Boxes and Other Frail Vessels

Boxes intrigue me. Just watch the eyes of a child when given access to a box, especially the large sort made for a kitchen appliance. What is it about such a box? Is it that the space set off by its walls becomes something small enough to be manageable for a small person? It’s no longer the vast stretch between the child and eternity. It’s something that can be arranged, made cozy. Or is it because the space within it has now become somehow special—set apart.  And by being set apart, it somehow becomes sacred, imbued with mystery. Perhaps it involves something of both.

A definition of sacred or holy space is quite particularly “space set apart.” The Hebrew term for holiness points to this very thing—something being set apart or unique, as opposed to everyday or mundane. In Scripture, it is one of the primary ideas for describing God. He is separate and completely unique—wholly other. He is apart from and above all His creation, so nothing in creation is truly worthy of representing Him, only able offer hints about Him. He is also completely separated from all that is broken and twisted by sin. When He calls us to be holy, He wants us to be different from most of the people in our world—transformed.

In recent years I have inadvertently become a box maker. It all began with making small wooden chests for my sons as they came of age. These were designed, in part, to contain (in a secret compartment) the words of wisdom and objects of remembrance given to them by family and friends.  Then came the bird houses (boxes, at least of a sort), seed boxes, prayer boxes, tea boxes, potato boxes, and recipe boxes, mostly for gifts. These are mostly made from wood that would otherwise have been discarded or burned, a reminder to me of  God’s work of redemption in our own lives. Most of the boxes have messages burned or decoupaged into them—words from Scripture or other wise sayings. Some also contain prompts for prayer, Scripture reading, and meaningful conversation.

While making these, there has been time for me to reflect on what a box is. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more joy I’ve taken in the work. It is one of those activities for me in which I feel God’s pleasure. Though these boxes can sometimes be beautiful in their own way, they are not really about themselves. They are much more about what they are meant to hold, or what they signify or point to. Boxes by their very nature point to something other than themselves.

In ancient Israel, God prescribed the creation of sacred space to help signify His presence among His people. In the Tabernacle, the interior space was set apart from regular space by a special frame and wall coverings of leather and fabric. In the Temple, the space was set apart by heavy stone and cedar-beam walls. Both of these spaces were highly decorated with embroidered and carved ornamentation, and much gold, silver, and bronze. These places were not designed to be worshiped, but to point to the one true God and to inspire worship of Him.

One of the most striking objects of this sort in ancient Israel was the Ark of the Covenant—a box of  acacia wood covered by gold, signifying God’s presence. It is interesting that God used a box to signify His presence. In a world filled with idolatry, all the nations surrounding Israel had their idols—small hand-made objects that represented their gods. But the Lord had forbidden His people to make any images of Himself. Instead God instructed His people to make a box to help them visualize His presence.

As said above, boxes by their nature aren’t really about themselves. They are designed to create a space for something else, to signify and protect their contents. The very creation of the box holds up the contents as something special, set apart—sacred. The Ark of the Covenant signified the very presence of God—in a sense it was His throne—and became a means for inspiring faith among God’s people. And it contained items that helped the people remember truths they needed to hold on to: the stone tablets with God’s laws on them, Aaron’s sprouting rod as a reminder of the priests’ authority, and some manna to remind the people of God’s miraculous provision of food.

In the New Testament, a vast shift takes place. Jesus speaks of it in John 4, when the woman at Jacob’s well asked if it was important for Samaritans to go to the Jerusalem Temple to worship. Jesus told of a new era when true worship would have nothing to do with the Jerusalem Temple, but would be a matter of worshiping in Spirit and truth. Instead of a place or box to signify God’s presence with His people, God had sent His own Son to be Emmanuel—“God with us.” And when Jesus finished His work and ascended to heaven, God’s very Spirit came to indwell His people—His presence actually resides within us.

“Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, NLT)

“So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:19-22, NLT)

We as individuals and as communities of faith became the sacred spaces in which God Himself dwells, and it is through us that He makes Himself concretely present in this world. So we have become the sacred (though frail) vessels that carry God’s presence to a broken world.

“We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.” (2 Corinthians 4:7, NLT)

We are fragile vessels for a wonderful and overwhelming presence. We are God’s boxes, signifying and carrying His presence to the dark places in the world. As Jesus was when He walked this earth, we also are to be. An overwhelming task? It can feel that way, but it is important to remember that we are just the vessels, just the ones pointing to the true power. It’s all about God, not the vessels that signify Him.

Our weaknesses in the end just do more to point to God’s adequacy. The apostle Paul reflected on this when he said:

“So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, NLT)

Garden Tip: Construct a seed box to contain and organize your garden seeds. It doesn’t have to be fancy, and the wood doesn’t need to be expensive. You can make a nice wooden box with just about any old scraps. If you do, it will be a reminder to you of how God often uses “cast offs” to do His miracles. It is this sort of redemption that God accomplishes in our lives.

Seed Boxes

Design your seed box to signify the gift of life and God’s power to create and sustain it. Let it remind you that the seeds inside, once planted, have the potential to grow into beautiful and nutritious gifts from God. Remember that the seeds are evidence of the power of God and the fact that He chooses to work with us, in us, through us to accomplish His miracles.

If you are set up to do so, make two or three boxes at a time, and share them with others. Burn or router names on your gifts to personalize them. The back of these two seed boxes have these words burned into them: IN EACH SEED IS A UNIVERSE HURLED. It is a reminder of the amazing miracle of life that God has rolled up in each seed, and that He has called us to participate in His work as planters. It also reminds us that wonders and miracles are so often bound up within what we so often mistake for merely ordinary or mundane.