On our first trip to Israel a number of years ago, our guide took us to a snack bar, aka a tourist trap, alongside the Great Sea near Caesarea. At this particular site, walking in the dunes close to Herod's Aqueduct, the government allows tourists to own any artifacts they discover in the sand. Of course, we all became seasoned archaeologists searching for lost manuscripts of the Bible. It was the Three Stooges in a sand dune.
One of our group actually stumbled over a piece of pottery. It was a handle and spout from a clay bottle. Our guide took it to the proprietor of the gift shop and he estimated the piece to be ancient: over a thousand years old. The rest of it had broken off and only the top part of the jar remained. But, it reminded me of Paul's words about earthen vessels, only somewhat of a reverse from what I had always imagined. If it was a thousand years old, it was very sturdy stuff.
To the Corinthians Paul wrote, "We have this treasure in clay jars (in some versions earthen vessels) so that this extraordinary power may be from God and not from us" (2 Cor. 4:7). I've always thought the reference to earthen vessels, or clay jars, was a reference to the fact that we are all returning to the dust from which we came. It certainly would fit, the clay being created from the mud, and in the process of some deterioration from the time it was created. Finding a thousand year old fragment ignited a great deal of debate among our pilgrims. Our guide, a native Israeli and orthodox Jew, explained that it was partially correct.
But, he also told us about digs around the country where entire pottery jars, often containing ancient coins, were discovered. Turning to dust they surely are. Even more, however, they are extremely fragile and subject to cracking, breakage, and being crushed by whatever was happening around it---pressure from being buried, movements of the earths crust, rains and storms, marching troops, animals stomping over the ground, and other threats that could damage the thin construction. That eventually they would turn back to dust wasn't argued. But, like the ancient ones pictured above, they are much more subject to breakage. They erode and break. Like human beings. We are fallible, flawed, and fragile. No matter how good we feel or look or act, we are turning into the dirt from which we were formed.
Americans are totally obsessed with living forever. Boomers are most afflicted with the anti-aging virus, most of the 70,000,000 of us. The Huffington Post estimates that we are spending $80,000,000,000 (note billion) per year fighting the aging process. Economists estimate the number to skyrocket to $114 billion annually by the year 2015. The idea of getting old is a nightmare for so many of our cohort. And, we'll do just about anything to stave off the wrinkles, sags, bulges, lines, eyesight dilemmas, sore feet, and all the rest that just goes with age. To be honest, the people who usually fight it the hardest are the ones losing the battle fastest. But, you can mark it down. We're all going to die, and age in the process (Hebrews 9:27).
Thanks for the encouragement. Right? But, of course, Paul talks about the joyful parts too. In the backdrop is eternity, and the promise of Christ for those who believe. In a here and now scenario, though, there is a blessed side to the fading of the human body too. In the same Corinthian passage he offered this, "Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day"
(2 Corinthians 4:16). In the final verse of this section he added, "So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:18).
There's this thing that should be happening in mature believers, a shift of focus that puts us in contact with eternity before we get there. I remember reading that entire text (2 Corinthians 4:7-18) to my mother as she struggled through the physically appalling test of ALS, Lou Gehrigs Disease. She would listen to those words and smile. Several times she wrote me a note that said simply, "Again". It was the assurance that something was happening on the interior of that clay jar as the exterior was broken and fading, fragile and delicate. It was peace. Being at peace.
The journey has a beginning and an end. That is, the physical journey. Along the way something miraculous can happen to us internally that gives us another angle on life, and releases us from the bondage of fearing aging and death.
Paul added something breathtaking in 2 Corinthians 5:1. He wrote, "For we know that if our temporary, earthly dwelling is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal dwelling in the heavens, not made with hands".