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Reshaped in the Hands of God

Sermon - 9/16/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Jeremiah 8:1-11

We have been looking at the prophet Jeremiah for the last couple of weeks, so we're continuing this morning from the 18th chapter of Jeremiah:

The 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.

5 Then 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.


One of the characteristics of prophets, and this is especially true of Jeremiah, is that they use vivid imagery to convey their message.  Last Sunday, in chapter 2 of Jeremiah we looked at that passage where the prophet speaks of the nation as being 'a nation of cracked cisterns'.  I've always wondered if that's where the whole image of "cracked pots" comes from, that I drew upon last Sunday.

Later in that same chapter, he describes the desire of the people for foreign gods like that of a 'camel in heat'!  Think about that image for awhile -- it's not one I'm sure I want to witness J.  In chapter 5, he says that the treachery has filled the homes of the nation 'like a cage full of birds' -- imagine that kind of activity.  In chapter 8, he says the people are like a vineyard 'that yields no grapes', and 'orchard without fruit'.    

Remember the old gospel song, we sing it here now and then -- 'There is a Balm in Gilead, heal the sin-sick soul'.  That saying comes out of Jeremiah.  Except, in Jeremiah it's not a word of affirmation, it's a word of judgment.  It's a rhetorical question -- he asks:  "Is there no balm in Gilead?  No physician there to heal the ills of my people?".

How about the Battle Hymn of the Republic?  "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.  He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored".  That also comes from Jeremiah, in the 25th chapter.  Only once again, Jeremiah presents it not as a something to shout 'glory hallelujah' about, but rather to shout, cry, and wail "Lord, help us now".  Because the nation, we, are the grapes that are being trampled upon.

How about Amazing Grace?  The last verse "When we've been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun".  Do you know where that comes from?  I don't either J.  Just thought I'd check and see, maybe somebody knew, I was curious J.

The point of all this imagery used by Jeremiah is pretty much the same -- the judgment of God is coming, and it's not a pretty picture.  The nation will be torn apart, says the prophet, 'like a lion rips apart its prey'.  The devastation will be so complete, 'even the birds will flee because there will be nothing left to pick from'.

And yet, all is not lost.  There is still hope.  There is always hope when God is present.  Amen?

That hope is vividly expressed here in this passage in a very simple, common image, that of a potter's wheel.  The Hebrew word for potter is also the word used for 'Creator'.  Remember that image of God in the 2nd chapter of Genesis, that is captured so well by James Weldon Johnson in his poem on creation.  'God knelt down by the banks of the river and takes up a lump of clay.  And there, like a mammy bending over her baby, God shapes that clay into the image of a human being'.

Pottery is one of humanity's oldest art forms.  It goes back at least 3,000 years before the time of Jesus.  If you've ever watched a potter at work, or if you've ever done it yourself, you have that sense -- it's almost a mystical experience of that lump of clay coming up, taking shape.  If you're any good, making a beautiful creation.

In the summer of 2003, Patrick and I went to Nicaragua as part of his completion of 5th grade in the Spanish-immersion program, to see how well they could do Spanish.  We got to visit a village of artisans that make pottery.  I wanted to show you some images of that, to make this more vivid.

[Dan proceeded to show a video and provided commentary]

You can see the little store fronts where they sell their wares.  One of the artisans had us in his home, we got to go in the little workshop behind his home.  His son is illustrating the art of making pottery for us.  Just incredibly gracious people, sharing with us in that way, all of us crowding into watch.

The clay comes from 3 kilometers from this village, and that's why it has become a center for artwork that is being done there, has been done there for hundreds of years.  They use very simple tools, string, pieces of wood to take off some of the imperfections on the side of the pot.  

And I think of Jeremiah, going down and witnessing something like this. And as he is watching the potter work, it comes to him:  Aha!  God is like a potter.  Creating out of a lump of clay.  And when it's not right, when it's not perfect, He mashes it down and starts all over again.  Until God creates what He was seeking.

My favorite was this woman, who doesn't use a wheel -- shapes everything by hand.  Very gracious, sharing with us her experiences and these beautiful pots that she makes.  Our tour guide holding these large pots up and telling us what she sells them for -- $1.50.  

And with that $1.50 that she gets from making these things (that takes hours), she supports three generations in her home.  Dirt floors, no electricity, very simple lifestyle.  Very close to the earth.

This is the image that Jeremiah uses for God.  Maybe it's bad news that sometimes you have to start over.  But hear the good news:  the potter does not throw the clay out.  He reuses it, throws it back onto the wheel, does not quit until that lump of clay has been made into a new creation.  

And therein lies our hope -- that no matter how bad things may be in our lives or in our world, God does not quit on us.  God keeps working with that lump of clay, shaping it, and reshaping it until at last there is that wonderful creation, useful and beautiful.

And I think we all know those who have gone through that kind of transformation.  People who's lives were a mess, destroyed by alcohol or drugs, victims of abuse or tragedy, financial ruin, or a physical or emotional wreck, nothing but a lump of clay.  Until God turns that lump into something useful.  Look at Frank J.

Look at all of us, any of us.  Have we not all had that experience in our lives, those times when it feels like we've made such a mess of things, or maybe through no fault of our own our lives are a mess.  And just when we think it can get no worse, it does.  Kind of like Fresno State in the 2nd quarter yesterday?  God be praised, Duck fans, another victorious day.

There are times like that when we have that experience of being down in the dumps, when it seems like all has gone wrong, that we need to take a trip to the potter.  To watch how that imperfect creation is smashed and beaten and then reshaped into something beautiful, wonderful.

Richard Foster, known for his work in spiritual disciplines, says that "when we feel the deep sorrow, the abhorrence for any wrong that we have committed, it is then that the work of God begins".  "Confession", he says, "begins in sorrow but it ends in joy.  There is a celebration in the forgiveness of sin because it results in a genuinely changed life".

Jeremiah, of course, is not talking about individuals, however.  He's talking about nations.  And it seems to us awfully idealistic, almost a fantasy, that a whole nation can be so recreated into a new form.  And yet look at our history, look at even recent history.  The Berlin Wall came down less than 20 years ago.  When Judy and I lived there, we thought we would never live to see the day.  Apartheid that fell in South Africa, Nelson Mandela in prison, holding to the faith, becomes the first freely elected President of that country.  The Good Friday peace accord in Northern Ireland that ended decades of sectarian violence.  We think that that's something that other religions do, and here were Christians killing each other, bombings, and now the peace that has come upon that troubled land.  

Even in our own country -- the end of segregation that has literally reshaped the South, if not the whole nation, to something more wonderful.

"The moral arc of the universe is long", says Martin Luther King Jr.  "But it bends toward justice".

Over the course of history, I think we see the hand of God at work, continually shaping and reshaping our world toward a more just, a more perfect creation. 

Of course, we are far, far from perfect vessels.  As persons as well as a people.  But the good news is that God is not finished with us yet.

We lament the violence in our streets and in our foreign policy, while we may be in for some tougher days ahead, the good news is that peace is still possible.  Transformation is still possible, because God is not finished with us yet.

Our health may not be what we desire, and our healthcare system certainly is not what we desire, and we may get sicker yet, but the good news is that healing is still possible for us as a people, because God is not finished with us yet.

Our society is not as inclusive as we would hope and like, or as tolerant.  Discrimination based on race, sex, sexual orientation, age, and so forth are still powers to be reckoned with.  We may not win every battle for basic human rights and human decency.  But the good news is we can and we will because God is not finished with us yet.

In the hands of the potter, that lump of clay and a little water becomes a living soul.

In the hands of the potter, a valley of dry bones is reformed into living flesh and filled with the living spirit of God.

In the hands of the potter, those two pennies put into the treasury of the Temple -- worthless by the world's standards -- is recast and lifted up as the greatest gift of them all, because she put in all that she had.

In the hands of the potter, five loaves and a couple of fish are multiplied to feed the crowds.

In the hands of the potter, Saul ,the persecutor of the church becomes the Apostle of Jesus Christ. 

In the hands of the potter, the cross, the most terrifying symbol of torture and shame the world had ever known becomes the greatest symbol of life and hope.

In the hands of the potter, a single voice against injustice becomes God's trumpet, proclaiming the way of the Lord.

In the hands of the potter, swords are turned into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.

In the hands of the potter, September 11th, that day of infamy that we have experienced and speaks to the terror of the world, has been transformed here into a symbol of new life, of interfaith cooperation, conversation, and even prayer.

In the hands of the potter, one life can make all the difference.

In the hands of the potter, your life can be reshaped, reformed, and filled with the life and the light of God.

Will you place yourself in those hands?


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