Over time, Pastors repeat themselves. I don’t mean they accidentally preach the same sermon again; no, they intentionally preach the same message over and over. Different passages, different titles, same sermon.
In 2018 I received a gift from Lili Stead, who had been listening to my sermons for all twelve years of my ministry in Olympia, Washington. It’s a simple cup, nothing fancy, and I treasure it, for it is a hand-painted reminder of the many times I repeated myself. (Pastors would prefer to call them recurring themes, which I believe is a fair rejoinder in defense. Just sayin’).
Lili creatively painted the cup, including some words of Jesus and a couple of phrases I repeated over the years – either in my sermons to the congregation or in our Komments for
Kids. Four biblical references are painted on the underside, and near the bottom are these two words: Thank you.
No, Thank you, Lili.
Yes, I repeated myself in my messages, and did so boldly, reminding our congregation about the frequent use of the word cup in the Bible. From Jeremiah to Jesus to John, from biblical books as different as Psalms and Revelation, and related to themes as varied as generosity, self-examination, the Lord’s Supper, blessings, and wrath – the cup is a powerful metaphor for our lives.
Yeah, but who cares?
I realize that I’m quite possibly losing your interest. You may be thinking about returning to your news feed or to your social media page, rather than following me further into my reflections about the helpfulness of this image.
Yes, Pastors do that also. It’s so easy to drift our heads into the theological clouds during our sermons, oblivious to the fact that nobody has joined me in the balloon.
So why should you care about the biblical image of a cup?
Metaphors connect us in concrete ways to powerful truths. And it’s really easy to forget one particular truth: when you said yes to following Jesus, there was a banner over the starting line proclaiming If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me.*
Take up your cross daily. We see the symbol of a cross so often – you may even wear one around your neck – but what does that phrase mean? By posing a question to them involving the cup metaphor, Jesus confronted James and John with the fallacy of their prideful request: You don’t know what you’re asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink? **
In this instance the cup represents our individual lives, the willingness to take on and take in all that Jesus would call us to experience and suffer. Thus it becomes your question also. Can you drink the cup – live the life – of following Jesus? In what ways can you point to your doing that?
Assuming now that you have stayed with me, allow me to briefly share two of the ways that I have found the image of a cup to be helpful in my own quest to follow Jesus.
First, a cup is fundamentally a receptacle from which we drink. In that way, it represents the fullness of our lives, or the lack thereof. David’s declaration in Psalm 23 is somewhat of a life goal – My cup overflows – although today we’re more inclined to trade up for a larger size, which is exactly the message that bombards us daily. Don’t let anything spill out! The life-worth-living in Western culture is all about keeping our cupboards and our calendars and our careers full-filled. And freshly entertaining. And uniquely attractive.
But following Jesus must be more than lying in bed after a wonderful day, rubbing your tummy and exclaiming wow, all this and heaven too! If indeed we are blessed by God, and he has poured out his love on us abundantly, and yes, our cup overflows – godly wisdom calls us to ask the question: what shall we do with it all?
I imagine that Jesus would like to whisper in our ears – or maybe shout it out – a cup can have two purposes! It can and should also serve as a carafe, a vessel used for pouring. That’s exactly how God wants us to view our lives – a dual purpose cup for both getting and giving.
If God is indeed the potter, and we are the clay – trust me, I didn’t make this image up – he is committed to shaping us with such a purpose in mind, as we read in another of the hidden jewels of the Bible:
In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special purposes and some for common use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work. (2 Timothy 2:20-21)
You and I are some of those vessels. Do you believe that the cup of your life – who you are, what you possess, your abilities – can have a higher purpose than just your entertainment and your comfort and your personal fulfillment. Is that obvious by looking at your calendar or your bank statements?
Which brings me to the second way that I’ve found the image of the cup to be helpful.
Someday I will share in The Blue Spigot the weekly rhythm of my prayer life. But for this discussion, I want to tell you about my Monday mornings. According to Mark’s Gospel, on Monday of Holy Week Jesus cleared the temple of several components that didn’t belong there.
Later in the week he essentially encouraged the Pharisees to do the same with their lives, using – you guessed it – the image of a cup:
“How terrible for you, teachers of the law and Pharisees! You pretenders! You clean the outside of a cup and dish. But on the inside you are full of greed. You only want to satisfy yourselves. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish. Then the outside will also be clean. (Matthew 23:25-26 NIRV New International Readers Version)
Holding onto, or sometimes just looking at the cup Lili made for me, I engage in a time of repentance and renewal, a weekly time of coming clean. How much of my life is about receiving and retaining? How am I using the cup of my life to pour out blessings onto others, knowing that Jesus will always supply our needs?
Like you, I want to be a vessel that is useful to the Master. Like you, I want to be prepared to do good works. Hear our prayers, O Lord.
Thanks again, Lili.
Benediction of Blessing
May you know the many blessings of God, and may indeed your cup overflow.
May you regularly clean out the cup so you are ready to be used by God for his good works.
May you constantly learn creative ways to use the cup of your life as a carafe, pouring out blessings to others as God prompts you.
* Luke 9:23 New Living Translation
** Matthew 20:23
Painting: Giovanni Paolo Panini (1720 – 1812):
Christ casting the money changers out of the Temple
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All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM