf of those undergoing harassment and abuse.

And what are those implications? First, he chose us as his means of making known his life to the world. In a very real sense, as Paul earlier said, we become his face. To see Jesus, people look to us. Some will have dreams or encounter someone pointing them to Jesus, but in the end, we become the visual representation of Jesus, God’s son. And that’s absolutely stunning.

That’s why Paul waxes eloquently with these four parallel ideas. Listen to them again: hard pressed but not crushed: perplexed but not in despair: persecuted but not abandoned: struck down but not destroyed.

These four ideas he piles one on top of the other. Did you feel the force of what he is saying? Pressure, perplexity, persecution, being struck down. Here is what he is saying these attacks do. They force us into distraction; They upset us; These harassments are designed to make us anxious; Unbelievable maneuvers are crafted to confuse and confound us; Legal manipulations are written to perpetuate fear; Political alignments are brought together to scare the daylights out of us; Warring factions are arranged to diminish and destroy.

And let me say that bumper stickers won’t save us from their impact. So, what will save us?

This Jesus, who is our treasure. This one who resides in these jars of clay. It was Jesus who met, nose to nose with the barbarous and fiendish cries of his tormentors, and without complaint, faced down evil and death. Of course, this treasure is more than just valuable, it is beyond words.

It isn’t a treasure just to admire. He asks us to make it ours. He tells us to dip into the power of his own being. We can do that because remarkably he is in us. He’s not lost in the clouds of the universe, not obscured by the complexities of managing his world, but he is right here. “Don’t you know you’re very bodies are his temple where he resides?” asked Paul. His promise is that his eternal wisdom and unbounded power becomes our inheritance. It becomes our utility. Our fountain of life.

However, I think a note of warning is called for. This doesn’t mean that he makes everything pleasant and nice. Paul is not saying, follow Jesus and he will keep you from persecution. Neither is he saying, if you love Jesus that will keep enemies from attacking. And for sure he is not promising us that by believing in Jesus, that will defend us from those who hate him. There’s no magic formula. There’s no fast and easy way out. Religious persecution is something bigger than the UN. It’s a battle being fought in the heavenlies.

And we are a part of that wider clash. Our witness triggers anger in the enemy, who seeks to destroy the witness of Christ. That’s what we face. And standing against that is this treasure, in jars of clay. Look again at our text. There are three factors at play.

First there is our timeline. At birth, our eternal timeline began ticking, and our lives will never end. Which means that death by persecution, while it changes the mode of living, from where we are in time out into eternity, it does nothing to alter God’s long-term plan.

Second the narrative and story of our lives is about the treasure in us, not about our protection or being kept from harassment. It is about celebrating this treasure.

Third, this jar of clay matters. We don’t dismiss the pain and sorrow of those experiencing persecution by saying this is only about Jesus and the jars of clay don’t matter. Indeed, they do.

Let me take you to a parable Jesus gave which is at the heart of this. It’s a parable of a widow being badly treated by a judge behaving in an unjust manner. She simply refused to give up but continued pressing him to be just. In reading Jesus’ parable, you get the feeling she will not allow the unjust judge to put her down or to rule in ways that benefit he and his friends robbing her of her own rights and of justice.

The unjust judge finally caves in. He says, “even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming.” One scholar noted in this parable, the judge was using a boxer’s term and was really saying, “before she gives me a blackeye.”

I think Jesus is saying: “if this miserable under-the-table-judge refused to allow a bribe to keep him from being just, how much more do you think the judge of eternity will listen to those who call out to him?” The life of the widow mattered. For those experiencing persecution, yes we uphold you in prayer, and we also will go and stand for you in the world of public opinion before courts and tribunals.

Across this globe today, tens of thousands of followers of Jesus are being pressured, many facing hostile crowds, hauled before those who use a ruthless hammer of their own fabricated laws to rob those whom they oppose by denying them their religious freedom.

Gratefully there are ministries defending them at the tables of the world. There are people skilled who face governments denying people their religious liberties. There are countless millions praying daily for their well-being. We give thanks for your loving concerns. We want to stand with those defending those being persecuted, whether it’s before mobs seeking to harass and kill, standing before law courts and tribunals or mounting a defense before human rights bodies in Geneva.

May this rising chorus of voices encourage our brothers and sisters, pressed, perplexed, persecuted and struck down, as together we join in prayer and public resolve that they will not be crushed, they will not despair, they will not be persecuted, and they will not be destroyed.

I say all this in light of our willingness to accept Jesus’ call to be his light, his words of peace, his hands of love, moving into the marketplaces of this world, unafraid to live, bold to speak, in love showing how Jesus called us to live, so that this treasure, our risen Christ, is made known to our world. Being courageous is central to our obedience to the call of Jesus. We aren’t naïve, we know that in going, in speaking, there will come assaults, there will be attempts to cut us down, people will conspire to upend what God is doing. But as German pastor and prisoner Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us all, “When Jesus call us, he calls us to die.”

As Paul ends this part of his letter to Christians in Corinth, he reminds us of this.

Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.