Clay in His Hands

September 8, 2013   Jeremiah 18: 1-11

Rev. Catherine Purves


     Perhaps the most shocking revelation in this brief passage from the book of Jeremiah is God’s twice repeated statement, “I will change my mind.”  It is an unnerving word of the Lord that pulls the rug out from under us.  In an unpredictable, dangerous, and changing world, most of us long to cling to a God who is unchanging, whose will never wavers, whose promises are eternal, whose providence rules all nature, and whose acts are predictable.  We do not want to hear God say, “I will change my mind.”  It is much more comforting to believe that God’s mind is made up for all time and that whatever we do, God’s will and God’s ways will remain constant. 

     We might as well admit that this view of God as changeless makes our lives a whole lot easier.  If we can lock down God’s personality and purposes, and if we can assume that we understand and can predict what God is going to do, then life is greatly simplified.  In the process of relieving our own stress and responsibility, however, we will have simplified and domesticated God.  We will have created a God who could never surprise us by saying, “I will change my mind.”

     How many of you have never changed your minds?  Parents, have you never had to adapt and change to accommodate your children’s needs?  Students, have you never learned anything new and changed your perspective?  Workers, have you never figured out a better way to do your job?  Retired folks, have you not watched the world change around you for many decades and so changed your minds about what is really important and what makes life worth living?  In all of these instances, changing your mind is part of what it means to be human.  If you never changed your mind, you would never grow, you wouldn’t be able to sustain any relationships, and you would soon resemble a block of wood rather than a living, rational being created in God’s image.

     That is not to say that people don’t resist the often painful process of changing their minds.  It is easier to be rigid, absolutist, and unbending.  It is simpler to trot out platitudes till your dying day.  It’s more comforting to cling uncritically to half-understood Sunday School ideas about faith and about Jesus than it is to have to mature in your understandings and be challenged by a living God who may and probably will surprise you and try to change your mind.  Same old, same old is a lazy way to live your life, and it is not the kind of attitude that will keep relationships alive, or minds thriving, or faith vibrant and growing.

     Our son, Gordon, the philosopher, is all about asking questions like:  How do you know?  What does that mean?  Can you look at that from a different perspective?  What if…?  When is that not the case?  What are your assumptions, and how do you justify them?  If you don’t regularly ask questions like these, then you are not open to the possibility of changing your mind. 

     At a meeting of the West Branch of our Presbytery this week, we were invited to ponder and discuss this important verse from the 12th chapter of Romans.  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  This is what it means to be in a relationship with the living God.  We will be transformed by the renewing of our minds, but only if we are willing to have God change our minds as we ask those questions and so discern God’s will for us and for the world.  It goes without saying that we will be surprised and changed in the process.

     It may seem as if we have wandered far from our Scripture reading in Jeremiah.  But we are just now ready and fortified to hear the challenge of that text and to recognize that we can’t avoid the impact that it must have on our lives and our world.  “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words,” the Lord said to Jeremiah.  Perhaps unsuspectingly, Jeremiah went along to the local potter’s workshop.  There he found the master artisan working to form vessels out of clay.  Obviously, clay is malleable and can be shaped into pots or jugs, cups or plates.  Jeremiah watches as the potter creates his wares from formless lumps of clay, working and reworking, forming and reforming each vessel.  “Then,” Jeremiah writes, “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.  Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.” 

     As a prophet, this would have made perfect sense to Jeremiah.  The prophets were God’s spokesmen and God’s instruments, and they were constantly being molded and shaped into vessels that would carry and communicate, in word and deed, the declarations of God.  They were well aware of the freedom of God to change his mind, to “pluck up and break down and destroy” or to “build and plant.”  It is not God’s way to create either an individual or a nation and then leave it to its own devices.  The Creator God, like the potter, is constantly reworking the clay and refashioning people and nations into more perfect vessels for his will.  

     When people and nations reject God’s will, our Almighty Potter is not simply lumbered with a favored nation turned rebellious or a chosen individual who is no longer responsive to God’s call.  The Bible is an extended record of nations, kings, and ordinary individuals, once chosen, but then rejected because of their own rejection of God.  We must note that this does not mean that God is fickle – now I love you, now I don’t.  Clearly, the Bible shows us that God is persistent and determined, like the potter, and will work hard to mold and remold the clay in accordance with his will. 

     But when the clay dries and hardens, that is more of a challenge.  When it becomes set in its ways, so to speak, that transformation is much harder.  When individuals or nations become self-satisfied and complaisant, when they start making assumptions about God and claiming some independence and self-sufficiency, then the living relationship that they have with God also becomes brittle and unchanging.  Time and again, in Israel’s history, God had to break down in order to build up.  Time and again, in our lives, God has to rework the clay so as to form a truer vessel, so as to renew our relationship with God, so as to surprise us and change our minds.  But both individuals and nations bear a responsibility to respond to the hands of the Divine Potter who could and has changed his mind and abandoned lumps of unworkable clay.

     I can remember my grandmother telling me before she died at age 100 that she had witnessed phenomenal changes in the span of her lifetime.  She was born in the age of the horse and buggy, and well before she died a man had walked on the moon.  Perhaps you need a 100 year vantage point to appreciate how much can change and must change as God’s will unfolds.  Either that, or you need to be listening to God’s prophets, the heralds of God’s transforming activity in the world and in our lives. 

     We are used to thinking of God as our creator, and as the creator of earth and sky, ladybugs and dinosaurs, stars and atoms.  Jeremiah’s prophesy reminds us that God is also our re-creator and the re-creator of nature and nations, history and the relationship that we all have with God in Jesus Christ.  This re-creating God acts in total freedom, so prepare to be surprised.  No matter whether the clay of our lives and of nations and nature is dry and hard or supple and responsive to God’s touch, change will happen.  The question which this passage from Jeremiah poses for us is this:  to what extent are we as individuals, as a church, and as a nation willing to be clay in his hands.