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Treasure in a Brown Bag

Containing the message of Christ's salvation enables us to endure suffering

I get all kinds of things in the mail, and sometimes I think it's a conspiracy of "Yuppiedom." A while back I got a catalog, and inside were all kinds of useless toys. For instance, there is the Oasis Beach Chair. It has an entertainment center built in and costs $449. Or, here's what I like, ski poles called "Hot Tubes" that hold half a pint of your favorite liquid on the ski slopes. Or you can buy an omnibot for your home—a robot. All this junk we can buy.

In fact, recently I read about what I consider the most obscene materialism I've seen for years. A man named Gordon Hall is building a little bungalow in Phoenix—150,000 square feet of house, 380 rooms, 37 bathrooms. I'd like to have his Tidy Bowl contract. He has an dog kennel, an indoor rink, a movie theater, and a garage—all for the tidy sum of $30 million. Gordon Hall says his highest priority is his family, and with the help of 50 TV cameras that scan the place continuously, he just might be able to find them in his house.

If you read Psychology Today, you saw last month the whole issue was on body image, the image that Americans have of their bodies. You'll be grieved to know that in 1986, our image of ourselves is less than in 1972. If you got one of the latest issues of Newsweek, you see that men are now as vain as the other sex. We all want to look like Remington Steele and wear $1,000 suits. The cover story was called, "You're So Vain."

All this pampering and primping. All these things added to our lives. And yet you look around and you see a vacant hollowness to our culture. You see people—hundreds and thousands of them—and most of them are hollow on the inside. All these things tacked on, but nothing from the inside makes a difference to them. Maybe people you know are like that. Maybe people you love are like that. I believe that most people we see every day are empty and hungry with a hunger they can't satisfy with $30 million homes and float phones in their showers. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes 6:7 said, "All men's efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied." To be totally aware of what you want and what you need and yet to be unsatisfied and unable to be satisfied is a daily form of hell. I believe hell is a place. But I believe many people, and perhaps some right here, are living a daily form of hell because the outside is laden and the inside is empty.

Six hundred people a day attempt suicide in our country, and 70 succeed. Someone has coined a cynical truism, "Life is terminal. You'll never get out alive." But we do have a choice: do we go through life empty or full? Do we want to go through life with a fullness, a strength, an inner resolve, a joy that bubbles over, or life that is fragile, dependent upon circumstances and accoutrements and the stuff we can put into our lives?

I'd like you to look at 2 Corinthians 4:89, a passage that depicts the resilience of the life that is filled from the center, a life that is full from the inside and flows outward. The circumstances of that life don't really make any difference. Look at what the apostle Paul writes, the apostle who experienced so much affliction: "We are hard presssed on every side but not crushed, perplexed but not in despair, persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed." Is this an unusual achievement? Is Paul saying, "I have found five steps to victorious living, and I want to share it with you"? Is this a kind of Arnold Schwarzenegger course? Do we have to look as good as Remington Steele to live this way? Do we have to have the talent of Itzhak Perlman to live this kind of life?

Treasure: God has poured the treasure of the message of Jesus Christ into common containers—people.

Look at verse 7: "But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this power is from God, and not from us." What an irony. When men and women make something they think is valuable, they build a pyramid. They spend a lifetime building it. Make it airtight, and it lasts for millennia with the treasure hidden inside. Or we put it behind glass in the showcase where it can last and last.

But when God has a treasure, where does he put it? In a Styrofoam cup! He puts it in something as plain as a sack—a jar of clay. You see, in New Testament days, they didn't have plastic. They had very little metal. They didn't have Kerr canning jars. They had nothing to store things in other than the most common material, clay pots. Paul is saying, in our words, "God has taken this precious treasure, and he is pouring it into a Styrofoam cup, a jar of clay, a sack, something as common as everyday." The container is common, but the contents are eternal.

I'm not usually an alliterative preacher, but today I will be. I'm going to give you three T's: treasure, trouble, and testimony.

The treasure in verse 7 is set against the backdrop of an old clay pot. A common receptacle, but it contained riches. Here are the riches, in verse 6: "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." That is the treasure that God has given us.

Colossians 1:27 says, "To them [or to believers] God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." The treasure, the content, is the message of Jesus Christ poured into a very common container.

When I was in high school, I worked for a time at an company, Brinks Armored Co. in San Bernardino, California. My job was to take care of the coin that Brinks handles. We used to get forty tons of coin from Las Vegas. My job was to wrap this coin, and you had to be and to run the huge machine that wrapped coins. And I could wrap $10,000 worth of quarters an hour. A bag of quarters weighs about 80 pounds—a thousand dollars.

One day we got a call from Bank of America in downtown San Bernardino, and they were in a panic: "We've got to have some coin in the hour." Well, all the armored trucks were gone, and so Larry, my manager, backed his '49 Ford pickup into the bay. Now if Brinks ever finds out about this, they're going to shoot this guy. We loaded $25,000 worth of coin in a '49 Ford pickup. That thing was dragging. That's over a ton. Larry said, "Hop in. We're going up to B. of A."

We hopped. I'm in my T and blue jeans. We drove up to the front of the Bank of America, parked the truck, and Larry said, "Hang on, I'll go in and get the dolly, and we'll haul this stuff in." I'm whistling, standing against this truck for twenty minutes. I don't have a gun. I thought, If anybody notices what is in this common looking pickup truck, I'm a dead duck! Of course, you can't carry 80 pounds very far. The treasure that people were walking by! But they didn't see it for the commonness of the delivery system.

The treasure. If we knew the treasure we have

What is the treasure? Look at 1 Corinthians 1:2729. You see the conveyance of God is so common and the treasure is so majestic. The treasure ought never to be mistaken for the packaging in which it comes. God is saying, "You are clay pots. At times, cracked pots. You are as plain as a sack. Not that you're not valuable, but don't confuse the treasure you carry for the system of conveyance, which you are." You see, it's humble and it's fragile to be a clay pot, but the treasure must never be forgotten. Don't forget what the treasure is. Remember, you contain it. You are not it. We deliver it. We don't manufacture it. We are not the source of it. We are the delivery system for it.

Trouble: That treasure enables the weak vessels that carry it to withstand trouble.

Now when we have this treasure from God, we learn some things:

We learn that instantaneously all our problems are over. We learn that God's Word has a detailed answer for everything in life. We have the answer to nuclear disarmament. We discover that if you have faith enough, you'll never be sick. And we discover that two plus two equals anything you want. No, that's not the treasure. That's the gospel according to Disneyland. Not according to the Bible.

Look at the trouble, verses 8 and 9. Four kinds of trouble Paul details here for us.

First, we are hard pressed. We are afflicted but not crushed. This is a picture of pressure and stress. I don't have to ask you if you have stress in your life. Every living being has stress. Some of it is good, and some of it is destructive. We are hard pressed. These are things like, you know, you're planning to go to Mazatlan, and your kids get the measles. Flat tires. Your car gets crunched. Your new paint gets scratched. You have a layoff on the job. You get gravy on your new silk tie. The plumbing backs up on Sunday morning. Stress and pressure—we have it all the time. Some of it is humorous; some of it is desperately shattering to us.

I hate to refer to this because some of you will think this is all I watch, but I've seen Bubba Smith in certain advertisements crush a lot of aluminum cans. I'd like to see him try it if the can were full. We are hard pressed, afflicted. What happens physically if the jar or the can is full? The basic principle of hydraulics: You can't crush something that is full as easily as you can crush something that is empty.

Where is the treasure? It's in this person. When the can is full, it will withstand pressure from without because inside there is a treasure. We will have grace under pressure.

Second, we are perplexed. We are confused. We are at wits' end. Let me ask you (this happened to me this week), have you ever been defeated in your spiritual life because you didn't have all the answers? Someone came to you and said, "I need counsel"?

You listened, you prayed, and you said, "I don't know. I think we're gonna have to wait and see. I'm not sure there is an answer for you." Have you ever been perplexed? Well, join good company with the apostle Paul. You can be at wits' end. You can be at understanding's end, but God be praised, you'll never be at hope's end.

Paul says we are perplexed but not in despair. Despair is hopelessness, and people in despair do one of two radical things. One, they lie down in despondency and let whatever wave is coming just crush them. The other is panic: I see no hope; I can find no hope, so I thrash and flail and seek some temporary solution to my problem.

In perplexity, the apostle Paul paints the picture: We don't abandon ourselves to fate. We don't give ourselves to negative kinds of solutions. We give ourselves to the One who holds us. We look at the treasure inside. And the relationship is unharmed regardless of the deficiencies in our life. We cannot be made hopeless.

Third, we are persecuted but not abandoned. Remember Jesus' words: "If the world hates you, keep in mind it hated me first." We will experience unintentional stresses, but as people who contain a treasure, we will also be the object of the world's intended backlash and criticism and persecution. They say that in Nepal your baptismal certificate is also your death certificate. There are places in the world where taking a stand for Christ will bring physical persecution. Read the first eight chapters of Acts, and look what happens there. They don't mind if the disciples stood on their heads. They don't care if they marched in the streets. They just keep telling them, "Don't talk about Jesus Christ." It's offensive to the world. You'll be persecuted, but not abandoned.

I didn't believe this when a fellow student told me, so I did it. He said, "You can take a paper cup, put water in it, put it over a gas flame, and boil the water without destroying the cup." You know, that works! But if you take the water out, you incinerate the cup in seconds. Why? The properties of the cup have not changed. It's the contents that stand up under the heat of persecution. It's the treasure in a bag. We are persecuted, but not abandoned. The treasure disperses the heat. The anger and the vengeance is against God, not against us. Therefore, we stand.

Fourth, the apostle Paul says, "We are struck down"—this is the word for calamity, catastrophe—"but we are not destroyed."

I have just gotten a in this, but let me tell you, in the last six weeks, I've learned what suffering is all about. I'm in a church that over the last six weeks has had one major accident and one death each of those weeks. We'll be having a memorial service tomorrow for a baby who would have been born at 6 pounds 11 ounces but because of complications was born dead. So here are parents holding a child that is as big as many children at birth, and the child has no life. A few months ago, I had a funeral for a 13 Down's syndrome child. Last month I had a funeral for a 1 who died of leukemia. About a month ago I had a funeral for a 26 young lady who stopped on I25 to help another car that had had an accident. She wasn't watching; she was struck by an oncoming car. She lay in a coma for a week and died.

We are struck down. We have calamity and catastrophe. The apostle Paul is saying, "That's what my life embodies. I have been knocked down. I have been stripped, and there is no safe road. But it doesn't change the treasure. The trouble I'm going through only magnifies the treasure." The mark of the Christian is not that he doesn't get knocked down. It's that he gets up and speaks of the treasure again, and again, and again.

I sat Friday with a dear friend. Ginger is about 42 years old, and she has cancer of the bone. She is struck down. She's praising Jesus Christ, and she led a friend to the Lord just a week or so ago because of the treasure, not because of the jar of clay.

We're struck down, but not destroyed. Even at the point of death, what does the Christian say? "Absent from the body—take me out of the paper sack—and I'll be in the presence of God." Praise Jesus. Christians are not always protected from fatal accidents, cancer, heart attacks, war, earthquake, from political upheaval. We live in the midst of that.

I've got a kind of fantasy. I like this time of year. It's all green. Everything is fresh. You wake up with the birds and the sun is shining. The weather is fairly predictable. It might snow tomorrow, but you know, it's warm, beautiful. I don't like those days in October when the city takes on that monotone color of . Everything gets dirty. The trucks spew gravel all over the place, and everything gets ugly. So I've got a better idea: hibernate the winter. Wouldn't that be great?

Think of it. What do you do when you hibernate? You sleep. You sleep. And then you roll over and sleep some more. What do you do before you sleep? You eat—everything in sight—because you have to build up fat stores to live on during the winter. I'd like to be like a woodchuck next winter. A woodchuck has a pulse rate of about 80 beats per minute—about like an active person. During the winter in hibernation, his heart beats four times per minute. And he breathes once. Can you imagine how your body would rest if you could do that? Or some of you mothers would love this: a mother bear goes into hibernation, she has two cubs about one month into hibernation and never wakes up. She sleeps. Wouldn't you love to do that? The problem is, I'm not constitutionally suited for it. Number one, I can't get fat. It just doesn't work for me.

But I see in hibernation a metaphor for our culture, particularly for my generation. We have this fantasy that if we could just hibernate during the hard times and manufacture good times and then wake up to them, if we could just surround our own little ecosphere with the good things in life, then everything would be just right. We could wake up and life would be neat. The tragedy is that we're not constitutionally made for that. God has made us to live every day.

Today may be very bleak and dark for you. And you may have no answer to what is happening to the external person in your life, but Jesus Christ does. It's the treasure. In the midst of our pressure, in the midst of our affliction and our being struck down, don't we have something to say? Yes, we do.

Testimony: Our testimony is not the resilient container, but the treasure that makes it so.

I'd like to point you, for just a moment, to the testimony. I've said all this thus far to get to one simple truth, one very basic issue in a cosmetic society that has made the gospel . I believe at the root of many defeated and witnessless Christians is the confusion of the contents and the container. Because we have a celebrity Christianity, it's only important if somebody with status talks about it. It's only true if somebody who's famous can say it. Or it's only true if my life is spotless and perfect. Don't get me wrong; 95 percent of the time, I preach character—to make the bag as presentable and unwrinkled as possible. But don't mistake the treasure for the container.

What is our gospel today? Our testimonies are usually this: "Look what Jesus Christ has done for me. Look how he's changed my life. Look what he's done." Nothing necessarily wrong with that, except it's not the gospel, because that will disappoint. Can you guarantee me your life will never disappoint? Well, if it ever does, it can't be the kind of treasure that Paul is talking about here.

Or we say in our testimony, "I want to tell you what the Holy Spirit has done and how he has empowered, given gifts, and how he has renewed me." Well, that is certainly true, also. But that's only a means for conveying this testimony. It is not the testimony.

The question I'm asking you is, "Am I the testimony? Are you the testimony?" The answer is unequivocally no. We are the container, not the contents. Look at what the contents are, verse 10: "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 are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body." What is the apostle saying? "I'm always pointing to something that happened. It's the death of someone else. It's the life of someone else. And the treasure I have, which no history of my own or history of the world can change, is that Jesus Christ is the answer to my dilemma." The treasure is the testimony about him. Yes, it has effect on me, but the treasure is out there. Don't miss it. The death is someone else's, not yours. The life is someone else's, not yours. That is our treasure.

There is something very true about this treasure. It's good news because it's fact. The cross of Jesus Christ and his resurrection happened in history. It is unrepeatable and irrefutable. And it's true. And the treasure is that fact.

Let me ask you: Have you been defeated as a Christian because your life is not perfect yet or because you don't know how yet? Well, the treasure is Jesus Christ. The best short statement of the gospel in my opinion is 2 Corinthians 5:21: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Friends, what is the treasure? The treasure is that Jesus Christ became sin for me. He died for me. He rose for me.

You may have cancer today. You may be in doubt today. Everything that is meaningful and comfortable in your world may be crumbling. Your job may be at risk. Your children may be in rebellion. Your home may be experiencing stress. When they ask you the question, "What is the treasure?" the treasure is in a Styrofoam cup. I don't have to tell you the container is fragile. But take the example of Paul. We have treasure in a brown bag, and what we do is point to Christ and say, "He is my hope. He is my salvation."

At the time of this sermon, Roger Thompson was pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Burnsville Minnesota. He is a graduate of Denver Seminary in Colorado, and has appeared on Preaching Today many times.

Roger Thompson

Preaching Today Tape # 42


A resource of Christianity Today International

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Sermon Outline:


I. Treasure: God has poured the treasure of the message of Jesus Christ into common containers—people

II. Trouble: That treasure enables the weak vessels that carry it to withstand trouble

III. Testimony: Our testimony is the treasure that makes us so resilient