In 2003 my husband and I moved to China. We lived in Beijing for two years.
Not a lengthy amount of time – certainly not long enough for me to claim expert status on Chinese people or their customs – but just long enough for me to accumulate lots of stuff. If you’ve ever lived overseas you probably know what I’m talking about. While shopping in fantastic open-air markets, quite often a small, very persistent and somewhat annoying voice whispers in your ear: “You may never be back here, so you better buy that now.”
And heeding that little annoying voice can become habit-forming. So, with every outing I made it a habit to return home with a Chinese teapot. It didn’t matter if I was buying lychee fruit from a street vendor or lilies from the flower market, I always managed to come home with a little teapot tucked in my bag. Today, I have quite the collection.
Many of the teapots in my collection are decorative; they are not intended for everyday use. How do you know? You can tell by the material used. They are often ceramic or glass. But you can also identify a decorative teapot by its design; they are quite lovely to look at. And while decorative teapots are considered valuable in and of themselves, very often, they do not fulfill that basic purpose for which teapots are typically created – to make a nice steaming cup of tea.
But while some teapots are decorative, still others are specifically fashioned for everyday use. How do you know? By the same measure you can identify decorative tea pots – the material of which they are made.
In China, everyday tea pots are typically made of clay. This material is used for several reasons. Clay is inexpensive; it is easily replaced if broken. But perhaps more importantly, over time clay will absorb the scent of strongly-fermented oolong tea leaves and enhance the flavor of the tea. Clay tea pots are essentially earthenware vessels – easily broken, easily discarded, yes – but still very important to the owner. Because the longer the owner possesses the teapot and the more pots of tea she makes, the more lovely and pungent her tea will taste.
And because I’m an equal opportunity teapot shopper, my collection boasts both decorative and clay pots. But I certainly have a favorite. This miniature clay teapot. Isn’t it lovely?
No? I can see you’re not impressed?
Well, very recently, some little people who are living in my home – temporarily – got ahold of it. And even though it sat on a very high shelf, their little monkey arms reached up and slapped at it. And I walked into my office just in time to watch it tumble, tumble, tumble down (yes, in slow motion) onto the wood floors where it cracked and busted into a million pieces. And at that very instance, I heard a familiar, persistent, and very annoying voice tickle my eardrums: “I told you that you should have bought two of those.”
Interestingly, Scripture tells us that we are like these little clay teapots. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 4:7 that we are “earthen vessels.” He writes: “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
Paul says you and I are “jars of clay.” And I believe he means two things by that.
First, we are intended for everyday use. God did not fashion us for merely decorative purposes, yet we often conduct our lives as if we are sitting pretty on shelves. Because, after all, opening our lives to the grit of the world is often a messy affair. But Scripture is clear, you and I have been fashioned for a specific purpose – to pour out our lives as an offering (Phil 2:17). And the longer we work at that purpose – sharing the treasure we house – the sweeter fragrance our lives become to God.
Secondly, when Paul calls us “jars of clay” he is admitting we are weak vessels that are easily broken and easily discarded. Even as you read this, the knocks and bumps of everyday life may be showing in your life. You might feel a little chipped, cracked, or even broken, discarded. You may feel like a jar of clay. But I assure you that despite your physical or emotional status, you possess a great and divine treasure.
What is this treasure? If you read the entire section of 2 Cor 4, we discover that this treasure is the gospel. Verse 6 says: “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” The treasure we possess (and are intended to share) is the light of the knowledge of God’s glory manifested in Christ. The divine treasure we possess is the glorious light-filled gospel.
Yet, does it seem strange that God would give us this divine and glorious treasure, but choose to house it in a common, earthenware vessel? Why not make us into beautiful glorious teapots to better mirror the glorious nature of the treasure we possess? Why the paradox of a divine treasure housed in a chipped, cracked earthenware vessel?
Well, 2 Cor. 4:7 tells us not only who we are (jars of clay) and what we are to be about (everyday use – pouring and sharing the gospel), but it also explains the why factor, namely, God’s purposes for this paradox.
Read verse 7 again: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
God does not use decorative teapots. He uses every day, broken, chipped, cracked, common instruments to affect his gracious will on earth so that there is no confusion. God wants people to see that the power at work in your life is beyond coincidence. The power at work in your life has nothing to do with you – your gifts, your talents, your looks, your circumstances. And thankfully so, because sometimes we use our gifts poorly. Sometimes we don’t look very lovely, or engaging, or charismatic. Sometimes our circumstances do not appear very pleasant. God wants people to see that the power at work in your life is truly divine, truly transcendent – something wholly other than you, a mere clay teapot.
I believe there is great comfort to be found in the thought that God desires to use us despite, and essentially, because of all our shortcomings. Quite often, the very thing you think discredits you from being used by God, could possibly be God’s greatest asset for your ministry. Whatever areas of weakness you observe in your life – whether it be weakness due to your own sin, the sin of others against you, or just plain sorry circumstances – it is those very chips and cracks through which God seeks to be glorified.
God delights in using jars of clay, because it is precisely through our weaknesses that His power is the most visible. Just like my poor broken, clay teapot, God desires for you to pour out your life and share the treasure of the gospel with others.
Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for making me a instrument of your grace albeit with a few cracks and chips. Thank you for piecing together the shards of my life and making me a new creation in you. Please fill me each day with the glorious and brilliant light of the gospel so that your grace will pour from my heart and lips. In Jesus’ precious and holy Name, Amen.
2 Corinthians 4:6-7