September 30th, 2012

Seeing ourselves on the potter’s wheel is about elevating our view of the Potter.

Jeremiah 18:1-12

September 30, 2012

Cheap stuff

The metaphor of pottery is common in the Bible, because the use of clay pottery was common throughout the 2000 years it took to live and write the Bible’s stories. Clay pots were used to carry and store water, to prepare and serve food.  Flour, oil, and even documents (think Dead Sea Scrolls) were stored in pots.  The making and decorating of pottery developed so distinctively across centuries that whole or broken pieces of pottery are among the most useful pieces of information to archaeologists.

It is tempting as we read Jeremiah 18 to read this as an uplifting metaphor.  God is molding me like clay.  I can be confident that I am valuable and significant and that when he’s done with me I will turn out to be a thing of beauty.  That is a beautiful lesson, but it’s not the lesson of Jeremiah 18.  In fact, I don’t really find that lesson in the Bible’s use of the clay metaphor at all.  I’m not saying God doesn’t see you as valuable and significant – just that it’s the wrong conclusion to draw from this metaphor.

After the exile Jeremiah laments in Lamentations 4:2 that “the precious sons of Zion, once worth their weight in gold, are now considered as pots of clay, the work of a potter’s hands.”  Clay pots are like dime store dishes and glasses.  It’s the cheap stuff you use and replace when it breaks.  In the Bible, being clay or a pot is almost always associated with insignificance or brokenness or even judgment.  God smashing the pots is a common biblical metaphor.

The potter’s mind

Jeremiah 18 is about the potter, not the clay.  This passage is about the potter’s right to start over with the clay if he doesn’t like how it’s turning out.

I wondered how someone experienced with a potter’s wheel would read this text, so I asked him.  Dr. Tim Boyd is a Sunday School teacher in our Koinonia Class, but he is also an artist and a counselor at Cornerstone Counseling.  Since he is both a psychologist and a potter, and since I’ve seen some of his artwork, I think we could call him a psycho-potter.  Tim, let’s start with how you read this passage as a potter.

Tim: Let me address the relationship between me and the clay.  Of course, my clay is an inanimate object – it is just a certain kind of dirt.  However, we have to remember that God breathed life into dirt like this and made Adam – a living soul.  When I craft it into a vessel from clay it is like I am breathing my soul into it.  It is a unique reflection of me- the potter.

It may not be obvious to you but I have a certain kind of relationship with my clay – a closeness or even intimacy.  I spend a lot of time getting my clay ready before I start to throw a pot.  In fact, about 75% of my time with the clay is in getting it ready to be shaped.  There is nothing more frustrating than shaping a pot and finding out that the clay is too dry, or too wet, or has impurities like hard lumps, or even worse- has hidden air bubbles.  Let me show you a piece of clay that looks perfectly normal on the outside.  When I cut it open it had an air bubble in it.  If I made a pot with that lurking air bubble and put it in the kiln under great heat- it will explode, ruin itself, and ruin the other pots that are around it.

I reserve the right to cast aside the clay that is impure, or to smash the half-finished pot that is not what I intend it to be.  It may seem harsh to the onlooker, but I know what I am trying to create and I am the master potter.

Heavenly Potter

Again, the focus of this passage is on the potter’s hand, not on the clay.  When we see ourselves on the wheel, it’s not about elevating our value.  It’s about elevating our view of God as the potter.  He is shaping, forming, re-forming, preparing.  He has the right, as Paul says in Romans 9:21, to make the clay into a one-of-a-kind decorative keepsake or a disposable toilet.  It’s his clay.

The focus here is on God’s sovereignty, or providence.  These words have a technical difference but the bottom line is that God is in control, in charge.  In the traditional service each Sunday, we begin the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty.”  We pray the Lord’s Prayer, which begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven.”  The Heidelberg Catechism asks what benefit we receive from knowing that God is a loving Father who is also the almighty Creator.  What difference does it make that we are clay in the potter’s hands?  How does it help us?

The catechism’s answer to this question is that we can be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and can trust our heavenly Father who works all things for good.  A year ago I preached the funeral for Joe Gryder, in whose memory we dedicated the banner earlier in this service. I ended by saying I am sure his family and others had lots of “Why” questions when he was born.  But when he died a half-century later, we saw him as a gift from God, someone we would not have changed if we could.  We learned from Joe to accept God’s gifts even if they are not packaged the way we expect.  We learned to trust the Father in heaven even when we do not understand his ways.

That’s good theology, but let me turn back to Tim, this time as Dr. Boyd, the clinical psychologist.  How would you say it helps people to be able to release control of circumstances and outcomes, trusting the heavenly Potter to do with the clay what he wants?

Tim:  Let me address the relationship between the clay to the Potter (if we could give the clay a voice).   Let’s assume that it is born-again clay.  I think the clay might say, “I am all for becoming a wonderful creation- a beautiful vessel that brings You glory.  I just don’t like the process.  I am tired of getting crushed, flattened, knocked around, squished, and pressed.  It hurts, and I feel out of control.  I am not big into being out of control.   It feels so….so…..out of control.  Isn’t there another way? 

Then I remember those verses -“Jesus learned obedience through the things that He suffered” and, “For the joy set before Him Jesus suffered the cross” and I have to reframe this whole process.  I haltingly let go of my control.  I choose the way of humility.  After all, the root word for humility is “humus” – dirt. Therefore, I chose to let go and trust You.

Have Thine own way

That’s hard, isn’t it?  We push back.  So did the people of Jeremiah’s day.  In verse 12 it’s hard to tell whether this is defiance or despair, but they cry out, “It’s not use!”  The Message translates the next phrase, “We’ll just live the way we’ve always lived – doom or no doom.”  You’ve never heard that before, have you, Tim?

Every analogy breaks down at some point, and at this point in Jeremiah 18 the “clay” takes on personality; it has a will. So in verse 11 God says, “So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.”  We can choose to re-form ourselves.  We can choose to be clay the master Potter can change.  We can choose to say, “Have Thine own way, Lord, have Thine own way.  Thou art the Potter; I am the clay.”

There’s no one here who hasn’t made some progress on the potter’s wheel.  You are here because you are choosing, on some level, that process of letting him crush and reshape you.   There’s also no one here who doesn’t need to re-examine your life and ask, “Where am I expressing defiance or maybe despair?” saying “It’s no use!”

As we sing our hymn of response, ask the Spirit of God to show you where you need to pray, “Mold me and make me after Thy will.”  Amen.

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