David A. Davis
June 21, 2020
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The potter and the clay. As in “have thine own way Lord! Have thine own way! Thou art the Potter; I am the clay.” I imagine I am not the only one who finds that hymn etched deep within. The potter and the clay. “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay and you are the potter; we are the work of your hand.” That’s not a hymn text. That’s the prophet Isaiah; chapter 64 and verse 8. The potter and the clay. It is an old, not uncommon biblical image. In the ninth chapter of Romans, the Apostle Paul is working on his argument about election, covenant theology, and God’s relationship with the people of Israel. He pulls out the one about the potter and the clay. “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use” (9:21). In II Corinthians, his use of “clay” comes not in an argument but a promise. “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that his extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come form us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be visible in our bodies.” (4:7-8) The potter and the clay. Its an old biblical image. An old example used for theological explanations. Its an old metaphor about God and humankind. The potter and the clay, just an old worn out sermon illustration.
Here in the work of the prophet Jeremiah, here in the expansive book of Jeremiah, here in Jeremiah, it’s the potter and the clay. But Jeremiah doesn’t just pull out the old image. He doesn’t just lift it from the file and blow the dust off. Jeremiah goes down to the potter’s house. “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.’” Jeremiah goes down to the potter’s house. He sat. He watched. He waited. He listened. The potter was working at his wheel. Something wasn’t right with the clay on the wheel. The pot on the wheel in the artist’s hands took a wrong turn. As the Jeremiah puts it: “The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to him.” The potter kept the wheel spinning. He kept the clay in his hands and did what seemed good to him. And the prophet was there in the house watching, waiting, listening.
There at the potter’s house, Jeremiah didn’t just toss in an old, tired, worn out image. The potter and the clay. He sat there and took in an ordinary slice of life and listened to the voice of God. He took in what was far from a unique or special experience, a potter sitting at the wheel, and he waited for a word from the Lord. God had promised to let him hear. Jeremiah went down to the potter’s house to take in the promise of God.
Like all the biblical prophets, Jeremiah is full of judgement, God’s judgement. The book is a prolonged call to faithfulness and obedience to the people of Israel. A bit more unique to Jeremiah is the consistent indictment of the people’s worship life. Jeremiah preaches over and over again about the people listening to false prophets and their worship of false gods and idols. The dire warning of consequences is accompanied by the demand to return to Lord and to worship the Lord and the Lord alone. That prophetic word and the continuing, stubborn reluctance of the people forms something of a refrain throughout. As our text for this morning concludes, “But they say, ‘It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.” The stubbornness of our evil will.
While Jeremiah’s message primarily addresses the collective identity and behavior of the people of Israel, the prophet is also known for his own lament and struggle with God. His plea to the Lord is deeply personal and refers to threats against his life an reflects his plea to God for protection. Just in the chapter before this morning’s text , “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved; for you are my praise. See how they say to me, ‘Where is the word of Lord? Let it come!’ But I have not run away from the shepherd in your service, nor have I desired the fatal day. You know what came from my lips, it was before your face. Do not become a terror to me; you are my refuge in the day of disaster.” (17:14-17) A prophet’s call to a God’s people about their relationship with God woven together with a deeply personal struggle with his own relationship to God.
So as Jeremiah sat there watching and listening in the potter’s house, he would have brought it all with him. His call from God. His passion for calling the people of God to faithfulness. His lament. His struggle, His prophetic heart. His heavily burdened prophetic heart. He would have been carrying it all with him to the potter’s house. His view of the world. The suffering of a nation. Jerusalem on the brink. The end of temple life. A people’s relationship with God redefined. The faithfulness of God re-affirmed. The disobedience of the people called out. Jeremiah would have brought all of life with him to the potter’s house. All of life, God, Israel, the present, the past, the future. The potter and the clay. For Jeremiah the word that came in the potter’s house was one of judgement, a call to repentance, and an affirmation that God could change God’s own mind if the people would turn from their evil ways. But the experience there in the potter’s house had to be more than just judgement, especially with everything, everything on the prophet’s heart. “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand” came the word of the Lord, “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, oh house of Israel.” So you are in my hand. In my hand. In my hands. Instead of just pulling an old biblical image off the shelf, instead of recycling an old image, there at the potter’s house, Jeremiah stepped into the promise of God.
Like any image, any example, any metaphor, any parable for that matter, if you stretch it too far, if you try to explain every part of it, it just sort of crumbles. If the potter is God, and God has the vessel in God’s hand the whole time, if the wheel is always spinning, how could God create something that is spoiled? Or a more philosophical approach may ask, if the potter destroys one vessel and creates a new one, but its all the same clay, is it still the same object? Or one could try to diagram the potter’s artistic process from a theological perspective trying to illustrated the providence of God, humanity’s free will, good and evil and predestination. If the potter determines to destroy a particular piece so another one can be crafted that is better or good, does that mean the first was bad? Or is it just that there are a whole lot of clay pots who decide to follow their own plan, spin their own wheel and be shaped by their own stubbornness?
Anyone can wring the life out of an image. The invitation here is not to figure it all out with only your head. The invitation is to step into the potter’s house and to listen for a Word from the Lord. To yearn for the very presence of God in the ordinary places of our lives. To bring the extraordinary burdens on your heart for the world, the nation, and for you, to bring it all with you. The invitation is to seek and hear the promise of God while bringing everything you have to bear, all you find yourself carrying. Step into the potter’s house and bring all of life with you. The potter. The clay. The present, the past, the future. The potter is working the wheel and the potter’s hands never come off that clay. One vessel after another transformed into another vessel. Another vessel that seems good. The promise from God that God’s people can still change, a nation can repent and be redeemed and that yes, God still has the world in God’s hands. And some days, maybe most days, that promise alone is enough to calm, lift or ease the burdened heart.
Years and years ago, on an ordinary day and in an ordinary time, Cathy and I went to the theater in Philadelphia. It was a small theater on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania that used to be a church and had been converted into an arts center. We went to a production of Godspell. The staging was such that the play, the actors, the singers were all around us. There wasn’t really a stage. The audience wasn’t simply drawn in. The audience pretty much was in. That arrangement coupled with the fact that we learned every word of every song when we were kids in youth group…well, let’s just say there was very little distance.
Near the end of the production of Godspell, the Jesus character was offering his goodbyes to the company of followers. They formed a circle around him, a circle that wove into the audience as well. The Jesus character went around the circle one by one. Each goodbye was a unique greeting to the individual follower. To the big beefy athletic-looking guy he offered a slap on the shoulder and fake one two punch to the stomach. To the practical joker in the bunch, he went for the handshake and then quickly pulled away before their hands met. The move instead was to scratch his own head. To the character who was always sad, he put a finger under the chin to lift the head and with the other moved the corners of the mouth into a smile. To the one who had more than her share of relationships, he started the hug and then thought the better of it. Then the Jesus character started saying goodbye to members of the audience, one by one.
The unspoken message was incredibly powerful to me as I found myself in that circle. I can still feel it as I describe it years later. Jesus encounters us where we are. Jesus meets who we are. Just as the number of hairs on our head are counted and known to God, so too the Son of God has such an intimate knowledge and love for us. At every moment, on every day of the stage of life. Just as God never takes a hand off that clay, so too does the Savior of the world now and forever hold us in his hands of mercy and grace. Or as the Men’s Choir from Witherspoon Street Church sang one Sunday when I was preaching there, for a pulpit exchange “When Jesus is my portion, my constant friend is he, His eye is on the sparrow, I know he watches me.” God, Jesus and the promise. In my hands. In my hands.
And yes, for me, at least for me, some days, maybe most days, and certainly these days, that promise alone is enough to calm, lift and ease my burdened heart.
When it comes to the potter’s house, some days, maybe most days. That takeaway, that promise is enough.