In the Potter’s Hands

Scripture:  Jeremiah 18:1-11

Over the past couple of years, a lot of people have found themselves with a bit more time on their hands for obvious reasons.  One of the things that a decent number of people did with that time is they invested it into writing.  In late 2020 through 2021 publishing houses saw a huge uptick in new submission and literary agents fielded record numbers of inquiries from first time authors looking for representation.  This also led to a number of online writing conferences springing up as well as published authors seeking to share advice with all of the newly aspiring authors.  There is one piece of writing advice though that may be a little more important than all of the others.  In fact, it is so important that it is sometimes called the golden rule of writing, and that is “show don’t tell.”  The idea is that a writer should convey their story through sensory images and not just flat exposition.    19th Century Russian short story writer and playwright Anton Chekov summed up this rule perhaps the best when he once wrote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

The difference between a news report and novel is the whole idea of showing and not telling.  A news report gives just the facts and only the facts in a neatly organized inverted pyramid, but a well written story makes you feel it because it shows you and just does not tell you.   Show don’t tell is what makes the best novels connect with us, stick with us, and in the truly special examples change us.   Show don’t tell is an incredibly effective and proven writing strategy, so it should not surprise us that it is also biblical.   In the Old Testament God communicated to the people through prophets.   These chosen people used their voice to communicate God’s divine revelation.   Yet, we see time and time again in the writings of the prophets that God opts to use the show don’t tell principle.   This morning’s scripture from Jeremiah is one such example.   God did not just tell Jeremiah what to say, God showed Jeremiah by directing him to the potter’s house.  This scripture has created an enduring image of God as the potter.   We find this image come up a lot in our religious expression.  For instance, we sang today “You are the potter, I am the clay”. The image of God as the potter and us as the vessels can be a common faith expression.  The image of God as the potter is popular because it is poetic, it fits with the “show don’t tell” principle.  Yet I think we lose something when we remove that image from the rest of this morning’s scripture, because as a whole this morning’s scripture communicated why we should be willing to trust ourselves in the hands of the potter.

Several years ago I attended an event called “Our Life Together” this is an annual clergy gathering for United Methodist clergy in Indiana.   On this particular year, the organizing committee went all-in on this image as God as the potter.  They brought in a couple who traveled the church speaker circuit with a pottery gimmick.   The man of the duo was an artisanal potter.  He would have his pottery wheel on stage and make a pot.   He would explain parts of the mechanical process and then the woman of the pair would talk to make the scriptural connections.  Again, it was an effective example of show don’t tell.   But I have to be honest, when it came to talking about this morning’s scripture their presentation did not have the desired effect.  At least for me.   They really focused on verses 4 and 5 from this morning’s scripture: “But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.  Then the word of the Lord came to me.  He said, “Can I not do with you Israel as this potter does?”

In this couple’s presentation the potter intentionally marred a pot, he made it so it is off balance, not symmetrical, and it had a warble as it spun on the wheel.  Despite its imperfection, it had taken shape.  It was not pretty but it was serviceable.  Despite that, the potter smashed the clay back down quickly and mercilessly, destroying the emerging form it had in its entirety.   He then began to shape a new pot, it was a more perfect pot, but it was a completely different pot with a vastly different shape.   She made the point that this is how God refines us.  They moved on with their presentation, but I didn’t.  I was stuck on what I just witnessed, and I was not really comfortable with it or what their visual metaphor implied.

What bothered me was the brutality and finality with which the potter squished the malformed pot back to a shapeless lump of clay.  It bothered me that there was no attempt to fix the imperfection and it bothered me that when the potter started back up he did not attempt to recreate the same pot but rather made something completely new.   It bothered me that the pot had no agency, it had no say if it wanted to be reformed, it had no chance to have its imperfections fixed before it was completely squashed and forcibly made into something else with no say in the matter.   Now I realized that I was stretching the metaphor a little, because a lump of clay has no agency, but that was kind of my issue.

The way that I saw this morning’s scripture presented on that stage by the potter bothered me, because it seemed to imply that if God is the potter and we are the clay, then we have no agency.   It seems to imply that if we do not meet whatever capricious standard is set than we be squashed down, we can forcibly be made into something else with no voice, not vote, and no choice.   The metaphor that was shown and not told was one where God’s will is absolute and we have no free will, God’s power is absolute and as God’s creation we can be created, shaped, or destroyed on a whim. The relationship between the potter and the clay that was displayed was not one that I would consider loving or caring.   What I saw displayed on that day, ran contrary to what I had been taught, believed, and experienced as a God as a loving God who wants to be in relationship with us.

I think I took issue with what they were saying because in their presentation they were proof-texting.  They took two verses out of this morning’s scripture, and considered those in isolation.   In doing so I think they lost the greater point of this morning’s scripture.  This morning’s scripture from Jeremiah was not meant to describe our relationship to God as ball of clay in the potter’s hand.   This morning’s scripture is part of the great prophetic tradition of warning the Israelites.   Often we think of prophecy as a future event that has been foretold and is destined to happen, but that is often not how the words of the prophets actually function.   The prophets tend to warn the people, the prophets call to the people to turn back to God, and that is what is happening in this scripture.

Notice, that this morning scripture does not state that God shapes us like a potter shapes clay as a statement of fact.    It posits the idea as a rhetorical question, through Jeremiah God says “Can I not do with you Israel as this potter does?”   God did not say, this is what God does.  God made clear that God has the power to do so.  What follows are three “if” statements.    In these statements, it is made clear that the people have a choice to follow God or not.   God took Jeremiah to the potter’s house not to make a statement that the way he deals with people is be reshaping them whether they want to or not.   God took Jeremiah to the potter’s house to show not tell the power that God has, and then to offer the Israelites that they can avoid the full judgement and wrath of this power if they as verse 11 states, “turn from your evil ways, each one of you and reform your ways and your actions.”

This scripture is not about how God shapes us like clay, whether we want to be shaped or not.  This morning’s scripture is not about God’s sovereignty to make creation the way God wants it, but rather this morning’s scripture is about God’s mercy.  God has the absolute power to do what God wants.  God has the power to make each and every one of us perfect, flawless copies that are all the same and are never out of line.  However, if God forcibly made us that then there is no relationship.  There is no choice to say yes to God’s yes, and there is no love.   God has the power to create us, destroy us, or forcibly remake us, but God wants to love us and be in relationship with us.  That is what we see in this scripture, God makes known how powerful he is, but instead of using that power God gives us the choice to turn from our evil ways and turn to God instead.

The image of God as the potter and us as the clay is a powerful image that shows instead of tells.  It shows how God is hands on with each of us and it shows how God can mold and shape us, but it is also an incomplete image.   Because we are not just balls of clay.  We are precious creations of God, fearfully and wonderfully made.  Through his son Jesus, God invites us into relationship.   We do not have to worry about being squashed by an almighty God because we are imperfect, because God offers us a choice of mercy and grace.    The beautiful thing about grace is that grace is what puts in the potters hands.   We choose to respond to the love of God which forgives us without question, which is patient with us, which abounds in kindness, which is unlimited and amazing.   This is the compassion that Jesus modeled, this is the love displayed on the cross.   When we respond to that love and truly experience it then we want to turn from our evil ways, we want to reform our ways and actions, we want to be transformed.

Through grace we can be in the hands of the potter, through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit we can molded, shaped, and filled to be more like Jesus.  God makes beautiful things, and God can make us new.  Yet this is not compelled, this is not forced, this is an invitation into relationship.  It is an invitation to willing put ourselves into the hands of the heavenly potter.  It is an invitation to trust the very hands that stretched out for us on the cross.

Friends, I do not want to make any assumptions.  Perhaps you have always believed to be compelled by God, perhaps you are here today because you feel you have no choice or agency in the matter.   Perhaps your acts of faithful piety have all been because you fear being squashed by God.   Perhaps you have never truly accepted the invitation offered to you.   Let me be perfectly clear, God offers us all a choice to respond to God’s grace and love.  In this morning’s scripture God offers the nation of Israel that choice yet again, and God offer each of us that choice as well.  If you have not yet said yes to God’s yes, then it is my prayer that you will do so.  It is my prayer that you will accept the invitation of mercy and grace that God, our creator offers us.

So may you know that even while God is powerful enough to squash us and override our will, God does not do that because our God is a God of love.  Our God is a God of grace and mercy.  May you know that God our Creator wants to be in a relationship with you.  May you know that you have been invited into the hands of the potter.   Whether you have saved by Christ for decades or you have not yet said yes to God’s yes, may you continually respond to that invitation, may you be transformed by grace, and may you become a more beautiful creation of God.


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