“In the Potter’s Hands”
September, 2010 - Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
When my mother died, I inherited something I made for her fifty years ago. Sitting now in our family room is a homely little gray glazed elephant, my first (and nearly last) attempt at ceramic work in kindergarten.
I’ve never been artistic, as they say. I would sit and watch clay or Play-Doh or poster paints wielded in the hands of my classmates become all sorts of beautiful shapes and figures. But no matter how I tried, no matter how clear the image was in my mind, my creations always came out as misshapen lumps or ugly blobs of color on paper. In my hands, it always felt like the media of art had a mind of their own.
Surprisingly, Jeremiah’s visit to a potter’s house in chapter 18 teaches us that God felt the same way. God was the master potter, the master artist, but like a human craftsman, He felt the clay beneath his fingers become misshapen. And like a human potter, He intended to smash it down and start over.
Yet Jeremiah never intended to suggest that a defect in what God shapes is any way God’s fault. The potter at his wheel in Jerusalem is an experienced craftsman. If the clay under his hands fails to form properly, it is the clay’s fault.
Verse 3 says the prophet saw the potter “working at the wheel,” literally “at the stones.” The potter’s wheel consisted of two stone discs connected by a vertical axle. He used his feet to kick and spin a bottom larger stone, thus turning the smaller stone wheel above, on which he placed and formed his clay. If the trained pressure of his fingers resulted in a flawed pot, it was not his error, it was because the clay had some impurities in it or was not wet and pliable enough.
When verse 4 says Jeremiah saw the pot the potter was shaping “marred in his hands,” it is not the potter’s fault. The problem was all in the clay. So the potter stopped the wheel, smashed down the clay he was working, removed the impurity or added more water, and started making another pot.
Beginning with verse 5, God speaks directly to Jeremiah, drawing the connection between the clay on the potter’s wheel and what God was doing with Israel, with the people of Jerusalem and Judah. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, house of Israel,” says God in verse 6.
Most of us generally only see the final product of a potter’s hands. I have a lovely little gray glazed pot made by a Chinese friend 30 years ago. On our Communion table this morning sit beautiful plates and a chalice crafted by potters who were part of our congregation when it began. If you were to watch them or a skilled potter like Kent here, they make it look almost easy.
What we don’t see is all the disasters and start-overs a potter deals with. Our Chinese friend and another Irish potter friend led us around the pottery shop and kilns at Notre Dame. We saw a few gorgeous pieces with shiny glazes in stunning colors. But we saw even more cracked and crooked and scrapped bits of pottery, waiting to be smashed down, soaked in water, and reworked into something new and better. Jeremiah got a glimpse into God’s pottery shop to see how He was reworking human lives into new and better shapes.
Our first inclination in approaching this text is to see our own individual lives there on God’s potter’s wheel. That’s the gist of the hymn we will sing at end of the service. We sing to God, “Thou art the potter, I am the clay.” We understand that God is shaping and molding each of our lives into some beautiful product we can’t yet see. Jeremiah reminds us that our sins, our individual failures and defects, may mean that God starts over with us many times.
God does not reject us when we fail Him. He may let us get smashed down by the consequences of our sins or crushed by our stupid mistakes, but it’s only so He can rework, remold us into someone better, stronger, more beautiful. It’s a good thought and it reminds us not to despair when we fail or suffer. As Philippians 1:6 says, “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion…”
Yet God’s word to Jeremiah that day in the potter’s house was not about his own individual life. In fact, the hymn singing, “I am the clay,” is a misquotation of Isaiah 64:8, which says, “We are the clay, you are the potter…”
In our text, God’s sight is not on individuals, but on nations, on kingdoms. Verses 7 to 10 explain that God is free to change His plans for any group of people whose hearts change as He is working with them. If He has planned punishment for a nation, but its people repent of evil, then “I will relent and not inflict the disaster I had planned.” And if God had good plans for a nation, but its heart turns toward evil and disobedience, then the heavenly Potter is free to crush it down, to destroy it and start over.
I wish I knew how to apply this text in its original meaning to our present world situation. It’s a powerful word for the United States, or for any country which might imagine itself to enjoy God’s favor or blessing, or God’s wrath for that matter. There is a place for national humility and repentance. But unlike some people who’ve taken a national stage, I don’t claim to be a prophet or to have any idea what God intends for this country or any other.
What I do see in verse 11 is that God specifically applied the principle of the potter’s wheel to His own people, to Judah and Jerusalem. As the storm cloud of an invading Babylonian empire was gathering on the horizon, there was still time for them to repent, to “turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.” The gracious hands of the divine Potter could still save this pot as it spun wildly on His wheel.
Verse 12 tells us God already knew Judah’s answer, “It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; we will all follow the stubbornness of our evil hearts.” How often is that true of us? How often do we just go ahead and do exactly what we want to do and fly in the face of what we know God wants for us? And it leads to disaster, to pain and trouble and suffering for ourselves and for others around us.
Like I said, I have no idea how this applies to our country or any other, but I do have a terribly personal story. So please forgive me as I share that my mother once told me that she knew she was not doing what God wanted when she married my non-Christian father. But she was in love and did what she wanted anyway. In many ways it was a disaster. For her it ended in an early divorce and long years of loneliness and struggle to make a living as a single parent.
Yet go back to verse 11. God is full of grace. Our disasters are not His disasters. Because of my mother’s disastrous marriage, I’m here to stand and share God’s Word with you today. My sister was born and is serving God in her church in Portland this morning. Our Lord took my mother’s mistake and formed it into something good in the long run in the lives of her two children. It was not just about my mother’s individual life, but about the reshaping of several lives, about the making of our family. God makes His pottery corporately, working on us all together in His kingdom.
Still once again I say that I don’t know how to apply all this on a national level. I don’t even know how to apply it on the small corporate level of our own church here. I think God may have smashed us a bit in recent years, so that He can form something new, but I can’t possibly tell you just where or why that’s happened.
I can be sure of one thing, however. The principle of the potter’s wheel spins us beautifully back toward Jesus Christ. When some of the church fathers read this text and thought about the clay being formed on the wheel, they thought of the clay out of which God molded humanity. Genesis 2:7 says the Lord formed the first human being out of “the dust of the ground.” Those fathers pictured dry clay dust being mixed with water and formed into human flesh.
So when Methodius in Greece and Rufinus in Italy read Jeremiah talking about clay being crushed down and then reformed into something new and better, they thought of Jesus. They thought of the fact that the Son of God took on our human clay, was born as one of us, lived the same kind of life in the flesh that each of us live. And they remembered that God let the clay of His Son’s Body be crushed with whips, and pierced on the Cross. The Father let the Son be smashed down and laid in a tomb. Then, like the potter raising up a new pot from the crushed clay, the Father raised up Jesus from the dead.
That raising of Jesus was not just the resurrection of the clay of His own body. It was the resurrection of all our human clay. In Jesus not just one human being was raised, but humanity was raised. Remember as we sing that it’s not just “I am the clay,” but “We are the clay.” We are the clay which Christ became so that it could be crushed and rise again. We may find our own individual selves crushed by sin or by suffering, but in Jesus Christ we feel the Potter’s hands raising us, reforming us, making us together into what He always designed us to be.
Come to this Table this morning where a clay plate holds the blessed broken Clay of our Savior’s Body. Eat and be part of His Clay, part of His Body. Leave behind, as Jeremiah said, your own evil ways, and be reformed and remade in Jesus. With Him, become pliable in God’s hands. Let your life be remolded in the image of His life. Let our lives together be made into the new and lovely vessel that God was raising when He raised Jesus Christ.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2010 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj