2 Corinthians 4:7-12 and 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
[A sermon from 2003]
Most of us are familiar with something called a safe deposit box. It is a box in which we store certain items that we deem to be so important that we want to put them somewhere special for safe keeping. Some of you may be using a safe deposit box to store insurance policies, financial records, birth certificates, passports and other documents and possessions that are of particular importance to you. For some of you the safe deposit box may be somewhere in your home. We keep our safe deposit box at home. It is a steel, fireproof, locked box in which we store many of the items I named earlier. However, some people go an extra mile for safety and security and they rent a safe deposit box at a bank where they believe their valuables will be even more securely protected against theft, fire or loss. Most of us are familiar with the idea of putting our valuables in a solid and secure safe deposit box.
With that in mind, it is interesting to discover that God does not use that same principle when it comes to the most precious and irreplaceable possession that you or I will ever possess, which is our life and health. The apostle Paul says that God gives us the gift of physical life and the blessing of spiritual life as well, and then he says that we have to house those valuables in “earthen vessels.” Not a steel-reinforced safe deposit box, but an earthen vessel. Not a fireproof box that can resist the attacks of this world, but an earthen vessel.
This image of an earthen vessel refers to the clay and mud pots, and bowls and jars that were used by people in ancient times. Even today we are aware of the art of pottery where a lump of clay is shaped and molded and then baked into a finished form. But no matter how beautiful that clay vessel might be, it is still an earthen vessel that can easily be chipped or broken or shattered. It does not matter if you are dealing with a $3.50 pot from Wal-Mart or a $35,000 Ming vase imported from China. They are both fragile and delicate. Unlike that safe deposit box made of fireproof steel, it does not take much to destroy an earthen vessel.
In our text today, Paul draws an analogy between the common earthen vessels of his day and our physical body. We are not as strong as we think we are, and we are not as invincible as we wish we were. These bodies in which we live every day are nothing more that earthen vessels that can be chipped, or broken or shattered and destroyed. Paul tells us that God enriches our lives with wonderful things, both physical and spiritual, but then God houses them inside of our physical bodies that are prone to pain, sickness and even death. God places precious things in earthen vessels.
You and I have wonderful talents and abilities that were initially given to us by God and that we have cultivated and developed over the intervening years. But all of those talents are housed in this earthen vessel. We are surrounded by family and friends, we have material possessions that enrich our lives, and we have events and activities that are both business and pleasure that are scheduled for the rest of this year and even into the year(s) to come. But we cannot take any of that for granted, and we cannot assume that all of those things will remain untouched or unaltered, because we have this treasure in earthen vessels.
Our human nature is like Peter on the Mt. of Transfiguration who reached a wonderful moment in his life in the presence of Moses, Elijah and Jesus, and who cried out “Lord, it is good to be here.” Peter wanted to stop time at that point. He was where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to do, in the company of the people he most wanted to be with. He wanted to build three booths on that mountaintop and stay right there forever. But Jesus did not heed that request from his disciple, because Jesus knows better than anybody that you cannot stop time at moments that are comfortable and convenient. You cannot put your life in a safe deposit box and try to keep things protected against change or loss. Everything we hold most precious in life does not and cannot fit securely in a safe deposit box. Paul is right when he says that we hold this treasure in earthen vessels.
I have been considering this fact for the last five months, because that is how long it has been since I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I am facing an operation on July 31st to have my prostate gland removed. I am encouraged by the fact that the disease was detected very early and it has not spread outside of the prostate. I am encouraged by the fact that once the prostate has been removed I face a 98% chance of a full and complete recovery. I am encouraged by the fact that there are men in this church and within my circles of associations who have already been through this procedure, and their continued good health comforts my troubled spirit. But having said all of that, as my son Aaron said when I shared this news with him, “the word cancer kind of hurts your ears.”
Indeed it does, because I never dreamed that I would be diagnosed with cancer. I had never had a serious illness until this year. I had never spent a night in the hospital until this year. I never missed one Sunday from this pulpit due to illness in all of these 17 years. And now here I am dealing with the fact that I have cancer today and that for as long as I live I will be a cancer survivor. Those are not words I had ever connected to myself.
Until last February, I never thought much about the fact that everything I hold dear in life is housed in or dependent upon the earthen vessel that is this physical body. I know that some of you scattered throughout this congregation understand the thoughts and feelings that rushed through my mind when a biopsy of my tissue was taken and when that tissue came back with the news that it was cancerous. I realized as I had never realized before that my life in all of its dimensions is housed within an earthen vessel.
Many of you here today are more aware now than you were a few years ago that you, too, are living inside of an earthen vessel. You were in perfect health, and then came a heart attack, a stroke, some form of cancer, some tragic accident that has altered your life in significant ways. You know better today than you knew before that we have this treasure in earthen vessels. Maybe you have not had any sudden and serious sickness, but you are just getting older and your moving parts don’t move as well or work as well as they once did. You have also found out that we have this treasure in earthen vessels. This discovery may have come to some of you by a more indirect route, meaning that your health has not been attacked and age has not worn down your body, but you have been forced to discover that someone that is very close to you is living in an earthen vessel and that vessel is beginning to crumble. One way or another we are forced to face up to the words of Paul when he says, “For we have this treasure in earthen vessels.”
There are several reasons why I decided to share this news with all of you in a very public way. I could have tried to find a way to deal with my prostate cancer that might have kept all but a few people from finding out about it. I could have taken off the six weeks that are required after the operation and called it a vacation. But I chose not to do that for some very specific reasons.
The first reason why I wanted to share this news with you is because you are my spiritual family, and I want to ask you to pray for me over the next few weeks and months. In most cases the roles are reversed and people are calling me to ask me to pray for them. Today I have to ask you to allow us to change places for awhile. Be sure that I will never stop praying for you, and I will certainly be praying for myself. But on top of that I want to claim for myself the words of James 5:14 which says; “Is any among you sick? He should call for the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.” I firmly believe the rest of that verse that says; the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well . . . The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
I do not want to go through the next several months without your prayers. I don’t want your pity, but I do want your prayers. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, but I do want you to ask God to have mercy on me. I don’t need you to limit your prayers to my being healed without surgery. I am not asking God to keep me from this cancer as much as I am asking God to bring me and lead me and keep me through this cancer. I am going to ask of you what Paul asked of the church in 1 Thessalonians 5:25 when he said; “Brethren, pray for us.” The first reason why I am sharing this news with you is because I want to say “Pray for me!”
The second reason why I wanted to talk about my having prostate cancer, is because I want to remind every man in this church and every man who might hear about my condition that if it can happen to me it can happen to you as well. I did not do anything that resulted in my having prostate cancer, I just got it. It was not the result of any lifestyle or dietary issues. So far as I know my father did not have prostate cancer. The doctor told me that he does not know how or why some people get this form of cancer, but he did say that it is particularly frequent among African American males.
I am not going to spend any time asking God “why me?” There is no more selfish or short-sighted question than “why me?” The real question is “why not me?” Why should other people suffer with various sicknesses while I am spared? Why should other people have to adjust to unexpected ailments while I move along untouched and untroubled? “Why not me?” is the better question from a Christian point of view.
Just as important as the comment of “why not me?” there is a second question that needs to be raised. That comment is “what next?” Now that you have been diagnosed with cancer; what next? Now that your surgery date has been set; what next? A person can either spend the rest of their lives in self-pity and regret, or they can resolve to turn their stumbling blocks into stepping stones and turn their obstacles into opportunities through which God can receive the glory. That is why I want to use my sickness as a context in which to urge other men to take steps to safeguard their health.
As I said earlier, while I do not know how I came to have this condition, I do know that if you do not pay attention to this health issue and if you do not detect it in its early stages, prostate cancer can kill you as surely as if you place a gun to your head and pull the trigger. Many men do not want to submit to a rectal digital exam in order to have their prostate gland examined. It goes against their sensibilities to endure that experience. My advice to you is short and simple; get over your inhibitions and safeguard your health. If you are a male over forty years of age, you ought to have that exam done on a regular basis.
However, do not feel secure with just a rectal exam. You have to a blood test and discover what is called your PSA number (prostate specific antigen). And if that number raises concerns with your physician then you ought to get a biopsy and your tissue is analyzed. And if the tissue proves to be cancerous then you ought to seek some form of treatment right away. Cancer does not wait until a convenient time to strike. Cancer does not await our permission to invade our body. And if we know it is there and try to ignore it, cancer grows and spreads and touches other parts of the body. If you wait too long to deal wit this you can wait until it is literally too late. I want to talk about what has happened to me, because I want to do what I can to keep the same thing from happening to others. It is not too late for me, and I hope that no man listening to me today will wait until it is too late for him!
There is a third reason why I wanted to talk with you about this today, and it has to do with trying to model for others what it looks like to be “sick and saved” at the same time. I would lose my right to tell you to put your faith in God when you get sick if I do not demonstrate that same principle when I get sick. I cannot tell you that God is able to bring you through the valley of the shadow of death if, when it was my time to walk through that valley I fell apart and started crying and doubting and blaming God.
The two texts that we read today work together in this situation. In the 2 Corinthians 4:7-11 passage, we are reminded that by the grace of God we can be knocked down without being knocked out. Somebody here knows what I am talking about from personal experience. Life has thrown you a hard and shattering blow. It may have seemed as if the bottom had dropped out from under your feet. For a moment you might have been in a state of shock. But then you started reminding yourself of all of those scriptures you had been storing up for just such a time as that. You reminded yourself that “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” You reminded yourself that “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee.” You reminded yourself as I have reminded myself these last five months that “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”
In ways I could not begin to approach just last year, I firmly believe in 2 Corinthians 4:7-11. I believe that “we are hard pressed on every side but not crushed. We are perplexed but not driven to despair. We are persecuted but not abandoned. We are struck down but not destroyed” (NIV). This earthen vessel in which I live has come under serious attack, and for the first time in my life I have had to think seriously about my own mortality. But I believe that my life is safe in the hands of God. I believe that God is able to do anything but fail. I believe that God is bigger and stronger than cancer or strokes or heart attacks or the other afflictions of this world that can ravage our earthen vessels.
I should say that the passage in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 also carries an important spiritual lesson for those of us who are troubled by sickness of one kind or another. It is important to remember that God always hears our prayers when we ask to be delivered from some sickness, but sometimes the answer is no. We should always pray to God that our sickness will be taken away before it becomes serious and life threatening. There is nothing wrong with that prayer. That is how Paul says that he prayed to God. He had an affliction that he referred to as “a thorn in the flesh.” Nobody is quite sure what it was that Paul was suffering with, but three times he asked God to remove it.
That is how I began dealing with this issue. After the blood test but before the biopsy I asked God to remove it, but he didn’t. After the biopsy but before the results came back I asked to remove it, but he didn’t. After the results came back and before I got a second opinion I asked God to remove it, but he didn’t. Sometimes God’s answer to our first prayer is no. But just because God does not heal us before things get serious does not mean that God has failed us. Sometimes God wants to receive glory from a situation, and that glory is only possible if, instead of keeping us from something, he chooses instead to take us through something.
That is what happened to Paul; he asked to be delivered from something, but God chose instead to sustain Paul through the sickness he had to endure. This is the other promise from God I have been leaning on these last five months more than I ever had before. It is the words that Christ spoke to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that say; “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
I can only imagine all of the pains and problems that are gathered together in this sanctuary today. If we were to bring them forward and lay them one upon the other, the height and weight of our woes and our worries might reach higher than the ceiling and extend beyond these doors. But take heart Christians, we are not in this struggle by ourselves. There is someone on our side who knows all about our pains and our problems. His eyes knew the presence of tears. His heart knew the weight of grief. His flesh knew the flashes of pain and suffering. His body even knew the confinement of the grave. But by the power of God, he was victorious and triumphant over all of that, and by that same power we can and will be victorious as well.
The grace of God is sufficient to carry us through whatever this world may through our way. In an interesting way, you never really comprehend all that such a statement means until you find yourself up against something that you know you cannot face by yourself. God’s grace is sufficient and God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. I am glad that I have had excellent doctors looking after my health, but that is not where my ultimate faith and trust are grounded. I am thankful for the medicines and medical procedures that can work to speed up my recovery, but my confidence is not the result of good medicine. I have gone on with my life over the last five months, and I intend to go on with my life during all of the years that lie before me, because I believe in my soul that God’s grace is sufficient to see me through the storm that lies ahead.
I have been calling on the words of Thomas A. Dorsey over the last few months. Most of us know of him, primarily because of his song “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” That song would work today with its lyrics that say “through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light.” However, he also wrote the words to another song, and maybe they have been or will be a comfort to some of you:
Like a ship that’s tossed and driven,
Battered by an angry sea;
When the storms of life are raging,
And their fury falls on me;
I wonder what I have done,
To make this race so hard to run;
But I say to my soul don’t worry,
The Lord will make a way some how.
The Lord will make a way some how,
When beneath the cross I bow;
He will take away each sorrow,
Let him have your burdens now;
When the load bears down so heavy,
The weight is shown upon they brow;
There’s a sweet relief in knowing,
The Lord will make a way somehow.