In The Potter’s Hands

Jeremiah 18:1-11

By Ken Dale

September 8, 2013

So where shall we go with this often comforting passage – an image of God as the Potter and God’s people, Israel, as the clay. What is our image of a potter. We are blessed to have one in our presence this morning and we give thanks to Alexsondra for being here. My image of a potter has always been that they are gentle people with sensitive souls. I love connecting that image to God. For if I, and indeed the community of faith of which I am a part, indeed, all God’s people, are the clay in that potter’s hands – this is good. The potter will be gentle and creative with me – and with us. The word “to form” in Hebrew is also the word for “potter.”

Can you envision Jeremiah’s encounter? The potter nods to Jeremiah, his visitor, but keeps on with his work. He reaches into a container by his side and pulls out a moist lump of brown clay, forms it into a ball, and throws it down upon the wheel. The potter adjusts its position, centering it, and begins pumping the foot pedal. The ball of clay begins to spin faster and the potter wets his hands and places them on the spinning mass and gently applies pressure. The clay responds as though it were a living thing. Before Jeremiah’s eyes, the lump of clay begins to take shape. First it grows taller and thinner, then narrows at the base. Next the potter places his fist on top of it and presses downward and his hand vanishes into the whirling mass as he hollows out the inside. Again the potter wets his fingers and then presses on the outside wall of the spinning pot. As though responding to his very thoughts, a lip forms at the top of the vessel. That lip leans out, further and further, until the whole mass of clay begins to wobble.

Suddenly the whole thing collapses, turning inside out and the potter stops the wheel. At the center is just a mass of clay, though in shape it still displays some vague outline of the bowl it almost became.

But it is not the end. In other trades perhaps the ruin of the project would be cause for despair. But clay is a highly forgiving medium. The potter simply moistens his hands and picks up the clay, forming a ball, and again it is centered on the wheel.

Jeremiah sees a symbol of God’s relationship to the people Israel. But his words can be disturbing. He speaks God’s word saying, Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand…at one moment I may declare….that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it….and at another moment I may declare…that I will build and plant it. The central
message of the passage is that Israel needs to turn from its evil ways and if it does not God will shape evil against it. The message is clear that the people need to repent.

I think a healthy understanding of faith is that it is always personal but never private. This passage is very thought provoking if we look at it. We may read it personally – and think about our life’s journey and wonder where in our own story has God used events in our lives to reshape us. Perhaps some moment of crisis is seen or understood as God at work. Are we troubled by the image of God as potter? The notion that God can change God’s mind is clear in the passage. How does it strike us to hear of the Lord’s planning evil toward the people? And remember the original context is to the community – to the nations. The central message is change your behavior.

But what a wonderful image of potter and clay. Bottom line is that it’s all in God’s hands. The recreating is at the will of a God who we know as loving, with us, desiring the best for us and to God’s glory. This has been revealed to us in the life of Jesus. It would be a whole ‘nother sermon – but we might even say that in the life of Christ, the Potter becomes the clay to show us the Potter’s heart and will. (Maybe that will be a Christmas sermon!) But now, how can I not go to that wonderful passage in Romans 8 that says, We know that all things work together for good for those who love God… I have long been uncomfortable thinking or believing that everything that happens is from God. There is so much of life that happens, well, shall we say, due to the nature of the clay? Paul says that we have this treasure in earthen vessels – and earthen vessels are subject to flaws, to each other, and so many things. I do not believe that all the things that cause us to suffer and make less than the best choices in life are from God. I do not believe cancer and disease and untimely deaths are of God. Nor are so many of the world’s ills and brokenness. But as Paul says, God works with that part of human life.

How important to be willing clay in God’s hands. It is my understanding that the potter works the clay to get out air bubbles and foreign particles that should not be there. The potter is intent on creating a useful vessel from the clay. And so God is deeply involved in our lives,

deeply invested in our individual and communal lives. Just as the potter does not work aimlessly, so it is with God. The change God the Potter calls for is the change into God’s design and order – the change is actually an opportunity for faithfulness.

We as God’s people – I believe – are the clay that God seeks to shape for God’s redemptive purposes. We as God’s people, I believe, God shapes to bring and serve God’s purposes of healing, love, restoration, and peace to those broken places of life. The interesting thing about our covenant relationship with God is that we have the freedom in being the clay. We have say in what kind of clay we will be. Open to God’s working with us – or too focused on tending our own agendas. But ultimately God is the Potter and can create of us, and recreate if necessary. How important for us, by faith, to remember that. In those difficult and challenging times both as individuals and community – we are always the clay in the Potter’s hands. Even in the face of judgment there is hope – God can use the discarded clay of misshapen vessels to be remixed and worked into a new shape – a new faith can come forth.

Faith is trusting the Potter – to work even with us – gritty or smooth, malleable or stiff, flecked with impurities or deeply flawed. Are we willing to trust God with our foibles and failures to make a vessel of utility and beauty.

We will continue this theme of being shaped by God in the coming weeks – and as we begin a new year of ministry and mission may we seek to discern what God – the Potter, may be seeking to create with the clay of Second Congregational Church – UCC in Newcastle! Amen.