I took my shot at becoming a potter. When I was in high school art class, we spent an entire quarter working with clay. And I thought I was pretty good at it. I took my clay and with a little practice I was able to form it into a bowl. Not a perfect bowl, but good enough build my confidence. The next step, of course, was to glaze it. Easy enough. I painted several coats of glaze on my bowl and let it dry. And then, the final step; firing. So, into the kiln it went. But when it came time to remove the finished bowl from the kiln, to my dismay, my bowl had shattered. Apparently, I hadn’t gotten all the air bubbles out of the clay.
I share this story with you today, on this the second Sunday of Advent, a day when we both celebrate and long for peace, because like my adventure in art class, peace can be tricky. Just when we think we might be making progress, just when we get a little confidence, something shatters our bowl. Maybe my health takes a left turn, or maybe my child makes a bad decision, or my spouse decides the grass-is-greener somewhere else; and whatever peace I think I may have fashioned, shatters in a moment.
Or on an even larger scale, when the world seems like it may be moving just a little closer to finding a way to peace, when we begin to at least have the conversation about protecting the environment, or feeding the hungry, or housing displaced refugees, someone’s agenda gets in the way. And it’s then that the shouts of hate and divisiveness, and the echo of bombs and bullets overcome these whispers of peace.
And when these things happen, when our individual or collective bowls are shattered, we are tempted to throw up our hands and shout to the heavens, “Where’s God in all this?” “Isn’t God supposed to be about love?” “Where’s the cotton-picken love?” And on first blush, Jeremiah doesn’t seem to provide much comfort, does he? He writes,
So, I went down to the potter’s house; he was working on the potter’s wheel. But the piece he was making was flawed while still in his hands, So, the potter started on another, as seemed best to him
Now, this is a familiar passage, isn’t it? But this illustration about “The Potter and the Clay” seems to reinforce our consternation and turn the idea of a loving God on its head. I read an interpretation this week that claimed this text, “…is a vivid reminder that, depending on human response, God is capable not only of intending good and evil toward humanity, but also of changing the divine mind about pending doom and blessings.”[i] One might read this passage and once again ask, “Where’s the love?”
Now, while I would agree that there are times when tough love is necessary to bring healing and reverse the effects of poor and selfish decisions; poor and selfish decisions we have made personally and as a nation. But the idea that God’s wills evil and doom for humanity doesn’t square with the God we know through Christ. Instead, I contend that there’s two distinct things going on here.
First, Jeremiah was reflecting on an event that had already happened or at the very least was in the process of happening. And that event was the exile. The exile was a point in the history when the peace and security of Jeremiah’s people had been shattered like my bowl. And what’s even worse, they felt that they had fallen out of favor with God. And for a nation that saw itself as God’s chosen ones, nothing could be more upsetting than to lose God’s favor. R. E. Clements puts the matter succinctly, “Can it be thought that God would permit, let alone ordain, the destruction of Israel when they are [God’s chosen] people?”[ii]
So, there’s a real crisis of faith looming behind this text. Jeremiah’s community held to what has become known as a “temple theology.” A temple theology says that bad things could not, would not happen to Israel because they were under the protection of God and the temple.[iii] And when that theology failed them, and as they were being marched from their homes into captivity, when the peace and security of the temple was no more, they must have wondered, “Where’s God in all this?”
But here’s the thing. God’s love was there, expressed, in the refashioning of the clay in the hand of God the potter. How do I know this? Well, it’s important for us to consider that the Hebrew word translated as “potter” in this text is based on the more general verb, yatsar, which literally means “to fashion” or “to form.” So, “the fashioner” could be a literal translation of the image of God here. But why is this important? It’s important because it’s no accident that “yatsar” is the same verb used in Genesis 2:7 when the author gave us the image of God, kneeling in the dust of the earth and grabbing a piece of moistened clay, from which God fashioned the first human being.[iv]
So, it stands to reason then, that this image of God as Potter, Fashioner, must have paralleled with God the Creator in the mind of Jeremiah. Which leads us into the second thing going on here; Jeremiah is illustrating for us that God’s creation is an on-going process. He’s saying that God the Potter can take whatever evil humanity can devise; whatever misfortunes come our way, even those that are beyond our control; that God can take whatever we do to destroy peace, and reshape it, refashion it, into something good. Will that process of refashioning be painful? Perhaps. But ultimately, the reshaping of our mistakes, the shattering of our bowls, leads to more peace, more kindness, more cooperation between human beings and nations. And we have a term for this refashioning: grace.
And its grace that take us full circle, back into my high school art class. You see, when my bowl shattered, I should have been given a failing grade. That’s what I deserved. But the teacher, Ms. Marquart, was far too gracious to let that happen. Instead, she took the time to help me create a new bowl, one with no air bubbles, one that withstood the firing process, and which in the end, was far more beautiful than my original one.
And the same it true of God. God’s grace will take the time to show us a better way. Is it more than we deserve? Probably. But through prayer, discernment, reason, and by listening for the Still-Speaking voice of God in the world today, we can and will be refashioned. And here’s the best part. Not only is God still at work refashioning us and the world; God, through the Advent of Christ, is inviting us to become co-creators. When the Christ-child was born in that manger all those years ago, God was saying to us, “come and refashion this world with me.” The incarnate God chose to become like us, to walk with us, to teach us, and finally to demonstrate unconditional love for us by giving his life on the cross. And all of this so that we might see and emulate God ways of justice, and equality, lovingkindness, and yes, peace.
It’s kind of like the song says, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me, let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be.” In this Season of Advent, my prayer for all of us, is that we might seek “the peace that meant to be” by following the example of the Prince of Peace himself and by letting the peace of God reshape and refashion our hearts as seems good to God. And with these refashioned hearts, may we all go out in the name of Christ, sharing the grace and love of our Risen and Living “Fashioner” May it be so. Amen.
[i] Alphonetta Wines, Thinking the Unthinkable: God as Enemy (PhD diss., TCU, 2011) pg. 58
[ii] R. E. Clements, Jeremiah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988) pgs. 112-113.
[iii] Ibid. Wines. 58