Jeremiah 18: 1-11
Of all of the final examinations that I’ve taken in my life, at university or seminary, the hardest was a final for an advanced pottery class.
I had to throw, on the potter’s wheel, a set of four identical mugs that looked alike, were weighted equally, and were glazed in the same way. If you think this is easy, it’s not. Any number of things can and did go wrong. You can throw a misshapen vessel by applying too much or too little pressure or by adding a little too much water to keep the clay malleable. You have to watch that you don’t lift up the walls of the vessel to quickly as it’s spinning on the potter’s wheel or linger too long in one spot otherwise the walls get way too thin. If something happens in any part of the process the potter just has to collapse the vessel and begin again.
So night after night I would go to the ceramics studio in my blue work shirt and jeans covered with dried clay and I would bend over the potter’s wheel and work as I listened to the spinning of the wheel. One mug. Two mugs. Then three and eventually I had thrown four mugs but not without collapsing many mugs in the process that just needed to be tossed out for one reason or another or collapsed on its own from overwork.
I labored very hard on that final and learned about patience, perseverance and a steady hand. I learned about clay too, that not every batch is the same. The mugs weren’t identical but they were unified in their look and that was good enough. (Good enough- the two best words in the dictionary) I did well on the exam and unfortunately I do not still have the set. Somewhere along the way they just disappeared like childhood toys, I don’t know where they went. But the experience has never left me.
The image of the potter is used quite often in the Bible and in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah because the author used examples from life that would resonate with his listener’s. Jeremiah’s call and his prophecies were rooted in Israel’s purpose, not in the development of just one person. And it was the prophet’s job to tell the community of faith things they didn’t want to hear and about how God wanted to shape their life together.
Let us now hear the word of God through the prophet Jeremiah….
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings…..
While we might think about God shaping our individual lives, bent lovingly over a potter’s wheel molding us like a potter, Jeremiah here is addressing the life of the community, called together. God is molding a society and nation to be a model of ethical monotheism in a critical time in the political history of Judah, the southern kingdom and these words we just heard might seem a bit harsh.
The people of Israel were having a difficult time remaining true to the covenant God made with them on Sinai. One God, one people, no other god’s. That was difficult for them. With all of the outside political factors and cultural influences encroaching upon their nationhood they questioned this ‘one god’ theology, maybe even rebelled and often went back to their old ways. Peer pressure is not a new concept! You see God was forming them to be a better nation and had great plans for them, plans for their welfare and not for harm, to give them a future with hope God says later in Jeremiah. (Jer: 29) If only they would trust in their future now and have faith that God would bring them through and show them the way.
In our scripture we see God is deeply invested in the future of Israel as a people, as a community of faith. God wants to shape a vessel of hope out of them that will contain the foundational tenets of a people of faith living together in covenant. That is to love each other, and to love God, to walk in God’s ways which is to repair the world and no other.
Yet like dried clay or too wet clay we see them actively resist the hand of the potter and form themselves for their own purposes. They did have a choice you know, there is a relationship between the clay and the potter. Or, they could embrace God’s way, be attentive to the manner in which God wanted to form them congruent with God’s law. God was not indifferent to the way their collective life was to take shape. God was aggressively involved in it. God cared. God loved. And this is why we detect a sense of judgment or dissatisfaction in our scripture. God wants them to be the best that they can be and to be harbingers of God’s grace.
And God wants to continue to shape us as a community of believers too for purposes that we cannot envision yet. God shaped us into existence over two hundred years ago and is shaping us now for ultimately God’s purpose and plan far beyond what we can even imagine. We’ve been attentive to God’s call so far? How will we be attentive to who God is calling us to be?
There have been turning points in the life of this congregation that were seminal to whom you are today. There are decisions that were made by your bold ancestors that were precedent-setting and that made all the difference as to how you gather yourselves and carry out the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They were faithful people wanting to worship God and bear witness to just how great and wonderful God had been to them. You are their legacy. What legacy will we leave? What type of vessel will this church become for others to be a part of a generation from now? God is continuing to mold us and that’s what this redevelopment thingie is all about.
Soon the redevelopment teams will reconvene after the summer hiatus. They will reconnect and assess how they need to proceed to ensure that we are open to the ways in which the hands of the potter are trying to shape us. Once they have met then I will have an all church forum to do some reassessing of the entire process, to take the temperature of the congregation to see if you’re getting antsy with it or if your satisfied with the work thus far, or if you have any new and innovative ideas for us to explore. There’s always something that can be looked at and it is good to stop and assess. But we aren’t alone in the process, and that is something we need to always remember.
Christ is our steady foundation who issues that same call as long ago to follow, to trust, to believe in a future that promises hope and redemption for all people. Are we faithfully telling that Gospel? It might not be overt but do our actions show the community of Orange that we are loving and accepting of all God’s children who want to walk in his ways? We don’t exist for ourselves, we exist for God and all others who sorely crave some hope and acceptance in their lives.
We know now that God is a God of love, not revenge, and that God will not turn against us or exact danger upon us. God is merely asking for a deepened commitment to the covenant that God has given us. God has molded us, shaped us, searched us and knit us together unified as a worshipping people like a foursome of mugs.