Let us pray.
O God, help us to attend to your Word with understanding, to receive it with faith, and to live by it with courage,
for the sake of Jesus Christ, Amen.
‘Then the word of the Lord came to me:
“O house of Israel,
can I not do with you as this potter has done? says the Lord.
Behold like the clay in the potter’s hand,
so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
The art of pottery has not changed much for thousands of years. What Jeremiah saw at the potters house is very much what he would see in a pottery in today’s world. Pottery is a very ancient art. And the standard of pottery in Jeremiah’s time was very high. The prophet would have seen a potter working clay on a top round stone, connected to a larger and lower stone that would have been turned using the feet, or turned by an assistant. Pottery in Jeremiah’s day was not glazed, but is was coloured. Archeologists have heaps of evidence of what ancient pottery was like, because pottery lasts and lasts. In fact, archeologists use pottery for dating what they find in their diggings. It is as accurate as carbon dating.
Of course, we all use pottery every day. And there are many potters in New Zealand. For instance, In the Nelson district there is a pottery trail. I had a cousin, Dianne Wishart, who was a potter in Golden Bay – she and her husband Barry owned and operated a pottery called “Decorator Pots, not far from Collingwood. Here are two of their works.
Over forty years ago I knew a potter who lived next to St. Margaret’s College in Clyde Street. His name was Ossie Stevens. He was a leading light in the artistic community in Dunedin, and his pots and ceramic works were appreciated and admired by people far and wide. Some of you may remember him, and even own some of his work. His wife was an actress and had been a member of the New Zealand Players.
The Stevens were both very loyal members of Knox Church, and that is how I came to know them. They were very gracious and hospitable people and great conversationalists. I greatly enjoyed my visits to them when I was the Assistant Minister of Knox.
One day I asked Mr. Stevens about what he experienced as he created his pottery.
He said that he had had his wood-fired kiln in his back yard for seventeen years, and that he was still struggling to understand it. After creating his pieces of pottery on his wheel, and after colouring them and applying glazing, he would place them in his kiln. Then came the placing of the wood in the kiln, and the lighting of the fire. Then the waiting for the fire to do its work.
Only after the kiln was cool again could he discover the results of his work. He said that he would be in a state of nervous excitement as he approached his kiln after a firing. Until he picked up each piece and examined it, he would not know how the firing had turned out. He said that the whole creative process was like the birth of a child. He felt elated when the pieces turned out well. And he felt despair whenever a piece did not turn out well or was spoiled. Soon after emptying his kiln of new pottery, he would feel exhausted from his creative efforts, and then fall into a state in which he could not create any pottery. That state could last for a month or more. Eventually his strength and creative energy would return. He would learn from what had not gone well in his latest firing. His mind would fill with new ideas about how he could improve the performance of his kiln. He would be excited when new ideas came to him for what he could create through his next firing.
Our text likens God to a creative potter. “Behold, like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” Jeremiah perceived God’s creative goodness in forming Israel into a people during the Exodus. In that process, the people were like clay in God’s hands. God rescued the people from slavery in Egypt, and lead them through the desert, where he fed them and gave them water. There in the desert, God made a covenant with the people, mediated by Moses. God promised to be their God, to guide, protect and bless. The people promised to worship only God, and to live by God’s laws.
This took creative work and effort on God’s part. And like Mr Stevens being very devastated when a piece of pottery did not emerge from the kiln as he wanted it to be, so God was grieved when Israel rejected him and went off after other gods, the baals of the Canaanite fertility religion. After the settlement in the promised land, the people became unfaithful to God. They worshipped idols, worthless gods, and so became worthless themselves. Their glory departed from them. The Israelite community fell apart. There was no justice or fairness in Israel. The rich exploited the poor. Selfishness and greed reigned. The covenant between God and the people was no more.
Jeremiah proclaimed that because of Judah’s sin against God, God would punish the
People. A terrible foe from the north would overrun Judah and Jerusalem, and leave them in ruins. The temple would be destroyed. There would be great suffering.
But because Israel was like clay in the potter’s hand, all would not be lost. God would take the clay that had resisted his creative efforts, and he would remake Israel. God would make a new covenant with her. God’s good purposes for his people could not be destroyed by Israel’s disobedience.
Our text is really a comfort to us, as we struggle to be loyal to God and follow Christ’s way of loving service to others. We know that sometimes we are like clay that is defective – clay which spoils the potter’s intentions. There are many ways in which clay can resist the potter – it can be gritty, or too wet or too dry, or unsuitable for the shape of the pot being fashioned in the wheel. There are many ways in which we can disappoint God, the divine potter.
But we are clay in God’s hands. When we disappoint him, God does not reject us or throw us away in anger. No matter how often we disappoint God, and are unfaithful to God, God is always faithful to us. When we fail God, God refashions and recreates us. This is an experience we have every time we worship God.
In our prayers of confession, we confess our sinfulness to God – our imperfections, the wrong things we have done and the good things we have neglected to do. And through Christ we experience the forgiveness of God. We feel our guilt being lifted. We can go on again as God’s people. God never gives up on us
In my years of parish ministry there were Sundays when a service would not go well for various reasons. The sermon would not catch the attention of the congregation. On Monday I would feel despair. But then next Sunday loomed large on the horizon. And God’s creative goodness was there in the scripture for next Sunday, and the inspiration would flow again. God never abandons us. We are always in his hands, no matter how badly things have gone for us.
Then the word of the Lord came to me:
“O house of Israel,
Can I not do with you as this potter has done?
Behold, like clay in the potter’s hand,
So are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”
Rev Peter Wishart