A Clay-Treasure Ministry

Why does Christian ministry often look so unimpressive?  We pray for the transformation of many lives, which surely is the will of God.  However, so often we feel beaten down by the lack of response from others, and sometimes even by the lack of transformation in ourselves.  We have such a wonderful calling, but all too often, it can feel so mundane.

Understandably, we long for greater power, greater impact, and greater results.  Maybe we pray for big breakthroughs as confirmation that God is still at work in our ministry. But perhaps our frustrating experiences are confirmation that our ministry is actually going according to plan.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul continues to defend his ministry against accusation and criticism from some in Corinth.  In doing so, he offers a glorious consideration of New Covenant ministry. 

In chapter 3 he shows how, even though the Old Covenant was out-of-this-world wonderful, it is as nothing in comparison to all that is ours in Christ.  In chapter 4, Paul addresses two potential discouragements in ministry: the lack of response from the lost, and the unimpressive person we see in the mirror each day.  Paul does not want his readers to lose heart, but instead to look forward to all that is to come in the future (chapter 5).

The image Paul paints is treasure in jars of clay.  The treasure?  That is the wonder of intimate fellowship with God by the Spirit, who unites us to Christ.  The New Covenant blessings of sins forgiven, a new heart, and the indwelling Spirit are the greatest treasure.  And yet it is stored in jars of clay.  That would be us.  Fragile, easily broken, unimpressive, almost disposable.

When we come to chapter 6, Paul is urging the Corinthians to be responsive to his ministry.  He doesn’t want them to receive God’s grace, but then not allow it to work in their lives (6:1-2).  He is concerned that their affections seem to be restricted, that they are holding back their hearts in some way (6:11-13).  In between, Paul presents a long list of the factors commending his ministry for them to consider. 

At first glance, the list of commending factors seems overwhelming.  It begins with ten negative things, followed by nine positive things, and then a set of nine paradoxes (positive and negative, simultaneously true).  It feels like a long list to read, and a real challenge to preach.  But keep in mind the jars of clay imagery from chapter 4.  New Covenant ministry will be New Covenant shaped.  That is, there will be the unimpressive and mundane jars of clay, but also the real treasure within.

Paul’s life and ministry was shaped like that.  I suspect the same could be said of those who preached the gospel to you in the past, or led your youth group, or were your parents.  Very normal, unimpressive people in many ways.  And yet, there was a treasure there.

A New Covenant ministry person may seem so normal, even weak on the outside.  But within there is patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, and genuine love.  They seem to be dying physically, and yet strangely alive spiritually.  They are often poor, but others are so enriched through them.  They may not have much, but they seem to possess everything.  The Clay-Treasure ministry that Paul lived and described in this passage is not a contradiction of the New Covenant, it is a confirmation of it.

So, when you are discouraged by the lack of response in others, or even the unimpressiveness you see in yourself and your circumstances, remember that the treasure comes in a clay jar.  This will be true for you if your ministry is a New Covenant ministry.  It was true for those that brought the gospel to you.  It was true for the Apostle Paul himself.  And, ultimately, it was true for Jesus!

Just take a moment to reflect on the list in 2 Corinthians 6:4-10.  Maybe you can relate to some of the negatives.  Maybe you are aware of some of the positives in your life.  But don’t spend too long looking at yourself there.  Instead, let your hearts gaze on Jesus Christ himself.  Consider how he suffered.  Ponder what perfect treasure he carried within.  Find your motivation in the ultimate New Covenant minister.  Celebrate Jesus.  Worship Jesus.  And then, take a deep breath, stand up, and press on in your service for Jesus.

5 Rubbish Reasons to Preach

I was with a group of preachers last week and we had a conversation about good reasons to preach.  Along the way we generated a few not so good reasons to preach … actually, five downright rubbish reasons to preach (for non-England English speakers, “5 Bad Reasons”).  Just in case this is helpful:

1. To keep my job – I understand that both ministry and life are often challenging.  I also understand that we at times will find ourselves preaching without the fire we know we should feel inside.  But when it gets to the stage of simply trying to keep your job, you are long overdue a conversation with some trusted friends.

2. To make them laugh – There are probably a million variations of this.  Essentially the goal is to make people respond to you.  Maybe it is to make them appreciate you.  Maybe it is to show off your intellect rather than your wit.  Whatever the case, if the motivation in your heart is for them to be appreciating you, then your ministry is misfiring.

3. To get the petrol money – Whether it is official honorarium, or a kind gift to cover travel expenses, or even your salary … the chances are that you are not being adequately remunerated for the time spent in study, in ministry experience, and in message preparation.  We are far better off trusting God for our support and serving wholeheartedly, rather than worrying about the gift.  Once we start directly equating our effort for whatever may come back in return, we are probably better off looking at most regular jobs – not just because of the money, but also because of the state of our hearts!

4. To arrive at the end of the service – Sometimes you aren’t thinking about job security, or the response of the people to you, or even the money you might receive, but you are simply longing for the minute hand to reach the appropriate ending point for the sermon.  If you are new to preaching, don’t worry, this feeling won’t last long and you will soon be wondering how your time disappears so quickly.  If you are just going through a really low time, prayerfully make it to the end and sit down with someone safe who can listen and pray with you.

5. To get invited back – This is a weird one in preaching world.  Whether you are a visiting speaker hoping to not offend enough to get another invitation, or whether you are “preaching with a view” and hoping for a pastoral call, the motivation seems off here too.  In every situation we should be trusting God and saying what we believe is appropriate for the text, the listeners and the occasion.  Too many “pulpit dating” sermons and the church won’t be getting a healthy diet, even if they are getting “your best sermons.”

There are plenty of reasons why we should preach, but what would you add to this list of rubbish reasons?

Why Do We Preach 4

why preach2Here are another pair of thoughts as we reflect on the why? behind the ministry.  Perhaps these two should give more pause for thought than the others already posted?

7. Because we can’t help but speak of Someone so wonderful.  This should be the case.  Sadly, over time, it can easily cease being the case.  We can end up in a role, in a ritual, in a rut.  We end up preaching because that is what we do, or that is how we pay bills, or that is how we get respect.  We feel we should.  We feel it is expected.  We know it is needed.  And somewhere along the way we fail to notice the fog gathering between our hearts and heaven.

A growing spiritual complacency is the proverbial frog in boiling water syndrome for preachers.  God can become familiar and distant at the same time.  He can become a concept, a set of truths, a source of identity for us, but somehow fade from being the captivating One who so fills our hearts and lives that we can’t help but speak of Him.  May we all have a constant stream of newly engaged folks in our churches – constant reminders of the simple reality that a captivated heart can’t help but spill out.

8. Because we care about the people to whom we preach.  Again, this should be the case.  Sadly, over time, our flesh can easily co-opt the other centredness of ministry and turn it to a self-serving project.  We can become preachers doing so to gain respect, to gain credibility, to gain attention, to gain a following, to gain influence.  The gain increases and the give becomes token.  Of course we can talk about giving – we can frame the ministry in self-sacrificial and spiritual terms.  But really?

Just as spiritual fog can go undetected for too long, so a growing self-absorption is hard to spot in the mirror.  Our flesh will always justify a subtle pursuit of godlike status.  So we must keep walking with the Lord and ask Him to search us and know us.  Ask Him to underline the motivations that drive what may look like a gloriously giving ministry.  The true biblical preacher is shaped by the Word they preach, and they join God in giving of themselves as they preach it to others.  The blessings are hard to quantify, but they must be the by-product, not the goal.