Those of us who have been reading the book “What Is the Bible” for the Bible and Brew event at Trek brewery have learned a whole lot. Not only only about what the bible, is but how we as Christians should read the bible… An essential lesson Rob Bell is trying to teach his readers… that has come up again and again, is that the bible can’t be read on one level alone.
It is a complex library of many different books, with many nuanced layers of history, culture, and literary style, and if you read only on the surface of what the words of one small verse are saying, you miss a lot of what each author is actually saying.
So before I read our bible passage today, I want to give you some of the context of this passage, to expand your hearing of the scripture.
Jeremiah, is an Old Testament prophet, and as a prophet, his job and his calling is to preach… To tell his community what God is saying in their contemporary context.
Jeremiah is often referred to as the “weeping prophet” because so much of his life, his work, and ministry was expressed as sadness and lament in the face of national, religious, and social chaos. And his calling to preach God’s word in that context often put him at odds against many of the leaders of his time, to the point that he would regularly get death threats.
His home country was falling to the Babylonian empire, the religious authorities were corrupt and preaching idolatry, and to top it all of he was enduring his own personal struggle with deep questions of faith about the nature and purposes of God in both the world and his own life. Jeremiah, in all of his writing comes across as a man against the world, racked with conflict and tension.
And right in the middle of all of that, all of the turmoil of his life and his world, right in the middle of all of his important work… God calls Jeremiah to go and spend some time at a potter’s studio. To watch a potter at work and in doing so, somehow, understand what God has to say to him and to his world… Of all of the ways and options that God has to speak to Jeremiah, God chooses to bring a message, as God often does, through the small, the common, and the ordinary…
One interpreter of this scripture writes:
There is so much God has to say to us about our world, and about our lives. Huge and important issues that God calls us to respond to and to address… But right now, God is calling us, with the prophet Jeremiah, to the ordinary and the common. Right now God is calling us potter’s house. To come, to observe, and in doing so, to see what God has to say to us…
So let us listen or read along to God’s word…
from Jeremiah 18:1-6
God told Jeremiah,
“Up on your feet! Go to the potter’s house. When you get there, I’ll tell you what I have to say.”
So I went to the potter’s house, and sure enough, the potter was there, working away at his wheel.
Whenever the pot the potter was working on turned out badly,
as sometimes happens when you are working with clay,
the potter would simply start over
and use the same clay to make another pot.
Then God’s Message came to me:
“Can’t I do just as this potter does, people of Israel?”
This is God’s Decree!
“Watch this potter. In the same way that this potter works his clay, I work on you, people of Israel.”
A potters job, to an unfamiliar observer, looks simple.
You dig in the dirt, you pull clay out of the soil, you mix it with just enough water for it to be pliable, and you shape it and mold it into everyday usable items like cups and bowls, or artistic beautiful creations.
To the untrained eye… Its looks just like someone playing with playdough…
I think its because Potters who have practiced and honed their craft, have a way of making their work look effortless. When you watch a potter at work, there is an ease and elegance to what they do.
They throw the clay on the wheel, and like magic, they push it one way and the clay responds. They move it another way and the clay moves too, exactly where they want it too.
Their fingers and the clay work in tandem and then all of the sudden walls form, and flare out, and there before you, you have a beautiful, hand-crafted, piece of pottery.
The first time I sat down at a potters wheel was at an art class in college.
We had watched our instructor go through all of the steps to make a bowl. She kneaded the clay, she sat at her wheel, she explained what she was about to do, and how her hands would move to center the clay in the middle of the spinning wheel and then how she would hold her fingers to shape the walls of the bowl.
And then she started,
and in what seemed like less than 10 seconds, she formed her lump of clay into a bowl.
Then we had a go at it.
One person kneaded the clay in such a way that it added too many air bubbles to it… which would have caused the clay to explode in the kiln, so the teacher took her airy clay and put it in a bucket in the corner, and gave her some new clay.
I kneaded my clay too long, so it dried out and was unworkable,
so the teacher took my clay, added it to the bucket, and gave me some new clay to work with.
In kneading alone, each student probably went through about 2lbs of clay, and it was an hour before we could even think about sitting down at the wheel.
When we finally got to our wheels to try and center the clay,
one student pushed too hard and sent the clay flying off the wheel… back in the bucket.
One student adds way too much water spraying everyone in a 5 foot radius with a fine clay mist and making his clay sloppy mess… back in the bucket.
When we finally get the clay centered and start to bravely pull up the sides… your finger slips and there is a wobble in the wall …back in the bucket.
You pinch the clay too hard, and the walls fall down… back in the bucket.
You pull the walls too high and the top folds over.. back in the bucket..
Each student left the first week of class, with one small cup proudly finished on their wheels, and about ten pounds of clay in the bucket.
It seems wasteful.
Pounds and pounds of all of our accidents, and mistakes in the bucket
Pounds and pounds of all of our well-meaning efforts, all of our trial and error… back in the bucket.
The fascinating thing about clay and pottery though, is that all of the clay in the bucket, never goes to waste.
Messed up clay goes in the bucket, watery slushy clay goes in the bucket, dried out and cracked clay goes in the bucket and overtime, all of the clay settles to the bottom, and all of the water separates to top.
You can recover all of the clay back out the bucket.
You can reconstitute and reuse it over and over again.
There is nothing lost. There is no mistake so big that the clay can’t be given a second chance.
And the only thing that stops this process
is when the potter has finally shaped the clay into exactly the vessel she has imagines,
and places it into the kiln’s fire.
The fire hardens the clay into ceramic, its chemical make up changes and it becomes almost like stone, and then it is never able to turn back into its original clay again.
If ceramic breaks at this point, then it is broken. The potter can’t ever reshape or mold it again.
This was Jeremiah’s revelation at the potter’s house.
This was Jeremiah’s message from God for his community… That bucket of clay in the corner.
The world may look like its falling apart, the church and our institutions may feel like they are broken, your life may be twisted up in doubt and confusion
but it is all still clay,
God says “Can’t I do just as this potter does,
you haven’t been put in the fire yet… can’t I take this same clay and remake it”
It is easy at times in our life to feel like we are in our final form.
Like God has already done all of the work of shaping us and molding us… Like we’ve already been put through the fires and hardened into our final form,
and that any cracks or broken places we might find are permanent.
Its easy to feel at times like God has finished all of the work of molding and shaping our communities, our society, and our world, like God has finished his work and put them through the fire,
and like it, we are stuck with them, they have been hardened forever, and there is no hope that they will change.
But friends, This is what God has to say to us today…
God’s creation is not yet ceramic, it is clay…
We haven’t been put in the fire yet… God is still putting us back into the bucket.
God is like the master potter, able to whip up a bowl in seconds, able to move the clay with effortless ease.
But our master potter is a perfectionist… and this clay is still not where it could be…
God is still molding us and remaking us…
Still working on us and our world,
remaking all of it into this perfect vision God has imagined from the start.
So don’t lose hope.
God has brought us to the potter’s house to see this vision for the world…
God is the potter… and we are still the clay…
Whenever we see brokenness, and dried out cracks in ourselves or in people we encounter,
God’s still working is still working there…
when we discover problems that feel insurmountable, or mistakes that seem irreparable…
God’s still molding and shaping that clay into a perfect creation.
Whenever you loose hope, and struggle to trust that God is making all things new…
Go down to the potter’s house… and check out that clay covered bucket, in the corner….