Run With the Horses: “The Potter”

Sermon Series on Run With the Horses: “The Potter”
A Message on Jeremiah 18:1-4

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Nov. 19, 2017
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Jeremiah 18:1-4 (NRSV)

 

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.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4 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.

 

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When I was a kid I wasn’t very good at art. After a lot of hard work I finally could color within the lines, but that was about it. Even my stick figures looked bad.

 

My brother, Dalen, on the other hand, could draw anything. I’m talking like fine art stuff.

 

The only thing I felt even halfway skilled at (but still short of what I would consider competent) was sculpting with clay, or more often, Play-Doh. Now I was still light years from being able to sculpt like my brother, but when it came to art my sculpting was the best of my worst.

 

The trouble was that there was only one thing I could make: a dinosaur. Yep. That’s it. I couldn’t do a cow or a horse or dog or any animal that one could actually see, but I could do a dinosaur. A brontosaurus, to be exact.

 

I wondered if I could still do it, so this past week I went down to our Methodist Readiness School and asked to borrow some Play-Doh. I discovered that they make their own Play-Doh (which saves a lot of money) and they loaned me some. This is what it looks like. (Show picture.)

 

So I went back to my office and tried to made a dinosaur like I did when I was a kid. I discovered that my Play-Doh dinosaur making skills have not improved with time.

 

This is what I came up with. (Show picture.) Now I had to hurry and take this photo because the neck on my dinosaur wasn’t strong enough to hold up its head, and after just a few seconds the head drooped all the way to the table. It made the dinosaur look sad, like this. (Show picture.)

 

Pretty bad, huh? So I decided to just start all over. So I squished it down (Show picture) and started over. The second time around I got this. (Show photo of actual dinosaur display.)

 

No, not really. The second one would have looked just as bad as my first one. Now if my brother Dalen had done it, it would have looked like this. But mine didn’t.

 

My lack of skill in sculpting means that I am in awe with those who can actually do it, including potters.

 

Have you ever watched a potter at work? Someone who makes pottery sits at a wheel that spins around and by taking clay and placing it on the wheel they use their fingers and hands to form and shape the clay into what they want, maybe a bowl or a vase or a cup.

 

To me is mesmerizing. I love watching them do their work. They take what looks like mud, and when they are through and the pieced is hardened in the kiln then what results is really beautiful.

 

In the scripture we read from Jeremiah today we find Jeremiah being instructed by God to go down to watch the potter at work. He does, and while there he saw that the piece the potter was working on didn’t turn out right. Something went wrong with it. So the potter, instead of just throwing the clay away, he smashed it down and started working on it again.

 

The whole point of this was for God to show Jeremiah what was going to happen to the Hebrew people.

 

As we talked about last week the Hebrew people had drifted far away from following God. They still went through some of the motions of being the people of God such as going to Temple, but at the same time they led decadent lifestyles and worshipped other Gods, even to the point of sacrificing their own children.

 

Jeremiah and other prophets tried to convince them to change their evil ways, to turn from their sins and to follow the one true God.

 

After Jeremiah sees the potter with the messed up piece that is reworked into something else he tells Jeremiah this: “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.”

 

Later on in verse 11 God tells Jeremiah to say to the people, “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.”

 

Now there is rich symbolism in the metaphor of the potter.

 

First, let’s look at the raw product the potter uses. It’s clay. Mud. Earth. Dirt.

 

Marshall, Texas became somewhat famous for the pottery made there. There is still a Marshall Pottery company. And just outside of town is a creek named “Potter Creek” because that is where much of the clay came from to make the pottery.

 

Now referring to God’s people as clay has some very deep historical roots. If we go back to the second chapter of Genesis we find God creating humans. He takes dirt from the ground and breathes life into it to create man, whose name is Adam. Now the name Adam comes from the Hebrew word adamah, which means earth.

As humans we have a close connection to the earth. My dad, a lifelong gardener, has always said that there is something spiritual about getting our hands in the dirt. And I must say that of all the farmers I have met in my life (and I have met a lot of them) I have never run across one who was an atheist.

 

We are connected to the earth. Even at funerals we say, “This body we commit to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

 

So there is great symbolism in the clay that the potter uses.

 

There is also symbolism in the creative process. God is the great creator, who made not only heaven and earth and all of creation but humans as well. The Bible tells us that we are created in God’s image, and God is very creative!

 

I believe that God is creativity and that he works through painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, dancers, and writers. But I also believe God is the greatest creator, especially when I see something like all the millions of stars in a clear winter night sky or a beautiful sunrise or sunset, or taste a fresh peach or plum, or smell homemade bread cooking, or feel the hug of a family member or friend, or hear a mockingbird performing a repertoire of bird songs it has heard and learned to mimic.

 

I also believe that the potter and clay metaphor works well for reminding us of our purpose on earth.

 

There are some misconceptions about life. We often tell our children, “You can be anything you want to be when you grow up.” That simply is not true.

 

As you can tell from my photos a little while ago I could not be a sculptor. It wouldn’t have mattered how hard I worked or studied or tried I would not have been successful as a sculptor. And that’s because God didn’t give me that talent or the ability to learn that talent.

 

Parker Palmer wrote a book years ago titled, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. In it he says, “Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God. [Parker J. Palmer. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Kindle Locations 124-127). Kindle Edition.]

 

Now we can fight that. Because we have free will we can choose to try to be almost anything. But it is doubtful if we will be successful (using the Biblical definition) or find contentment doing it.

 

In other words, God the potter wants to make us into a cup, but we keep trying to be a bowl.

 

When you ask high school students what careers they want to have when the get older many of them will reply, “I don’t know, and I don’t really care as long as I can make a lot of money.”

 

If money is our main criteria in deciding a career then I predict and unhappy career. It’s not that there aren’t jobs and professions that pay well or that making money is a bad thing, but if it is your main motivational factor in choosing a career then the odds increase dramatically that unhappiness is on the horizon. There are a lot of wealthy yet unhappy people in the world.

 

As followers of Christ we should understand that God has a role for each of us to play in building his kingdom on earth. In the first scripture reading today from 2 Timothy 2:20-21 we heard Paul’s words: “In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.”

 

Now if we did what the Hebrew people did at the time of Jeremiah we may fight that and seek to do only what we want to do.

 

We create problems when we want to be the potter, not the clay. We want to make ourselves into vessels that we want to be, that the world tells us we ought to be.

 

The trouble is that we are not the potter, we are the clay. We should seek God’s will and be willing to be shaped and formed to the vessels he needs us to be for the work of his kingdom.

 

Now here’s another important aspect of pottery making that I think applies to our spiritual life. When the potter works and shapes the clay on the wheel, it is friction that brings it to shape.

 

The potter will often dip his/her hands in water to keep them moist and thus reduce friction, but the molding and shaping of the item takes place through physical friction. The clay is pulled up and out to take form. And once it takes form it has to go through the fire of the kiln before it can be useful.

 

Likewise in our spiritual lives it is during the tough times that we are molded and formed. When things are great we tend to forget about God. When times are tough we turn to God. I don’t believe God causes bad things to happen, but I believe he allows us to go through them to strengthen our faith. Years down the road we may be able to help someone else going through a similar situation, or be able to be compassionate and understanding toward someone else. We can be God’s vessels of grace and comfort for someone in need.

 

And going through the fire, going through those extremely difficult situations, can strengthen our faith and harden us against the things that draw us away from God.

 

Another thing I think Jeremiah’s description of the potter can teach us is that our God is the God of second chances.

 

When we make mistakes, when we mess up, God can renew us and make us into something better.

 

When the potter is working with the clay on the wheel and something happens and it doesn’t turn out like it’s supposed to, the potter and take the clay and start all over.

 

In a similar way God does the same with us. When we try to control our lives and form ourselves into what our own image is, and we fail, God can take what is left and form them into something completely different and something new. It may take some pulling and tugging, but if God is the potter and we are the clay we can become something better than we can imagine.

 

We can claim that promise because of Jesus Christ. Through his death and resurrection on the cross we are offered forgiveness of our sins and reconciliation with God. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

 

As Christians, as followers and disciples of Jesus Christ, we are a new creation. We are renewed every day.

 

So my challenge to you this week is this: every time you use some type of pottery this week, whether it’s a coffee cup or a plate or a vase or whatever, remember Jeremiah at the potter’s house.

 

Remember that we come from the earth and will return to the earth. Therefore, let’s make every day count. Let us seek to do Kingdom things, not selfish, self-centered things.

 

Remember that God is the potter and we are the clay. He has a purpose for our life and as faithful followers of Jesus Christ we are to discern and fulfill that purpose.

 

Let God mold you and make you into the vessel he wants you to be. It may not be comfortable as he tugs and pulls and shapes you, but it will be worth it. Don’t try to mold yourself. Let God do it. He’s much better at it anyway!

 

And if you ever need someone to sculpt you a dinosaur out of Play-doh… I’ll call my brother.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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