New Hope Fellowship
September 8, 2019
I had a hard time deciding whether this text today from Jeremiah is a word of judgment or grace.
God led Jeremiah down to the potter’s house. And there the potter was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making was spoiled; it wasn’t right; it was messed up. So the potter reworked it into something new. This is supposed to be an object lesson about what God will do with God’s people.
Is that good news or bad? Judgment or grace?
How we hear it depends, doesn’t it?
When life is going well,
when things are working out,
when you’re cruising along,
when you’re just where you want to be,
when you have what you want,
this message of reworking and starting over is not good news.
Your career is going well. You’re moving up ladder. Then the market goes in the tank. You lose your job. And these are dreaded words: I have to start all over.
the “have it all together,”
to tear down,
to start all over
does not sound like good news.
when you are broken,
when things are a mess,
when you’ve blown it…
Starting over is a grace.
The spring semester of my freshman year of college was a disaster for me. I don’t know what happened exactly. But I just totally quit studying and going to class regularly. And at the end of the semester my GPA had cratered. It was terrible. I had academic scholarships that were in jeopardy. Everyone was upset with me. It was a disaster.
One of the things, though that I discovered, was that at Baylor at that time you could re-take a class, and if you made a better grade they would replace your old grade with the better grade. It totally wiped out the bad grade. It was such a relief when I found out I could wipe out the old grades and retake the classes and get a new grade. And that’s what I did.
So losing the old and re-doing everything was a grace for me.
But imagine if I was doing really well. Studying hard and making good grades. And then at the end of the semester I got sick or something happened and I wasn’t able to complete the course. And they told me that those classes and grades were going to be lost, and that I was going have to retake those classes and start over. That wouldn’t feel like good news at all. That would feel like a huge loss. It would be terrible.
Reworking and starting over. Is it good news or bad news? That depends, doesn’t it?
So I’ve been trying to figure it out: Is this text about the potter and the clay from Jeremiah—is it a word from the Lord of judgment or a word of grace?
It is a word of judgment. No doubt about it. Every potter exercises constant judgment about the condition of the clay and the shape of the emerging work, looking carefully for flaws, defects. And she responds accordingly.
She may moisten the mix, press deeply here, shape quickly there. For a time the clay is pliable; the piece can be mended or recentered as needed. Sometimes a flaw in the clay itself or a problem with its emerging shape is beyond fixing. Sometimes the potter has to take a knife and cut out an impurity. Sometimes the potter is left with no choice other than to scrape the piece off the wheel and start over again.
[Sally A. Brown in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4]
And while all this may be necessary for the potter, it’s awfully hard on the clay.
Pressing deeply here,
Cutting out an impurity.
Taking down and starting over.
This story of the potter and clay is one of judgment.
But it is also a story of grace.
Pressing deeply here,
Cutting out an impurity.
Taking down and starting over.
Painful grace, perhaps we can call it.
I was looking back to see if I had preached on this text from Jeremiah 18 before, and I discovered that it was this passage that I was preaching on the Sunday following September 11, 2001. I went back and read that sermon, and it brings to mind the terrible gravity of those days.
My sermon began with these words:
You know the facts. About 8:45 a.m. on Tuesday an airplane slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. Then, about twenty minutes later, a second airplane slammed into the south tower, and the tower crumbled to the ground.
This was not an accident. The United States was under attack.
Then, about 35 minutes later, a third airplane struck the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. That’s when I turned on the TV, and I watched live as the first tower of the World Trade Center to be hit fell to the ground.
Later on in the sermon I began to talk about the potter and the clay. I said something like this. Like a potter, God at creation took clay and formed us. But then in key moment that has affected God and us ever since, God chose to breathe his own spirit into us and give us choice. God created us in his own image.
And ever since, God has suffered like a patient and pained artist who wants desperately for his work to reflect his own character. But it’s stubborn clay he’s working with.
When we do what is good, we reflect God’s own heart. When we do evil, we are spoiled clay, at odds with the one who made us and wants to shape us.
We might say evil or sin is being unresponsive to the shaping hands of God. And when we are unwilling to be formed into the likeness of the potter’s intentions, we have ugly lumps, unfinished parts. And I said in 2001 that we have seen something of that ugliness on a tragic scale this week.
Here’s the good news: Even when we fail to respond to the shaping hands of God upon us, God doesn’t just take his hands off us.
Did you hear what Jeremiah said? 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.
See, the spoiled vessel was not thrown into the trash. The potter took it in his hand and reworked it into something good. That’s the good news for us. That’s the hope.
The hope is that when people choose evil, God doesn’t
throw up his hands and
throw us into the garbage;
God reworks us into something good.
Remember when Jesus told the story of the weeds that grew up in the wheat. Some wanted to immediately cut the wheat down and throw them into the fire. But the master said, Wait. And one reason he wants us to wait is because Jesus can turn weeds into wheat. I’m one of them.
Our hope is not just an individual hope. Our hope also is that when buildings collapse, it’s not the end. When the vessel was spoiled, the potter reworked it into something good.
Isn’t this who God is? Isn’t this what our God is about?
Turning bad into good.
Turning weeds into wheat.
Turning sinners into saints.
What you intended for evil, Joseph said to his brothers, God intended for good.
Now this week as I wrestled with this idea of
judgment and grace,
taking down and reworking,
cutting out and shaping,
the potter and clay,
I kept coming back in my mind to another metaphor: a river and a canyon.
There was a man I knew here in Fort Worth named Dan. Dan was a caregiver and, more than that, a close friend of a Broadway Baptist Church member, Lee, who died nine or ten years ago. When Lee died, Dan gave me an essay he had written about Lee and their 30 year relationship. Dan was struggling for a metaphor, and he finally landed on this:
The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is one of the great natural wonders of the world. It winds for approximately three hundred miles across the northwestern portion of Arizona. The canyon is approximately one mile deep and up to eighteen miles wide at the top.
Imagine taking a canoe or raft ride through the canyon. The variance of rock formation colors and light changes can produce somewhat of a psychedelic impact on our rafting duo. Periods of peace and calm are punctuated with dots and dashes of aggressive activity. And experience of astonishing blessings.
It’s a beautiful image.
And it’s true for each of us. Your life is like a river. It has flowed through places you might never have expected. It has flowed through beautiful places and ugly places. It has glided peacefully along, and it has rushed through rapids fierce enough to take a person’s life. It has been the source of dreams, and it has drowned dreams.
The river of my life and your life has run and will run through some rough places. We all know that. There is whitewater,
there are twists and turns,
there are waterfalls,
there are dry places, even.
The water is clear at times and so muddy at other times you can’t see 6 inches down.
You may be familiar with Norman Maclean’s book, A River Runs Through It. This is the book that Robert Redford made into a movie a few years ago. In this book, Norman Maclean writes about life growing up with his father, who was pastor of the First Presbyterian church in Missoula, Montana from 1908-1925 and who taught them about God and about fly fishing.
In his book, Norman Maclean begins to hear the long story of his life cascading past
through dark eddies and
and then finally he concludes in his book: Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.
There is tremendous power in a river—even a small river. I once heard my friend Glen Schmucker say something beautifully about this in a sermon once. It’s one of the best sermon’s I’ve heard; it has stuck with me ever since, and in telling about it and thinking about it, I’m not sure anymore where his words end and mine begin.
Imagine for a second you’re standing 1,000 feet above the Colorado River, looking down into the Grand Canyon. Who would not wonder at how, over millions of years, a river weaving its way through the desert can carve a canyon out of rock?
Every day since before humans walked and when dinosaurs still did, that river was carrying microscopic granules of stone and sand to the sea until it slowly shaped what is now a breathtakingly beautiful canyon.
If it hadn’t been for that river, scarring the desert, what is now the Grand Canyon would just be another flat piece of northern Arizona.
Is the scarring of the desert a judgment or a grace?
Is it destruction or creation?
Is it painful or beautiful?
Go down to the potter’s house. See the potter. Moistening the mix,
pressing deeply here,
Sometimes the potter has to take a knife and cut out an impurity. Sometimes the potter is left with no choice other than to scrape the piece off the wheel and start over again.
Destruction and creation.
Pain and beauty.
Judgment and grace.
A painful grace for the clay, no doubt, but still and always grace.
The river of your life has taken and will take you and those you love through some rough places and desert places, but that same river has taken you places and created something that can only be described as astonishing blessing.
If you have the wisdom and the courage to open your eyes and your heart and look honestly, you will discover the gift and the blessing in
the painful shaping and mending,
the cutting out and the starting over.
Let me say this to you. Listen close.
Like the old man standing in a river at the end of the book and movie by the same name, when you look back across your life, you really can see that a river runs through it.
I think this is what Glen Schmucker said. I’m coming to see that raging torrents of difficulty that could have destroyed you,
had to filter through the grace of God to get to you
and have been transformed by God’s grace into
streams of mercy
that now serve to shape you for what is
ultimately good and beautiful.
Imagine at the end of life. There we’ll be,
standing at the edge of a vast canyon,
marveling at the magnificent beauty God carved
into our lives, in deep canyons of character, like
clay and rock—
using as a tool of grace and mercy that which we
were certain at the time would destroy us, but has
now come to reform and redeem us.
And from the heights at the edge of that canyon we will look with astonishment at the beauty of that sculpted monument to
the judgment and