THE POTTER DECIDES
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4 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.
5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6 Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7 At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 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. 9 And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 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. 11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: 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.
Inspiration and insight can come in the most unexpected places. Jeremiah has spent chapters railing against an unrepentant people. If you read Jeremiah, he, like most who preach, is soon repetitive. No matter how ‘right’ he was (or we are), it doesn’t matter much if no one is listening.
I can easily imagine that for many reasons, the people got tired of listening to Jeremiah. Not only was he saying unpopular things, he was saying the same thing over and over. In ordinary life there are many times that we roll our eyes and say ‘there he goes again.’ (There are some arguments that are so choreographed that I could send the participants to different rooms and they could write the entire dialogue). Listening has stopped. There is just the familiar and predictable point and counterpoint.
Or even if the words are words of kindness, repetition can dull our senses. It happens in worship all the time. The prayers and responses that are part of our liturgy become wrote. Rarely do we let those words enter our hearts. In our daily lives, we often say I love you and receive those same words. But how often are they dismissed because that’s what you’re supposed to say. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, how often have you been completely ignored as you yelled “how many times do I have to tell you….”
Now instead of the usual places we might expect to hear God’s word— worship, in prayer or meditation, a bible study class, Jeremiah is sent to a potter’s house. What an odd thought but in real life, what a common experience. New understanding often comes in unexpected ways and in unexpected places. As much as we might wish it, scripture is not self explanatory. Sometimes changing familiar words call us to examine what we think we know, sometimes God speaks in song, sometimes on our jobs, sometimes from the mouths of children, sometimes in the most mundane of activities. If we have ears to hear, God is always in conversation with us.
Turning to the passage itself, I realized that I only remembered the part I liked. When I recalled this passage, I had a sense of warm familiarity. “I am the potter, you are the clay” evoked images of a creator God turning my blob of humanity into something useful— or beautiful—or both. If I could but remember that it is God who has made us and not we ourselves, I could live in humility and confidence with God. Unfortunately there is more to the passage. It also says: “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.”
Suddenly the passage has a darker, frightening side. The potter can discard and start over entirely at her own whim. No matter what was initially intended, the potter can change her mind about what she is creating. It is one thing to believe in a sovereign God who has created us and chosen us and it is another to face a sovereign God who alone decides our destiny.
Jeremiah realizes that the potter can and does start over. Just because the Israelites were God’s chosen people did not mean they would be protected from political disaster. The idea that the Temple, the house of God could be destroyed was unimaginable. Up to this point, there has been a repeated theme that if terrible things were happening, somebody must have done something to deserve it. The grave political threats to the nation, and ultimately the defeat of the nation had to be explained. A loving God who had chosen the Israelites would not allow such a thing—unless they deserved it.
The problem with explaining pain, death and disaster as a function of our sinfulness is that it puts us paradoxically in charge of God. Our goodness or badness determines God’s willingness to protect and love. In real life, children routinely expect ‘good’ things if they are good. And usually we would rather be guilty (deserving of punishment) than face that we are often helpless. Cancer strikes unawares, children are injured and killed, hurricanes can sweep away cities.
In our Faith in Real Life group, the majority of the people in the group have lost someone very dear to them. I can say with a great deal of confidence that individual (nor corporate) sinfulness did not bring about any of those deaths. While it is certainly true that human sinfulness can lead to alienation, disregard and even great cruelty and holocausts, it is facile and even arrogant to believe that our goodness or badness explains all instances of loss, pain or suffering.
It certainly appears that Jeremiah leaned heavily toward explaining the plight of the nation in terms of its corporate fidelity. He wanted desperately for the people to turn toward God. But later in the book, Jeremiah’s understanding of God becomes more complex. He describes a new covenant where the law is written on our hearts. Relationship with God shifts from external rules to an internal orientation. And later still, he offers comfort to the exiles with promises that their suffering would not last forever. There was hope. Their suffering was hard enough without thinking God had abandoned them.
Concepts like good and evil may appear to be obvious to us but we simply do not know what the potter intends. Certainly from our point of view, we cannot explain why some pots are restarted. What seemed like a good start can go awry. But what was not satisfactory can be reformed. It is really hard to simply stop with that knowledge. We want to explain. We want to understand. Israel had certainly turned from God but the political storm was coming. It is a little like thinking we can defeat cancer with positive thoughts. (As an oncologist friend told me years ago—a good attitude can help you in an athletic contest but if you’re in the ring with a 500lb gorilla—you’re going down.)
All of that said, sinfulness is real and has real consequences. We believe that the way of the Lord allows us to live a life that matters and a life that is eternal. We are perfectly free to lead lives dedicated to power, to lives based on entitlement or lives intent upon security but the Christian faith claim is that ultimately such living is misdirected and wasted. Secularly, you may be very successful but if you do not have love, you are nothing. Our idolization of wealth, self interest and safety will lead us to a meaningless wasted life—a house built upon the sand.
The Israelites were putting their faith in their entitlement. God had chosen them, therefore they would be protected. They were to find out the hard way that God honors his promises apart from what we call good and evil. Perhaps our greatest faith is that God is with us in the midst of great hardship and evil. But that is the story of Jesus.
For Jeremiah, it is the potter who decides. It is up to us to face our limitations our frustrations and our unbelief and realize: “It is He that has made us—-even as evil surrounds us—- as nations threaten, as forest’s burn and the arctic melts and even as people willfully do harm to one another. We might even say he is shaping evil against us but as Jesus demonstrated, the harshness of this world is part of our lives. We believe and trust that God is still present.
In all of this tumult, Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”
Rely on the potters hand. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.