Isaiah 64:8 and Jeremiah 18:1-11
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
September 8, 2019
God, our scripture lessons today tell us, shapes our character and conduct like potters shape their clay.
Imagine God bent over his potter’s wheel, covered in wet clay up to His elbows, with the mud of us stuck under His fingernails, lovingly laboring to form us just right for fulfilling our particular part in His great plan!.
If we put ourselves in God’s hands and submit to His molding us, we end up handmade masterpieces, marked as God’s own by His unique, creative artistry.
For better and for worse, however, we are not passive raw material like a lump of mud on a potter’s wheel. We have the power of free choice, and thus the power either to go along with God’s intentions or to resist them. Why, we even have the power to prevent God from accomplishing what He’s set His heart on doing!
When the Lord told the prophet Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house and watch the craftsman at work, that by that observation he might “hear my words”, the Lord wanted Jeremiah to appreciate the patience and perseverance with which He, the Great Potter, labors over His people to shape their lives. Yet, the Lord also wanted Jeremiah to appreciate the power that human clay can exert in determining the next steps the divine Potter takes. If, God tells Jeremiah here, a people upon whom God means to bring disaster repents of the evil they are doing, God will change course and instead build them up into something beautiful and useful. Conversely, if a people of whom God means to make something wonderful turns from the good, God will turn away from them. When people turn, the Potter turns in response. In a sense, people control what God does and thus what they become.
That message received at the potter’s house must have given Jeremiah some hope.
That sad and sorrowing prophet knew full well the people’s wickedness and the destruction they were courting. It must have encouraged him to think that the people still had time to turn around and avert the disaster they were pulling down upon themselves. Jeremiah must have heaved a sigh of relief to think that the devastation that had seemed so inevitable might not come to pass.
Yet, God gives His prophet no false assurances. It is still up to the people to make decisions and thereby determine what will happen. Thus the Lord tells Jeremiah, “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.”
How Jeremiah must have ached to see the people choose, at that 11th hour, to avail of their last chance, to reverse direction, and to draw close to the God who still yearned to change their destiny. Surely, Jeremiah must have said to himself, they will come to their senses, and become cooperative clay under God’s hands.
They didn’t. We know from the rest of the book of Jeremiah that they chose to keep going as they had been and continue on the path of self-destruction.
It is a fearful thing to have freedom of choice. It gives us the power to thwart God’s loving purposes and to bring ruin upon ourselves.
May we be warned by Israel’s example here! May we become wise in our decision-making and dedicate our powers of choice to develop ourselves into the kind of mud of which God can make a masterpiece.
How do we do that?
First, we become pliable. We yield to God’s designs and submit to His molding. We let go and let God have His way with us. We become compliant with his wishes, sensitive to His touch, and malleable under His hands.
Now, when human potters work on clay, they have to keep the clay moist. Typically, they have a bowl of water and a sponge, which they use to bathe the clay in H2O over and over again. If they don’t do that, the clay dries out, and tears apart as the potter works on it. Pieces break off and fall on the ground wasted.
In order for us to stay pliable under the hands of the divine Potter, we need to be moistened often, and almost always that happens by our shedding tears: tears over a world that has gone terribly wrong, and tears over our own missteps and hardships. Tears of both kinds make us aware of our desperate need of God and motivate us to seek His help. Empathetic tears in response to the brokenness in others and personal tears in response to our own make us soft of heart toward God and susceptible to His influence. They make us easily shaped by His strong hands.
First, we become clay of great potential by becoming pliable. Second, we become that kind of clay by becoming properly positioned – that is, poised in the right place for God to re-design us. And what is the right place for that? The center of God’s will!
It is crucial that an unshaped clump of clay stays on the center of the potter’s wheel, lest centrifugal force pulls off parts and throws them in all directions. That’s why potters, with strenuous perseverance, vigorously apply the muscles of their arms and legs to hold the clay in place on their wheels.
In the same way, it is crucial we stay centered, especially as we are whirling around on the wheel of life and at risk of becoming scattered in a thousand different directions. We have to prioritize and focus on what is most important: namely, remaining where God can work on us most effectively. We have to collect our energy to fight distraction, stay on point, and stay put where God’s action on our behalf is centered.
We become clay of great potential when we stay pliable and stay properly positioned. Third and finally, we become that kind of clay when we stay pure – that is, when we are “all in” on being formed in line with whatever designs God has in mind for us. To be pure is to will one thing above all else: becoming in every respect what God wants to make of us, both inside and out.
No matter how good it looks on the outside, a vessel is only as good as it is on the inside. That’s why the divine Potter works on both sides of us. He wants to repair what is damaged in our souls and smooth out what is rough there, lest hidden flaws hinder our functionality in God’s service.
God wants to make each of us a vessel that serves His purposes perfectly according to His plan.
We may wish to become vessels that grab attention and elicit admiration, but we do best if we seek only to serve whatever function God assigns us. Any vessel that fulfills its God-given purpose is a glory, and a treasure in God’s eyes.
So, for the sake of becoming all we’re meant to be, let us apply our power of choice to pursue becoming more pliable, more properly positioned and purer for Him, in submission to the divine Potter’s artistry!