The Potter’s Wheel

by David Baer, September 4, 2016

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Text: Jeremiah 18:1-11

“Let me have a do-over.” We used to say that as kids. It’s what you said when you swung at the wiffleball but only whiffed at the air, or when you tripped on the hop-scotch course. A do-over was a real gift—you could try again and maybe do something more perfect, more graceful, more skillful. It wasn’t automatic, though. Your friends had to agree to give you the do-over. (What do they call the adult version of this in golf? A “mulligan”?) But if someone did give you a do-over, it showed they cared more about seeing you do your best, seeing you get it right, than about following the letter of the rules. A do-over isn’t really about wiffleball or hop-scotch, is it? It’s about friendship. It’s about someone giving you another chance to get it right, to do your best, to be your best self.

So let’s talk about our Hebrew scripture lesson, the one from Jeremiah. It begins with an introduction: “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord.” One thing worth noticing here is how the word that comes from the Lord is more than just words. God sends Jeremiah to the potter’s house for a visual, tactile, and spoken message. It’s a reminder that God’s word doesn’t always come to us from a pulpit or from the page of a Bible. It often comes through the ordinary people and circumstances we encounter.

At the potter’s house, Jeremiah sees the potter working with the clay, turning it on his wheel and shaping it with his hands. You can almost see his hands, covered in moist grey-brown clay. You can almost feel the slickness of the turning clay in your own hands as he works it. You can push the clay, and it responds, tightening, drawing in toward the center. You can pull at the edge on top and it widens. The clay is in relationship with the potter. It moves and bends in response to the potter’s touch.

But the clay isn’t perfectly predictable. It seems to have a personality. Something happens—maybe the potter was trying to make a jug, but the handles didn’t come out quite right. It’s almost as though when the potter presses the clay, the clay presses back. It’s as though the clay isn’t just a passive instrument, but a being with a life of its own. The potter looks at the clay and sees a jug, but the clay doesn’t cooperate. It doesn’t bend into the right shape. But that’s the great thing about clay—you can reshape it and rework it. Maybe an ugly jug can be molded into a beautiful vase, with no handles. The potter has a relationship with the clay. He may start out with a plan, but he may need to change his plan with the circumstances, because of the way the clay responds in his hands. Just because something goes wrong doesn’t mean the potter has failed, or that the clay is worthless. What’s important is that he keeps working with it. The potter’s plans change, the potter’s intention doesn’t. The potter may change the shape of the clay, but whatever he produces, it was always his intension to bring to life something useful and beautiful. The plans change, the intention stays the same.

Isn’t that the way relationships are—especially relationships where you care for another person, whether it’s an elderly parent, a sick spouse, a child, or maybe a difficult friend? Maybe you start out with all sorts of ideas of what they can do and be. Maybe your parents would get out more and connect with friends. Maybe you think your kid would be a great dancer or basketball player. But there comes a time, doesn’t there, when you realize that this person you’re caring for is another person with a will and feelings and a spirit of their own. Like the potter, we feel the people we care about pushing back, and our plans change. But our intention—to be present, to care for loved ones, to celebrate their successes and comfort them when they stumble—our intention stays the same. The plans change, but the intention doesn’t.

Jeremiah knew about changing plans. He knew about hostility and confusion. He lived in the tiny kingdom of Judah at a time when the Babylonian empire was on the rise. He came from a family of priests who had fallen out of favor and been exiled to the borderlands. When God called him to be a prophet, God told him that he was going to deliver messages that would plant and pluck up kingdoms and nations. Jeremiah gets a reputation for being a gloomy prophet, always bringing bad news. But that’s not what his prophecy is about at all. It’s about showing the people where they’re going wrong. It’s about giving them a chance to avoid a disaster. It’s about making them realize that they are in relationship with their God. The last thing God wants people to think is that it’s too late, that the game is over, that they’ve lost their last chance. When things are going wrong, when the people are turning to other gods and foreign rulers to protect them, when they forget about God’s commandments to care for their poor and vulnerable neighbors, God doesn’t say, “Forget this, I’m leaving.” God says, “One way or another, things have got to change.”

God’s plans change, God’s intention doesn’t. Listen to what God says: “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.” Think for a moment about how that would sound to a people watching as a mighty army gathers just across the border. God is saying that what is happening to their nation serves a purpose. God is saying that this impending disaster is intended to get them to change their ways, to turn from evil.

But there were those in the kingdom of Judah who were tempted to rely on the blessings God had given them in the past. God established a sanctuary for worship in the Temple in Jerusalem and promised to hear the people when they prayed there. God gave King David and his descendants God’s blessing as the rightful rulers of God’s people forever. So some people in Judah dismissed all of Jeremiah’s warnings, saying, “We’re good with God. We’ve got a guarantee. So we can do whatever we want.” God wants the people to understand that hearing God promise to do you good doesn’t get you off the hook. God says, “… at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.”

God is saying that God’s plans can change. In the same way that the potter responds to the shape and structure of the clay, God responds to us.

But does that mean that God is arbitrary, changeable, unpredictable? No more than the potter. The potter always intended to make something good and useful and beautiful. God’s intention, the refrain that God speaks throughout the scriptures is this: “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” That’s something that will never, ever change, and it never does, not even after the disaster strikes, not even after little Judah falls to mighty Babylon and goes into exile. God is still their God. God still claims them as God’s people, through the years spent in a foreign land, until the day far in the future when the people are allowed to come home.

September is a time for changing plans. Our routines are changing, as kids go back to school. We come back from vacation, and we throw ourselves back into book groups, girl scouts, clubs, societies, activities, and everything else that occupies our time. At this time of year I always feel caught up in the rush of activities that come with the fall season. But maybe you’re dealing with a more difficult change of plans. Maybe you’re facing an illness, or struggling with a difficult relationship. Maybe you’re out of a job. Maybe so much in your life has changed that it’s hard to see God at work. Did God really want any of this for you? Was this really part of God’s plan? When plans change, it’s natural to start thinking that we’re wrecked, finished, through.

That’s when we need to remember God at the wheel, at the potter’s wheel, working on us like lumps of clay. God’s intention for us is always the same—God wants to be our God, and God wants us to be God’s people. God molds us and shapes us. Sometimes we push back. Sometimes we don’t want to be shaped a certain way. Jeremiah’s message for Judah is a message we need sometimes—when God is trying to shape you, stop fighting! But plans change for other reasons, too. This summer we heard the story of Job, whose life was turned upside down through no fault of his own. And sometimes our stories sound like Job’s. Our fragile bodies don’t cooperate—we get sick, and the plan falls apart. The deep patterns of our emotions and relationships often cripple us instead of empowering us.

But notice that Jeremiah doesn’t tell us what went wrong with the clay. Was the clay resisting when it should have cooperated? Or did it have built-in lumps that the potter had to work with or work around? Jeremiah doesn’t fill in these details, because ultimately they don’t matter. What matters in this story is not how difficult the clay is, or why, or whose fault it is. What matters in this story is that that the potter keeps working, that the potter never gives up! God keeps working, on you, on me, on the people we love. We may be lumpy, flawed vessels, but God keeps working, because God sees the hidden beauty, the goodness yet to be revealed. And plans change, our plans, God’s plans, but God keeps working, because God’s intention never changes, and the wheel spins round and round, and God’s firm, strong hands shape us, smooth us, build us.

We are unfired clay. We are works in progress, all of us. God is still working, preparing us for the day when we’ll be fired, glazed, perfected images of our Creator, whole and alive and beautiful. In Jesus, we get a glimpse of the kind of vessel God intends for us to be. In him we see a human vessel open to receiving and sharing God’s love in costly ways, as we heard Jesus warning the folks who are following him in today’s gospel lesson. But in him we also see a human life that begins here and now, in this world, but whose strength and beauty, shaped by God, make it last forever and ever. That is God’s intention for you. God is turning you on the potter’s wheel, never stopping, never giving up—whatever your choices have been, whatever might happen to you—forming you in the image of Christ—not a cookie-cutter image, not a paint-by-numbers image of Jesus, but a living, breathing, moving image that only you, with your unique experiences and gifts, can embody. We are unfired clay in the hands of a potter of infinite patience, grace, and artistry, turning on the wheel.

May you yield to God’s hands when you need to yield. But even more than this, may you trust, may you believe, that God never gives up on you, that in the potter’s hands you are being shaped into a deeply loved and deeply loving child of God. Amen.