Do you have any hand-thrown pottery at home? I do. I keep it on display, even though only a few of my treasures regularly make it to the table. Whether they are useful to me or not, I treat them all carefully, gingerly washing them after use and returning them to the shelf like pieces of fine art. So, when I think of a potter, I picture an artist. And when I hear this passage from Jeremiah, I envision the art studios I have visited, and the beautiful ornate pieces often displayed there.
In Jeremiah’s time, the job of a local potter was quite different from the potters we see at art fairs. Every village had a potter. Affordable, common household containers were mostly made from clay and people went through a lot of them. The pots weren’t fancy, and frankly, they weren’t particularly durable either. So, for Jeremiah, a run down to the potter’s house was like a run to Target is for you or me. “We need some more bowls. John just broke another one!” The vessels the potter made were utilitarian, simple and with a clear purpose. The potter was always at work, and his sales remained steady.
So, at his arrival, Jeremiah sees the potter at the wheel working the clay. Something new is beginning to form, but it’s just a little off. Maybe the clay is too wet, or not quite wet enough. Maybe the pressure applied to the clay is too strong, or not quite strong enough. In any case, something goes wrong, and this lump of clay has to be reworked. The potter pulls it off the wheel, gives it a good squeeze, and starts again.
Jeremiah gets the message.
You remember Jeremiah, right? A couple weeks ago we read his call narrative, the story of when he was chosen as a prophet. We heard him say, “O Lord, I’m just a kid. You want someone with more maturity and experience for this job.” But God said, “Don’t say you’re too young, and don’t be afraid of the people you must talk to on my behalf.”
So, Jeremiah lands the official God-gig and it turns out there’s a lot God wants this young prophet to say. For starters, God wants him to tell the leaders of his nation that they are horrible people and are doing a terrible job. Then God wants him to warn the whole nation that their communal life is so screwed up that everything is going to collapse soon, and years of misery will follow for them all. Jeremiah is sorry he answered the phone when God called him with this job offer.
The scene at the potter’s shed reveals something new, though. Jeremiah discovers an important caveat in the bleak message God has given him. It doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible that the future which God has revealed to him could … turn out completely differently. The divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel are like that lump of clay. Not fired yet, their story remains malleable. It can still be reshaped to a different outcome.
The oracles of the prophet, the warnings Jeremiah is giving, are like the hands of the potter hovering over the wheel. As that hand barely touches the clay, it applies pressure that can re-form the clay. Through prophetic speech, God’s purposeful touch on the world gives direction for reshaping the reality of our lives. We are created to be changeable, teachable, reachable by the hands that made us. And for at least a little while longer – Jeremiah realizes – the future could still turn out very differently for his contemporaries than the dire predictions he has been delivering. Still the kiln is fired up — time is running out for Judah to avoid impending catastrophe like that already known by Israel.
In the kiln, clay dries, shrinks and hardens in a firing process, setting a permanent structure and shape. Firing also makes the pot brittle and easy to break. But while its sitting there on the wheel, yielding and soft, clay can still be reformed.
Do you remember the clay in the first story of the Bible? How God shaped humankind from the clay and breathed life into our nostrils? In the Creation myth humankind is not rigid and breakable, but flexible and changeable. Scripture highlights the relationship between Creator and creatures which allows for God to continue shaping and reshaping us. God is still at the wheel, assessing our weaknesses, building up our strengths, attentive to the character being formed. When flaws are found, God works diligently to remedy them. We just need to stay soft and pliable.
I am guessing that your first thought is to take this metaphor personally. That is our cultural bias talking, we are, indeed, a pathologically individualistic society. Every sermon I have ever heard on this passage in Jeremiah directs the listener to ask, “What is God doing in MY life, how am I progressing as one distinctive, celebrated person.” The lump of clay we envision on God’s wheel is our solitary, individual life. It’s hard for us to think otherwise. In our current world view each person is atomized into a separate storyline, like a video game with over 7 billion characters in it, and every single one of them plays the hero in the quest. Every one of us as the star, viewing the other 7 billion people as supporting cast. It’s how we’ve been raised up to think.
The biblical worldview is quite different from that. God’s message is almost always addressed to “people” and “the people”, to nations, kingdoms, clans, families. Life is necessarily relational, so the shaping hand of God hovering over humanity is not that of a complicated puppeteer pulling strings on 7 billion separate lives. God judges, redirects and shapes us within our vital life as communities.
In Jeremiah’s vision, the lump of clay on the wheel is not a single person. It is the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel during the time of the divided kingdom. Jeremiah was born into a priestly
family and began his own time as a prophet when he was still a young boy. He was witness to the spiraling down of a once glorious national life and culture under the pretentious and short-sighted leadership of corrupt rulers. When the potter snatches the half-formed pot off the wheel and squeezes it hard, so as to start over, Jeremiah feels the indictment of his people for their intransigence in unfaithfulness. It is not an individual judgment, it is a cultural, political, communal judgment. Then God moves the conversation from the covenant God has with this one particular people, and speaks of nations and kingdoms — plural.
The language is reminiscent of that call narrative we heard a couple weeks ago. God said God would pluck up, pull down, build, and plant as was needful and correct (1:10). Like the potter, God is free to redirect the creative process. If a nation or empire or particular culture has made itself great by neglecting the poor and concentrating wealth in the hands of the elite, building privatized wealth on the backs of the oppressed, God may pull that kingdom down, snatch the clay off the wheel and squeeze it hard to begin the creative process all over again. On the other hand, God may change God’s mind concerning destruction, and in response to repentance bless a clear change in direction. One Hebrew Bible scholar put it this way:
Just as we, the unfired clay, respond to the potter’s touch, to water, and to the wheel, so God responds to us.
And so we see that at the heart of this lectionary passage is the complex interaction between God the artist and maker, on one hand, and, on the other, God’s people, who are like clay in God’s hands, but are also so much more.
God cannot make us do anything. God cannot make us use our gifts or choose the good. Nor can God effect our conversion or direct our lives and our will to a new path and purpose if we do not also choose them. (Anathea Portier-Young, Working Preacher)
There is a form of preaching which is called the Jeremiad. Most of us would probably think of it as an endless, pessimistic and demotivational preacher’s harangue. Maybe you’ve heard sermons like that. Maybe you’ve heard them from me sometimes. The Jeremiad is named, of course, for the prophet Jeremiah. Read the whole book and you’ll probably think the name fits. But I want to rise to Jeremiah’s defense and say there is so much more to his preaching than doom and gloom. In today’s text, particularly, there is a hopeful vision and deep love for his people.
The shape of our character and our lives is not predetermined and unchangeable – we were created better than that. Whether we understand that through the lens of individual agency or larger cultural norms, both personally and communally, we remain supple. We, as individuals and as communities, may be reshaped through thoughtful education and the practice of virtue. Where character may be deformed through exploitation and pride, healing can occur as we practice more godly ways of community life. Just as we are susceptible to temptation, and corruption we are also able to be influenced by vision, aspirational thinking and hope for a better future than the one we are now headed toward. The biblical metaphor from Creation forward that sees us as “made of clay” means not just that we have humble origins, but that we are also resilient, and capable of astonishing conversion.
There are plenty of contemporary prophets warning us of impending doom. From climate chaos to economic disparity, human migration crisis to injustices against the oppressed, many a Jeremiad can be
preached with faithful grounding in holy scripture. We cannot look away from the real and present dangers which face our nation, our culture and our world. But we also cannot lose sight of hope. Hope is in found in our created characteristic of changeability.
The conclusion of today’s lection from Jeremiah has God asking the prophet to speak to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to call them to true conversion. God has planned an end for the kingdom of Judah, that it will fall just as Israel has already done before it. But even this future planned by God is not fixed. Like a potter still at the wheel, God is able to reshape and redirect this project post-exile. But the clay has to yield. God asks God’s people to return – to leave the evil path on which they have been walking. To return to lives of justice and mercy that they might once more live in the land in peace.
May we, too, hear the call of Jeremiah, and yield to the loving pressure of our Creator … who seeks to reform us