September 4, 2016
As I wrote in the newsletter, we have been reading the daily Psalm during worship for the last three years. Today we go back to the reading of the Old Testament books as organized by the common lectionary. My sermon is based on today's Old Testament lesson. We find ourselves in the midst of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was called as a prophet by God during the time Israel...Judah more correctly, was ruled by the Assyrians. But soon the Assyrians were defeated, first by Egypt but ultimately by the Babylonian empire who, in Jeremiah's prophecies, was the instrument of God's judgment.
In today's reading, God sends Jeremiah to the potters house. We get a glimpse into the heart of a prophet in today's reading. When we see a potter at work with clay, we note the technique, the style, the processes used, the final result. When the prophet sees that potter at work, he sees God's message in the process of creating and recreating a pot out of the clay.
Now clay pots were very common and very necessary in the life of the Israelite families. The pot written of would have been a simple pot used in the household for various tasks and typically had a fairly short life. The trips to the potter would have been a regular occurrence in the lives of the people...and the prophet. But this time, God had a message for Jeremiah to recognize. The message came from the working of the clay, “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.” I've never used a potter's wheel, but I've seen it on TV. When the wheel is spinning, the potter's hands form the pot. But in this particular case, the pot was not formed to the potter's satisfaction. So he reworked it into another vessel. He started over, he changed the original plan for that pile of clay and made a different pot. Not too unusual, but as I said, the prophet sees things we don't. Jeremiah's message from God was recognized in that change of form. For Jeremiah sees God as the potter and the nation of Israel as the pot. “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.” This is a statement of the sovereignty of God. God, as the potter, has full control over the fate of the pot/nation. God is ultimately sovereign. And God pronounces judgments over Israel. Jeremiah has preached of Israel's sin, the people are living under foreign rule which has been proclaimed over and over to be God's judgment upon Israel.
But...I believe this passage brings us a “but” that must be examined. God has declared judgment for Israel's sin...but could his mind be changed? Jeremiah sees in the potter's re-modeling of the clay the hope for a change of mind. And God's word comes to him, “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.” God's words...I will change my mind. We don't think of God changing his mind...God is unchanging. How does that work?
God is sovereign in every way. I want to make that clear. Yet in God's sovereign rule, Jeremiah reveals that God responds to what is happening in the human community. I looked for some other examples of God changing his mind. We see it in Jonah and the Ninevites, when they repented, God repented from the calamity he had declared, according to Jonah 3: 10. The prophet Amos saw the Lord preparing locusts to come and destroy in God's judgment, “The Lord relented concerning this; “It shall not be,” said the Lord.” (Amos 7: 3) Then the Lord showed Amos a shower of fire to eat up the land and again, “The Lord relented concerning this; “This also shall not be,” said the Lord God. (Amos 7: 6) We find in scripture that God has a history of responding to the action of the human community. In fact, maybe we could paraphrase a bit and say that the prophecy often has God in the process of shaping a disaster in judgment. It is not a done deal, it is a process until God brings it to pass.
The lesson in Jeremiah is clearly about God's judgment of the nation Israel. We are able to take God's word and apply it to our lives. It brings to mind the old, old question of free will versus God's destiny for us. How do our choices affect God's ultimate will? That's one I won't settle this morning. But the story of the potter and that question could suggest something like this: “If I do good, God will to good for me. If I do bad, then God will bring disaster upon me.” Both these statements would suggest that we know as much as God; that we understand the working of the universe. It is simply impossible to know and is bad theology. As we learn in the book of Job, our fortunes on this earth are not always tied to our righteous or even unrighteous behavior. For I want to suggest that we too, may be that clay in the hands of the potter. At times God is forming us and it goes well and the pot turns out well. Other times, God needs to reform us, change the course we are on. And that may not be a pleasant thing. In fact, the reforming could entail reshaping us so we are right in God's eyes; not necessarily in the eyes of the world. It could be awful in the eyes of the world but God is using it for our ultimate good. We can fail, God works, and we change.
This brings to mind another seeming contradiction. When we acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior, scriptures tell us we become new. 2 Corinthians 5: 17 “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Ephesians 4: 23-24 “be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” If we are made new in Christ, why is it we are instructed to be renewed? If the old is gone, why do we continue to fall short of God's true righteousness and holiness? It is that we live in two worlds in the eschatology of the universe...well, maybe even three. Through Jesus Christ and his victory, we live as a new being; dead and buried with Christ in baptism, raised a new creation in Christ. But we are “still surrounded by and involved in the forms of life of the old age.”1 We struggle in these two worlds, fighting against the hold our old life has upon us, seeking to conform to the way of the new life. Those are the two worlds if you will, the old way of life, the new life in Christ. The third is when Christ comes again and in the new heaven and the new earth, all will be in perfection.
Now I've gotten away from the potter and the clay a bit. But using this vision of the potter and clay in the new covenant finds God still working with the clay, with us. God is the potter, we are the clay. The clay is formed by God in God's image. But we sin and we falter and we fail and we need renewal. God assists us in that renewal through the power of the Holy Spirit. As the Potter, God has full power and authority to work and rework the pot as often as needed to make a pot that works for it created purpose. But the thing is, God can use the pots that aren't perfect. Like in the children's message, God can make good out of what are sometimes less than stellar works on our part. God can use cracked pots to quote speaker Patsy Clairmont. For God is in control. And God can bring good out of the most horrendous circumstances. We have viewed an horrendous act of violence in Watkins. We may be asking in our hearts, where was God when that little girl was kidnapped and killed? How does God let these things happen? These questions have been asked forever; from Job to the death of John the Baptist, to Jesus dying as an innocent victim. The term for these types of questions is theodicy. Theodicy is framed this way. There is a God; God is all-powerful; God is loving and good; and there is innocent suffering in the world. There are those who use this to argue against God being real. They say no God can be all-powerful, loving and good and still allow suffering in the world. In today's sermon, the question would be why God the potter doesn't change those pots he has formed so that suffering doesn't occur? Millions of words are written trying to explain the theodicy question, I can't do it in 15 minutes on Sunday morning. But I find comfort in what Anselm of Canterbury said about this a thousand years ago. It isn't always about reason, and so our quest in Anselm's words is “faith seeking understanding”, an activity begun not in one's head but on one's knee's. Not an answer I know, but again we cannot know God's ways completely or we would be God.
Scripture speaks directly to this question in the Old Testament book of Job. Job has lost everything for no earthly reason he could understand. He questioned God's justice. Thomas Long wrote in What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering and the Crisis of Faith, “Job understood God to be both rulemaker and rulekeeper, but the unthinkable has happened. The umpire has violated the rules and in Job's view has been unjust.” God does in the end speak with his servant Job in the voice of the whirlwind telling Job it was Job's system of order and rules that Job wanted enforced. It was a human understanding of justice projected onto God. True, but not a satisfying answer to suffering. The question is posed to Job, do you really want your moral sense projected onto the universe; or God's? In the end, the question becomes “Do we want to be God or are we willing to move toward being the kind of human being who, even in the midst of inexplicable pain, trusts the one who is God?”2
That can be our attitude; trusting God to renew us, to remake us and to save us we can live in hope and peace. For great is God's faithfulness, his mercies are new every morning. We have peace because God is the potter and we are the clay. Let the creator, the almighty, the sovereign God work out his will, his way for our lives. Amen.
Hymn Have Thine Own Way Lord 372 HLC
Once upon a time there was an elderly Chinese woman who owned two large clay pots. She would hang each pot on the ends of a pole which she carried across her neck. Each day she would walk from her house to the nearby stream to fetch water. She would fill up both pots, pick up the pole and walk back to her house. One of the pots had a crack in it while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full pot of water. At the end of the long walk back to her house, the cracked pot always arrived only half full. Because of the crack, half the water had leaked out during the trek.
For two full years, this happened daily. The Chinese woman arrived home with only one and a half pots of water. Of course, the perfect pot was proud that it had never lost a drop of precious water. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection, and was miserable. The cracked pot thought of itself as a complete failure. One day, the cracked pot was so tired of failing that it spoke to the woman. The cracked pot said, “I am ashamed of myself because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house. I have failed you, and I’m sorry. Maybe you need to replace me with another pot that isn’t cracked.”
The old woman smiled and said gently, “Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side. And every day as I’ve walked back you’ve been watering those seeds. For the past two years I’ve been able to pick the flowers to decorate my table. Without you being just the way you are, there would have been no beautiful flowers to grace my home.”
1W. A. Visser 'T Hooft “The Renewal of the Church pg 35
2 Thomas Long, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering and the Crisis of Faith, pg 109