Many years ago, in ancient China there lived a pottery maker of great renown. He resided in a village in the northern part of the kingdom, but his fame had spread throughout the realm because of his ability to create fine pottery of exquisite beauty. Some of his best work graced the table of the imperial family in Peking. Even so, the pottery maker was a humble man, and he lived modestly in a small house with his family.
One day a messenger from the provincial governor came to the village where the potter lived. He was the bearer of exciting news. In the spring of the coming year the Emperor was to visit their province, and his itinerary called for a brief stop in this small village. When the people of the village heard the news, it was difficult for them to contain their excitement. What an honor it would be! Never had their village rated so much as a visit by the governor, and now the Emperor was coming!
Once the initial excitement had subsided, the village elders began to worry about how they should properly receive an Emperor. Failure to render proper respect could be dangerous. In worst cases, it could lead to the loss of one’s head. This was a matter of serious concern. After all, none of them had ever been to the imperial palace, and only one man in the village could even claim to have seen the Emperor (actually, the father of the present Emperor), and his sighting had been from a very great distance. After some consultation, the elders decided to seek the advice of an expert. After inquiry, they located a man in the office of the provincial governor who was reputed to be a master of imperial protocol, and they hastened to him for much needed advice.
Armed with this expert advice, the villagers began to prepare for the forthcoming visit of the Emperor. They had several months to get ready, and preparations went forward rapidly under the direction of the nervous elders. The mothers of the village sewed bright new costumes for the children to wear in a dance they would perform for His Imperial Highness. The children practiced their dance steps and learned to bow and curtsy in a way that would be pleasing to the Emperor. The prettiest little girl in the village was chosen to present a special bouquet of flowers to their royal visitor. The chief elder prepared and practiced a speech that would be proper for the occasion. Finally, as the high point of the Emperor’s visit, the famed pottery maker had been commissioned to create a special vase for presentation to the sovereign.
As the important day approached, excitement in the village reached a fever pitch. At the house of the pottery maker all other work had been set aside as the potter put all his skill into designing a vase of truly exceptional beauty. A few days before the Emperor was scheduled to arrive, the work was essentially complete. The vase was ready, and it was an object truly worthy of a king of kings. All that remained was to put it into the kiln for a final firing. The potter wrapped the vase carefully in its special covers and placed it in the kiln to be hardened. Some hours later, when he removed the wrappings from the vase, he was horrified to find that the vase had cracked. Repair was impossible. All those days and weeks of effort had been wasted, and now the village would have no special gift to present to the Emperor.
On the day that the imperial procession arrived in the village, the pottery maker remained isolated in his home, too embarrassed to show his face. But the other citizens of the village did their best. The chief elder made his speech, and the children danced and bowed and curtsied for the Emperor. The pretty little girl presented her flowers, and some other gifts were given. But the Emperor knew that something was missing. Where was this pottery maker who had gained such fame in the land? In response to this question, the chief elder fearfully approached the Emperor and told him what had happened. He told how the potter had spent months fashioning a beautiful vase, only to have it ruined at the last moment. The Emperor listened in silence, then he requested that the pottery maker be brought before him immediately. The Emperor’s guards went to the potter’s house and escorted the frightened man to his sovereign. Trembling, the potter fell on his knees before his Lord, but the Emperor took his hands, raised him to his feet and embraced him. Looking into the potter’s eyes, he said to him, “My son, you have given your gift.”
All of us are broken vessels. None of us are worthy to come before the Lord our God. In His mercy, He hears our humble cry. Through the life and sacrifice of His Son, he mends the cracks in our lives and brings us before Himself as gifts worthy of our King.
(This is one of my favorite stories. In the 1940s I encountered a brief version of it in a book by Lloyd C. Douglas titled Disputed Passage. I’ve rewritten the tale based on that distant memory.)