Jeremiah 18:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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.
I have always loved this imagery of God as the potter – shaping, forming, reshaping. I have played with clay and enjoyed the messiness and the creativity of it as a shape and form is birthed between my fingers. Anyone else here play with clay or playdoh? I also love the fact that mistakes are forgiven and that reshaping/reforming/reimagining can take place. Nothing is thrown on the discard heap but reused and repurposed and sometimes made stronger.
In a recent Sojourners issue Kenyatta Gilbert (Sojourners sept/oct 2019) wrote: “Except for a session of good rugged outdoor play, nothing brings Ava, my 9-year-old, greater joy after a stressful school day than flattening and twisting playdough or pulling a part ‘kid slime,’ which she creates from Elmers’s glue, glitter, and borax. Correct apportionment of these ingredients is critical for prolonging shelf life and getting things rightly textured. Though inevitable messes come with the task, Ava takes full responsibility for what she creates and is unwilling to abandon the process until the slime’s consistency suits her purposes.” Ava is a creator, too.
Back to Jeremiah: The context of Jeremiah’s ministry spanned the years just prior to, during, and after the fall of Jerusalem. These were very difficult years for a nation that saw itself as God’s chosen people so nothing could be more upsetting than to think of the loss of God’s favor. Yet God is reworking the original clay. God’s love is expressed in the reworking of the clay, however painful and unpleasant it might be. [So the question is asked] “Where is the love?” The love, as Jeremiah would later say is ultimately a plan for good, even if we don’t know it at the moment. However, Israel’s decision not to worship God and to worship other gods instead leaves the nation vulnerable to heartbreaking consequences.
The image of a potter working with clay is an everyday occurrence in the ancient world. As a result of his watching a mundane task, a potter at work, Jeremiah received God’s instruction to issue a call for repentance. This call includes an unequivocal warning that the consequences for failure to honor God can be severe. The community needs to know that God’s love can be tough love. Moreover, God’s tough love is applicable to any nation. Israel included. God insists that humanity see reality. – all of it. The message from the potter’s house is that God is faced with the task of working with positive and negative factors in order to shape Israel into the best vessel possible. The message from the potter’s house is that God will not ignore Israel’s unrighteousness.” Being chosen does not mean a lack of taking responsibility for one’s actions. Being chosen does not mean a sense of entitlement or not listening to God’s voice without consequences.
Although the rest of Israel’s story includes war and exile, Jeremiah’s story of the potter and the clay leaves open the possibility that things could go either way – good or bad. Even with all of the negatives on the horizon, Jeremiah’s prophecy of disaster contains a ‘positive message of hope indicating that God could begin to fashion the people Israel anew.’ This glimmer of hope, however faint, that no matter how bad things get the possibility for good remains, is the reason why for generations people return to Jeremiah and his story of the potter and the clay. And we do the same today to glimpse that glimmer of hope.
“The people of Israel had come to believe that these covenant promises granted them a privileged relationship with Yahweh that assured their prosperity – but out text reminds them [and us] that the covenant is a two-way proposition. God has chosen them, but they have a responsibility under the covenant to obey God. If they are not faithful, God is under no obligation to take care of them. Our text makes it clear that the behavior of the people of Judah is crucial to their future. If they are faithful, then they will prosper – but if they are unfaithful then they will suffer. Yahweh has chosen to give these people power to choose their destiny. Everything depends on their decision.” (sermonwriter.com) and taking responsibility for the decision they choose.
And so, like Kenyatta Gilbert, we too can “reach back to the wisdom Jeremiah shares and gain similar perspective about humanity’s need for God-initiated mercy and reformation. [We too] join Jeremiah at the potter’s wheel, where communal repentance stays the potter’s hands, though destroying the clay was on the agenda. Gospel singer Tramaine Hawkins lyricized this so well. ‘In case you have fallen by the wayside of life/dreams and visions shattered, you’re all broken inside/you don’t have to stay in the shape that you’re in/ the potter wants to put you back together again/ oh, the potter wants to put you back together again’.”
Gilbert notes that “making frequent trips to the potter’s house and seeing the potter at work meticulously twisting and flattening, restoring and refashioning life marred by sin would do us some good. Correspondingly, the psalmist remixes this sentiment of holy intimacy and sets it to song, ‘O Lord, you have searched me and known me. … For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:1,13-14a).
The potter’s vessel has flaws, it is not thrown out, but remade, revitalized and given new life and purpose. That’s a pretty powerful image of our God of creation. And for me it has the feeling of being born again and again as we grow in awareness of our own lives and our own actions and taking responsibility for the shape of our lives because of the decisions we have made. Have you noticed that it’s the poor decisions we’ve made in life that keep us awake at night – it’s never the good stuff. That to me is the difference between prosperity and suffering. I believe it is not an external, but internal struggle and result.
God is not molding us to be perfect, but to be the best we can possibly be. Sometimes through the dark and broken and difficult times of our lives we may feel that God has abandoned us or is punishing us, but often in hindsight we can see things a bit differently.
I share a very personal story and if I gave this particular chapter of my life a title today it would be “How Divorce Saved My Life”. When I was going through it the title would have been more like: “Divorce is Hell”. Ray and I met at a high school dance when we were 16. We married when we were 19 years old. Our son, Marc, was born when we were 21 years old. The deal was that after Ray got his master’s degree, I would begin college. The summer of Ray’s graduation, Marc was 4 years old, and Ray decided he did not want to be married any longer. We were married 6 ½ years and I thought we were relatively happy, so his declaration felt like it came out of the blue that knocked me out. What could I do to change his mind? How could I change to make things different? I thought it was all my fault that this marriage failed and never expected to be a single mother. I was worried about finances, emotional support, care for Marc and being alone. I was a mess.
At the time this happened I was working full time and had applied and been accepted to a junior college. My first inclination was to not go back to school in the midst of this turmoil. At the age of 25 I wasn’t sure I could do the work, be an adequate single parent, make an income and wasn’t sure I had the wherewithal to survive without Ray.
Following the initial shock, I was able to do all that I needed to do, and found more strength and reserve than I realized I had. In time I came to realize that divorce saved my life because I finally began to see me. I finally learned that I had a voice of my own and was not just a reflection of Ray, and I could stand on my own two feet.
This realization, however, did not happen overnight. It was an awareness that this divorce saved my life only well after the fact. And that awareness and insight helped the potter to shape my life. I was not a victim. I grew to understand that even a destructive process can really be a creative one. Sometimes something has to die for rebirth to happen – and like all births – pain is involved.
This reshaping endures to this day as I continue to gain insights into my own behavior, and actions – some past and some present. And the older I get I find my beliefs are not rigid but are being constantly challenged: about my world view, religion, religious beliefs, and an especially strong belief in Spirit’s presence in this good, good world.
As Gilbert reminded us: “Yet God is reworking the original clay. God’s love is expressed in the reworking of the clay, however painful and unpleasant it might be. “Where is the love?” The love, as Jeremiah would later say is ultimately a plan for good.”
May the Mother of Goodness bless our week and our awareness of growth and insight. May the Father of Goodness bring us comfort as we do so. Amen.