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Jars of Clay

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 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 the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 2 Corinthians 4.3-7.

To say that someone has “seen the light” is now just a colloquial way of saying that he or she has changed for the better, but it was once used to signify a conversion (usually dramatic) to the Christian faith. And it is in that sense that, in this morning’s passage, Paul writes about those who “see the light” and those who don’t. It is not, he says, a matter of the light being difficult to see. Not at all. If a person cannot see it, it is simply because the devil has made that person blind.

But what is this “light”? It is, says Paul, “the gospel of the glory of Christ”. It is the good news of all that Jesus was and is and will be — all that he has accomplished by living in the flesh, dying on the cross, rising from the tomb, and ascending to the Father. And, says Paul, we preach it because that light has shone in our hearts.

For Paul, it was, of course, “a light from heaven, brighter than the sun” (Acts 26.13) that shone upon him on the Damascus road and brought him the revelation of Jesus that changed his life. But, however dramatic or otherwise the revelation to each one of us might be, it is, says, Paul, the equivalent to God saying “Let there be light” in the darkness of our hearts.

And that is where the light now is — within us. Within us. Jars of clay! The light within our hearts doesn’t change us physically. Outwardly we remain the same fat/thin, short/tall, ugly/handsome ordinary human beings that we were before the light came,  so that (as The Message paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 4.7 puts it) “If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness”.

But why “jars of clay”?

As I mused on that, the story of Gideon and the Midianite army in Judges 7 came to my mind. Gideon had three hundred men and he gave each one a trumpet and an empty clay jar, with a torch in the jar. Then, by night, they crept up to Midianite camp, surrounded it, and on Gideon’s signal, they blew their trumpets and at the same time smashed the jars and raised the torches. The shock tactic worked — the Midianite army fled for their lives. But why does that story come to Paul’s mind as he thinks of the light of Christ within ordinary human beings? Perhaps just because the story of Gideon illustrates just how a bright light can be completely hidden by something as ordinary as a clay pot. But maybe also because Paul knows that it is when human beings are broken by adversity that the hidden light suddenly shines forth. Indeed, in the verses that follow this morning’s reading, Paul goes on to tell how he and his companions are “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4.8-9).

Only yesterday, in church, a representative of Open Doors was telling us of persecuted Christians throughout the world today. Amazingly, it seems, the light streams out so powerfully from their brokenness that others become Christians through seeing it — even though they know it will mean that they will then be persecuted too!

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