Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 4, 2022
Jeremiah 18:1-11 Commentary
The image of a potter at a wheel molding a wet lump of clay into various shapes is both a vivid image and one that most people can picture easily in their minds—it even cuts across multiple cultures seeing as the art of pottery making is quite ancient. Skilled potters are downright amazing in their ability to move their fingers and hands ever-so-slightly only to yield very dramatic results on the spinning lump of earth.
They make it look easy, but any novice at the wheel knows how deceptive that is: one wrong application of pressure from your left thumb can be enough to turn a nicely developing vase into a collapsed mess that threatens to spin clean off the wheel. But really skilled potters can also be remarkable for how quickly they can rescue such a mess by instantly starting to fashion a whole new pot, cup, bowl, vase, or other vessel. It’s a project that looks almost magical!
Skilled potters are in control and are sensitive to very subtle shifts in the clay mass in front of them. And perhaps there is something to that fact that adds to the poignancy of God’s words to Jeremiah as well. God is constantly shaping his people, sensitive to subtle shifts and able to bring about remarkable beauty with seemingly little effort. But for that same reason God can radically alter conditions if the circumstances warrant. It can happen in a flash, both the production of great beauty and the ruination that may lead to something else.
Of course, ultimately Jeremiah 18 is a grim passage of judgment. Were we to read beyond the end point of this particular lection, we’d see the prediction that the people of Israel will hear Jeremiah’s warnings and choose to ignore them, even plotting to get rid of Jeremiah altogether since the only messages he seems capable of delivering are of the doom-and-gloom variety (if you can’t stand the message, shoot the messenger).
For preachers today in the Christian Church who seek to proclaim the Good News of hope and joy and grace that is the gospel, a heavy passage of judgment like this one can present certain challenges. Where is the Good News here? Is a passage like this an occasion only for shouting, for fire-and-brimstone preaching meant to condemn the less-than-devout (and prop up, by proxy, those who feel confident in their own piety)?
And certainly most of us in the church today are aware that in this highly politicized, COVID-shaped world, lots of people get highly suspicious if a pastor chooses to preach on a text like this one. Some detect partisan axe-grinding. Others may think the pastor is trying to settle some scores. In short, it has become very difficult even to touch passages dealing with judgment or a hard word.
Even so, we certainly we cannot ignore the fact that in the long run, there is such a thing as judgment, as choices in life that trend toward the ultimate side of existence. But perhaps we can find glints of the gospel in this passage by reminding ourselves and reminding those to whom we preach that what is absolutely startling about the Bible is that ultimately God the Potter let himself become the clay.
Yes, Israel failed again and again, as people tend to do (ourselves included were it all left up to us). So in the longest possible run the way God brought salvation into this sorry old world of ours was to let himself become the clay. Or perhaps it can be better said that the Triune God became simultaneously the Potter and the Clay, thus ensuring that a vessel could be shaped and molded that would at long last fit the bill for righteousness and holiness.
We call that vessel now The Body of Christ. And the divine Potter has been very careful in applying his own fingers to the shaping of that Body so that we who are caught up in God’s great salvation by grace alone can be assured that we will never again become vessels of destruction, never become a useless heap of clay with no destiny other than to be thrown out.
Sometimes people respond to God’s call for repentance, sometimes they don’t. In the long run, though, God didn’t want to play the odds. God wanted to fashion a people of grace who would be beautiful. It took a lot of pain and sorrow on the part of God the Son (and of the Father and Spirit, too, of course) to accomplish this. But the gospel is here to tell us that it has been accomplished. “It is finished!” Jesus cried. Thanks be to God.
Years ago an article in Christianity Today asked this question: “Can We Be Good without Hell?” The author traced out what he sees as a decline in hell-talk over the last number of years. Ministers just don’t preach on hell much anymore and the result, according to some, is that people no longer have a fear of damnation–a fear that is necessary to make folks behave. Take away the possibility of hell and you take away God’s wrath. Take away God’s wrath and you basically take away the true God.
Can we be good without hell? The author of the Christianity Today article answered, “No.” Hell, he wrote, must make a comeback so that we can recover the proper picture of God. What is that proper picture? It is the image of God as the one who doles out rewards and punishments–this is the God whose very nature woos people to be good so they can avoid burning in hell forever after.
So should we talk more about hell in church? Well, if such talk increases our gratitude by reminding us of what Jesus rescued us from, then such talk may be appropriate to help us give God glory. But if such talk is designed to make us or our children afraid, if it fans the flames (literally!) of our worry by making us think we are forever teetering on the brink of the abyss, if it is designed to frighten us into being good, then such talk is wrong because it short-circuits our hope in Christ and so destroys the real reason for being good: namely, because grace is where we live already.
But what about elsewhere in society? Do people need the message of hell in order for them to be good? Well, here it seems like perhaps the answer is yes and no. On the one hand, to a society that has lost its moral moorings, to a world that increasingly believes that most sin is really just a legitimate lifestyle choice, we need to be very firm that there is much that is so fundamentally wrong God cannot let it slide. The sin that hurts, maims, wounds, and destroys so many lives and creatures all around us every day must be dealt with once and for all. In short, a God who makes no moral judgments is not a God worth worshiping for such a God proffers no hope.
On the other hand, however, even this message needs to be colored by grace. God does not want people to love him because they’re scared to death of him but because he is their loving and good Creator. In this world anyone with enough power, money, and weapons can command respect. The goal of a great many mafia kingpins and two-bit political dictators is to inspire dread in the people around them–and they usually succeed. But rarely if ever are such thugs also loved.
That’s why, even in our witness to the world, talk of God’s wrath must be in a minor key compared to the major theme of God’s grace–a grace that is such a powerful force within even God’s heart that God put the hell of sin onto Jesus so that it would not have to fall upon us. Any witness to the Christian faith that fails joyfully to tell people that accepting Jesus as Lord is the way out of evil’s hellish mess is not an authentic witness to the gospel.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!