Who do you think you are? In our text for today, that question floats in the background. It’s a question that can be asked in a friendly manner, or as a challenge. In Jeremiah 18 it is asked in a challenging way. Who does God think he is? Answer- the Potter who “molds and shapes us after his will.” (The quote is from the classic hymn, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.”) Who does Israel think they are? Answer—the Pot whose will can resist the Potter.
What we have here is a powerful example of the contest of wills that is at the center of human history. I’m referring, of course, to the contest between the Sovereign Lord who rules heaven and earth and the Sovereign Self who came into being when the first humans bit on the tantalizing promise that they would “be like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3).” Jeremiah 18 gives us unique insights into the mystery and tragedy of that contest.
Jeremiah has been given a grim mission: announce doom to Judah. But the ultimate aim of that gloomy message is repentance. So far, Israel hasn’t responded to Jeremiah’s words; indeed, in the verses after our reading the leaders of Judah plot to kill Jeremiah. Here God gives Jeremiah an object lesson for Judah designed to convince them to pay attention and repent. In a tradition that Jesus would continue, God uses an ordinary part of ancient life to drive home an extraordinary message. “Go down to the potter’s house and there I will give you my message.”
At the potter’s house, Jeremiah sees an ordinary thing. A potter is working with a piece of clay to form a pot of some sort. When the pot turned into something the potter hadn’t intended because of some flaw in the material, the potter simply started over, forming the clay into another pot, “shaping it as it seemed best to him.” Message- the Potter has absolute control over the lump of clay. He can do whatever seems best to him with that clay. So far, so good. Everyone knows that is true. No argument.
But then the word of Yahweh came to Jeremiah. “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does…. Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” God asserts his complete sovereignty over Israel; he can do “whatever seems best to him” with the clay that is his people.
This is a message that 21st century people will not accept, I suspect. In a day when even the most devout, indeed, especially the most devout, feel free to challenge God, argue with God, become angry with God, and generally treat God as an equal, a message like this will be rejected out of hand. It brings back all those old images of God as an angry tyrant, a hair trigger tempered CEO with his finger poised over the SMITE button on the celestial computer.
Most folks won’t welcome a sermon on a text like this, unless you preach it as God intended it. I say it that way, because the picture here is not that of a tyrant who’s eager to destroy, but of a potter who is eager to start over with a fatally flawed piece of clay. This is an aspect of God’s sovereignty we don’t usually consider—not absolute capricious control, but gracious willingness to change his plan to benefit his flawed people. When God discovers this fatal flaw in his people, he does not simply destroy them; he offers to start over. What he ends up doing will be determined by how his people respond to his announcement of doom.
This is the puzzling part of our text. After unequivocally announcing that he has complete control over his people, God introduces the idea of conditionality into the relationship between God and Israel. Four times God uses the word “if” in verses 7-10. The sovereign Lord promises that if his people will change their behavior, he will change his plans. So, the sovereign plan of God is, what, malleable, conditional, uncertain? This kind of talk is as confusing to the ultra-Calvinist as the talk of absolute sovereignty is maddening to the ultra-secularist.
Further, what do we make of this talk about God changing God’s mind? “I will relent and not inflict the disaster… I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.” Isn’t God unchangeable? Isn’t that the heart of the classic “simplicity” doctrine? If God knows all, then why would God ever have to change? Wouldn’t God simply include the conditions right in his plan? Then God would appear to relent, reconsider, even repent, but that is simply God accommodating himself to our infantile understanding (Calvin’s famous accommodation doctrine). But God doesn’t really change God’s mind or plan. That is set from all eternity.
Well, such an explanation certainly defends important doctrines, but I’m not sure it takes enough account of the actual words of this text (and others—Exodus 32:12, 14, Amos 7:3, 6, Jonah 3:10). And it doesn’t take seriously the enormous importance God himself seems to assign to human choice. This text seems to say that Israel’s destiny is in its own hands. Here are my plans, says God, but if you change your behavior, I will change my plans.
Does this mean that humans are ultimately sovereign, that the Pot is in charge of its own life? That is the conclusion drawn by some scholars. But I think it means that in his sovereignty, God has given human beings a frightening (or heartening) role in God’s plan. We are not inanimate, senseless pieces of clay. We are made in God’s image with a mind and a will and the ability to affect our relationship with God. Does God cede control to us, then? No, but in his loving control, he gives us an important role to play in the outworking of his plan.
This may all seem too complex, but it is the reality that runs through the Bible. God wants, commands, invites our obedience in faith. That is the message to Israel. You are mine and I expect you to love me, obey me, trust me. When you don’t, you are playing with fire, with darkness, with death. I can destroy you, but that’s not what I want. I want you to turn around and come back to me. I will do everything I can to bring you back. But you have to choose to come back. If you do make that choice, I will not do what I said I would do. Instead, I will do what I’ve wanted to do all along, namely, bless you, build you up, plant you, save you.
God ends all this complex (we might say confusing) talk with a simple, direct, and devastating warning. “Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you.” What would you do if God spoke that directly to you? “I’ve been patient long enough; now the end has come. Prepare to meet your Maker, the Potter. There is no more chance for you to turn around and come back to me.” That would be devastating.
But that’s not where God leaves things. Instead of ending his warning with an exclamation point of anger, God ends with yet another invitation. “So, turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.” God truly is what he announced himself to be in that seminal revelation in Exodus 34:6,7: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
Of course, that text goes on to say, “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished….” And that’s where Israel is now in Jeremiah—guilty, guilty, guilty. But not just guilty. Totally unrepentant. That’s the point of verse 12. All the “if’s” of verses 7-10, all the promises of God relenting and reconsidering, all the possibilities for new life, all of that is a moot point. Because Israel is stuck in their sin. “But they will say, ‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart.’”
“It’s no use” may be an expression of defiance (“it doesn’t matter what you say, God!”) or an expression of despair (“we’ve gone too far to turn back”). The result is the same. We will pursue our plans, no matter what God plans. The ancient struggle of wills goes on and on, because our hearts are evil and stubborn. God may claim to be sovereign, but, in fact, we are. So, go to hell, God. I know, that is blasphemy. But that is, finally, what rebellion against God is.
Who can blame God for finally ending it with Israel? Except God didn’t end it, not completely. There was a terrible punishment, but it lasted for “only” 70 years. Even after that, however, the struggle continued, until God did a shocking thing. In an act as dramatic as shaping humanity out of clay at the beginning (Genesis 2:7), God sent his Son to become a lump of clay (John 1:14), so that those who believe in him could have a whole new beginning, “the right to become children of God.” That Son, thrust into the age-old struggle of the wills, submitted himself to the will of God (Matthew 26:39) and the will of evil men who “did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen (Acts 4: ).”
Yes, this whole matter of the will of God and the will of individual humans remains a mysterious matter. But because of Christ, we know definitively that the will of God for us sinners is better than our own willful plans. Knowing that, we can trust God in Christ. As Paul put it in Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things.”
Attempts to solve the paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility have twisted many a theologian in knots and resulted in some unfortunate doctrinal aberrations. I like the way my grandfather, a simple country preacher, put it. “God is both 100% sovereign and we are 100% responsible to choose. How do we reconcile those two? We don’t. We hold them together. It’s like two gigantic redwoods on the coast of California. They grow up together, parallel, but never touching, at least as far we can see. But up there in the fog, the marine layer, into which they disappear, unseen by human eyes they meet and their branches interlace.”
Early in this piece I quoted a bit of an old hymn, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.” Maybe it’s too old for your church, but it’s a lovely piece of poetry that captures an attitude the exact opposite of Israel’s in verse 12.
“Have thine one way, Lord, have thine own way,
Thou art the Potter, I am the clay.
Mold me and make me, after thy will,
While I am waiting, yielded and still.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 8, 2019
Jeremiah 18:1-11 Commentary