Clay in the Hands of God

17th Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 18:1-11; 2 Cor. 4:7-14
15 September 2013
Elizabeth M. Deibert
 
Every summer when our family goes to Montreat, we make pottery.   You can see four Deiberts on the wheels in that photo.  It’s great because you can go, pay for your clay, get assistance from real potters and by the grace of God and some determined persistence, you make something beautiful – and sometimes something beautifully imperfect.   We’ve made bowls, mugs, cups, Iphone holders, and even this chalice and paten for those who need a gluten-free communion.   In Biblical times, pottery was a common craft, one with which most people could easily connect.  There was surely a potter’s house in every village.   Jeremiah uses the imagery of a disappointed potter to express God’s great frustration with his people and God’s ability to mold and remake them.  Paul uses the imagery of clay jars to talk about the glory of God shining through our brokenness.
Jeremiah 18:1-11
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The 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.  Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can 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. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but 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. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 but 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.  11 Now, 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.
2 Corinthians 4:7-11
7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 
Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, wants his people to understand that God has the power to completely re-shape their lives, even to destroy them, as a potter re-fashions clay that is not coming together with the right proportions.
Paul wants the Corinthians, who were obsessed with human perfection in health and strength, to understand that God uses earthen, breakable vessels, clay jars to prove that the glorious power and beauty in us comes from God, and not from us.   And that the death of Jesus gives these mortal bodies of ours their real life.  It is that truth that we so desperately need to know when we watch the earthly tent of our bodies break or weaken or fall slowly apart.    Our purpose is to glorify God, to be Christ’s people – that’s the reality that never dies, though our bodies fail us.  
Perhaps at the pottery wheel, we might come to a better understanding of the fierce determination of God to turn us into beautiful works of art.   God has to start over many times with us, but God cares enough to get frustrated when we are not cooperating with the process.   God cares enough to want the best out of us.   The worst parent is not a frustrated, angry parent but a parent who doesn’t care, a parent who doesn’t try to shape our character into the best it can be.  
My nephew Alex and his wife Kristi are adopting a toddler from China, who is missing a right hand.   She was abandoned by her biological parents because of her imperfection.   God does not abandon us, but cares enough to re-shape our lives, to give us new start.   Just like this little girl will get a new life, we are a new creation in Christ.  We have a loving Parent who does care, who is strong and gentle, understanding and demanding.  This God is busy making us into the people we need to be, even in our most fragile and our most stubborn moments.   
(kneading the clay)
The first thing a potter must do is knead the clay.  It’s called wedging, to remove all air bubbles.   Some might say this serves the purpose of informing the clay who’s in charge, to say to the molecules it is time to cooperate and stick together.   The first step with us and God is to acknowledge that God is in charge of our lives, and not we ourselves.  God is the potter, and we are the clay.
The next step is centering.   (Centering) Centering the clay requires a lot of strength because the clay resists being centered.   A potter has to put elbows on knees to access leg strength as well as upper body.   So it is with us.   We resist the discipline of being centered in God.   We are like the wild, wobbling piece of clay that does not seem to want to settle in the center.   Sabbath.  Worship.  Personal and Family  Devotions.  Service to God.   Quiet prayerful times on the beach or in the garden or in our bedrooms.    Those things get us centered.   We need balance.   We need to be centered by God and it can take a lot of force to get us there.   (Clay well-centered)
Once centered, the potter can work with the pot.   (opening the pot)  And the first job after centering is to open the pot.   Think about that in your life.   After you acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ in your life, after you relinquish yourself into the hands of Great Potter and are centered, then you need to be made open, open to all that God wants to do with you.  If the Lord is going to use you, you must be an open vessel, able to be filled with good things.   
Next the pot must be drawn up.   (Image of pulling up)  We too must be stretched beyond our boundaries, lifted up.   We must expand, in order to become the vessel God wants us to be.   We cannot get spread too thin or our walls get wobbly and might crack when fired.  We need just the right amount of pressure to be drawn up into a lovely vessel that is useful to God and humanity.
(Shaping)  After being pulled up and out, then we can be shaped in a variety of ways to perform many different functions.   Shaped and smoothed.   Sometimes rough places form in our lives.   Sometimes even at this point, the clay can become uncooperative or can be filled with impurities or with holes.   In those cases, the Great Potter of Heaven who longs to make us into wonderfully attractive and useful pots, sometimes must start over and knead us once again, making sure we are centered and that all impurities are being worked out.
(reshaping)  You can imagine how frustrating it would be to be this far along in the process and then have the clay start going the wrong way.   It gets lumpy and then wobbly and then the potter grabs it and balls it up to start over.  Contemporaries of the Prophet Jeremiah and of the Apostle Paul were well acquainted with the process of pottery making.   They would have known the strength and care of the potter, the determination and the patience of the potter.
After shaping the pot, then it must dry a while before the potter returns to trim it.  (trimming)  If the base is too thick, then it is trimmed away, so the pot does not implode in the firing.  If we have more than we need, or if we are too full of ourselves, we too sometime implode.  Sometimes our ego, our selfishness needs to be trimmed back, so we have a chance of coming out of the kiln in one piece.   None of us wants to go through the fire, but think of what the firing does for the glazed pot.   That’s what makes it really beautiful.  (kiln)
We are God’s handiwork, created for good works, made to reflect the glory of our Creator, who loves us enough to keep molding us until we become the earthen vessels we are meant to be.   God takes us in whatever state we are in, and re-shapes us into vessels which are useful and through which God’s glory can shine.   
When we allow God to shine even through our weaknesses, when we give God the glory and accept the love that has been poured into our hearts, those cracks are no longer blemishes but beauty marks.  (human vessel)  Paul says, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels -- malleable, breakable jars of clay, that it may be clear that this extraordinary power comes from God, not us.   Submit yourselves to the loving and firm hands of God, who knows what to do with you, who has a purpose for your life, who can turn you into a beautiful work of art.  Allow yourself to be continually molded by God.  Remember when you see a weakness in another person that God is not finished with them yet.   Pray the glory of God will shine through every crack and flaw in your character.