Preached January 20, 2013
Text: Jeremiah 18:1-11 & Jeremiah 31:31-34
The Story, Ch. 17
Today’s text from Jeremiah begins with an artist at work – the potter at his wheel. Each artist has their own unique way of creating – their rhythms and habits. The way a painter twirls her brush in her fingers before making a stroke or a pianist stretches hands out wide before placing them on the keys.
I have dabbled in a lot of artistic mediums over the years – thanks, in part, to CAT Camp at Jumonville! I’ve painted and sketched, woven baskets and blown Ukrainian eggs. I’ve sung and played and rung. But my medium of choice, for creative expression, has always been with words. Words on a screen, words on the page, pretty much any form of the written words. It’s somehow therapeutic and empowering to be write beautifully crafted sentences.
My love of writing blossomed in 7th grade, encouraged by an English teacher who taught grammar and composition with passion and precision. She drilled us on parts of speech and proper sentence structure. She circled in red every single “to be” verb (is, are, was, were, be, being, been, am – I can still remember the little jingle that we chanted!) found in our essays and made us wrestle with that sentence until we found a way to write it with action verbs instead. And we wrote – and wrote – and wrote some more. And then, we wrote again.
One thing she did not do, though, was expect a perfectly neat essay. Legibility mattered; she had to be able to read your writing. But words crossed out and others inserted at an awkward angle above the line? That was just fine. Expected, even. She wanted to see that you were editing your own work, thinking critically about what you wrote.
In fact, there was just one cardinal rule when it came to editing: never erase (or delete) until you are absolutely sure that the new words you wrote are the ones you want. Scribble potential replacement words in the margins, squeeze them in between the lines, pull out another piece of paper and write the sentence fifteen different ways if you want. But don’t remove any words from the page until there are others ready to replace them.
Why not erase? Well, because then those words are gone for good. So when you realize that maybe those first words you wrote were better than you thought – it is too late, they are gone. When you need to find your place again, to retrace the flow of ideas so that you can find the next right words – it is too late, the words are gone. So never erase until you’re sure.
It is good advice for a writer. But when we hear the familiar words of Jeremiah 31, it seems that God didn’t follow that advice. “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD” (Jer 31:31-32). And earlier, in Jeremiah 18, God warns the people: “Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you” (18:11).
Seventeen weeks into this Story we are reading, it seems that we have reached God’s breaking point. God is ready to just crumple up the paper, throw it into the trash, and start over with a clean white sheet. Or in computer terms: is time for “select all – delete.”
That is the image that I get, sometimes, when I read the Old Testament. God is something like a writer who begins a sentence, finds it all wrong, crumples the paper and tosses it over her shoulder into a growing pile of wadded up paper in the corner of the room. After the fall in Genesis – crumple that one up and start again with Noah. After Noah disgraces himself in front of his own children – wad that one up and begin again with Abraham. Abraham’s descendants sell each other out and eventually find themselves in slavery? Crunch that page up and toss it into the pile too – and start again with Moses.
And then come the judges – and the kings – and that pile of discarded scrap paper just grows and grows.
And then here in Jeremiah, it seems God has run out of paper. God has to figure out what to do next, where to write the next covenant, what to do when the paper runs out.
That’s one image that might come to mind when we read Jeremiah. It embodies the frustration and compassion-fatigue that we feel when we see people (in the Bible, a whole nation of people) throwing away one opportunity after another, messing up time and time again. We would understand if God just crumpled up one last piece of paper, pushed back from the desk, and walked away. Gave up even trying.
That is, I suspect, exactly what the people of Israel thought God had done. Jeremiah writes to a people who are completely defeated. There had been plenty of warnings – plenty of battles they lost along the way. But this is different. Now the war is over and they have lost everything – their homeland, their family ties, their political leader, their cultural context, their place of worship. There was no going back. They were history’s losers.
You have to imagine that they felt abandoned by God – or perhaps worse yet, they felt like their God had been defeated and destroyed as thoroughly and completely as they had been themselves. They felt, I suspect, like God had wadded them up and tossed them out into the trash.
But – you know, there is a funny kind of hope that appears when you reach the end of your rope, when you finally hit rock bottom. It’s the hope that “there is no place to go but up.”
That’s the kind of hope Jeremiah receives and passes on to God’s covenant people while they live in exile. “’Can’t I do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?’ says the Lord” (Jer 18:6). Can’t I smash you into a formless lump of clay? But God’s words don’t end there. The prophecy continues: “If I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned…So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions” (Jer 18:7-8, 11).
The image in Jeremiah 18 is not of a frustrated writer tossing her work over her shoulder. The image here is of a potter who squeezes the clay he is molding back into a lump to begin again, to “rework it into another vessel, as seemed good to him” (Jer 18:4).
There is judgment in this image, as we would expect – but there is also hope and reassurance. The clay is not discarded; it isn’t thrown into a garbage can like a crumpled piece of paper. The potter crushes it but also reworks it, continues to mold and shape it until he gets it just right. Until it takes the form, the shape that he desires it to have.
That is a powerful image for the way that God relates to human beings, both in the Old Testament scriptures and in our lives today. God calls us together in community of faith that should be shaped and modeled after God’s own image. The waters of baptism soften our clay, make us malleable and workable. The Potter’s hand continues to press and squeeze and guide, with a touch that is sometimes firm, sometimes gentle, until it brings out the shape of love and joy and peace in us. In our life together, we ought to form a vessel that overflows with love, and justice, and mercy.
But how often do the walls of our pot slump over? How often do we become hard and brittle clay that refuses to yield to the Potter’s hands? It happens subtly, with the little everyday things we do along the way. We fail to stand up for justice or holiness, and our pot tips a bit off center. Unresolved conflicts and resentment build up and form lumps in the clay of our life together. We are so busy that we forget to pray, skip over Bible reading, or fall out of the habit of coming to church – and the walls of our pot stretch too thin.
The warning, from Jeremiah, is that God will not hesitate to squash down the clay of our lives so that we might be reshaped. But the hope – the promise – is that God will start again, with this same clay, reforming us into a new vessel, one that serves God’s purposes and reflects God’s image.
As we sing today…hear the Lord’s warning through Jeremiah…ask God to soften our hearts, to rework those areas in your own life and in our life together that have gone off center, and to shape us into a community that reflects God’s image.