The Potter and The Clay (Sermon)
**INTRODUCTION ADDED ON JULY 29, 2017**
This sermon has somehow drifted to the top of Google’s results for “POTTER + CLAY + SERMON” and other various combinations. If you’ve arrived that way… hello. I originally wrote this sermon as a paper seminary and subsequently adapted and delivered it to a small congregation in downtown Denver in 2014.
Like many pastors, preachers, and Christians, I’ve wrestled profoundly with the image of potter and clay found in Jeremiah 18 and picked up by Paul in Romans 9. The longer I study it, the more convinced I become that our philosophical puzzlings and theological enigmas around this text are simply not the point. Scripture defies our quest to solve ontological riddles (be the final answers Calvinistic, Arminian, Barthian, or something else). Instead, the whole of Scripture points us at something better: the profligate love of God for humanity. As preachers, we’ve got to arrive at the cruciform love of the Potter for corrupted clay… otherwise we’ve missed the gospel.
This sermon follows that trajectory through the text of Jeremiah: 1) the Potter is all-powerful, 2) nothing is set in stone because “the clay has sway,” 3) all of us use our sway in the wrong way, and 4) the Potter freely chooses to become an object of wrath for corrupt clay.If you’re preparing a sermon or looking for inspiration or clarity, that is the center. The Potter broken to restore the clay. It’s incredibly good news. May you believe it for yourself and those around you. May you preach the gospel, sisters and brothers.The Potter and The Clay
We’re going to be in the book of Jeremiah this evening.
Jeremiah, chapter eighteen.
I realized at the beginning of the week preparing for tonight would be tricky.
How was I going to speak
at Belleview’s chapel (this past Wednesday)
AND Church Beautiful (last night)
AND tonight without shortchanging someone somewhere?”
I briefly considered preaching the same sermon tonight that I did last night,
but we’re in smack in the middle of our first seven weeks
of exploring what it means for us (as a new congregation)
to faithfully be a Jesus community.
It didn’t seem polite to drop a mid-series sermon on you guys.
So I started thinking, is there a way that I can share something tonight
that’s fresh and challenging and life-giving but also maybe recycled?
And so I started sorting through some of my seminary papers (where I had already done a lot of the leg work for a sermon) and I thought maybe we could explore Jeremiah 18 together.
Back in seminary, I chose to write a paper on this passage because (at the time) I was really fascinated with a particular philosophical tension that people often wrestle with about God.
I was wrestling with well-worn riddle:
how are real human choices compatible with an all-powerful God?
God knows all and is all-powerful.
And yet we have some kind of agency‚
some kind of freedom to choose who we live.
How do those work together?
And the philosophical question was deeply personal for me.
If people around me wind up choosing a destructive path in life—or even end up hating God!— does that mean that ultimately God micromanaged (or macromanaged) it that way?
I heard some people saying “yeah, of course.” And then they would quote some of Paul’s letter to Rome:
(9.20f) But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?
What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?
And that would be it.
God is the Potter who does what he wants with his clay—
special purposes, common uses, objects of wrath—
who are we to question God?
The heart of the God is a mysterious thing.
His ways are not our ways.
And this really bothered me.
And since I knew that imagery of the New Testament
is often growing out of the soil of the Old Testament,
I decided to use Hebrew paper as an opportunity to dive into
one of the primary places where Paul is getting this potter and clay imagery.
I wanted to see if the Jeremiah (in both this story and his entire message)
might help me sort out how Paul is saying about God with this imagery.
Because make no mistake.
The more I study the Bible as whole, the more convinced I am that the Bible’s not trying to answer all our theological and metaphysical and philosophical riddles.
The deepest significance of the Bible is not
to plunge us into a metaphysical maze to master
or present us with a philosophical puzzle to solve.
The deepest significance of the Bible
is to reveal the heart of God.
It’s to tell us what God is like.
That’s the question behind all our other questions.
And I think this story of a potter and some clay in Jeremiah 18
may just help us do that:
(18.1f) This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord.
“Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
“Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the Lord says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’
But they will reply, ‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; we will all follow the stubbornness of our evil hearts.’”
THE COMMON IN THE CATASTROPHE (v1)
We can grow so accustomed to the Bible that we are no longer surprised by what the text actually says.
That’s part of our challenge and invitation and joy as Christians—
to hear again and anew the delightful strangeness of the Bible.
And these first five verses ought to make us scratch our heads a little.
Jeremiah is told to go down to a potter’s house.
Here is Jeremiah in the middle of personal, social, religious and national chaos.
Nationally, the empires that have long been threatening the Israelites—Assyria and Egypt—are giving way to something scarier: the Neo-Babylonian empire.
Religiously, corruption has infected the Israelites to the core. And so Yahweh keeps telling Jeremiah that his task to announce that this new, rising empire will actually be God’s way of discipling his chosen people.
Socially, the city of Jerusalem and the people of Judah have become corrupted and confident in their own idolatrous self-interests. They despise whoever and whatever doesn’t won’t serve their interests, and that includes Jeremiah.
So personally, he feels quite alone. Historically he’s called the weeping prophet. He’s a man against the world, racked with conflict and tension, dodging death threats, and even struggling with deep questions about the nature and purposes of Yahweh in both his life and the world.
And he’s called to go to a potter’s house.
This is strange because there’s nothing remarkable about the place he’s going it.
It’s mundane and everyday.
Yet he is moved, provoked, called, challenged
to go watch the craftsman of the clay,
who’s just doing what he does—making all kinds of common stuff.
Is this really how he should be spending his time?
There are big, real, and pressing needs out there:
There’s political and national turmoil to address,
religious restoration to promote, social issues to tackle.
And to top it all off, pervasive personal problems plague the prophet.
Yet in the midst of the catastrophe,
Jeremiah is called to a potter’s house,
to the simple, to the common.
When the world around us is burning,
sometimes obedience looks like sitting still long enough
to recognize that a bush is burning too.
To watch a potter hold clay in his hands and make pottery.
Jeremiah can’t do everything.
He can barely do anything.
He can’t control the national fate of Judah, kindle religious revival,
solve the plagues of society, or even resolve all of his personal angst.
All he can do is obey in the small.
All he can do have is listen for a God who speaks
in the everyday, the petty, the trivial, the common.
All he can do is trust this God in midst of the catastrophe.
THE POWER OF THE POTTER (v6)
So Jeremiah watches a potter working at his wheels.
He sees how the clay that this potter is working will sometimes be flawed.
It won’t take the shape he wants it to.
Sometimes it’s even because of flaws within the clay.
And so, verse 4 tells us this
“potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.”
There’s a little bit of debate here about what the Hebrew means:
Is the potter tossing out the flawed pot
and starting over from scratch with new clay?
Or is the potter reworking and remaking
the flawed pot and flawed clay into something good and beautiful?
This is the sort of thing that scholars can (and do!) debate fiercely over.
But even if this linguistic riddle could be settled, I don’t think it would unlock solve tension we’re about to discover in the rest of the text.
Because now—here in the quiet, here in the common—Yahweh speaks.
He asks a rhetorical question, “Am I not like this potter?” (v6)
The nation of Judah is like this clay.
Yahweh is like this potter.
The same pottery language is used in Genesis 2 when
God reaches into the dirt
and begins to craft (or shape or mold) mankind.
That’s all-powerful, creator kind-of-language.
And that Creator he is the same God who
molds, shapes, and ultimately guides
the fate of the prophet and the nation.
When God asks, “Am I not like this potter?”,
we’re confronted with the absolute power of the Potter.
And—if we lay aside philosophical questions for a moment—this is comforting.
The good God who crafted creation has not lost control.
He’s still molding.
He’s still shaping.
He’s still guiding.
Even in the darkest times.
Even in the darkest areas of our lives.
God is still guiding in the catastrophe.
Jeremiah doesn’t have to have a messiah-complex.
And neither do we.
But on so many other levels, this is also profoundly disturbing.
The message here is that the good Potter who made the world
is also good Potter who will make it into a masterpiece.
This Potter will make the world right.
He will rid it of its corruption and flaws—of all its rebellion.
Justice and goodness and beauty will ultimately define this world.
But this means that rebellion and corruption—
whether it’s in the stubborn self-righteousness, or rising global empires
or in weeping prophets, or you and me—
wherever the clay is flawed there’s got to be judgment.
The Potter is the good and all-powerful Creator.
And he will make his masterpiece.
This is fantastic and reassuring news in the midst of catastrophe,
but it’s terrible news for any flawed clay.
And yet as he keeps talking, God seems to be thwarting any of our attempts to solve philosophical puzzles.
Because side-by-side with the image of the all-powerful Potter
is the reality that the clay has role to play in all this.
The clay is responsible.
The clay has sway.
THE CLAY HAS SWAY (v7-11)
In verses 7 and following, Yahweh steps back from his pottery metaphor
and begins explaining a little bit more about the catastrophic world we and Jeremiah find ourselves in.
Yahweh says he sometimes he announces disaster.
He may bid a nation or group or people
be uprooted, torn down and destroyed.
And yet—he insists—if they repent and return to him, he will relent.
He will bring blessing instead of the announced judgment.
But quite disturbingly,
it cuts the other way as well.
He may announce blessing, building up and planting.
But if the nation or group or people stubbornly rebel agains him,
then he will judgment instead the blessing he has announced.
In some way, the clay is responsible.
The clay has choice.
Everyone everywhere is invited to live in harmony with the goodness
that the Potter intends for his creation.
You think you’re “in”? You think they’re “out”?
Blessing is not written in stone, and neither is disaster.
The story of Jonah is around a century before this.
In that story, Yahweh’s prophet announces that Nineveh—
the despotic, corrupt capitol of the Assyrian empire—
will be destroyed in three days.
No ifs, ands or buts.
Jonah simply announces “this is going to happen.” (cf. Jonah 3:4)
But Nineveh repents.
It’s like the clay yielded itself to the Potter,
and instead of being uprooted, torn down, and destroyed,
Nineveh was spared.
Yahweh takes human freedom and responsibility very seriously.
Nineveh experienced a reprieve from its judgment,
and the offer seems to be legitimately on the table for the Israelites too.
Perhaps the God’s judgment,
perhaps Babylon invading,
perhaps the destruction of the temple,
perhaps the curse of exile
was not inevitable.
But notice the central point God is making:
the all-powerful Potter is absolutely free in how he responses to the clay.
He is not bound by any kind of law—any kind of justice—above him,
and he is not careless in dealing out curses or blessings.
Consideration and care guide his response to humanity.
He is just.
He is “righteous.”
He does what is right.
So maybe God—
even though he is the all-powerful Potter—
isn’t playing games with the clay.
Maybe he means what he says.
With a sobering play on words in verse 11,
God warns that (at this moment in history)
he is molding (or shaping or crafting) disaster—
even for his own special, chosen, elected people—
if they do not stop their rebellion.
So the message is
“Repent! Turn! Change! The clay has sway!”
THE CLAY POTTER (v12)
And yet, it is not to be! For all the freedom the clay may have,
it throws up its hands and says, “no’ash!”
Few translations capture the force of this little Hebrew idiom. It’s the same expression used back in chapter two when Yahweh begs his people:
(2.25) “Do not run until your feet are bare and your throat is dry”
But the people reply:
“[No’ash!] ’It’s no use! I love foreign gods, and I must go after them.’”
It’s no use!
Of all the people who should be getting it right,
the elect, the chosen, the people of God themselves
throw up their hands in resignation, despair, and futility.
“We’re only clay. We’ve got to run after foreign gods until our throats are parched. We’ve got to keep following this path. We’ve got to follow our own stubborn hearts. We just can’t leave our self-centered, self-delusional, self-destroying self-interests.
It’s no use.
Their response here in verse 11 is a dark moment in the book of Jeremiah.
From the beginning of Israel’s history (e.g. Deut 30),
life and death are the choices.
Blessings and curses are both on the table.
And the heart of God is always one
that longs for Israel (and for all of us)
to choose blessing.
To choose life.
And we say, “No’ash! It’s no use!”
For all our freedom, humanity continually to makes the wrong choice.
The book of Genesis opens with a disastrous first choice of death.
The words of Nahum remind us that Nineveh eventually chose destruction.
And the prophet Jeremiah weeps as the people of God choose exile.
Despite our freedom and responsibility,
we seem only capable of choosing curses.
Jeremiah comes to a potter’s house in the midst of catastrophe
and hears God whispering in the common.
“I’m the all-powerful Potter
and yet the clay has sway.
Your choices matter.”
And the next couple of chapters of Jeremiah continue the imagery of the pottery.
The clay keeps saying, “It’s useless,”
and so the people will be judged—the pot will be smashed.
Jeremiah even goes so far as to act this out—
to smash at the entrance of the temple in chapter 19.
That’s a bit like burning an American flag on the lawn of the White House,
and it goes over almost as well.
But doom, gloom and pot-smashings are not Jeremiah’s last word.
According to him, this Potter who made the universe
will not want to abandon his clay in its catastrophe.
Even to his broken pot—even to Israel—
he promises a new beginning in chapter 31.
A new covenant.
And in the light of this new beginning,
our philosophical puzzle fades away
and we glimpse the heart of God.
The deepest mystery is not how to perfectly understand
how divine sovereignty and human freedom dovetail—
how the power of the Potter and the sway of the clay work together.
The deepest mystery is that
the Potter has become clay.
In Jesus of Nazareth,
the craftsman of creation himself,
took on the curse of his corrupted clay.
The Potter himself was uprooted, torn down, destroyed—
the clay nailed to the wood,
gasping until his throat was parched.
The center of our faith is not a riddle… it’s a romance—the love of the Potter for the clay.
The good news anticipated by Jeremiah (cf. Jer 31)
the good news retold by Paul (cf. Rom 11.11-32)
and the good news revealed supremely in Jesus
is that God does abandon his corrupted creation to its catastrophe.
Rather he absorbs the flaws of the clay,
the rebellion of Israel,
the catastrophe of the world,
and the darkness of our hearts.
He takes it all—into himself.
God is absolutely free to respond how he wants to respond to us.
And he himself chose to become the object of wrath.
Our Creator can be trusted.
He will do what’s right.
He has done what’s right.
And that meant reconciling this burning world back to himself in the cross.
The common Roman instrument of death
suddenly ablaze with the glorious love of God.
That is the hysterically good news of our faith.
The all-powerful Potter has shown his cards—
he’s not willy-nilly, tit-for-tat God of karma.
God is is not counting our sins against us anymore.
One died for all and therefore all died. (cf. 2 Cor 5.14)
And has entrusted us—curséd clay made new—to proclaim this mystery. (2 Cor 5.19)
The mystery that Jesus didn’t stay dead.
And his resurrection is God’s way of showing
that we too are invited to participate in life-from-the-dead.
Grace, love, forgiveness, and new beginning,
are God’s final decision towards creation, Israel,
and every single one of us.
The question remains, how does the clay use its sway?
How do we respond to this new beginning?
A real way has been opened through the broken shards of the Potter himself.
And yet God still takes the sway of the clay seriously.
Our parched spirits may cry “No’ash” (“it’s no use!”)
but God sends a new spirit and a new cry into our hearts.
His Spirit. And the cry of “Abba” (“Father!”).
May we learn to recognize and receive
this new spirit—this new cry of the heart.
May we glimpse the Potter broken as pottery for us,
and accept his acceptance of us.
May God birth repentance in us during our rebellion,
may God give us hope in the midst of catastrophe,
and may God grant us eyes to see the sacred in the simple.
May we finally abandon despair and begin to trust
that the hands holding our lives and shaping the world
really are good hands.