Scripture: Jeremiah 18:1-11
My Artistic Genius
Whatever gifts I have received, art is not one of them. But it was not always so—I don’t think.
Way back in elementary school, my artistic masterpieces were good enough that my art teacher entered them in regional competitions, and once I even won an award of some significance.
Monet produced impressionistic landscapes with his paints. Michelangelo released his sculpted figures from blocks of marble. Frank Lloyd Wright revolutionized the arcitectural world with his steel-and concrete structures.
My gift to the world was the clay ashtray.
I can’t help but chuckle now to think of all the ashtrays produced in elementary schools over the years. To think of the outcry these days if an elementary school art teacher advised such a project. The world has sure changed……
But I digress. Back to my masterpieces. It didn’t matter that my parents did not smoke. These were not the kind of vulgar ashtrays that you would actually use. These……were art. They deserved to live on a pedestal in your living room where guests could “Ooh!” and “Ahh!” over their magnificent splendor.
Like any great artist, my genius was continually evolving—and so did my art. My earliest phase of ashtray artistry has been called my “Green Period,” on account of my fascination with that particular hue. Pieces produced during this period consisted predominately of clay rolled flat into a mostly-circular shape, which was then placed over a bowl and allowed to dry some so the edges curled up. After firing, these were painted the brightest, purest green I could achieve, which I imagined was the precise color of the dinosaurs.
My art evolved into what next is called my “Black Period,” which was a dark time in my life. The basic form of the ashtray remained the same as my earlier, happier Green Period, but I began experimenting with pressing various materials into the clay to give it depth and texture. I also began ripping the edges of the clay and leaving them torn—symbolic, certainly, of something just out of reach. I abandoned dinosaur green, and began painting the ashtrays darker colors: black, brown, violet, indigo—sometimes all at once.
But after a time, I found I could not continue in this darkness, so I abandoned my craft and spent 12 years in South America searching for the source of the Amazon River, before I emerged with a new ashtray form—one never before considered. Returning to my elementary school, I worked my clay with renewed fury, rolling it into the longest, thinnest line of clay anyone had seen. And then I began.
I wound my clay into a pile of coils, shaped one end into the head of a cobra, and—and this shows my genius—did it all so that there was a tail end too. I invented: the snake ashtray. After firing, it was decorated with a lifelike pattern of browns and blacks that reminded me of the snakes I fought off during my time in the Amazon.
My masterpiece was complete. It was perfect. It was so beautiful that sinners would go blind if they looked upon it.
Maybe I’ve started exaggerating just a wee bit. But it was the piece that won the award in the regional art competition. And it still sits in my mother’s china cabinet, even today.
What all this proves (really) is that I don’t know squat about potters and clay, except for what I have read in books or have seen other people do. But given my biblical and theological training, and given some guidance from the Holy Spirit, I hope I might still contribute something of interest this morning.
To increase those chances, I actually want to look at these words of Jeremiah in three different ways, to refute some bad interpretation you might have been subjected to, and to challenge you to experience this text in a new way. All in all, an average week, perhaps……
If I reach back in time to the little fundamentalist church I grew up in, and if I can hear echoes of a sermon on Jeremiah 18, then what I hear goes something like this:
God is the potter. We are the clay.
If we don’t change our behavior, God will smash us down remake us.
Resistance is futile.
So if you want to make a decision to follow Jesus, please come forward during the following hymn……
Reading Jeremiah 18 like this makes God sound a bit like some invading alien king trying to squash a rebellion among the human slaves.
It also reminds me of a “knock, knock” joke spin-off I saw recently (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2013/09/divine-protection.html):
It’s Jesus, let me in…
I have to save you.
From what I’m gonna do to you if you don’t let me in!
It’s funny. And it’s tragic. Because there are so many in our world who think of God just this way. They have been taught that the reason you want to go to heaven is to avoid hell. The reason you attend worship at church is because God’s self-esteem is so low that if you don’t, God will smite you down with righteous fury.
The Jesus and God described by these people are not trying to save the world out of love. It sounds more like a protection racket.
If you don’t cough up, well, Lew here might have a little accident with your car, or your house, or your little girl. And then Mr. Big wouldn’t be able to do nothin’ for you. He doesn’t mean nothing by it, he likes you, see, but if you don’t show him a little respect, you can’t expect him to trouble himself with your worries, OK? Me and Vinnie’ll be by tomorrow, and you will have that little donation ready.
There’s a lot of problems with an interpretation of Jeremiah 18 that makes God into a mobster. I hope that you can see that enough I don’t have to spell it out for you. But if you have some questions, PLEASE do ask and I’ll be glad to talk about it—just the two of us.
I hope it will be enough to simply state that it is love and not domination that motivates God’s action. As we read in John 3:16-17, it is because of God’s love that God sent Jesus into the world, and that love brings salvation rather than condemnation. As we read in 1John 4:10-11, it is through Jesus’ sacrifice—an act of love—that we can know love, and thus become love to each other.
Mold Me & Make Me
This right emphasis on God’s love as a primary motivator of God’s action has lead to another way of looking at the text. Remember, it is the same story—But look what happens when we emphasize a different part. Over the last couple decades we have focused the clay rather than the potter, an interpretation that finds its basis in v.6. And it goes like this:
We are the clay on God’s potter’s wheel.
In God’s great love and mercy, God does not give up on us. Even when we fail to become what God desires us to be, God keeps working on us, shaping us, reinventing us until we become what God desires.
In contrast to the “Evil Potter” interpretation, this one is both supported by the text itself and consistent with the way God is depicted in the Bible. From the earliest stories of Genesis to the latest vision of Revelation, God is reaching out to us, ever persistent, ever insistent that love conquers all. When we fall and fail—even killing our fellow humans—God pursues us with forgiveness and is unwilling to relinquish God’s relationship with us. There is nothing we can do to stop God from loving us.
But we can resist. And we certainly do. Like that lump of clay that thwarts the designs of the potter, we resist being shaped according to God’s intentions for us. God has given us this amazing thing called “free will,” in which we find tremendous freedom of choice. God has even taken the greatest risk of all time in doing this, because wrapped up in “free will” is the ability to even choose to reject God’s love.
We Baptists believe that this “free will” thing is of such importance to God, that we have made it a cornerstone of the way we approach faith as well. We testify that faith is not faith without a conscious choice, and that means a person must be of a certain age and development before being able to make that choice. We also have vehemently defended the freedom of other religions to practice their faiths because we believe no one can be compelled to become a follower of Jesus—each must be free to choose, without pressure from government or society.
Clay and potter. Potter and clay. In this interpretation, this is a story about our spiritual formation. God is shaping us, and even when we resist, God does not give up. So we sing in the old hymn:
Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way!
Thou art the potter, I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after thy will,
while I am waiting, yielded and still.
And so we pray:
Change my heart oh God, Make it ever true.
Change my heart oh God, May I be like You.
You are the potter, I am the clay,
Mold me and make me, This is what I pray.
Change my heart oh God……
Ashtrays, Take II
To continue my point, allow me the indulgence of returning to my earlier illustration of my own illustrious career as a potter. When I (as a child) sat down with a cube of clay, it was going to end up being an ashtray. It really didn’t matter how dry or wet the clay was, whether it was coarse clay from the ground or fine clay from an art supply store. These things affected how the clay could be worked, and even the specific form the ashtray ended up taking. Some ended up bulky and small; others thin and fine like china—OK, not fine like china, but certainly delicate. But they were all ashtrays.
I think it is similar with God. We may work against God’s intentions for shaping us, but the clay will be shaped into something desired by God and useful for God’s purposes. God’s plan that I be an ashtray has never wavered; but I have certainly affected what kind of astray I might be.
I don’t know about you, but I find great encouragement in this persistence of God’s—that God keeps trying no matter how stubbornly I refuse to comply with God’s experienced hand. And I recognize that I am not yet done being shaped. As another song from my youth proclaimed:
Kids under construction—Maybe the paint is still wet.
Kids under construction—The Lord may not be finished yet.
Clay as God’s Plans
This is all a wonderful picture of God’s love and faithfulness, and certainly an inspired (and biblically supported) interpretation. It is a reading I hold dear to my own heart—a heart which remains “under construction.” But it may not be the only reading intended in this text—or even the dominant one.
You see, when we turn a closer eye toward this parable, we realize that God changes this parable mid-telling. At first (in v.6), God suggests the clay is ancient Israel. But as we read on, the clay is identified as something else in verses 7-11. In these verses, the clay is not symbolic of ancient Israel. As we read in v.11, God identifies himself as the potter and states that God’s intentions are what are being reshaped: “Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.”
The clay, God suggests in these verses, is not the people of God. The clay is God’s plan. The clay is God’s desire. The clay is God’s intentions for God’s people.
And here is where it gets sticky for us. Because the Hebrew says quite clearly that God will change God’s mind based on how people act. Listen again to vv. 7-10:
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, 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.
Yesterday, Today, Forever?
Wait, what? At one moment God says God is going to do something and the next “changes God’s mind” and decides not to do it? What about “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever”?
Well, the short answer is “Yes, God changes God’s mind—at least if we believe what the Bible says, here and in many other places.” And that verse in Hebrews 13 will mostly have to wait for another day for a complete unpacking.
What Jeremiah and God tell us here is that the destiny of any nation may be reversed, a fact testified to in our Bible. For example, the nation of Assyria was one of the most brutal and violent in the world up to its time. Its name struck terror in the hearts of those who heard it, for it was a wicked and evil place and they slapped people with fishes—at least in one movie version. They were so bad that even God’s prophet Jonah didn’t want to have to go. But go he did, eventually, and they repented. So God reshaped God’s intentions for them, having determined the judgment was no longer necessary.
Similarly, ancient Israel, to whom Jeremiah finds himself speaking, had a bright future—once upon a time. They were going to be God’s people—a light to the nations. They would be blessed, and God would render justice out of Jerusalem for all of time. The lineage of David would continue unbroken on the throne of Israel forever and ever. But in response to their unfaithfulness, God reshaped God’s intentions for them. God changes God’s mind. They would be carted off to exile, transformed into slaves, and be dispossessed of everything they knew and loved.
But if I may be so bold as to suggest, the fact that God changes God’s mind should not surprise us. Nor should we see it in conflict with Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
Without getting into the context of that verse (that’s another sermon for another day), I think the perceived conflict for us is one of scope and perspective. What I mean is that if we focus on God’s intended judgment, then it makes it look like God is doing something radically different when God stays God’s hand and does not execute that judgment. When we focus on judgment, we think God’s plan is the judgment. But God’s plan is not judgment but salvation. God’s plan—as we read in John 3:17—is not condemnation but love. Judgment is only a means to an end.
That end—God’s ultimate desires for all of creation—is unchanging. From the first breath of creation to the Last Day, God’s ultimate desires remain the same: yesterday, today, and forever. God takes the long view. And therefore the means may change while God’s ultimate desire—God’s plan if you will—stays the same.
God’s Dance Party
In this, God invites us—in our free will—to a dance of sorts. We act, and God responds. God shows us a glimpse of what is coming, and we either change or suffer the consequences. And through it all, God continually shapes and reshapes God’s intentions for us, adapting and responding to our choices, using God’s endless creativity to discover new ways of molding God’s intentions for us so that we will ultimately fit in God’s new creation.
There should be some hope we find here as well, for in this reading we see that God’s “grand design” for us and creation has not changed, and that God is eternally persistent and infinitely creative in bringing us there. God is shaping and reshaping all of creation in order to guide us toward choosing God’s future rather than our own. At no point does the Potter throw away her stubborn clay, nor does God throw away any hope for us. Instead, the Potter will continue to work and rework the clay, as God beckons us with God’s love and grace.
But don’t take my word for it: I’m just an ashtray—or I will be some day. But with God working the clay of my life, with God’s infinite creativity and endless persistence, I know that one day I might be the greatest ashtray ever. Not the prettiest, obviously. Not the most delicate, certainly. Not the strongest, without a doubt. But the perfect instrument for catching the ashes of lives burned by this world and holding them in God’s love. One day, by God’s love and grace, I will be fully formed.
It is with the same love and grace that I beckon you this morning as well. I believe God has been shaping your life, so that you would choose to be right here, right now. So you would experience worship this morning, and so you would hear these words of life. I believe God has been shaping your life, so you would learn that God loves you and desires good things for you. So you would know that God is here, in the trenches, with dirty hands, clay smeared on his forehead, working to make something beautiful out of your life. I believe God has been shaping your life, so you too might believe in God’s tomorrow, today. And so you might discover your purpose and form as well.
If you feel God pulling at your heart this morning, please come forward during our closing hymn. And please don’t delay. Not because God is eager to zap you for your unfaithfulness, but because God is eager to shape new possibilities for your life—new hopes and new dreams. Because God has never given up on your becoming what God has always dreamed you can be. And God can’t wait for you to start learning just who that is.