Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sermon - September 8, 2013: In the Potter's House

Jeremiah 18:1-12
Rev. Andy Ferguson

            I have heard “Jeremiah in the Potter’s House” told for as long as I can remember – told it myself more than once. In the vast majority of those tellings, it was a warm, devotional message about letting God shape us and mold us into the vessels that God wants us to be. One devotional that I recall told us: “Keep your clay moist.”
+Keep your clay moist so that God can shape you according to God’s purposes for you.
+Keep your clay moist so that you will not be resistant to the new directions God is taking your life.
+Keep your clay moist so that you can feel the warm, strong hands of God shaping you into the beautiful vessel you are intended to be.
As the old hymn sings:
            **Melt me and mold me after thy will,
While I am waiting, yielded and still** (2).
But, we have been misled. Jeremiah’s words are a fiery roar designed to scare the fur off the cat – and wake us up to the Word of God spoken to us and about us. The verses following the story of the Potter’s House are a sharp condemnation of Israel and its lack of faithfulness:
[Jer 18:13‑15a, 17]
13 Therefore, thus says the LORD:
Ask among the nations:
Who has heard the like of this?
The virgin Israel has done a most horrible thing.

14 Does the snow of Lebanon leave
the crags of the highest mountain?
Do the mountain streams decide to run dry?
15 But my people have forgotten me,
they burn offerings to a delusion…
17 Like the wind from the east,
I will scatter them before the enemy.
I will show them my back, not my face,
in the day of their calamity.**

If Israel is clay in the potter’s hands, it is not, as the song says,
**. . . waiting, yielded and still,
[Ready to be] Melt[ed] and mold[ed] after [God’s] will.**
It is rebellious and spoiling for a fight. And it is about to learn the awful truth that the God who blesses can also withhold the blessing. It is about to learn that the God who helps us when we are down also expects us to live up to the Scriptures’ call to righteousness and justice and concern for the poor.

[APPLIC:] So, what are we to make of this strong language from the Potter’s House?
A. First, God is deeply invested in our common life. The potter does not work aimlessly or occasionally, and neither does God. The evidence of the scripture is that God pursues us through all the twisted turns of our choices and lives, calling us back to righteousness and faithfulness. Common thinking today says that God waits on us to call, to ask, or to pray. The rule we have written says that God must wait until we are ready to talk. But, according to Jeremiah, NO. This God, who addressed Jeremiah in the Potter’s House, is working, speaking – God is moving already. That we are not paying attention cannot limit the initiative and the voice of God.

            1. I caught an insight into this several years ago in an exchange with a hardheaded youth director:
[YOUTH DIRECTOR] Years ago at a different church, we had a youth director who spent a lot of time in trouble for one reason or another. He stirred up as much mischief as all the teens combined. One day, I asked him if he was worried that he seemed to stay in trouble so much of the time. “Oh, no,” he said. “If you had given up on me, you’d stop trying to fix the problems. When you don’t have anything to say, then I’ll know that I’m really in trouble.”

God is the one who keeps after us until we return.

            2. Potters in ancient times moved the upper wheel by pushing it with their feet on a lower wheel. With their hands, they held and shaped the clay as it sat on the upper wheel. With their body leaning over the work, they put pressure on the clay to take the shape they wanted to see. Every turn of the wheel matters. It is hard work.
            God does not leave us a blob of clay on the wheel; God does shape us – as a community, as a church, and as a nation – to become what God hopes for us. Working through history and history’s events, God is constantly calling the peoples of the world toward the Kingdom. God is using events around us to call us to greater faithfulness. Examples:
+       The homeless are on the streets. The homeless are hungry. Many of them wonder where they can find welcome. *Others* who try to use the same streets are made uncomfortable by their presence and occasional panhandling. We learn quickly not to make eye contact, lest we be approached. What is God calling this church to do in response to that need?
+       Congress is considering the President’s call to intervene in Syria. What responsibility does this nation have for events on the other side of the earth? How can this nation use the tools of military might to bring about good for the world’s peoples and for the 2,000,000 people displaced by Syria’s civil war? What is God calling this church to do in response to that need?
Could we as a church and as a nation approach the difficult problems of our day - like these and more - conscious that we bring our Christian into the conversation? God is invested in our world; God is concerned with the daily decisions that we make.

B. Secondly, the potter is not indifferent to the condition of the clay, because the clay itself suggests the kind of vessel it might make. Like the potter, God knows what we are made of; God knows our limits and our possibilities. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians:
13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor 10.13)

Some clay will remain strong even when thinned out. Other clay must be kept thick to hold its shape. The potter must know the difference and work the vessel according to the character of the clay on the wheel. In the same way, God knows what we are able to endure. Examples:
+       Some of us are young and should not be tested beyond our years.
+       Some of us have seen quite a lot of the world and can stand to deal with situations that would leave others in shock.
+       Some of us are physically strong and are able to carry the heavy loads.
+       Others are thin, wiry, and able to slip through cracks that would stop others.
[ILLUS: TWO DANCERS] Some years ago, I went to a worship service in Ashville, NC. According to the order of service, there would be two interpretative dancers.
            The first one took the floor, and her limbs were long and willowy. Her dance was flowing and beautiful. When she finished, I thought to myself that the next dancer could not add much to that. It was beautiful!
            The second dancer took the floor, and she was shorter and even stocky. Then, when her dance began, it was as powerful as her build. The flowing moves of the first dancer were entirely missing, replaced by a power that spoke of struggle and overcoming.
            Each dancer was different from the other. Each dancer had a gift the other could not duplicate. Each dancer had learned to use her gifts in her dancing before the Lord.

Let us take our varied gifts and offer them, as those two dancers did, to the glory of God.

C. Thirdly, there is a point in the process of turning a pot on the wheel when its future shape is set. It becomes a pitcher, a plate or a butter churn. For communities of faith like this one, there are watershed moments when the community faces choices that will have a profound impact on its future:
+the choice to build on a new site or to stay at the old one;
+the strategic choices that are represented by the annual budget.
+Events become defining for a congregation’s self-identity.
+Ministries become the marque statements for which we or any congregation are known.
Then we can say, This is what we are – to the glory of God.

D. The engaging insight, according to Jeremiah, is that human activity and response become our conversation with God. Too often, we assume that there is nothing we can do to change the course of events. Others have all the cards. Others are closer to the situation. Others have the standing that we do not. We assume that we cannot or should not do anything. OR, we assume that the outcome is in the hands of forces – beyond our reach.
            Jeremiah heard it too. He quoted his critics at the close of the passage:
**12 But they say, "It is no use!**

There is nothing we can do about the problems we see! Our problems are too great or deep-seated to solve. Our enemies will be not be reasonable; there is no point in talking with people like them. We are already to give up on them and turn it over to people who are willing to take sterner measures.
            God’s tolerance for waiting exceeds ours. Is God going to see that the situation is resolved quickly while the rest of us still remember when it could have turned out differently?
[ILLUS:] In Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," Ivan endures all the horrors of a Soviet prison camp. One day he is praying with his eyes closed when a fellow prisoner notices him and says with ridicule, "Prayers won't help you get out of here any faster." Opening his eyes, Ivan answers, "I do not pray to get out of prison but to do the will of God" (3).

But, Jeremiah in the Potter’s House insists that ours is not a *faraway God*. The common thinking of our day is that God, if there is a god, is not going to determine the outcome of the crisis unfolding around us. It will be world leaders, military action, or even the weather that has the greatest impact. But, Jeremiah insists that our God is near and working through events and forces around us to work God’s will. Even in days of crisis, the God who spoke to Jeremiah in the Potter’s House brings a Word of reassurance and hope.

            In this time of world tension around Syria and war-weariness in this nation, let us approach the present moment with the assurance of the nearby God.
+       How does this nation or any nation act to bring about good at home and around the world?
+       How do we who pray then act to announce the presence of God to the weary nation?
+       How do we bear witness to hope that comes from the confidence that God is near?
Have you ever visited a potter’s workshop? As you watched, what did God say to you in that place?

2. “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” Adelaide A. Pollard, composer. 1907

3. Our Daily Bread, December 29, 1993

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