Last week I talked about the rise and fall of empire, and the role of the prophet in the midst of corruption and injustice. For Jeremiah, his prophetic stance places him at odds against the religious leaders of his time, to the point where his life is at risk. His home country of Judah was falling to the Babylonian empire; the religious authorities were corrupt and preaching idolatry; and Jeremiah was enduring his own personal spiritual struggle. His life is permeated with conflict, tension, anxiety and sense of doom. I spoke last week about how King Josiah had been attempting religious and social reforms, until he got involved in a geo-political/theo-political act of trying to stop Egypt’s support of the failing Assyrian Empire and is killed in 609BCE. Bruce Birch writes in the commentary Feasting on the Word:
“Jeremiah resumes his prophetic work after the death of King Josiah, who had been working on reforming the kingdom. King Jehoiakim, who assumes the throne, turns out to be a self-serving puppet of Egyptian power, who has no intention of continuing the former leader’s covenant reforms. Jeremiah must resume the preaching and prophetic work he had suspended during the time of Josiah’s reforms, to warn them that God could sweep them away.”
In the middle of this turmoil, God calls Jeremiah down to the Potter’s House to spend some time watching a potter at work – to be in a place where he can hear the voice of God.
There is something beautiful about watching a potter at work. A master potter makes it look so easy, as the potter molds the spinning clay, rounding it out, bringing up the sides with such ease. Potters have honed their craft, making it look effortless. They throw the clay on the wheel, they push it one way and the clay responds. They move it another way with fingers and clay working in tandem; walls suddenly form, and the potter has sculpted a beautiful, hand-crafted piece of pottery.
And yet even master potters will have clay spoil on their wheel and have to start over. There needs to be rhythmic partnership of pressure, because if the clay isn’t centered, it will become misshapen. If clay has too many air bubbles to it, which will cause it to explode in the kiln, it goes in the bucket. If you knead your clay too long without enough water to make it pliable, and it dries out, it goes in the bucket. If you add too much water you end up spraying everyone with a fine clay mist, making a sloppy mess, it goes in the bucket. IF you finally get the clay centered and pull up the sides and your finger slips, you have to start again. The fascinating thing about clay is that it doesn’t go to waste. Messed up clay goes in the bucket, watery clay goes in the bucket, dried out, cracked clay goes in the bucket. A potter doesn’t just toss or waste clay – it goes in the bucket to be re-used. They recycle failed projects into new creations by “reclaiming” scraps of clay from the bucket, and mixes it into usable clay. There is nothing lost. And this is where we find Jeremiah:
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.
There is a thrifty economy at work in pottery. The clay is not thrown out or abandoned. God as the master potter is continues to re-work the clay. There is no mistake so big that the clay can’t be given a second chance. In the 3rd century, Origen of Alexandria called this apokatastasis; meaning
a reconstitution, restitution, or restoration to the original or primordial condition – it is a theology that believes ALL creation will be redeemed and reconciled to God in the end.
When a potter is at the wheel, there is always hope, always opportunity. Even if the vessel is off track. Always the ability to be re-made. Begin again. Re-center the clay. Apply pressure. Rework it into another vessel.
Jeremiah watched a potter at work and recognized a theological metaphor. Jeremiah sees Israel on the wrong track, acting in ways that are evil and unjust, oppressing the poor and forgetting God’s commandments. He is blunt, warning of disaster if they do not change. But if they repent of their ways, God will not bring about the planned destruction. Jeremiah believes in repentance and change.
Can we find ourselves or or our nation or world in the story? Is God threatening to smush us and reshape us? Where are we being called to change, and how quickly? One area that comes to mind immediately is the environment. Scientists are telling us that we must make changes to fend off impending global destruction. We need to repent, to sit on the potter’s wheel to be re-shaped and re-formed and re-worked. There is a poignant photo from a year ago August of then 15-year old Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, sitting outside Swedish Parliament staging a climate strike ALONE. In the past year, she is credited with raising global awareness of the risks posed by climate change, and holding politicians to account for their lack of action on the climate crisis. There are reports of 4 million or more people who participated in the worldwide international climate strikes this past Friday – protests led by young people to demand action to address climate change. And the children will lead us back to the Potter’s Wheel, to become the ones who plants trees, understanding that we will never sit in their shade – that is when we begin to understand the meaning of life. The children will lead us in gun reform as well – perhaps you watched the recent commercial of how kids are preparing themselves against potential active shooters at school. It is heart-breaking.
Changing our ways in regard to climate change and gun reform are just two calls on our hearts to repent of our ways. There are others. If we recognize the need to change and repent, being re-formed by our Potter God can be a hopeful thing to hear, trusting that God isn’t finished with us yet. BUT if we benefit from injustice happening around us, AND we choose to remain in denial, it may feel like a threat and we will act out. Reworking the clay and being re-formed can feel like punishment.
Is there a possibility that we can turn back to our Potter God, to repent as a community, nation, & world, to become less selfish, to turn away from greed, war and prejudice? Can we overcome our addictions, apathy and anxiety? And if we can, can we trust in a God who continues to mold and shape us? There is a choice to make. Dt 30:
“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.
Choose life, so that you and your children may live.”
Choose whether we will be flexible and supple like clay in God’s hands, or if we have already been fired in the kiln, too set in our ways.
Let us trust in the God who is still molding and remaking us. Who keeps putting us back into the bucket when the clay needs more time to be re-worked. 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 is still working. When we discover problems that feel insurmountable, or mistakes that seem irreparable, God is still molding and shaping that clay into a new creation. Whenever we lose hope, and struggle to trust that God is making all things new, take a walk down to the potter’s house and check out that bucket of clay in the corner. The path toward hope is believing that God is not done with us yet. You are still like supple, moist clay; ready to be molded; waiting for the potter’s creative spirit to work in and through your whole life.
“Raised in Clay: Musings of a Potter’s Daughter” Hannah Marshall Ceramics Monthly.
In the fall of 1990, Dad, Mom, and my brother lugged cardboard boxes full of equipment, a kiln, dry clay materials, and plaster molds across town to a drab but hopeful building. I was 3 when we moved into the studio, which would house my dad’s slip-cast creations. This place wakes me up. I am connected to my father’s work: his daughter, part of his DNA and his thought process. My family together worked the slip and dried pots; it never felt individual. My brothers lifted the 40 lb. molds and trimmed the edges of wet pots. The place and the processes feel organic and cyclical. I can fettle bone-dry clay as well as any potter, holding the knife’s round handle and scraping the blade fastidiously around thin, sharp rims.
My dad makes buckets of slip from recycled and newly-mixed clay to form his clean- lined pots. The pots dry and are finished and fired, or they break and are recycled, and we rework the clay again and again until it is perfected. I watch this process of birth and death, destruction and rebirth: it is my life simplified.
Being a potter requires skill, strength, and a vision of what lumps of mud can become.
Craft is not romantic; creation is not mysterious. I could breathe eloquent words into the pottery studio and make you believe it was a dusty Garden of Eden, but it really is made of stone, brick, clay, sweat. It reminds me of every day I live: wake up, go for a run, eat breakfast, work. Creating pottery is creating a life where each day makes up profound and meaningful years.
The work is deep in us; my family is the clay. We will be worked and reworked until we can finally find the shape for which we were intended.
As long as the clay is continually worked by the potter, it can still be changed and made into the most beautiful version of itself. God is frustrated with the people’s actions, but God also knows that the true nature of God’s people remains. And so God keeps faithfully working with what is available. Are we willing to be molded by the love of God, calling us to be the best version of ourselves possible?
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, 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.
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.