The Potter’s Hands

Jeremiah 18:1-11
September 8, 2019
Matt Goodale

Our Scripture today comes again from Jeremiah. Last week we traced the beginnings of Jeremiah’s ministry, as he warned Judah, the remaining tribe of Israel about how worthless they had become. They had cut themselves off from God, the fountain of living water and their lives had become hevel, worthless, empty, full of nothing but vapor and mist. Jeremiah was calling them to remember their covenant with God, to return to the fountain of living water and to drink deeply of its life-giving spring. 

And now, we jump back into the story this week a number of years later. Israel, it seems turned back to God’s covenant for a period of time, but now, under the reign of a new king who is quite indifferent towards God and the covenant, they have wandered away again, and are pursuing a life of hevel, of emptiness once again. 

God’s covenant relationship with Israel is again in the background of our text. From the days of Abraham and Moses, God made a covenant with the nation of Israel – a promise. God made a promise to bless them and to take care of them, and Israel promised to obey God and to follow God’s commands, in order to be a blessing to the other nations. 

But now, hundreds of years after the covenant was established, Israel is no longer upholding their end of the agreement. They do not obey God’s commands; they would rather be like the other nations. They do not care for the poor and the downtrodden; instead, they let the rich get richer. Justice is denied. The people are enabled by their priests to do whatever they please as long as they make the right number of sacrifices. The Israelites were meant to be a light to the other nations – a blessing. But instead they seize God’s blessings for their own gain, because they do not think the way they live actually matters.

But God is not ready to give up on the Israelites. God is not ready to throw in the towel and let them squander their lives for hevel. Even though Israel has broken their end of the covenant agreement, God continues to pursue them, to call them back to a life of meaning, a life of justice, of compassion – a life of blessing others. 

And so God calls Jeremiah away from his familiar places. God calls Jeremiah away from his Scriptures, away from his sanctuaries and the Temple; God calls Jeremiah away from all of the places you would expect to hear a word from the Lord, and God calls him off the beaten path to a potter’s shed.

Jeremiah enters the potter’s shed and the scene he witnesses there provides the soil for Jeremiah’s call to the Israelites to return to the Lord and to the covenant. As Jeremiah enters the shed, behold there is a potter at the wheel, practicing her craft. The potter is bent over at the wheel, perspiring as she shapes her clay. Clay is spattered from head to foot, as sensitive hands press and shape the spinning clay to draw forth something useful and beautiful (Sally Brown). The potter is intently focused on this mound of clay; Jeremiah can sense her anticipation of what it will become. 

But alas, as she molds, the clay becomes spoiled and misshapen. The potter sighs, but does not give up. She collapses the vessel, compresses the clay and begins again. She does not discard the clay, but begins shaping anew, sensitively pressing on the edges and the valleys of the clay, anticipating once again what it will hopefully become. 

As Jeremiah watches the potter at work, the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do with it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it” (18:6-10).

The image of God as the potter, molding us, the clay, is a metaphor that transcends cultures and that even we in our 21st century world can understand and readily adopt. We have many songs that we sing about God, the potter molding us and this is an image of God that many of us carry in our hearts with us. It is a beautiful image. However, I want to offer a way of understanding this metaphor that might be different than the ways we are used to engaging with it. 

Many of us grew up in the church understanding ourselves individually as the clay that God is molding and shaping. This is not wrong, and imagining ourselves individually as the clay can elicit many beautiful self-realizations and can encourage us to think about what kind of life and what kind of people we are allowing ourselves to be molded into. We should keep imagining ourselves as the clay. But for today, I want to approach this metaphor not from an individual perspective, but from a communal perspective. As Americans and as Westerners, we are very comfortable thinking individually; we were raised and shaped by our culture to think of ourselves primarily and solely as individuals. Unlike most Eastern cultures, we were never really taught how to think of ourselves communally – to see ourselves as a part of the whole – to see how our individual actions contribute to the health or the unhealth of the communities we find ourselves in.

But in this passage, as in most prophetic literature in Scripture, God is addressing the nation of Israel as a whole. God is judging the impact that the entire nation of Israel is having on its surrounding nations and communities, and upon those on the margins of its society. The whole community is judged together by how they are either benefiting or harming the communities around them. God’s warning of judgment in this passage—to pluck up and break down—is not directed at individuals, but at entire nations and kingdoms that do evil. As individualistic thinkers, this makes us incredibly uncomfortable. But let’s roll with that discomfort for a few minutes, to see what kind of insights might be provoked from the text if we read it communally rather than individually. What if we were to apply this metaphor to our church, Cheney Congregational, as we imagine God as the potter, shaping us as a community, the clay?

Jeremiah here is addressing primarily the life of the called community – the community that is called into covenant relationship with God. We see that God intends “to shape the community of faith in its collective social, religious and political life to serve divine purposes” (Sally Brown). So what do we learn about the potter and her clay?

First, Jeremiah reveals that like the potter intent on drawing a useful vessel from the clay, God is deeply invested in our common life. The potter does not work aimlessly, nor does God. Every turn of the wheel, every press of the fingers matters. God, our potter, is deeply invested in the life, purpose and legacy of our church community. We often forget this though. I often forget this as I busy myself with meetings, projects, congregational maintenance, trying to create new programs, trying to bring new life to the church, as if I am the potter, as if I am the one who is able to shape and reform the clay. But I delude myself, and I forget that I like you, am just part of the clay, which is being shaped by God for purposes that often exceed our vision and imagination. 

Four years ago I spent a summer internship in Scotland with a local pastor. On the very first day I arrived, when I was still jet-lagged  and little goofy-eyed, my mentor pastor told me to go walk around town and to be at prayer about where Jesus is already at work, and where I can join in. This advice has stuck with me. What if God has already been long at work, shaping our church community and the Cheney community long before we ever arrived, and long before we ever started busying ourselves with our own ministry projects and programs? What if it isn’t our job to “bring God” into our communities – as if we’d even have that power – but what if instead it is our job to catch glimpses of where God, the potter has already been long at work at the wheel, molding and shaping the community?

As a church community, how often do we pause to reflect upon the reality that God is our potter, deeply invested in our community life, shaping us to be a blessing to our surrounding communities? Do we trust that our potter is shaping us even now, in ways that might exceed our vision and imagination? Will we allow God to take us there, to try risky ventures, to step out of our comfort zone, in order to be molded into a blessing for our Cheney community? God is working the potter’s wheel right now as we speak, shaping, pressing and molding our community in ways that we might be oblivious to, until we slow down enough to catch glimpses of it. 

The second insight Jeremiah reveals is that “the relationship between potter and clay, divine artisan and called community, is robustly dynamic” (Sally Brown). Just as the potter is not indifferent towards the shape of the clay, so God is not indifferent to the ways our collective life is taking shape. The text hints that the clay has the ability to either allow itself to be formed by the will of the potter, or to resist and in the process become spoiled. In our communal life too, we have the ability to align ourselves with God’s redemptive purposes or to pursue our own self-interested agendas.

This community of people, this church, does not exist for its own gains. As the body of Christ, we exist, much like Israel, to be a blessing to our surrounding communities. God has not blessed us so that we can seize our blessings and enjoy them ourselves. God has blessed us so that we can be a blessing for our surrounding communities. 

A famous theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, once said that the church ceases to be God’s church when it no longer exists for the sake of the world. This was Israel’s mistake. They resisted the potter’s hands; they did not want to be used for God’s redemptive purposes; they would rather enjoy their own blessings.

God’s word of judgment towards the nation of Israel should give us pause. Do we as a church, as a community of believers, exist for our own gain, for our own blessings, or do we exist for the sake of the world, for the sake of the Cheney community? Do we exist to be a social club, or do we exist to be a vessel for God’s redemption? Now, I don’t want to imply that social events are not good or important – they are necessary for the life of the community – but how often are we willing to step outside of our comfort zone as a church? How often are we willing to risk something in order to be a blessing to the Cheney community? If our church doors were shut tomorrow and we had to disband as a church, what would Cheney be losing? God, the potter is the one with the power to shape us and mold us, but we have the God-given responsibility to respond to God’s shaping, and to either align ourselves with God’s redemptive purposes, or with our own self-interested gain.

Finally, Jeremiah’s metaphor offers us the insight that no vessel of clay is beyond the skill of the potter to reform and reshape. Jeremiah warns that God will pluck up or tear down any nations, kingdoms or communities that serve their own self-interest. This is a difficult word of judgment to hear. But it is not without hope. Because God is explicit that God’s desire is not to have to pluck up and to pull down, but to build and to plant. But in order to bring about redemptive purposes, the potter is willing to collapse the spoiled clay and to begin anew. 

And indeed, the discarded clay of a misshapen vessel can be remolded and remixed into a new shape, and God can raise out of the ruins of any community, a new faithfulness and a new usefulness. This is both a warning and a hope to us as a community of faith. It is a warning in that God is willing to pluck up or tear us down, if we are not aligned to God’s redemptive purposes; we must take this warning seriously. But it is also a hope to us, because we know that we are never beyond return; we are never beyond being reshaped by the tender hands of the potter. 

When I was hired to be your pastor two months ago, I entered this church community that feared it was dying; it was a community that feared it was close to outliving God’s purposes for it, a community that missed the life and vibrancy it once had. And indeed, many in this room still share these sentiments and fears. They are not unfounded. 

And upon being graciously welcomed into this church community, it did not take long to realize that this community is still healing from past wounds. This church voted two years ago to leave its denomination, the UCC, and there are still wounds present from this decision—there is still blood crying out from the ground. Now I know there are many in this room who believe that this decision to leave the UCC was in the best interest of the community. And I know many in this room and who have since left who think this decision was not in the best interest of the community. 

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it is hard to deny that wounds still exist; relationships were damaged, ties were severed, trust was broken, at the end of the day division was a stronger voice than unity. Regardless of whether the split from the UCC was the right move or not, at the end of the day divisions like that will always leave the clay a little marred and a little misshapen. 

And now, my intention is not for us to rehash or relive this split. But sometimes wounds need to be named in order for healing to take place. The reality is that we can’t change the past, whether it was for good or for ill. And Jeremiah is not calling Israel to change its past; he is calling them to look towards their future, with hope. The potter is not finished with them; the potter continues to toil at the wheel, molding the community; the potter has not given up, and Israel is not beyond the skills of the potter to reshape it.

The same is true of this community of faith. The future is wide open. It is true that sometimes we must acknowledge our wounds before they can be healed. Sometimes we must acknowledge where we’ve come from in order to determine where we are going. But church, God is not done with us. 

When I entered this community, though it worried about its future and missed the life and vibrancy it once had, it was also a community that was so full of hope, a community that still desires to be used for redemptive purposes in Cheney. This desire, this hope we have as a community is the bedrock of faith that God is building upon. Do we trust that our potter is not through with us, that God is still shaping us and molding us into a community destined to bless others? We are God’s church; we belong to the potter, and the potter’s hands are not finished with us. 

Following the service we will meet in the fellowship hall to share our hopes and our dreams for the future of this church community. I want us to dream big. I want us to dream about all the places God might be calling us to. If we truly believe that God is deeply invested in our communal life, and that we are being shaped for redemptive purposes beyond our vision and imagination, then what keeps us from dreaming big? In order for God to take us where God wants to, this requires the whole church body; not just the pastor and few volunteers. It is a communal effort. We are all part of the clay.

God desires to use us in Cheney and in the world as a vessel for compassion, for justice, for humility, for grace. God is covered in the clay of this community from head to toe. God’s hands and arms are covered in clay; it is difficult to tell where the potter ends and where the clay begins. How will we respond to God’s call? How will we respond to the potter’s hands?