Clay in the Potter’s Hand -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost -- Pentecost 13C (Jeremiah 18)


Potter by Else Berg

Jeremiah 18:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

18 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 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. 
Then the word of the Lord came to me: 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. 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. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 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. 11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

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                Most of us, at one point or another, have worked with clay. Perhaps when we were children we experienced playdough. It gave us an opportunity to express our creativity without making too much of a mess. When we were done, we could fold it all up and put it back in the can and try some different the next day. Later on, we might have worked with clay for a school art project. I have on my bookshelf a rather interesting-looking fish that my son created at some point. I can’t find a date so I’m not sure what he age he was, but I like it. Otherwise, I might not display it quite so prominently in my home study. Maybe, if we’re crafty enough, we might sit down at a potter’s wheel and create something beautiful and useful. As long as the clay is wet and malleable, we can do whatever we wish with it. If it doesn’t appear to be what we want, then we can throw it down and start over and create something else. The goal is to form something we find to be to our liking. We are the potter, and the clay is the material we use to create that item of delight.  According to Jeremiah, God is the potter and Judah is clay.

                Jeremiah doesn’t beat around the bush. He has a message for Judah. It’s a rather harsh word, but the times seemed to warrant it. When he delivered this word, it would do no good to suggest that all is well, when disaster is on the near horizon. It’s sort of like a hurricane warning. When you hear word that a hurricane is coming, you better figure out what you’re going to do quickly. Such is the case for Judah as the age of the Davidic monarchy is nearing its end.

Yes, God is the potter and Judah is the clay. God is attempting to form Judah into something that might lead to God’s delight. Unfortunately, this batch of clay resists God’s handiwork. It doesn’t want to be formed into something of beauty and value. If things don’t change soon, God may choose to throw it down and start over. Now, if Judah obliges God and lets God form it into something God desires, then all will be well. However, if Judah persists in doing evil, then God will throw it down and make something new. What do you think of that?

This is not the kind of message most preachers would want to take up (if it was me, I might choose a different lectionary passage).  Yet, it is a word to be considered. We can agree or disagree with the prophet. We might even decide to ignore the message. But, if we take it seriously, then what is the message God would have us hear?

We might want to start with Jeremiah’s context. He’s speaking to a community that is experiencing a traumatic moment. The nation of Judah is facing annihilation. Jeremiah was active in the closing years of Judah’s existence as a relatively independent nation. Before long everything will come crashing down as Jerusalem and its Temple are destroyed by the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar, while the leading members of society will be carted off into exile in Babylon. That things still hang in the balance suggests that Jeremiah and Judah are still experiencing that pre-fall position, but Jeremiah could see the writing on the wall. He sees what is coming, as do the people. They want to know why it’s about to happen.

The reading from Jeremiah is accompanied by a reading from Deuteronomy 30. Deuteronomy provides a context for understanding Jeremiah’s message to Judah. Consider this word from Deuteronomy:   

16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.  [Deut.30:16-18 NRSV]
If you obey the covenant stipulations, then things will work out for you. If not, if you choose to do evil, then you will be cursed. Bad things will befall you. Now, we moderns tend to read this individualistically, but Jeremiah is speaking to the community as a whole. This is a corporate message. Depending on whether the community obeys or disobeys, it will either prosper or be cursed. It’s pretty straightforward, at least in theory. Of course, life rarely works this way. The rain falls on both the good and the bad, and so does famine. This Deuteronomic vision is comforting but it doesn’t always work. Fortunately, the makers of the biblical canon may have understood this, because they provided us a Bible with the Book of Job to offer us an alternate view of things.

                In this word from Jeremiah, it appears at one level that there are choices to be made. Do what is right, and you will prosper. If you do evil, you will be cursed. The problem is that Jeremiah uses the image of clay, and clay is a passive object. It can be molded by another, but it has no ability to define itself.  So, could this suggest that maybe God has some responsibility here? Joseph Clifford, notes that “it was God who brought Israel into being in the first place. Can the potter blame the clay for its shape?” [Connections, p. 287]. What is at this point is the clay remains malleable. It can be formed and reformed. Once it hardens, it will simply break, and all is lost. So maybe what is clay is not Judah, but God’s plans for Judah.

                Like I said before, Jeremiah was not one to pull punches. His words were often harsh. But, he had good intentions. His job was to warn Judah of their impending doom if they didn’t change their ways. This was a moment of crisis. The hurricane (a major hurricane is afoot as I write this reflection) is heading your way. Evacuate now. Don’t wait until the water is at your door. The word is strong and pointed because the Potter wants to shape Judah into a faithful and just people. As Barbara Lundblad suggests: “Like the potter, God’s intent is not to destroy the people but to reshape them in faithfulness and justice. The final words of this text can be heard as an invitation: ‘Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.’” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 377].

                It is worth noting that the Psalm for today is Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18. It offers the word of comfort that’s not as apparent in Jeremiah. Reading from the Tanakh (Jewish Publication Society), verses 13-14 declare:

                It was You who created my conscience,
                                You fashioned me in my mother’s womb.
                I praise You,
                                For I am awesomely, wondrously made;
                                Your Work is wonderful;
                                I know it very well.

The Potter knows us well, and wants what is best for us, because as the Psalmist declares: “For I am awesomely, wondrously made.” The key is to do what is right before the Lord, to walk with God faithfully and with justice always abiding.

This is a word for us at this moment in time when the church is being tested. The world is watching to see what we will do in the face of the challenges of the moment. How will we deal with issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, immigration, health care? Yes, these are political issues, but they are also faith issues. As Jeremiah declares: “Turn back, each of you, from your wicked ways, and mend your ways and your actions!” [Jer. 18:11 Tanakh]. This is a word that is worth hearing. It is a reminder that God desires justice and mercy on our part. Besides, if we are created in the image of God, then we too are potters and there is clay set before us ready to be molded. What will we do with that clay?

                 
Picture Attribution: Berg, Else, 1877-1942. Potter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55636 [retrieved September 2, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Else_Berg_A_potter.jpg.

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