When my sister and I were kids, we and the other neighbor kids—there were almost a dozen of us at one point—used to spend a lot of time playing in the creek that ran behind our house. One summer, we discovered that in one place in the creekbank there was clay, instead of the sand and shale that were more common. We would dig up that clay and take it back up to our yard, and spend hours making little pinch pots and things. Of course, the clay was really brittle, and when it dried, the little pots we made would crumble. But if we put it back in a bowl and get it wet again, we could make more stuff with it.
We thought we had made an amazing discovery.
And I wanted one of those little toy potter’s wheels that you could buy at the time—but I never did get one, probably because it would have been more of a mess than it was worth, given that I have no patience with the practice it would have taken to learn how to make things with clay, and no real aptitude for just about anything artistic.
One thing we learned with that clay from the creekbank was that you can’t make clay into something it doesn’t want to be made into.
(Of course I don’t mean I believe clay is sentient or able to make conscious choices; but most things in the universe have purposes for which they’re suited and others they shouldn’t be forced into.) That clay was quite happy to be a creekbank, but it wasn’t worth a hoot at being a pinch pot, no matter how much we worked with it.
Clay isn’t a completely passive substance, and when a potter works with clay, it’s a two-way endeavor, more of a negotiation than a one-sided shaping of a passive material—one party in that negotiation may have more strength and power than the other, but the clay does have at least some input into what it’s made into.
In our reading for today, the prophet Jeremiah goes down into the industrial part of town, down into where the common folks lived and worked, and he watched a potter at work. He saw the give-and-take between the potter and the clay. He saw how the potter was trying to make a particular kind of vessel, and the clay just wasn’t cooperating.
Maybe he was making a bowl, but the rim of the bowl kept turning in, and in some places out like a lip. Just when he thought he’d managed to get the clay to do what he wanted it to do, he’d take it off the wheel and set it aside to dry, and he’d watch it sag and reshape itself.
And finally the potter gave up. He took the bowl that refused to be a bowl, squashed it back into a lump, mixed in a little water, and put it back on the wheel. He set the wheel to turning, and now made the clay into, maybe, a little oil lamp, with a place to pour the oil and set a wick, a little handle, and a perfectly shaped lip.
As Jeremiah watched this, his mind might have wandered to thoughts of his people and the message he’d been trying to give them from God since he was a teenager. The people were going the wrong direction, God said through Jeremiah. They continually ran after foreign gods. They oppressed and mistreated the poor and vulnerable among them.
From top to bottom, the entire people was corrupt. They needed to turn around, turn away from the sin that had become a part of the fabric of their culture, turn back to God and God’s commandments. Over and over again Jeremiah had said it, and over and over again the people had not listened—indeed, at one point the king burned the scroll on which Jeremiah’s secretary Baruch had written the words God spoke through Jeremiah (Jeremiah 36:1-28).
Watching the potter reshape the lump of clay that absolutely refused to become a bowl, he realized his people were a lot like that clay. God had made a covenant with their ancestors, had brought them up out of slavery and given them a land to live in—and at every turn the people had not done their part. At every turn God had commanded one thing, and the people ran toward another. God was trying to shape them into a faithful people who could be a blessing to all nations, just as he’d promised to their ancestor Abraham, and the people simply would not be shaped.
And Jeremiah hears the word of the LORD, which he needed to speak to the people: You’re like this clay in the potter’s hands, O Israel.
We aren’t really too comfortable with the idea of God changing, of God’s mind or God’s will or God’s plan changing. About 25 years ago, a group of evangelical scholars published a book of essays called The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Undestanding of God (Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, David Basinger; IVP Press, 1994). They argued on the basis of texts like Jeremiah 18 for the idea that God changes God’s mind, attitude, and direction based on what God’s people do or ask for. They were accused of heresy, and the book became the subject of great debate in evangelical seminaries all over the country, including the one I went to.
The idea of God’s mind changing is something that runs counter to a lot of our beliefs, whether they’re written down or just understood—but it is an idea that is found in Scripture.
Here in Jeremiah 18, God tells the prophet to tell the people that God’s mind is changing about them. God has tried for many, many years to shape the people of Israel into a faithful people who kept the covenant and lived in right relationship with their God and with one another. But, finally, God is giving up.
The clay that is the people of Israel simply will not take the shape God wants them to take, and so through Jeremiah God tells the people that evil is being shaped against them, unless they turn from evil and mend their ways.
So there you have it, people of Israel, Jeremiah said. Because you won’t take the shape God has been trying to give you, now God is going to smash you down, like the potter smashed down the bowl that wouldn’t stay a bowl. Please, please turn and let God make you into what God has always wanted you to be.
Now, we can interpret this text as a call to each of us, as individuals, to turn away from sin and toward God and God’s will for us. Our modern worldview is to a great extent an individualistic one, so it’s no surprise that we, immersed in that worldview and seeing through its lens, would interpret Scripture mainly as “what it means for me.” We seek a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; we make the Good Confession in which we say we accept him as our personal Lord and Savior. Each of us—I hope—seeks to bring our own individual lives more closely into line with what we believe God’s will to be. There’s nothing wrong with that…except if we stop there.
The problem is, while we may be immersed in an individualistic worldview, the worldviews of the writers and earliest readers and interpreters of the Bible were not so individualistic. They would not have approached every single text with the question, “What does it mean for me personally?” Certainly there are texts in the Bible that can and should be interpreted as speaking to individuals about their own individual lives and decisions. But not all Scripture is addressed to individuals.
Sometimes, and this is especially true in the prophets, a text is addressing a community, even a nation. Today’s text is like that, and it’s important for us to be aware of that as we try to interpret how God is speaking through it today. When we seek to apply this text to today’s realities, the question we’re going to ask is not, “What does this mean to me and for my decisions?” but “What is God saying to us as a people?”
It’s actually really easy to see that this isn’t a text about our own personal, individual lives. It’s not always this obvious; but here Jeremiah starts out by saying that God is speaking to the “house of Israel,” and later it says that God told him to go and speak God’s words to “the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” And as the image is being explained, it is repeatedly noted that this is about the fate of a nation as a whole based on whether it does evil or good, or turns from evil and remains true to the covenant God has made with that people. Our interpretations and applications of this text probably should be as for a group of people, perhaps our own nation, or even the world as a whole, in this interconnected age.
As Jeremiah watches the potter struggle to get the clay to do what he wants it to do, finally giving up and smashing it down, then reworking it into another shape he finds pleasing, he makes the connection between what he sees and what God wants the people to hear.
People of Israel—people of America, people of Earth—this is a two-way street. God has been good to you; but you continually rebel. So God is going to smash you down (if you don’t turn from your evil ways—that if is important to hear, too).
If clay had feelings, I’m sure it would find being smashed down and reworked not to be terribly pleasant. For the people of Judah it was going to mean having their capital city and their temple destroyed, and many of them were taken into exile in Babylon.
Through Jeremiah God gave the people the chance to turn toward God and away from evil. But in the verse that comes immediately after today’s reading, the people respond, “It’s no use! We will continue to do what we want.” It’s not clear to me whether the people say this because they just plain don’t want to stop doing evil, or whether they are convinced they’ve gone too far to be able to turn around.
If the second option is the true one, it’s that much more tragic—because Jeremiah is telling them that indeed God is ready to restore them if they would just turn toward God. So they seal their own fate. God, whom we know from other prophetic writings, such as other parts of Jeremiah and the 11th chapter of Hosea, is heartbroken at the people’s refusal to be faithful to the covenant, will smash them down.
At first glance, this is a word of judgment. Do what God tells you, or God will punish you—in this case, God will send the Babylonians to conquer you and carry you into exile. It feeds into the impression too many of us have of God as portrayed in the Old Testament—nasty, jealous, angry, just itching to smash something or punish someone. But that impression runs contrary to what God says about God’s self in the 34th chapter of Exodus—and this formula is repeated throughout the Hebrew Bible and then applied to Jesus in the first chapter of John: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…”
If our text for today is the word of the LORD, who self-described in this way, then there has to be a word of grace here—and there is.
Remember what happened with the clay that wouldn’t take the shape the potter intended. Yes, the potter had to destroy that vessel. And so the people would end up being destroyed, conquered, exiled, brutalized, their city and God’s temple ruined.
But notice that the potter doesn’t throw out the spoiled vessel like garbage. He doesn’t give up on that lump of clay that wouldn’t take the first shape. Instead, he smashes it down so it can be reworked into a different shape, still one that pleases him, but different from what he planned at the beginning.
And in the same way, God doesn’t throw away God’s people. Yes, the people of Judah go into exile, but they aren’t abandoned there, even though at first it seems that way. No matter how often we break the covenant God has made with us, God never does, and God continually seeks to mold us into faithfulness.
While the people are in exile, and they absolutely cannot return to the life they’d lived before, God begins to reshape them. My Bible as Literature professor in college said it this way: They went into exile as Israelites, and they came out as Jews. It was in exile that the Jewish faith Jesus knew, the ancestor to the Jewish faith as we know it today, not to mention the Christian faith, began to take shape. It was in exile that the people finally began to understand the value of the Sabbath, and of Passover; and it was there that the Bible began to come together.
That’s the word of grace in this text, and it’s a word of grace for us today as well. Because just as God didn’t give up on the people of Israel, even though they had to be destroyed and then remade, God doesn’t give up on any of us, on any of God’s peoples, either.
God’s ultimate will was to fashion a people who would love God as God loved them, who would be faithful to God as God was faithful to them. God had worked among the people to that end for centuries, and the people simply would not take the shape God wanted. So God let them be destroyed so they could be remade. The new shape was different from the old, but it was pleasing to God.
Right now, in the midst of pandemic, a whole lot of what was familiar to us is gone. Just jumping in the car and going to visit family isn’t the same; we have to think it through very carefully, and depending on where we’re going and what we might encounter on the way, we may not be able to go at all. The conference I usually attend in the fall at Friends University in Wichita isn’t happening this year. Mike and I haven’t been out to eat since March—we’ve had takeout, but we haven’t gone and sat in a restaurant to eat, not even on my birthday, when we usually did before the pandemic. There’s a lot of discussion going on right now about whether and how schools should reopen.
The pandemic has laid bare a lot of problems in our society that we’ve been able to ignore up till now—like how the way we work makes it all but impossible for families, especially women, to have jobs and take adequate care of their kids, like how many of us are one paycheck away from disaster and thus must choose between going to work sick and not being able to pay the bills.
I don’t mean to imply that Covid-19 is a punishment for our sins, our country’s sins, our world’s sins. I just don’t believe God works like that, based on what I see in Scripture and in the life of Jesus. But is it possible that God is at work in the midst of our current situation, reworking us and reshaping us so that we come out the other side more faithful to the covenant, and more just in the way we do business as a society?