Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 4, 2016
Jeremiah 18:1-11 Commentary
Almost all students work with at least a little clay while they’re in school. Relatively few of us, however, resemble the sophisticated potters of Jeremiah’s day. Some scholars, after all, compare their clay to today’s steel.
Potters who were Jeremiah’s contemporaries made things like bricks, lamps and toys, as well as cooking pots and even jewelry. Because they used pottery for so many different things, pottery making was one of the earliest, and most widespread and familiar of ancient Israel’s crafts. In fact, Israelites apparently even mass-produced some both useful and attractive pottery. So when Jeremiah talks about a potter and his pottery in the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, he uses imagery that’s very familiar to his contemporaries.
His teaching reflects the freedom a potter has to reshape pottery while it’s still on the wheel. If his pottery doesn’t turn out the way he’s planned, he’s free to shape it into something that seems better to him. Once the potter finishes doing that, she allows her pottery to dry. She then puts her pottery on the wheel a second time so that she can do more delicate shaping.
Only then do potters fire their pottery in a kiln. After all, that firing changes the clay’s chemical composition and, as a result, its physical characteristics. Clay that potters fire in a kiln essentially turns to stone.
In our text, Jeremiah says God has the freedom to deal with the nations in the way that any potter has does her wet clay. If God is unhappy with the shape of the pottery that is a nation, God is free to simply start over. Pottery is irreversible, after all, only once a potter has fired it in a kiln.
Jeremiah’s teaching the world’s nations that their fates aren’t predetermined. That is to say, just as a potter can reshape clay that’s still on the wheel, God can change the future of the nations of the world. That may sound ominous to citizens who are basically pleased with their countries. The thought that, for instance, God might choose to somehow change or even destroy those countries may bother us.
In Israel’s desperate situation in Jeremiah’s time, however, this news of God’s sovereignty was comforting. Much bigger superpowers, after all, seemed to hold her future in their hands.
Jeremiah’s Israel is so politically and militarily helpless that she seems on her way to complete oblivion.
In our text, however, God reminds her that God can reshape that future just as easily as a potter can reshape her wet clay. God, after all, holds the future of Jeremiah’s Israel, as well as all of the world’s nations in God’s loving hands.
Many Christians find great comfort in the fact that God holds everything in creation in God’s hands, through God’s Son, Jesus Christ. We believe God rules in such a way that even the world’s mightiest nations must somehow conform to God’s sovereign purposes. When those nations refuse to submit to God’s lordship, God has the power to topple them like a house of cards.
However, we also profess that God also reigns over individual and communal lives. That means, in part, that God shapes lives so that everything must somehow ultimately work for God’s glory and our good. Of course, God has given us those whose wills the Holy Spirit has liberated some freedom. Yet when forced to choose between human free will and divine sovereignty, at least some Christians lean towards God’s sovereignty.
That’s why the second part of our text may startle us. There, after all, Jeremiah shifts his emphasis away from the potter’s absolute power over her clay to the clay’s “power” to “shape” how the potter will act. Basically, he points out that the quality of the pot determines whether the potter continues to refine it. If the pot’s shape pleases her, she continues the process of molding it. If, however, it displeases her, she’s free to start all over with the clay.
Yet the analogy between God the Potter and people the pots breaks down in the second part of our text. While, after all, Jeremiah calls the pot to ensure that it’s worth keeping, no piece of clay can actually do that. The prophet also calls Israel the pot to please God the Potter by choosing obedience and life over disobedience and death. Obviously, however, no inanimate object has that power.
Yet the second part of our text emphasizes God the Potter’s care for the pots that God’s created in God’s image. God the sovereign potter is willing, after all, for Jesus’ sake, to graciously respond to God’s children’s repentance by reshaping their future.
Yet most of the Israelites to whom Jeremiah prophesied believed various gods controlled their future. They believed that what happened in the world of those gods determined what occurred in the world of people. In that supernatural world, the gods fought for control.
You could tell which god was most powerful by which country won a war or battle. If, for instance, Babylon was the world’s superpower, people assumed its god, Marduk, was in control. So when Israel flourished, the Israelites (and their neighbors) assumed their God was in control. When, however, they suffered, they assumed had God lost some big divine battle with other nations’ gods.
21st century preachers and teacher may not know people who have such a cosmology. However, many in our society do blame nearly everyone else for the problems we have. We’re good at blaming our problems on our parents and genes. You and I easily assume that what our schools or society have done to us nearly control our future.
It’s certainly true that people and things have power to do us some harm. Yet God has also given us power to resist some of their evil in ways that make for righteousness. So God has lovingly given us some responsibility for the both the world in which we live and our future. After all, while God remains in control, God also graciously allows the clay that is God’s people to, in some ways, strongly influence the Potter.
Those who believe that God has already determined what, for instance, socks you’ll wear tomorrow find this text hard to swallow. If, on the other hand, you believe that God uses the choices we make to sovereignly carry out God’s will, then this text makes some sense. In it Jeremiah, after all, insists that God gives Israel the power to shape her future by walking in God’s ways. However, he also warns that if Israel continues to neglect her moral responsibilities, God will ensure “disaster,” her destruction.
Our text basically ends with Jeremiah pleading with the Israelites to repent. However, we know that Judah fell to the Babylonians late in the 6th century B.C. Those marauders sacked Jerusalem, destroyed its temple, scattered Israel’s priests and even carried most of Judah’s citizens away to Babylon. This affectively ended Judah’s political independence.
After all, while God graciously gave her some power to shape her own future by being obedient, Israel refused. She in many ways, after all, with a few notable exceptions, turned even further away from God. Israel was “marred in” God’s hands.
So Christians believe God the Potter, in one sense, “formed” another “pot.” God sent God’s only beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to do what Israel refused to do: walk in God’s ways. God also now empowers the New Israel, the church of Jesus Christ, to faithfully obey God. And yet God didn’t really start over. The apostle Paul, after all, insists that God still has plans for the people of Israel. It certainly seems as if God still has a place in God’s purposes for Jewish people.
So it’s not easy to fully parse out just what Jeremiah’s teaching means. It does not mean, for instance, that life is a kind of cosmic game of “Let’s Make a Deal:” if we do this, God will automatically do that. Perhaps, then, it’s most helpful for us to focus on what Jeremiah teaches us about our loving God.
He reminds us that we worship a God who, while sovereign, still lovingly gives us some responsibility within that sovereignty. God has plans for our world and each of its creatures. However, God also graciously uses our plans and actions to carry out those good and loving purposes. God, of course, holds our future in our hands. However, through God’s prophet, God also insists that our future calls for bold and decisive action on our part. God calls us to radical and faithful discipleship, perhaps starting by deliberately turning away from even just one nagging sin that continues to cling to us.
My first (and last) foray into the world of pottery making came back in the fourth grade. It was not, however, a very sophisticated incursion. In the late 60’s, after all, Grand Rapids, Michigan’s Oakdale Christian School didn’t have a potter’s wheel. We fashioned our art (and I use both terms very loosely) with our own uncoordinated hands.
I lovingly and carefully constructed a little jar out of clay. Our art teacher then put it into the kiln to harden it. Yet while what my teacher put in may have resembled a pot, what she took out little resembled a pot.
I had designed it (and again I use the verb loosely) to store change, keys or paper clips. My pot, however, turned out to be structurally challenged. Both its base and top ended up hopelessly crooked. So the dropping of even the smallest coin or lightest paper clip into tipped it over like a drunken sailor.
Yet when I think of that crooked little pot, I remember that God’s purposes for us never change. My mother, after all, lovingly kept that misshapen little pot. It hasn’t yet repented of its crookedness. Yet she still kept it.
I see that as a kind of parable of God’s love for crooked pots like us. We naturally resist God’s shaping. Yet God doesn’t drop us into the trash, as we deserve. God, instead, lovingly keeps us, sending Jesus to live, die and rise again for, as well as equip for service crooked pots like you and me.
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