Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 18)

Text: Jeremiah 18:1-8
The Lord said to me, "Go down to the potter's house, where I will give you my message." So I went there and saw the potter working at his wheel. Whenever a piece of pottery turned out imperfect, he would take the clay and make it into something else. Then the Lord said to me, "Don't I have the right to do with you people of Israel what the potter did with the clay? You are in my hands just like clay in the potter's hands. If at any time I say that I am going to uproot, break down, or destroy any nation or kingdom, but then that nation turns from its evil, I will not do what I said I would.

The potter and the clay

Jeremiah was called to be a prophet of God at an early age. He was a sensitive man who loved God and who loved his people but hated to speak God's word of judgement on his people. Regardless of his feelings the Word of God was like a fire in his heart and he could not hold it back.

The Old Testament prophets use some wonderful imagery to get across God's Word to his people. The Book of Jeremiah is no exception to this. Letís try to imagine what is happening in our text today.

We arenít told what Jeremiah was doing at the time God spoke to him but good chances are he is on his knees in prayer.  Heís not the most popular guy in town because his preaching has upset so many people including the king. His message is blunt about the sin of the people and the judgement of God on their sin. Because of his unpopularity his bank account is meagre.  So we find him in a simple, one roomed, dirt floor house, with a narrow cot in one corner of the room, a low table and a mat in the other.  Even though he copped a fair bit of abuse and bad treatment from the locals as he delivered God's message, he was cut deeply when they rejected God's warning. He witnessed God's chosen people being led as captives from the ruins of Jerusalem.  

As Jeremiah was praying, he felt a finger poking him in the shoulder.  "Jeremiah, Jeremiah, listen to me carefully. I've got a job for you... Go down to the potter's house, and there I will give you a message.  Off your knees, Jeremiah, get going".

And so Jeremiah heads off down the street to the potterís workshop. Iím sure the potter must have wondered what Jeremiah was doing in his workshop. He knows who Jeremiah is and the reputation he has. But business is business. He knows Jeremiah doesnít have much money but thereís no harm in letting him watch as he made another pot. Who knows?  Maybe others will come in and buy something.

He sits at his potterís wheel and takes a lump of clay. He works the clay to get rid of any lumps and unwanted bits. He plonks it on the wheel as the wheel goes round and round the pot takes shape. The scraps are thrown into a bucket. But as the pot takes shape something goes wrong. The pot collapses.

The potter is faced with two choices - to curse and swear at this unruly lump of clay, or to mash it down and start all over again. This sort of thing was a part of a normal dayís work so he squashed the clay down and remoulded it into a fine pot for the kiln. The extra pieces in the scrap bucket are not garbage to be thrown away. They are mixed together and put on the wheel to make another pot.

Nothing is ultimately a failure, nothing is wasted.

Jesus used parables/stories to get across to his listeners important truths they needed to know about God and his kingdom. Here Jeremiah witnesses a parable that explained to him Godís attitude toward his people. The message of this parable is as much for us as it was for Israel in the time of Jeremiah.

God is a master craftsman when it comes to making people. In Godís hand common clay can be transformed into something truly remarkable.

Even though God is a master craftsman the task of moulding humanity is a particularly difficult one. In moulding humanity God has granted the clay free will. Think about it? Think about making a pot from clay that has a will of its own! In the hands of the inexperienced potter it might seem that clay does have a will of its own but that is just an allusion. Clay in the hands of God, the master craftsman, is given a will of its own. God wants us to become beautiful and useful vessels, not to carry water or hold food, but to carry the good news of his love, forgiveness, care and purpose for humanity. He gives his creation a will that is designed to do just that.

Sometimes things go wrong.
sometimes it is those around us and worldly attitudes that mould us into shapes that are not the shape God wants us to be,
sometimes it is because of a conscious choice we have made and we refuse to allow God to mould us,
sometimes it is because events and disasters in our lives have overwhelmed us and we no longer feel the hands of God around us,
sometimes it is because we have lost our way as disciples of Christ and no longer believe that Jesus has a total claim on our lives and that loyalty to him takes priority over everything else as we heard in the Gospel reading today.
However, regardless of the reason we go astray,
God is always there wishing to reshape and remake and renew us; to make us into the beautiful people he intended us to be.

Sometimes the only thing God can do is to break the clay down into a lump and start again.
This is what Jeremiah warned his people about.
Because of their wilfulness and greediness, because of their arrogance and tolerance of injustice and idolatry, God would need to break them down; otherwise they would never reach their potential as his chosen people. God would demolish them, not to throw them on the rubbish heap but to start once more from the beginning.

It is okay to be broken down by God.
Itís not a comfortable experience, even in such loving hands. It had to happen to Israel as a nation and it happens to many of us as individuals. We do need to be broken down by God, and to let the master start again remoulding us.

God does this through speaking his clear Word to us that defines what kind of people we ought to be. It could be an application of the Ten Commandments or Jesusí radical interpretation of God's will for our lives that brings to our attention our brokenness in our relationship with God and the people in our lives.

It could be that our hearts have been hardened by a lack of forgiveness. God smashes us down with "Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?" "No, not seven times, but seventy times seven". These words remind us how stingy we have been with our forgiveness and let self-righteousness and indignation dictate how we treat those who have offended us.

Or maybe our speech has been anything but kind and caring and God smashes us down with "Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed" (Eph 4:29).

Or it could be that we have let other things or people or activities come between us and our worship of our God and Saviour or we have let our loyalty and commitment to Jesus be compromised and God smashes us down with the words we heard in the Gospel reading, "None of you can be my disciple unless you give up everything you have" (Luke 14:33) or with the words of biblical command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind.

Or maybe we have become self-centred and selfish and refuse to offer help to those in need. We hear God smash us down with "Help carry one anotherís burdens, and in this way you will obey the law of Christ" (Gal 6:2).

Like the wobbly pot on the potterís wheel we are imperfect and not the beautiful creation the potter intends us to be. Our flaws are clear, our blemishes are exposed, our weaknesses and defects are laid bare by the Word of the Lord. Itís clear that the potter needs to start again.

This starting again begins with trusting in God and turning to him in repentance. Repentance is a painful business. It strikes not just at our comfort but at our pride. It is admitting that what we have made of ourselves is not good enough. It is letting go of the familiar, the distorted shape of our lives, and going back into almost obscurity (like a shapeless lump of clay). It is becoming a nobody that we might, by the mercy of God, become really somebody - a somebody who is made a joint heir with Jesus Christ Ė a somebody who in God's eyes is about as perfect as anyone can be because of the blood of Jesus.

Our repentance is really a work of the potter as he begins to reshape us and mould us into something beautiful and new and perfect. Itís not just a matter of patching up the old pot and trying to make it good enough to sell but itís a matter of smashing down the clay and with careful strong fingers God takes our rough clay and makes something new.

Our God is an incredibly patient potter. I would imagine that if any of us were to have a go at making a pot clay and the clay didnít do what we expected it to do or because it was too wet or too dry or too crumbly we would lose patience, throw the whole lot in the garbage and get a fresh lot that might be more successful at being what we intend it to be.

Our God is not a throw away God but one who seeks to redeem that which has gone badly wrong. God does not give up on us but tragically, some people use their free will to give up on God. God does not discard them, they discard God. They choose a misshapen existence. They prefer to be anything but perfect (like the people to whom Jeremiah was sent). Our God is our Saviour who is always willing to start again and again as many times as necessary and gladly makes us into perfect pots.

This message of the potter and of the clay is a beautiful message because it tells us that we always have another chance;
that when we have failed;
that when we have lost the beauty that we should have;
that when we have gone off on a path that is not helpful;
that when we have become discouraged and dejected;
that God can rework us;
that God can salvage us, and make us beautiful;
and that it is God's purpose to do so.

In fact, so intense is God in his plan to remould and remake us that he sent Jesus and the Holy Spirit to renew, remould and remake us. He forgives our weaknesses and flaws. In Jesus he even takes on the form of a lump of clay and becomes one with us and makes it possible for us to repent, to turn around, to be remade into what God intended us to be. It is the Holy Spirit who awakens in us the need to be remade and remoulded and leads us to look to Jesus as the only one who can do it.

No matter what our age may be, or what the cause of our variety of ugliness might be, God wants to save us.  God is a not a throw away God, but a God full of grace, a redeeming God, a God of love and power.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
5th September 2010
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

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