THE POTTER’S HOUSE
Effingham Centenary UMC
Sept. 8, 2013
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
There is a lot of action swirling around the White House these days. Nations around the world are disturbed. Because of Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, those nations and citizens within these United States have called on President Obama to act swiftly with military force. Shortly, we might see Uncle Sam waging a 90-day war with our military arsenal excluding U.S. troops on Syrian soil.
The prophet Jeremiah found himself living in similar circumstances. The rising threat war from Egypt, Assyria but mostly Babylon, had set God’s people on edge in Jerusalem and Samaria. They felt in harm’s way. Naturally, people of faith turned to God and God’s holy temple for answers. God threw Jeremiah and his people a curve ball. God refused to dispatch angels to send the message.God chose not to reference any word from the Pentateuch, the prophets, Major or Minor, Wisdom Literature, not even the 23rd Psalm. Instead, God sent Jeremiah down to the Potter’s House. What the prophet observed at the Potter’s House became the message for the day. God is the Potter; we are the clay.
God tells the prophet to leave the God’s house of worship and find the Potter’s House. There, he will receive the message for the day.
And so he does. In the Potter’s House, the prophet observes the potter molding a piece of clay. The potter works valiantly to get the clay to respond to his molding. But it will not respond properly. It lacks form, shape and beauty.So, the potter reworks the clay into a quality piece of art. To be sure, Jeremiah sees the transformation of the lump of clay. A sermon, it is not. In other words, the prophet is not able to draw any meaningful message for the people of God from what he sees. Yet, his obedience is noteworthy. Jeremiah is present in the Potter’s House because God wants him to be there. That’s good. God is happy when God’s servants “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.” God is pleased when we “love God and neighbor.” But we serve a God who challenges us to go beyond the surface meaning of things to discern his Word for our lives. Put differently, how we can learn to see as God sees? How do we teach ourselves to “look beyond the outward appearance and upon the heart?” How do we ferret out God’s message in the ordinariness of life?
Here's a couple of examples. Remember Little Bo Peep who lost her sheep and couldn’t tell where to find them. “Leave them alone,” says the author, and “they’ll come home wagging their tails behind them.” God might teach Little Bo Peep a new kind of shepherding.
God in Jesus Christ is a good shepherd. Instead of waiting and hoping the sheep will come wagging their tails behind them, God in Jesus Christ functions sees himself going out and finding every single lost sheep in his care. Not only that, “he’ll carry the young lambs in his bosom.” Isaiah 40:11
Sixty-four-year-old Diana Nyad just completed the 110-mile swim without a shark cage from Cuba to Florida. She made it on her fifth attempt in 53 hours. In her press conference, 64-year-old Diana claimed her swim carried a deeper meaning. I wanted it to be a lesson for my life that says “be fully engaged. Be so awake and alert and alive every minute of every waking day…that’s where I had to be…to get this done.”
I do not want to give the impression that Jeremiah is clueless about the nature of his ministry. When God calls him into the ministry, God is pretty clear about expectations. Listen to Jeremiah’s call to ministry. “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” In short, God appoints Jeremiah “over nations and kingdoms” but nobody informs those nations of his office. Nevertheless, this is how God works. God tells a young virgin that she will become the mother of God. A young shepherd boy slays Goliath, becomes one of the best songwriters in the history of the world and is selected to be the second king of Israel. God directs Moses to go down in Egypt land and tell old Pharaoh to let his people go. God uses Moses to part the waters of the Red Sea so his people can cross over. All things are possible with God, even serving as God’s prophet over “nations and kingdoms” not having the foggiest notion what that means. In other words, what does a visit to the Potter’s House have to do with his appointment “over nations and kingdoms?”
As with the Diana Nyad and Little Bo Peep narratives, God reveals deeper meaning to the potter’s work. When God explains the meaning of the potter remolding the clay, Jeremiah knows what God wants him to preach to his temple congregation. It will not be easy. First, the prophet must pose the question, i.e., can the Lord do the House of Israel what the potter did to the clay, namely remold and remake them as the Potter did? Second, the prophet must present two ways God acts in the world. Third, Jeremiah has to inform his people that God is shaping and devising an evil plan. Fourth, God advises the house of Israel to turn now and avoid the terrible consequences. Hearing his sermon texts for the near future, I can imagine Jeremiah stopping by the pharmacy on the way up to the temple and purchasing Pepto Bismol, TUMS, Advil and Sominex and going straight to bed when he gets home. Now I know why they called Jeremiah the weeping prophet. God called him to preach and say things that other people did not want to hear. God denied him a wife even a wonderful childhood as he called him to be a prophet when Jeremiah was just a boy. In the words of a hit record in the sixties titled “It’s my Party”, Lesley Gore opined due to the loss of a boyfriend “You’d cry too if it happened to you.” Yes!
Nevertheless, Jeremiah raised the question in a sermon. Can the Lord do to the house of Israel what the potter did to the clay namely remold and remake it? Yes, God can No explanation or approval is required. Why would God want to do so? Israel was special. She was the chosen one. The rub has been identified. Be it a person or a nation, more, not less is expected of the chosen. More, not less is expected of parents, bishops, preachers, leaders etc.
One of the heaviest burdens or responsibilities chosen for the chosen people was that God called them to be “a light to the nations.” If any other nation wanted to know how to act, get along with other nations, treat strangers, and worship God, they could look to the house of Israel. His congregation refused to hear that. They did not want to be put on a pedestal. Not many of their actions reflected what God expected of a people whom God had chosen as his best representatives.
Most of us learned that a sermon is what I am doing right now. It is designed to put you to sleep, wake you up, and make you mad or just sad that you ever heard it. British born American writer Edgar A. Guest went deeper. Guest made this telling observation about folk who preach from Bishops to lay speakers. “I rather see a sermon than hear one any day.” To be clear, a sermon is more than the sum of my words, my delivery, and my time in the pulpit. It is heard at a deeper level. Does the Bishop practice what he preaches? Likewise, Israel had to do more than rest on its laurels of being God’s elect. It had to demonstrate its chosen-ness; nothing more, nothing less.
On another Sabbath, the prophet preaches a sermon on the two ways God acts in history. First, God may select a nation to “pluck up, break down and destroy.” If the people find out about God’s plan and repent, God will change his mind. God will save them. And they can claim “a future with hope.” That is the story of Jonah. He tells Nineveh that God plans to destroy them… that they need to repent. Apparently, Jonah preaches repentance with a pathos and passion second to none. Nineveh is not turned off by the need for transformation. They are turned on. They know change is required. The King orders the entire country and himself into sackcloth and ashes and they plead mightily with God a ’la 911. “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind …and did not do it.” I cannot help but think they there are hundreds of people in Syria praying like mad that their country will not be bombed because of the alleged use of chemical weapons by their military leaders. Second, God may select a nation or city “to build up and plant.” If the people of the nation have wandered far away from God with little thought of turning back, it’s troublesome. Such behavior may cause God to change his mind about saving them. And nature takes its course. It would have pleased Jeremiah’s congregation if he said the house of Israel would always be saved…that they would always end up on God’s good side, but he couldn’t do it. And the folks weren’t pleased. Neither was God. Like parents who love their children, time out, being on restriction or tough love may be prescribed for their children.
Things went from bad to worse when Jeremiah informed them of God’s final message at the Potter’s House. What was that? Thus says the Lord “Look, I am the potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Why? Because the House of Israel committed the ultimate transgression. They worshiped all kinds of gods but the one True God.” In scripture, nothing seemed to upset God more than idolatry. Unfortunately, the House of Israel refused to listen to the good news tied to the bad news. His parishioners complained. They put the preacher’s head and hands in stocks and publicly ridiculed him. Yes, they tried to take his life. What God had asked Jeremiah came to pass. Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and took the house of Israel off to Babylon in chains.
Why had the people of God turned away from the good news God offered them? They could have avoided all that pain and suffering. “Turn now, all of you …and amend your ways and your doings.” Although God threatened to destroy the entire city of Nineveh, the entire country from the King to the simplest servant repented and changed their wicked ways. God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways. God changed his mind that he said he would bring upon Nineveh and did not do it. God offered marvelous grace to Nineveh before Christ. God offered grace to hundreds of folk at the River Jordan who responded to John the Baptist’s call to repent. God offers that same kind of marvelous grace to anyone here today who dares to repent and be saved.
“Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way! Thou art the potter, we are the clay. Mold us and make us after thy will, while we are waiting, yielded and still.” Does Jeremiah’s good news speak to your personal or corporate life in any way? If so, do this and live. Turn to God. Good news came out of The Potter’s House. Amen.