08/08/21 “Repentant, Reshaped, Redeemed”

Jeremiah 18:1-12

During his reign, King Josiah tried to stamp out the pagan practices his forefathers had embraced. Josiah made great efforts to recall his people to faithfulness, and the prophet Jeremiah did his part to call the people of Judah and Jerusalem to repentance. The kingdom of Israel (the northern part of the nation of Israel, of which Judah and Jerusalem were also a part) had already fallen under the weight of its sinfulness, and Judah was following in its footsteps. In spite of Josiah’s best efforts and God’s warnings through Jeremiah, Judah continued in its idolatrous and evil ways, which did not go unnoticed by God.

This caused God to grieve over the people. Jeremiah speaks God’s words of grief to Judah: “I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination” (Jer 2:7). “I thought how I would set you among my children, and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful heritage of all the nations. And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me.” “Have I been a wilderness to Israel, or a land of thick darkness? Why then do my people say, “We are free, we will come to you no more”? Can a girl forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire? Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number” (Jer 3:19-20). It’s heart-breaking, the way God’s grief over Judah pours out through the pages of Jeremiah.

Through Jeremiah, God also speaks words of anger and incrimination: “Criminals are found among my people. They set traps to ensnare others. Their evil deeds are over-the-top, yet they prosper. They are rich and powerful, fat and sleek. While they fill their houses with their ill-gotten gain, they’re indifferent to the plight of the powerless, and they’re reluctant to defend the rights of the poor” (Jer 5:26).

God observes how the prophets speak falsely, refuting God’s warnings of the coming devastation. They conjure up their lies from their own imaginations, fake visions, and worthless magic. “There’s no threat of death by sword or famine,” they say. “God will give you true peace.” They carelessly ignore the brokenness of God’s people, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. Self-styled prophets tell the people what they want to hear, the priests act accordingly and, God says, “My people love it this way!” (Jer 5:26-31).

God repeatedly pleads with the people to repent—to come back to the God who loves them, to change their ways so that the coming crisis can be averted. “Return, faithless Israel. Out of my mercy, I won’t be angry forever. Only acknowledge the guilt of your rebellion against me, of your idolatrous worship of trees and stones. Return, O faithless children, for I am your master…I will bring you to Zion. I’ll give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. Jerusalem will be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations will gather to my presence there, and they’ll stop stubbornly following their own evil will. The houses of Judah and Israel will be reunited in the land that I gave your ancestors for a heritage” (Jer 3:13).

But Josiah’s reforms and God’s word proclaimed through Jeremiah have little effect. In the year 609 BCE. King Josiah died, killed in battle. His son Jehoahaz took the throne but was deposed and carried off to Egypt by the Pharoah Neco after only three months. Pharoah appointed a new king—Jehoiakim, another of Josiah’s sons. Egypt made heavy demands of silver and gold, and Jehoiakim complies—by exacting it from his subjects. Babylon and its allies are getting stronger and making incursions. Disaster is coming but, still, the people refuse to repent and mend their ways.

God instructs Jeremiah to stand in the gate of the temple and proclaim there this word: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Don’t trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’”

The people think that the temple’s a lucky charm—a magical object that can protect them from God’s righteousness and justice, and the consequences of their own actions. Theirs is the same arrogance—the same hubris, the same false pride—that John would warn about hundreds of years later. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.’” Sadly, we are still guilty today of this false confidence in things other than God.

God’s words are to no avail. The people refuse to listen—refuse to turn their lives around. After all, they’re the chosen people, right? Plus, they think they hold the trump card, and that trump card is the temple. And because they have the temple, they think they have God boxed up and locked in. They think that if God is contained in the temple, God will never allow it to be threatened. And, they figure, if the temple is safe, so is Jerusalem. And if Jerusalem is safe, so are they.

But, they’re wrong. Physical objects—even ones as grad as the temple—are worthless, heritage is worthless, if God’s people don’t live out the covenant which those things represent. Through Jeremiah, God warns them, “Don’t think that simply laying claim to a building or a family tree protects you from the consequences of your faithlessness. Don’t think that the shadow of the temple walls can conceal your sinful actions and idolatrous hearts. You know, I too am watching” (Jer 7:8-11).

“Here you are,” God says, “trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” (Jer 7:8-11).

Still, our loving and patient God offers them a way out. “If you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you don’t oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you don’t go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.”

The threat from Babylon is building. Idolatry and sinfulness in Judah are increasing. Jeremiah continues to faithfully proclaim the word of God, repeatedly offering God’s words of judgment, words of threat, words of invitation, often through actions that God directs. At God’s instruction, he buys a piece of linen fabric and wears it as a loincloth—a symbol of how God had desired that Israel be as close to God as the most intimate piece of clothing. Then, per God’s instructions, he buries it until God tells him to retrieve it—now a ruined scrap that is good for nothing. At God’s instruction, Jeremiah remains single and celibate, a warning against  producing children for the disaster that is coming.

Then we come to the story which may be the Jeremiah passage we’re most familiar with—the story of the potter and the clay. God sends Jeremiah to the house of a potter. As Jeremiah watches, the potter works on a vessel. But it doesn’t live up to expectations, so the potter begins to remake it. God speaks as Jeremiah watches: Like the potter who controls the destiny of the clay, God has complete sovereignty over God’s people and, indeed, all nations, all of creation. God will pluck up and break down, or God will build and plant as God alone deems fit.

The potter is a wonderful metaphor for God’s merciful sovereignty. It reminds us that nothing can ultimately stand in the way of God’s intentions for the world, including the misbehavior of God’s people. It’s also a picture of God’s mercy. Like the potter who refashions his clay rather than throwing it out, God is unwilling to destroy what God has created. Instead, our merciful God will refashion and reclaim and redeem what is broken, what is not living up its God-given potential.

We like this idea of a God who has all the power to shape and reshape us. We like being passive lumps of clay in the Potter’s hands. We sang about it in our hymn: “You are the Potter; I am the clay. Mold me and make me; this I pray. Change my heart, O God.” If God has all the power to mold and shape, then God has all the responsibility for shaping us, too.

Repentance is hard, and change is harder. But if all we need to do is wait for God to literally make us shape up, then we can continue on our merry way.  There’s no need to examine our attitudes or our words, our calendars or our checkbooks, our ball caps or tee-shirts, the signs in our yards or the apps on our phones to see where we’ve allowed idols to take God’s place. After all, clay can’t decide if its form is acceptable or not. Clay can’t fold in on itself and remake itself into something new. If we’re as helpless as a lump of clay, we’re off the hook!

But clearly, we do have a role to play in the shaping of our lives.  If we didn’t, why would God say to the people of Israel, “Turn now, all of you, from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings”?  Why would this be a consistent theme, not only in Jeremiah but in all the prophets? If we didn’t have some say in the matter, why would John the Baptist proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins? Why would Jesus encourage his followers to “repent, and believe in the good news”?

We have been given the freedom to choose how we will live, and the people of Israel made their choice clear: “It’s no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.” In other words, “Forget it, God. You’re wasting your breath. We’ll just keep on doing what we want to do.” I picture them as a nation of rebellious teenagers, rolling their eyes and saying “Whatever.” Or maybe we can picture them as we might be ourselves: “If you want me to be different, God, then melt me and mold me” like the potter you compare yourself to.”

How do we reconcile what seems to be a contradiction in this story? How do we reconcile being clay in the Potter’s hand and, at the same time, having the agency to repent and change our ways?

We don’t have to. There really is no contradiction in the story. This story is intended to reveal God’s nature, not ours. It’s about God’s sovereignty and God’s mercy, not humanity’s helplessness or sinfulness. We get hung up because we try to make it about us rather than about God. This is a story about the Potter, not the clay.

Looking for ourselves in the helpless lumps of clay, passively waiting to be made into something beautiful and useful, doesn’t make much sense when we know that we are called to repentance and change. But what happens if, instead of placing ourselves on the potter’s wheel, we put ourselves in the potter’s place?

Obviously, we do not have the sovereignty that God has. But consider this: We are made in God’s image. That means that our nature is a reflection of God’s nature. We have the gift of creativity. We also have the freedom to make choices. As potters with our lives in our hands, we can make judgments about what needs to be plucked up and torn down, what we can build and what we can plant. As potters, we have the ability and freedom to shape and reshape our own lives.

Not only do we have the gifts of creativity and freedom, we’ve been given the opportunity and the power to shape our lives into things of beauty. In his life, Jesus taught us how to live faithfully. On the cross, Jesus freed us to live faithfully. With the coming of his Spirit, he gave us the power to live faithfully. God remains sovereign over us, but in Christ we have all that we need to shape and mold our lives as a potter shapes a work of art from a lump of clay.

I learned some things about the art of throwing pottery this week, and they apply to shaping faithful lives as well. The first thing I learned is the importance of a process called “wedging.” This is the process of kneading the clay to get out all the air pockets. Air pockets can cause the pot to crack when it’s heated, so the potter has to take care to get them all out. We have undesirable pockets in ourselves that can cause breaks in our relationship with God. Prayer and study, worship and service are the wedging actions that help knead out what can cause us to crack when the world turns up the heat.

I learned the importance of making sure that the clay is properly centered on the wheel. If the potter doesn’t center the clay, parts of the pot will end up thinner than others. The piece will be out of proportion.

The same thing can happen to our lives if we don’t properly center them, and our proper center is God.  The best way for us to center our lives on God is to have what Jesus called a “single eye.” John Wesley, in one of his last sermons, described a “single eye” this way: it’s having God in all our thoughts; constantly aiming at the One who is invisible; having as our intention in all things, small and great, and in all our conversation, to please God; to do, not our own will, but the will of Him who sent us into the world. Is being able to say to God, “I view thee, Lord as the end—the goal—of my desires.” Having a single eye will keep our lives centered on God.

I learned that producing a finished pot is best done slowly and with patience. Shaping and re-shaping a life is also a slow process. We learn in fits and starts. We make progress and we backslide. We have days that are better than others. Sometimes we have minutes that are better than others. So, we need to be patient with ourselves. On the days when the things we have to repent of far outweigh the progress we’ve made, it’s good to remember that we are made in the image of a patient and loving God. We can extend that same loving patience to ourselves as our lives are slowly being perfected in love.

Finally, I learned that clay objects that are cracked, misshapen, or out of balance aren’t destined for the trash heap. Up until the final step of firing, the clay can be reclaimed. It can be redeemed and made into something new. This requires that the clay be dried out, broken into pieces, and then soaked in water until it has been returned to its original condition, ready to be shaped again.

The same is true of our lives. As long as we are alive, we are never so far gone in our sinfulness that our lives can’t be redeemed. It may require that our stiff necks be broken. Our hardened hearts may need to be thoroughly soaked in the Living Water of Jesus once again. But, by the grace of God, the love of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, our lives—no matter how misshapen—can be redeemed.

Do you know where the term “throwing pots” comes from? Some people say it’s used because many potters actually throw their clay onto the wheel to get it to stick. But others say that, long ago, the word “throw” actually meant “to turn,” as the potter’s wheel turns. Jeremiah spoke God’s desire for God’s people to turn—to turn away from their faithlessness and to turn back to God. This is what repentance is—turning our lives in a new direction.

God led Jeremiah to the potter’s house to remind the prophet—and us—of who God is. But in the Master Potter’s house, we are also given our turn at the potter’s wheel, where we can choose what kind of life we will shape. In the Potter’s house, we know that when what we are creating needs to be re-formed, re-molded, we are invited to repent and turn our lives in a new direction. In the Potter’s house, we are given the power of the Holy Spirit to reshape our lives after the pattern of the cross. In the Potter’s house, we know that we serve an all-sovereign God who, through our faith in Jesus Christ, can reclaim and redeem each and every one of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young