NRSV JEREMIAH 18:1-11
18 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.
5 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6 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. 7 At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 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. 9 And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 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. 11 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.
Coming out here to celebrate worship is special. I think I can say that, because those folks who don’t enjoy such an activity will find some other church to go to. I know; whenever one of the other churches does this, our worship attendance increases with folks who would rather be inside.
Okay, it’s not for everyone. But personally I am glad we do it. It’s good to get outside the Sanctuary once in a while, go some place different to hear the word of God. Maybe in that different setting we hear God’s word in a new way, with a different twist. Of course we would come here; after all, haven’t we heard from so many of our friends when we ask them what church they go to, they respond, ‘Oh I would rather worship God in the woods.’
That is a whole other sermon on a whole other topic for a whole other time. For now we enjoy this setting and this time together as we celebrate not only worship but the receiving of new members into our church. We don’t get to do this as often as we would like, and it is truly a joy to have Matt and Taylor join us as fellow sojourners of the way of Jesus.
In all of that we keep in mind the Creator who made all of this and all of us, even as we turn our hearts and wills, as well as our ears, to the Word of God. But that might not be so easy this morning for the text we have is not just the wonderful song of praise for the creation, also known as Psalm 8; but also from the prophecy of Jeremiah, a book which does not always lift up and inspire.
It was a tough time for the people of Judah, what was left over from the once-mighty kingdom of Israel. It was just a small piece of real estate, and they were always being threatened by the big nations around them. Jeremiah, in keeping with the prophetic tradition and its words, “Thus saith the Lord…,” saw something dangerous on the horizon, and he spends most of this book saying so. It was a tough message, one which Jeremiah himself cringed from, calling God all kinds of nasty names for giving him such a message that alienated friend and foe alike.
It basically boiled down to this – the people were called by God to be a special people, a holy people, dedicated to following God’s law: Love the Lord your God with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself. Neither of which they did very well. They were always bowing down to the gods of the nations around them, not just to the gods of the nations with the bigger armies but those whose gods looked appealing because they could be manipulated to give them what they wanted.
But just as they had turned their backs on God, they also turned their backs on each other. And especially those on the margins of society. In his sermon at the Temple recorded in the seventh chapter, Jeremiah warns them that “If you truly amend your ways, your doings, if you truly act justly with one another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan and the widow, or shed innocent blood…,” things will go well. But if you don’t, forget it. Don’t expect God to come and save you if you don’t pay attention to what God tells you.
Jeremiah said all of that until he was blue in the face. So finally God gives him another idea. It’s like God said, “Look, you need to get out of the church for a while. You need to leave all of these rituals, all of these holy things and go out into what people call the ‘real world’; out into the place where ordinary folks live and work. Go out there, into the world I made among people I have called, and you will hear my word.”
Or as Jeremiah records it, God says, “…go down to the potter’s house, and I will let you hear my word.”
It can be easy to just read on past that, the opening words of this text, wanting to get on with the rest of the story. But did you catch that? Go down to the potter’s house, the place where clay pots are made, a very skilled craft in those days. And still is. I know that Mainly Clay on Main Street has so many classes, teaching people how to make pots and other things. It is very hard, it takes a lot of work, and a lot of patience. But I have noticed from friends of mine how, when they do that, when they take the time to make those pots and jars and coffee mugs, their sense of confidence and self-esteem really rises. Working with clay will get you in touch with a part of yourself you never knew was there.
But something else I never knew was there was the way Jeremiah wrote this. He doesn’t say that God was going to plop the word into Jeremiah’s lap. He said that God told him to go to the potter’s house, and “there I will let you hear my words.” God shows us where to go – some place different, some place new, some place not full of a religious aura – so that we may hear God’s word in a new way. Whether it is in the potter’s house, or by the lake, or playing with our grandkids or reading a book, or even taking out the garbage. Any place and every place is a place for us to hear God’s word. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof…,” we hear in the 24th Psalm. We can hear God’s word in any place. But it may require us to do a little work. It may not seem so obvious. It calls on us to be aware, of a yearning we have, or a rumbling inside of us that God puts there to sense and feel God’s word in a way we never experienced before. The word of God is there, but we have to look for it. Thankfully, God lets us in on that word.
The word that God gives Jeremiah is the word that comes from a potter working on his wheel. A batch of clay is being massaged, and some of it gets out of line. Rather than throwing it away, the potter starts over again, forming it in a different way, maybe taking his cues from the clay itself, teaching him where he can put an indentation, where he can move one part of it so that the whole thing lines up better.
The message is there for Jeremiah, and it is there for us, too. This is not just a message to a prophet 2600 years ago in a place a long way from here. This is a message from God to all of God’s people; to a small group of people afraid of being overrun – whether that be the people of Judah in 620 BCE or the people of the mainline church in 2019 – as well as to those who may feel that they have everything figured out and nothing more to learn.
It teaches us that God’s ways are not stagnant. Jeremiah says that God’s word reveals a
God not to be manipulated but a Divine One who has certain expectations upon nations or kingdoms, and with those words we should hear the word of God not just to individuals, but to nations. This is not just God telling us individually how to behave, but also how to order our nation in the ways of God’s justice and concern for all people. If people are not doing justice, loving kindly or walking humbly with God, God will pluck up and pull down. We reap what we sow. But likewise, if people are not doing right but then they change their ways, God will change God’s mind and not bring on the disaster that was on the horizon. In the midst of our turbulent times, filled with all kinds of crucifixions, God is still working for resurrection, and invites us to join in.
Samuel Wells, the vicar at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, wrote about this image from Jeremiah, and connected it with us who walk in the way of Jesus. He wrote: “That’s what makes Jeremiah’s words the essence of Christianity. Christianity is not about imagining something perfect called creation and straining to get ourselves back to that ideal state; it’s about taking the material of humankind and the surrounding world and universe, exploring the form of a relationship between God and us, and contemplating the governing idea that God the artist will go to any lengths to restore that relationship. In the words of Athanasius, ‘When a portrait … becomes obliterated through external stains … the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material.’ This is the story of Christianity, that God does not throw us away as flawed but reworks us into something more beautiful.”
As we gather out here in such a place, the words from the potter’s wheel should be words of hope. Hope in knowing that God does not give up on us, but is always reaching out to us, through words, through actions, through expressions of justice, peace and love. A hope that even when our actions are not the best God can work with us to bring about a change whereby all people – not just us, but all people – will be touched by God’s love. A hope that with God, there is always the potential for a new beginning; one filled with resurrection possibilities, and new life. In this place, in this time, may we be filled with that hope so that we may share with others the essence of Christianity, the essence of what we belief: that in Jesus Christ resurrection, new life, is always possible. Amen.