"Pottery, Potential, and Peril"
Nov.7, 2010 Jer.18:1-11
BEST OF PLANS GONE AWRY: THE FAULTY FILTER
Can you think of a time that you had great plans, but they just didn't work out? Was the reason something beyond your control, or was it something you could have done somethng about?
Last Saturday afternoon, I had great plans to finish off the yard work for the year. The leaves had finally dropped from the maple trees east of the house and I set about mowing the yard one last time in order to mulch the leaves. Then I'd be able to take the mower off the tractor and put the snowblower on so I'd be all set for when the snow came. But after about 1 round the garden tractor quit moving ahead. The motor was still running fine, and the belt-driven mower was doing its job, but the wheels wouldn't move. Neither would the mower deck lift with the hydraulic piston. I decided the oil in the hydrostatic transmission must have gotten low. After adding the last half-litre of fluid I had left, I got going again; but soon, alas, the tractor again refused to move. This time I checked a little more carefully. A thin stream of fluid was squirting from the filter on the underside of the machine, between the back wheels. That would be the filter for the hydrostatic fluid that worked both the transmission and the hydraulic lift. A filter I had never changed since buying the used tractor about 3 years ago.
A call to the local machinery dealer confirmed my fears: this being Saturday afternoon, they were closed for the week. My ambitious plans were foiled. There the tractor would have to sit until I could buy a replacement filter the following week.
Drats! I was stumped. If only I had addressed the filter situation earlier (by keeping up with regular maintenance), the outcome might have been different.
Can you relate? Was the situation YOU thought of similar? Did the interference with the plan come from beyond your control, or could you have made it turn out differently - you were responsible for the failure?
In our reading from Jeremiah 18, we see a parallel in God's plans for Israel encountering resistance. The Lord's intention had been for His people to enjoy a long habitation in a beautiful land. Exodus 23(25f), "Worship the LORD your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water.I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span." But as we saw the past couple of weeks, God's prophets were announcing doom for Israel: Jeremiah 7:20, "Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: My anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and beast, on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground, and it will burn and not be quenched." How come the plans of the "Sovereign Lord" were being thwarted? What went wrong?
In Jeremiah 18 we see God presenting a powerful word-picture in an attempt to persuade the people one last time not to 'blow it' like the faulty filter on my WheelHorse. God's hand may have been on the wheel, steering the machine, but His project was being sabotaged by the corruption of people's hearts.
THE POTTER'S POWER AND PRIVILEGE
In verses 1-6 of chapter 18, Jeremiah is told to go to the potter's house to receive a divine message. As he watches the potter working at the wheel, the pot the man was forming became marred, so the potter made it instead into something else.
On one level, the illustration seems to be primarily about God's sovereign freedom. V3, "I saw him working at the wheel" - literally 'wheels', ie a top one on which the clay spun connected by a shaft to a lower wheel the potter turned with his feet. The potter is the subject, doing the action; the clay is the object, passively being worked upon. V4, after the pot is marred, "the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to Him." The potter is the one deciding, with discretionary power. It's the potter, not the clay, that has the power and freedom to decide the final outcome or direction. V6, As God begins to interpret the illustration, He asks, "'O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?' declares the LORD.'Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel." God is the active agent, Israel the passive agent, waiting to be shaped like clay in the hand.
Other passages in scripture emphasize this sovereign aspect of God's being. Isaiah 64:8, "Yet, O LORD, you are our Father.We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand." Psalm 33:13ff, "From heaven the LORD looks down and sees all mankind; from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth-- he who forms the hearts of all, who considers everything they do." There you see God sovereignly observing from on high, and that He 'formed' our hearts. This emphasis appears again in the New Testament when Paul defends God's sovereign freedom to save whom He will in the case of Israel: Romans 9:20f, "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'" Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?" Passages such as these clearly speak of God's sovereignty, His overarching control, His power and right to determine final outcomes.
Christian churches through the centuries have taught doctrine which articulate God's unchanging nature, His constancy, faithfulness, that He is un-contingent on creation. Nothing takes God by surprise in such a way that He has to back down on His final plan, or change His approach because He was wrong. Number 23:19, "God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?" James 1:17, "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows."
God's omnipotence (being all-powerful) and justice mean He has the right to quash any resistance to His sovereign plan. New Living Translation of 18:4 here, "He crushed (or, squashed) it into a lump of clay again and started over." A hyper-Calvinist could probably happily stop the sermon right here: "God is holy - you're not - too bad! (SQUASH) You got what you deserve." What more needs to be said? A legalist / Pharisee's dream - at least, as long as you can perform absolutely perfectly.
But God doesn't stop there; He draws out more from the parable than mere judgment. For those of us who are less than perfect, with faulty filters, there's a Good News angle yet in here.
HOPELESSLY CORRUPT HEART - YET OPTIONS AVAILABLE
V4 says, "But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands..." Marred; NRSV 'spoiled'; the lexicon offers as alternate renderings "destroy, corrupt, ruin, decay." The same Hebrew word is used in 13:7 to describe a linen belt Jeremiah is told to bury in a crack between the rocks at a ditch until many days later, when he digs it out, it's (not surprisingly) "ruined and completely useless". There the belt is a symbol of the wicked idolatrous pride of Judah and Jerusalem.
If God is sovereign, all-powerful - why do things go wrong rather than work out perfectly? Could a sovereign potter not determine that the clay not be marred? The parable seems to assume there's room within God's sovereignty for free resisting behaviour by faulty 'marred' human hearts. In just the previous chapter we find one of the most damning descriptions of our human nature in the whole of holy writ: Jeremiah 17:9, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" NRSV, "The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse--who can understand it?"
Even in this passage, what does God foresee will be the response by the people? 18:12, "But they will reply, 'It's no use. We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart.'" This isn't surprising to God. The first book of the Bible describes our early ancestors: "The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time...every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood." (Gen 6:5; 8:21) Pretty grim analysis, huh? Even Jesus was clear about our capacity for evil: in Mark 7(21ff) He lists a baker's dozen wicked tendencies (including sexual immorality, greed, and arrogance) and concludes, "All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean'." So a prominent note in apostolic preaching is that 'All have turned away, they have together become WORTHLESS...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.' (Rom 3:12, 23)
God is just in condemning sinners. Jeremiah wrote in Lamentations 3(39), "Why should any living man complain when punished for his sins?"
YET the potter doesn't trash the jar or toss the clay in the garbage. He changes direction, forming it into another pot. It's as if it's given another chance to co-operate. In verses 7-8 then 9-10 God lays out 2 scenarios in which the significant factor is the response of people to His pronouncement. Call them 'Case A' and 'Case B'. Vv7-8, Case A: "If at any time 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." Note the 'If..and if...then' conditional language, like operators in computer programming language. 'Get with the program!' A sovereign unchanging God operates with conditions? This case parallels the story of the unwilling prophet Jonah sent to announce doom on the pagan city of Nineveh in Assyria, one of the Jewish people's enemies. Jonah secretly wants God to 'sock-it-to-'em' but, to his surprise, the whole city repents saying, "Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish." When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened." (Jonah 3:9-10) The Jewish prophet is very annoyed by this and prays, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity." (Jon 4:2)
Another type of 'case A' would be Amos 7(3,6) where the Lord shows him a vision of first a swarm of locusts then fire devouring the land; the prophet begs God not to do it, and the Lord relents.
Conversely, there's 'Case B' the other way around in vv9-10: "And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it." Again, conditional language - the outcome is contingent or dependent upon the people's response to God's announcement. Here the application to Israel is obvious: God had covenanted with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with Moses, and David to establish and bless the nation. Deuteronomy 4:40, "Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the LORD your God gives you for all time." But as in the case of Eli's wicked sons, the previous promise gets curtailed on account of their disobedience; God declares, "Those who honour Me I will honour, but those who despise Me will be disdained." (1Sam 2:30)
God's mercy is clearly evident in Case A: God does not 'repent' like an imperfect man needs to, but God does 'relent' when people hear His warning and take it to heart.
MARVELOUS MERCY: PROPHECY AND PROCLAMATION
It would have done no good for me to talk to my hydrostatic filter or give it a warning; it needed to be 'addressed' earlier by preventive maintenance. Neither does it do much good for a potter to talk to inanimate clay. But God has designed us differently from mere 'things': He created us in His image, breathed His Spirit into us, and designed us as living souls - capable of understanding, processing, considering, and responding. There is common grace in the way we are made, that as intelligent creatures equipped with conscience we can comprehend God's will for us, evaluate the options, and choose to co-operate. We're not all locked into sinfulness doomed to be squashed. There are options available for those who have ears to hear.
Jeremiah's God-given parable suggests there is room for freedom and real human responsibility within the framework of God's sovereignty: we have a choice, we're not just predetermined puppets. "If I announce [destruction] and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent..." [OR] "If I announce [building up for a nation] and if it does evil in My sight and does not obey Me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it." (Vv7ff) What's the immediate upshot or application for Jeremiah's countrymen? V11, "Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, 'This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you.[Let's see now, that would put us in - case - um, er - A! Impending doom!] So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.'" The word for 'turn from' here in v11 is the same as 'repents of' back in v8.
Do you sense the graciousness in God's approach, warning through prophecy of the danger? Is it better to have a working smoke alarm in your house, or to have no warning at all? There is nothing at all in the fine print of God's covenant that obligates Him to give any warning; a holy sovereign Creator would be justified at any moment to pour out judgment on sinners. Yet Yahweh shows He is not just a sovereign 'smiter' but addresses us with grace, warning us in hopes that we'll change our ways. God is relational, loving, inviting us to return to relationship even when we've rejected Him stubbornly.
Ezekiel 18(23), "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?" Isaiah 55(7), "Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts.Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon." Jesus warned, "...unless you repent, you too will all perish." (Lk 13:3) His name implies His mission - He came to seek and to save what was lost (Lk 19:10). "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." (Jn 3:17) Jesus calls out to us in a loud voice with the language of invitation: "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him." (Jn 7:37f) Not leaking oil that sabotages God's aims, but living water that's an overflow of God's grace felt in the inner person, pouring out in acts of love and goodness to impact others.
Like the Old Testament prophets, the New Testament's gospel proclamation is evidence of God's mercy beckoning us to avoid disaster and become planted and built up in Him. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it: "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son [God keeps on addressing us]...We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away...how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him." (Heb 1:1f, 2:1,3)
As you come to the Lord's Table today, where do you stand with God? Have you been a faulty filter, interfering with Kingdom enterprise? Are you "Case A" or "Case B" - repenting and moving toward God, or doing evil and disobeying? Can you trust God to be absolutely sovereign, in charge of your life, or are you sore and resentful about something He allowed to happen that wasn't what you wanted? Are you agreed He has the right to do whatever He pleases with you, as the potter the clay - or do you feel you have a 'right' to be angry with God, and if so, who might have given you that 'right'?
What's the worst possible thing God could allow to happen to you? Can you trust Him even under those circumstances? If a head-on collision should suddenly snuff out your life or the life of a loved one, would you be able to find in Christ resurrection hope, the grace of the cross, and forgiveness for any party that may have been at fault?
What about the marring of the clay - can you believe it's possible for God to turn around your most hideous, shameful secret sin and make you into a vessel for His glory regardless? There's room especially at the cross for you, friend. Hear His call. See His blood poured out to wash and cleanse you, holy and pure, forever changed from the bondage of past failings and evil forces that ensnare. In the potter's hand is the best possible place to be. Let's pray.