Come, go down to the potter's house ...
| Jeremiah 18:1-11
||Sun, September 6, 1998
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Jeremiah could never explain it. All he knew was that every so often a Word would come as if out of nowhere. A voice ... a hunch ... an urging that he simply could not ignore. Like the feeling that he had ever since he had woken up in the morning ... the feeling that he must go down to the potter's house. That was the message: "visit the potter ... and then I will let you hear my words". Jeremiah hears the Word of God in unusual places ... and sees God through unusual metaphors. So, he accepts the invitation and pays a visit to the local potter to see what he can see and to hear what God may have in store.
Walking in off of the street it takes time for Jeremiah's eyes to adjust to the dim light. At first he can see nothing. But he can hear it ... and feel it. It is the sound of the clay being wedged. 'Whack' ... 'whack' ... 'whack'. The vibrations run across the floor to Jeremiah's feet. In preparation for the wheel the potter kneads the clay, throwing it onto the table ... 'whack'. As Jeremiah's eyes begin to take in the scene he finds himself humming the ninety-fifth Psalm: 'The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed' (Psalm 95:5). "Formed" ... "ysr" in Hebrew. The word used to describe what the potter is doing before his eyes. "Ysr". The word used to describe what the Creator of sea and land had done long, long ago. "Imagine", thinks Jeremiah, "what it must have sounded like when the Great Potter was wedging the earth. Maybe I am overhearing the sound of creation itself: 'whack ... whack ...whack'."
Jeremiah soon notices that he is not alone. The potter's young children sit in a corner playing with clay. Jeremiah smiles to himself. Even here the children create a place to play. Looking closer, Jeremiah sees what they are up to. Slowly and oh-so-carefully they are creating an entire family: mother and father, sister and brother. There is more ... first a family dog, then a cow, a donkey and even some chickens. "Yes", thinks Jeremiah, "here is the image of God right before my eyes. It is as if they are playing God, bending over in the dirt forming human life from the dust of the ground. And not only humans, but also 'forming every animal of the field and every bird of the air' (Genesis 2:7 & 19)." There is that potter's word again: 'ysr' ... 'to form'. Jeremiah had forgotten how often his people speak of God as a potter. But how could he - or they - forget. 'Adam', that first hand-built clay creation of God - is named for the clay from which he is formed. In Hebrew the soil is called 'adamah'. Another favourite hymn makes its way onto Jeremiah's lips: 'he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust' (Psalm 103:14). 'That's strange", thinks Jeremiah. "God remembers that we are dust ... but we seem to have lost this memory. Nowadays people talk so proudly of being 'self-made' men and women. It is as if they think that God finishes with us the moment we emerge from our mother's womb. How strange."
Out of the corner of his eye Jeremiah catches sight of the potter sitting down at the wheel. Jeremiah doesn't know what it is about the sight of a potter's wheel that mesmerizes him. All he knows is that he can't take his eyes off of the potter's hands. It is something about the way in which the clay slowly changes shape between the fingers of the potter. He had once tried to form a pot at the wheel. But no matter how hard he had tried he could not master it, could not get the pot centred. Watching the potter slowly 'pull' a tall pot out of the clay Jeremiah sees instead God's gifted hands 'pulling' Israel out of slavery in Egypt, forming the disparate slaves into a new people. It is as if those forty years in the wilderness are years spent on the potter's wheel, being turned under the watchful eyes of Yahweh. Israel can never call itself a 'self-made' people. It had been created by God at the Red Sea ... fed by God in the wilderness ... led by God through Moses ... taught by God in the Torah. ... and, finally, brought home by God to the Promised Land. Israel is a product of God's own pottery house.
Still, why has God called Jeremiah to come to the potter's house today? What new Word is Jeremiah intended to hear? Listening to the potter curse at the clay Jeremiah chuckles. Surely these are not the words God has in mind! Or are they? Then, just when the large, beautiful pot seems nearly complete ... the whole thing collapses. The room is silent ... the children stop their playing ... the wheel slowly stops turning. To Jeremiah's surprise, the potter looks at the lump of clay lying before him and quotes straight from the scroll of Isaiah: "You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? Shall the thing made say of its maker, 'He did not make me'; or the thing formed say of the one who formed it, 'He has no understanding'?" (Isaiah 29:16). Jeremiah had never realised it before ... but, of course ... just as God struggles to form Israel into a people fit to represent the Holy One so a potter wrestles with the impurities of the clay in order to shape a useful and beautiful vessel. And, sometimes, the potter gives in and says to the clay: 'You win. Go ahead. Form yourself. I give up'. "Like God, perhaps" thinks Jeremiah.
That is when the voltage arcs through his body. Jeremiah always feels the moment that God's new Word comes. It is as if lightning strikes. His whole being - every cell - feels the intensity of the Holy as it passes through his body. He has just witnessed Israel's future. He has just seen what lies ahead for a people who forget that they do not have the luxury of forming themselves. They are like clay which seeks to be a potter. They imagine that 'autonomy' and 'independence' and 'self-reliance' are the keys to the future. Suddenly Jeremiah sees the devastation that lies ahead for such 'self-made' peoples. Soon the potter will tire of trying to form them into the kind of vessels that are needed and will let them implode upon themselves ... reduced to a shapeless lump of clay. This is the cause of Jeremiah's urgency. He rushes out of the potter's house into the street, determined to tell what he has seen before it is too late. Others soon call any messenger who bears bad news a 'Jeremiah'. They don't want to hear that all their hard work has been in vain ... that their 'self-made' world is about to crumble. But Jeremiah doesn't think of himself as bearing bad news. He calls it good news ... good news because it is not too late to turn back to God ... not to late to let the potter shape and form a people that is needed.
Who knows how such moments of turning occur. How does it dawn on an entire people that they have been travelling in the direction of disaster ... that only by turning around now can there be any hope of life? Ask those who measure the changes in the earth's atmosphere and oceans what it will take for us to pay heed to their dire warnings rather than to ignore them. They don't have an answer. For that matter, how does any one of us come to turn our attention away from making 'the best laid plans of mice and men' in order to turn towards a journey into the unknown wilderness with God as guide? And how does a church stop relying on its assets, on its 'progressive' theology or on the latest experts and their strategies for growth? How does a church, of all peoples, actually begin to rely on the formative power of God? Who knows? What we do know is that life begins when that turn of mind and heart and intention is made. And we know that the turn has to be made over and over again ... day by day ... Sunday by Sunday ... as we discover the strength to resist the powerful forces that counsel us to create a world without God. Coming forward to this Table is an act of turning ... a decision to repent. Here, at this potter's bench, we confess what we know to be true: "O Lord, we are the clay and you are the potter. We are all the work of your hand." (Isaiah 64:8). In eating this bread and drinking this cup we participate in Jesus' prayer: "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done." (Luke 22:42). Gathered under the Cross - sign both of Christ's dying and of his rising - we are surprised by our growing trust ... our growing trust that God intends to yet form a thing of beauty and worth even from such clay as we are made of.