Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Allegory of the Potter"

Text: Jeremiah 18:1-11

Isaiah 64:8-12

 

            It’s time for a little personal testimony.  When I was in college, few if any would have ever believed that it was my destiny to become a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  Although there were things I did in those years I’m not proud of, and things I did in those years which provided my parents plenty of grey hairs and sleepless nights, I wasn’t such a terrible person.  Misguided?  Yes.  Foolish?  Certainly.  Rebellious?  To a degree.  Immature?  Of course.  On a wrong path?  God only knows.  Yet as I look back over those formative years, which seem like a lifetime ago, what I regret the most was my cynicism regarding the Christian faith.  The irony in this is that I was attending an institution of higher learning which was founded and grounded in that very faith I had so off-handedly rejected.  My cynicism and outright disregard reached its peak in what I consider the meanest thing I did while in college, and maybe the meanest thing I’ve ever done in my life.  [My sister may disagree as I’m sure I did some mean things to her as we were growing up]

            I was a junior living in Memorial Hall on the campus of Geneva College.  One evening early  that school year, I was with the guys at the West Mayfield Lounge, a few miles off campus, where we could indulge in beer, cigars, and billiards.  After a few, one of the guys in our group suggested that it would be fun to “party” on two freshman who lived in a room on our floor [“party” meaning to “play a nasty trick on”].  I didn’t know their names, but I knew they were committed Christians who would host prayer meetings, play gospel music, and attend chapel every day. The plan was to get them to the student center with a bogus story, then to raid their room, move all their furniture to the fenced-in tennis court next to our dorm, and lock the gate.  The scheme unfolded perfectly.  We had succeeded in our plan to “persecute” these couple of “Jesus freaks.” 

      Without going into a lot of detail I prefer not to recount, the hearts and spirits of the young men we’d “partied” on were broken.  Although we were discovered, and were forced by the resident director to move all the furniture back in the middle of the night, great damage had been done.  At the end of that semester, one of the victims of our bullying moved to another dorm across campus, and the other transferred to another school.  At the time, we all thought it was pretty funny.  I, too, played the sad clown – laughing on the outside, but on the inside grieving that I had committed a terrible transgression against two students whose only “sin” was to stand for the faith I had in essence attacked.  To this day, I regret that for which I will have to someday account before God’s throne.  But in that day, who could have been less likely to become a minister of the Gospel?  Few less than I.

            In our text from the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord has called Jeremiah to a potter’s house, probably somewhere in the southern quarter of Jerusalem, for a little object lesson.  As Jeremiah describes the experience, he finds a potter at his wheel laboring over a vessel.  As I understand it, not being a potter myself, one of the frustrations of pottery-making in the traditional style of shaping water and clay with thumbs and fingers is the element of error.  A little too much pressure on one side of the evolving piece, or a slight weakness in the base or wall of the vessel, can render it misshapen and unusable.  It’s not uncommon for a potter to take a work in progress, rework it back into a ball of clay, and start over again.  The good thing is that the raw material remains pliable and can be reshaped and reformed as many ways as needed, provided the clay remains moist.  Jeremiah witnesses this process of a spoiled vessel being reworked into that which pleased the potter and served his purposes.  Jeremiah then receives God’s word in his mind and heart:  This is what I, the Lord your God, can do.  Like a potter, I can reshape and remold and rework my creation into that which is pleasing and useful.

            It must be recognized that Jeremiah was called as a prophet to the nation of Israel, specifically the Kingdom of Judah.  The historical context of God’s word and Jeremiah’s work was Israel’s continuing tendency to disobey God, to chase after every manner of idol, to pursue ungodly ways in her national life.  Israel had proven herself to be like some goofy college kid:  misguided, foolish, rebellious, immature, on a wrong path.  So this allegory of the potter was intended to serve as a prophetic word of warning, and a prophetic word of grace.  The warning for Israel was that continued disobedience would eventually lead to her being broken down, and in effect she being made back into a raw ball of clay.  The grace was that God was willing – more-over passionately desiring – to rebuild the nation;  to spare it, and reshape it, and reform it into the pleasing and useful vessel God had called His people to be.  Yet even as the clay responds to the potter – as Israel would respond in either repentance or lack thereof to God’s call back – so the potter responds to the clay.  God would allow the nation to be broken or God would spare and shape  the nation back into a tool of God’s use.  Unlike a lifeless lump of clay, however, Israel had a choice.  God speaks through Jeremiah:  “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.”

            Sadly, Israel was stubborn and chose not to amend.   And as they say, “the rest is history.”  But later in the nation’s story, God’s grace again extends its hand, bringing the nation back from exile; reshaping the nation into a vessel from which would pour forth the Savior of humankind. That’s the prophetic/historical basis of this morning’s text.  But there’s also a prophetic word here for each and every one of us.  God can take us, at our lowest and ugliest points of life, and remold us, reform us, reshape us into something beautiful and useful.  I don’t know about the beautiful part, but God took me from the lowest and ugliest points of my spiritual life and has, thankfully, made me useful to God.  I bear testimony to the truth of God’s prophetic word as read earlier from Isaiah:  “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;  we are the clay, and you are our potter;  we are all the work of your hand.”

            As with the nation of Israel, we as individuals are given a choice appended by a caution: Choose God…..choose life.  Abandon or reject God…..choose destruction.  So often, we choose the latter – sometimes knowingly, sometimes unwittingly – and sooner or later find our lives misshapen and unusable……. from our point of view.  I’ve met too many Christian folk – and I was one of them – who feel ugly; unworthy; like a failure in their walk of faith for one reason or another; like a sad clown who smiles and laughs for the world, but inside weeps for his or her transgression.  Too many Christians live their lives feeling like a useless lump of clay.

            But the true prophetic word always brings a provision of grace.  In the hands of God –providing we allow ourselves to be molded, making ourselves moist and pliable to God’s will – we can be remade, reshaped, reborn as a new vessel.  In Paul’s language, we can become “new creations” in Christ.  In more modern vernacular, there’s a saying which goes:  “Be patient. God’s not finished with me yet.”  In the Master Potter’s hands, your pastor is happy to now be a new creation, even continuing to be shaped and formed.  My little personal testimony is that we are never so misshapen, so broken, so lost a cause that God can’t make of any of us a new start on His Potter’s wheel.

            Prophetically, the author of the latter chapters of Isaiah poses a question to God:  “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?  Will you keep silent and punish us so severely?”  Through Jeremiah’s allegory of the potter comes an answer, and it’s good news:  “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.”

 

            Would you repeat the words of a closing prayer after me:  Lord, you are the potter, and we are the clay………. Reform us………. Reshape us………. Recreate us………. That we would be best used in Your service………. Amen