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 God’s glory displayed 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 4:6-7 (NIV)
Jean Preston, by all accounts, lived exactly the kind of life you might expect an English librarian to live. She never owned a car, and took the bus everywhere she went – which was mostly to work. She lived on frozen dinners and bought all of her clothes from mail-order catlogs. She never married, and lived out her life frugally in a very ordinary red-brick house in a terraced row in Oxford. When she died in 2006, at the age of 77, she left behind a few relatives who wouldn’t have thought that there was anything at all out of the ordinary about “Aunt Jean.”
They would have been wrong, of course. Jean Preston’s ordinary little house contained some very extraordinary treasures. Art experts and auctioneers have recently completed the cataloging and sale of a cache of the numerous works of art Jean had hoarded in her home literally all her life. The auctions made a total of nearly $8 million dollars – around twenty times the value of the little house in which her collection was stored.
Among her treasures were two paintings by the fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance master Fra Angelico which turned out to be the long-missing and assumed-lost pieces of an eight-part altar decoration. They were propped behind the bedroom door, and the art experts only noticed them on the way out.
In the kitchen hung a nineteenth-century watercolor by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In the sitting room, above and electric fireplace, hung a work by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Buried in a wardrobe, presumably because it was too big to fit on Jean’s bookcase, was a rare edition of the works of Chaucer.
“We often go to fabulous homes to evaluate artworks, but in this case the house was just so modest from the outside, and had very modest decor on the inside too,” said Guy Schwinge of Dukes art auctioneers, which helped with the sale. “It's just rare to stumble across something quite so breathtaking.”
I like that story, don’t you? I think it’s because there’s something about a treasure hidden in the unlikeliest of places that fires the imagination, that makes you want to knock holes in the walls of your basement or tear up the floorboards of your attic. (Or at least the walls and floorboards of a relative….) The attraction of the story is in the ordinariness of its protagonist. If Jean Preston’s unassuming little house could hide such treasure, well, there could be treasure anywhere. The most ordinary—seeming places could conceal the most priceless of valuables.
There’s another story of hidden treasure in ordinary places that makes the same point. We call it the gospel.
There was nothing about the protagonist of that story that seemed out-of-the ordinary either. He was a working-class guy born to a working-class family in a working-class town. If he lived in our time he’d probably wear a shirt with his name on it to work. Maybe he’d bowl on the weekends. He was so ordinary, in fact, that on the rare occasions that he talked about his true nature, his family thought he was crazy. And yet, we believe now that in Jesus, God revealed himself more clearly than he ever has before or since. In him, behind that very ordinary-looking face, hid all the treasures of God’s limitless kingdom, all the might of his unfathomable power, all the depths of his boundless knowledge, and all the stores of his measureless grace. It was, in fact, within the limits of a human body that God made his limitless stores of treasure known to human beings. Jesus showed what faith is by following God’s will up to literally his last breath. And God showed his faithfulness by overcoming human limitations, even death, to open his kingdom and invite us inside.
But that’s not the end of the story. Not only did God reveal his treasures to us in Jesus: he also gave them to us. He “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ,” as Paul put it. His power, knowledge, and grace, all the treasures of his kingdom, are given in love to everyone who believes in Jesus. We don’t just learn about that treasure – we are made repositories of it, and can in turn make it known to others.
But Paul also says, “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” Clay jars, so common in his time that at every Middle East archaeological dig today, shards from broken clay jars are ubiquitous. So common that shards from broken clay jars served as the scratch paper of Paul’s day. Clay jars. Ordinary vessels that contain indescribable wealth. You’re like Jean Preston’s house, whether you know it or not. Someone who doesn’t know you and judges only by what they can see might not give you a second look. But there within you, just like you are right now, God has seen fit to place his treasures. In Jesus and through his Spirit he has filled you with everything that is precious to him.
Jean’s father, it turns out, was an art collector. Jean inherited what she had from him. It’s the same with you. The treasures of God’s kingdom aren’t something you obtain on your own. It’s only through your Father’s kindness that you have inherited his wealth. And as people see his glory shining out of your ordinary self, they are moved to give the glory to the one to whom it rightfully belongs.
That’s where you’re not like Jean Preston. By all accounts, she hoarded what she had. Hid it behind the doors and in the wardrobes of her home. Few of those who knew her, apparently, were ever invited to see the treasures she kept for herself. You can choose to do the same with the treasure God has given you, but he didn’t give it to you so that you might keep it hidden. He gave it so that you might share it with others – with people who otherwise might never know about it.As you treat those around you with the love, dignity, worth, grace, and mercy that you have received from God, the treasures he has placed within you come into view. Be sure that you live in a way that makes the treasures of the gospel known.
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