Sunday, August 7, 2011

Shaped By the Potter's Hands

1The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:  2“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.”  3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.  4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.  5Then the word of the LORD came to me:  6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.  7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.  9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.  11Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem:  Thus says the LORD:  Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.  Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.  12But they say, “It is no use!  We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.”  13 Therefore thus says the LORD: Ask among the nations:  Who has heard the like of this?  The virgin Israel has done a most horrible thing.  14 Does the snow of Lebanon leave the crags of Sirion?  Do the mountain waters run dry, the cold flowing streams?  15 But my people have forgotten me, they burn offerings to a delusion; they have stumbled in their ways, in the ancient roads, and have gone into bypaths, not the highway, 16 making their land a horror, a thing to be hissed at forever.  All who pass by it are horrified and shake their heads.  17Like the wind from the east, I will scatter them before the enemy.  I will show them my back, not my face, in the day of their calamity.                                 Jeremiah 18:1 - 17 (NRSV)
You’ve probably seen The Bill Cosby show.  Reruns will be on as long as “I Love Lucy”.  One of his quotes that became an American household idiom was when he was having a conversation with his son, Theo.  Theo didn’t want to go to college; Cosby played Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, and he wasn’t about to hear his son’s unacceptable plans.  He told him:  “You know, I brought you in this world, and I can take you out. And it don't make no difference to me, I'll make another one look just like you."[1] 
Although Cosby is really funny, anyone who has, or is parenting a teenager understands the drive behind such a tirade – Dr. Huxtable loves his son and doesn’t want him to make a mistake that will put a hurt on his future.  But what the teenager hears is, “I’m the parent, I am in charge; you are a twit!”
We can also miss the parenting genius of God when all we focus on is the deep water we’re treading through, and keep asking “WHY GOD – what did I do to deserve this; WHY ME?”
God sent Jeremiah down to the potter’s house to watch the “pottery lesson video” – pictures of how God was going to deal with the nation of Israel.  It’s a great lesson of God’s care and direction.  It’s a good lesson for us today as we remember how God’s hands shape our lives, and how that care is the essence of the word “love”….all on the potter’s wheel.
Consider the Pottery Lesson
So we’re on the same page about what this lesson teaches in the broad stroke, here is the essence of this text:  Substitute yourself for the nation of Israel on God’s pottery wheel…in the phrase our potter-friends use, you’re about to be “thrown”.  And being thrown is what happens in the process of living when you surrender to God’s will.  It’s not that God promises an easy life; it is that God promises an eternal life of purpose and real joy.
Let’s look at the “tools” God uses in shaping us for the best life possible, both for our good and His kingdom:
The Wheel
In Jeremiah’s prophecy the wheel stands for God’s natural, created order.  Think of this earth as the spinning stone.  We “lumps of clay” have been plopped down on God’s wheel in our birthday suits; we’re totally-dependent on everyone and everything.  The fact that we’re usually crying our eyes out when that happens is a pretty accurate forecast of the struggle to come.
As we saw in the children’s worship time, centering on that wheel is the most crucial issue – for both the potter and the clay.  Without being centered, the clay will wobble and eventually falter.  It will never become what its possibilities promise. 
Just like the clay centered on the wheel, we must center ourselves in God’s will.  Psalm 119 was placed by the church fathers right dead center in the Bible.  And that Psalm is all about God’s Word and how our lives will be blessed (happy) if we find ourselves there.  Hide it in your heart and you’ll find your steps are well-ordered.
The Water
In this allegory of clay on the wheel, there are forces that affect the outcome.  A potter will keep her hands and the clay wet to help the movement and smoothing process as the clay spins under her hand.  It’s hard to miss the symbolism of our baptism here!  That baptism by God’s Holy Spirit places us in God’s earthly turning wheel, the church. 
That water changes our relationship from friction to friend.  At first there is the fiction of fear; we fear a God who “brought us into the world and can take us out.”  Our baptism changes the relationship to being friends with God, knowing that his hand won’t take us out; it is a guiding hand, ready to mold and shape us into the image of Christ.
There is one factor that can change the whole landscape of this image. God is indeed sovereign; He alone is in control concerning His creation.  But, in God’s sovereign will which is working in perfect harmony with His amazing grace, there is one thing he has left totally in our hands – free will to choose whether or not to cooperate with the Potter. 
If you have never received the water of cleansing it is not too late right this very minute to bow your head and ask for His friendship.  He’s waiting for you, his clay, to center yourself in his hands.  Trust me; life wobbles a whole lot less when you’re in the center!
His Hands
The Potter’s hands get wet and dirty.  There are times when the clay just doesn’t cooperate.  Then, she has to re-work the lump and get those flaws out.  We serve a God who makes no mistakes; when there’s an air bubble or imperfection in the clay, it’s always the clay’s issues. 
Being “re-worked” hurts.  The summer I was 13 the doctor said my knees were disintegrating.  He called it osteochondrosis[2] (I thought he was talking in tongues).  He told me the only treatment was for me to sit down for the summer.  I got angry at my Potter; he’d messed with my baseball plans!  It took years for me to figure out that without the pain which brought me to the doctor, I would have gone on running on those damaged knees, and possibly been in a wheelchair preaching to you today. 
Those hands may mess with your baseball, but they’re skilled hands.  God knows the right amount of pressure to apply to shape you, to bring you up from the inside out.
At times the Potter uses a pairing tool to pull away those bits of clay that spoil a vessel from being useful or whole.  Too often, we lumps of clay want to reclaim the pieces lying on the Potter’s floor – material things, bad relationships or control.  God says, “I’ve got better here.”
And then the hands will also sign his piece.  When Erica and Odell helped me make my very first piece of pottery, they told me to sign it.  So I put my “mark” on it, and everyone who ever sees the underside of it will know Russell made it.  (Odell can rest easy because nobody can ever claim this catastrophe was made by him!)  But in just the same way, God puts his Potter’s mark on us.  He did it with loving hands, skillful hands, wet and dirty hands…scarred hands…hands with nail prints.
The Kiln
Ultimately there has to be some fire applied to a raw clay pot to make it strong and useable.  After all, that is the purpose for our life in Christ. 
My friend Rev. Julie O’Neal, who serves as pastor in the Western part of our state, knows about the fire.  Julie is married to Ross, also a minister.  Julie was finishing up her studies at Duke also this year.  Consider her introduction to the fire this past summer:
·        Ross is starting a Clinical Pastoral Internship at Baptist Hospital, so he and Julie are going to be living separately for the next several months….for the first time ever in over 20 years.
·        Julie’s cousin died the first week of school
·        She had to leave two days early because her child is getting married
·        Midway through this year’s courses she found out she could not graduate with our class because she lacks two credit-hours.
Awhile back Julie gave herself a 45th birthday present – she decorated her wrist with a picture.  Of course, for a pastor, that’s a bit of a conversation-starter!  When asked, she shows how the links form a cross, and she is able to share how that cross is just above the deep vein that runs from her heart to her fingers.  All her blood has to pass under the cross!
And that is the whole point of giving yourself to the Master Potter;
·        When you’re in the center of His wheel it’s all under the blood. 
·        When the water of baptism reminds you that you’re His, it’s because it’s all under the blood.
·        When His hands are smoothing-out the rough places and forming the new places…you’re under the blood.
·        …and when the heat is turned up, and everything’s cooked in your life, it will be OK…because….it’s all under the blood.
And isn’t that why we come to this table…when we’re here we remember that it is all….(say it with me)…under the blood!
In the Name of the Father, Because of the Son, Cooperating with the Spirit…Amen!

[1] Bill Cosby, Himself,
[2] A disease characterized by abnormal differentiation of growth cartilage. Called also dyschondroplasia. It is a common disease in pigs and dogs and is also recognized in horses, turkeys and possibly in young bulls.

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