The Potter's wheel
I want to go back to our Old Testament reading this morning because I believe that those words spoken by God through Jeremiah to the people of Judah almost 3000 years ago speak (or should speak) just as powerfully to each one of us today as they did to the people of Judah all those years ago.
Although the imagery used in these verses is that of the lump of clay on the potter's wheel, the message of these verses is one of God's sovereign power over the nations of the earth, a sovereign power that encompasses both mercy and judgement.
To put this passage in its historical context, these words were most probably written in the early 600's BC. The nation of Israel, united under king David and his son Solomon had split into two, Israel in the north and Judah (which included Jerusalem) in the south.
God had already passed dramatic judgement on the northern kingdom of Israel for their sinfulness. Israel had fallen to the Assyrians almost 100 years before Jeremiah's ministry to the southern kingdom of Judah began and Jeremiah was to live to see God's judgement meted out against his own nation as Judah was carried off into exile in Babylon in 586 BC because of the persistent rebellion of the people against God.
God chose to speak these words to a rebellious nation, and as we reflect on our world and our society today, we do well to pay heed to their message.
God begins by telling Jeremiah to go down to the potter's house so that he might receive a message from him and the next few verses focus on the 'relationship' (if such a thing can be said to exist) between the potter and the lump of clay on his wheel.
Now I have to admit to never having even tried using a potter's wheel or even, (despite what my children might think) to remember seeing the famous BBC intermission film about the potter but like any skilled craftsman or woman, a skilled potter always manages to make it look so easy as they manipulate the clay into some elegant shape with seemingly effortless ease.
I just know that if I were to try, rather than produce some elegant vase or even a perfectly ordinary cup or mug or jar, I would just end up with a mis-shapen lump of clay flopping around on the wheel.
However, even a skilled potter can have a bad day, for as Jeremiah arrives at the potter's house and starts to watch him at work, the potter accidentally damages the pot he is working on. And then, as Jeremiah watches, having damaged the pot he was making beyond repair, the potter crushes it back down to a lump of clay and starts again, shaping the clay into a another, different pot.
The point that God is making to Jeremiah through this imagery is that the potter has absolute control over what that lump of clay that is before him on the wheel becomes. As he works away at the clay before him, it becomes whatever the potter wants. However, if the pot becomes mis-shapen or disfigured as he moulds it and shapes it, the potter has absolute power over it and can, just by a few powerful squeezes of his hands, destroy what he has just made, reducing it back to a shapeless lump of clay before recreating it.
Now, as we come to the application of these words, as with any analogy, and biblical analogies in particular, we have to be careful; for there is a danger that we can read more into the words than was ever intended so we need to apply some thought as we seek to understand and interpret them.
As we come to the application of these words, both to the ancient Israelites who these words were originally intended for and to us, almost three thousand years later, it is worth taking a moment to understand what is not implied by this analogy.
We could interpret these words as implying that God is literally just like the potter, shaping and moulding the nations minute by minute, day by day, a very interventionist view of God's relationship with his creation.
That view, sits at odds with the idea that we have 'free will' - the freedom to make our own decisions and our own mistakes for if God is like the potter, constantly in control of his creation, moulding it and shaping it, there is no scope for free-will on our part. We become totally controlled by God and such a view makes a nonsense of Christ's death for our salvation for if God is in total control, there is no scope for sin and evil which are the fruits of freewill.
If, however, we take the notion of free-will to its extreme, this leads us inevitably to the view that God is like the clock-maker who winds up his creation before stepping back and letting it run without any form of intervention. This too cannot be right for such a notion is clearly at odds with this passage which emphasises God's sovereign power over the nations - something that is impossible if God has walked away from his creation (and something that we know he hasn't done because of his dramatic intervention in giving Jesus to live amongst us and ultimately to die on the cross to redeem creation from its state of sinful rebellion).
In reality, probably the best image of God's relationship with his creation is found in the relationship between a parent and a child.
As parents, we give our children the freedom to explore the world around them in order that they discover and learn about the world in which they live for themselves. However, the world is a dangerous place and as parents we need to keep a watchful eye over them to ensure that they don't come to harm. We are about to celebrate the baptism of Amy Victoria. Her parents and godparents will commit to care for and watch over her spiritual and physical well being of in the hope that one day she will come to faith in Christ in her own right and that is going to be hard work for them all.
My one year old daughter takes a great interest and delight in the world around her and the great outdoors in particular but we have to ensure that as she explores, she doesn't hurt herself by virtue of not knowing or realising that certain situations are dangerous. We put guards in place to protect her from obvious sources of danger such as the stairs and locks on cupboards and drawers that contain things that don't mix well with children. The good news is that if she does stray towards a dangerous situation, she is small enough to be swept up and plucked from danger provided that we see the situation arising in time to act.
By contrast the boys, as teenagers, know much better the nature of the physical hazards of the world around them but need protecting from a whole series of other far greater perils (and are far too large to be picked up and rescued by either me or their mother!).
The people of Judah at the time of Jeremiah's ministry had all the hallmarks of a bunch of delinquent teenagers lacking in parental control. If such things had existed back then, they would probably have warranted an ASBO.
As we read through the book of Jeremiah and of the other prophets ministering at that time, we discover that God's people had turned far from God, their religious observance was debased, their business practices corrupt, their care for the poor and needy overtaken by greed and we could continue. The nation was in a mess and sinking further and further into a mire of immorality and godlessness despite the calls of prophets such as Jeremiah to call the people to repent and return to God.
What God makes clear to his people, speaking through Jeremiah in the verses that follow, are the awful consequences of failing to heed the warnings of impending danger, the warnings that they are, as a nation, about to go off the rails and at the same time, by contrast, the blessings that will arise if those warnings are heeded.
Just as if we fail to heed the warning signs we have no-one but ourselves to blame - so the same is true for the nations. I remember once driving across one of the remoter passes in the Lake District and as the road wound its way ever upwards, clinging to the side of the mountain with a sheer drop to the left, the side of the road was littered with signs warning of an impending sharp bend. Having heeded the signs and negotiated the corner safely and staying on the road, there was a sign that just said 'Well you were warned!'
As God speaks to his people through Jeremiah, he doesn't mince his words. In v6, God makes abundantly clear the message for the people - "O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?" declares the Lord.
The warning is stark as Jeremiah continues - "Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down or destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned."
The Lord is spelling it out just about as clearly as is possible - he is calling on the people of Israel, the people he had adopted as his own long ago, to repent and return to him or face the judgement that is due and that judgement is not a mild rebuke or tap on the knuckles but disaster, just as the potter reduces the pot he is making to a shapeless lump of clay.
The whole point here is the absolute sovereignty of God over the nations. Just because the people of Israel were God's chosen people, it didn't exempt them from his judgement but it's important that we remember that God's judgement isn't capricious or vindictive but rather a last resort when, despite all the warnings, all the calls to repent and return to the Lord, the people continue on their path towards self destruction. God's judgement is a final attempt to bring his people to their senses.
If we read on through the Book of Jeremiah we discover that despite the words and ministry of Jeremiah and Isaiah and their contemporaries, the people failed to heed God's warnings and ultimately, in 586 BC, God's threat was realised and the nation of Judah fell to the Babylonians, Jerusalem was destroyed and the people were carried off to begin 70 years in exile. Notice though how the destruction was not complete or total, for a remnant survived and eventually, after the exile was over, Jerusalem was eventually rebuilt, although it was only ever a shadow of its former self until it was destroyed once again by the Romans in 70 AD not to rise again until the creation of the modern state of Israel after the end of the Second World War.
These events should have come as no surprise to the people of Judah, for they had seen exactly the same fate befall the northern kingdom of Israel a hundred & fifty or so years earlier in 722BC - they had indeed been warned.
God's words, spoken through Jeremiah, were spoken specifically to the people of Israel, God's chosen people. These words though, surely apply just as much to us today, for despite what we might think, God remains sovereign over the nations and we are the direct inheritors of God's promises.
We too, are God's people, not as a result of a seemingly arbitrary divine choice in adoption but, far more wonderfully and preciously, for we have been bought by the blood of God's own son Jesus Christ as he died on Calvary's cross to pay the price for our sin and in so doing to set us free.
These words should challenge us to reflect on our lives as individuals, as a church and as a nation, to test how they would stand up to scrutiny. As individuals, are we devout in personal prayer, in Bible study and public worship or do we need to renew our commitment to Christ? Do we need to repent of sin in order to restore our relationship with God our Father, are there relationships within the church community that we need to restore?
As a church (and here we need think in terms of the church locally here in our own community as well as nationally and internationally), do we need to renew our commitment to proclamation of the gospel of Christ, do we need to renew our commitment to sound doctrine within the church, do we need to renew our call to repentance, to turn from evil and to turn to Christ so that we might once again be blessed? Do we need to renew our commitment to the two most important commands, to Love the Lord our God and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
As a nation that once spearheaded the fight against slavery, do we need to renew our commitment to social justice; as a nation that sees an innocent 11 year old shot whilst out playing football, do we need to rise up and drive out drugs and the gangs that seek to control their supply from our streets, do we need to restore hope to the disadvantaged, to give hope to those who have none? As a nation that is contributing to the use of raw and irreplaceable raw materials at a rate that requires something between 2 & 3 planet earths to sustain, do we need to challenge our lifestyles to live more simply so that others may simply live?
My prayer this morning is that, as inheritors of God's promises made long ago, we would not be like the people of Israel and ignore the warnings, but that we would heed the warning messages that are writ large around us, that we would turn afresh to Christ, that our land might be refreshed and restored and that Christ would be glorified in our lives as individuals, in our churches, and in our nation.