The Potter and the Clay

So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.
The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
(Jerimiah 18:3-4)

“You are the potter; I am the clay”.

This is, no doubt, one of the more familiar images we have to describe our relationship to God, his patience with us, and his fearful-but-wonderful ability to re-shape us and re-fashion us for his service.

It’s a beautiful image that has been used again and again in hymns and songs, especially in the last 50 years, as we sang just a few minutes ago.

Yet, if we’re going to allow ourselves to learn from the wisdom handed down to us in the scriptures as interpreted by the Church, we have to be careful; we have to be careful not to let romanticism or cozy sentimentality cloud our understanding of these powerful words.

In our lesson from Jeremiah chapter 18 we have a powerful image, but if we’re to understand it, we have to be careful not to let our modern circumstances get in the way.

Jeremiah is called by God to visit a potter’s workshop, where God, by his Spirit, gives him a word of caution to speak to a people who have forgotten their covenant with God – a people who have done the rites and rituals required of them, but whose actions and attitudes don’t match their words; it would be like someone who is baptized, who has promised to turn away from evil, to proclaim the good news of forgiveness in Jesus by word and example, and to love your neighbour as yourself, but whose life doesn’t match those lofty words.

It’s in this context that we find the image of the potter and the clay.

And it’s important, too, that we take a second and allow the image to sink in.

Maybe you, like me, have had a chance to visit a pottery studio.  In our day, potters are artists, specializing in vases and ornamental work; the studio I visited was pristine – beautiful art on the walls, a nice area where you could stand and watch the potter working at the wheel, while the finished pieces baked behind the glass of a kiln at the back.

But, we have to be careful not to let our own experience cloud the message.

The potter in Jeremiah’s day is not an artist, but a tradesperson working to keep a city functioning, and the product is not something beautiful to admire on a shelf, but the everyday stuff that makes life possible – clay jars to store flour and oil to preserve the harvest so that the people survive the winter; pots for cooking soups and stews to stretch you meat and vegetables to feed a family; even chamber pots and, in Jeremiah’s day, ceramic pipes to direct waste into the sewer.

This is no beautiful, romantic image of an artist in a pristine art gallery.

The potter works tirelessly under the heat of the Mediterranean sun; it’s sweaty work, mixing the mud and turning the wheel by hand; the potter is covered head to toe in sticky clay, as the workshop attached to his house is filled with the bitter smoke of the fire in the kiln, as he lives and works in the industrial part of town, alongside the slaughterhouse, the butcher, and the tanner. 

God with us.

And this, my friends, is the image of God that Jeremiah gives us.

Yes, God is Almighty; yes, he alone is above all kings and powers, and worthy of all worship; but, in spite of that, our God gets his hands dirty. Our God is not limited to the palace, though he’s a great king, but is found in the dirty workshop on the outskirts of town, intimately involved in fashioning the everyday, commonplace vessels needed for everyday life in the city of God.

This is no artist working in a rarefied, gleaming gallery; this is a skilled craftsman who makes what is needed for the city to thrive.

You are the potter, I am the clay.

It’s important, too, that we remember what that means.

While much of Christianity in the last century has focused, perhaps overly so, on us as individuals, the clay is again a powerful image to remind us of our relationship with God.

You see, at no point does the potter need the clay’s permission to remould it.

Think about that for a second.

While it runs counter to the individualism and freedom that we so often enjoy, what potter looks at the clay and says, “is it alright if I mould you today?”. 

Imagine your neighbour buys some lumber to build a fence, and you look out, and there they are, picking up each piece, holding it close to their face, and asking, “is it alright if I cut a few inches off to make you fit?”, or “would you to stand upright, or would you rather be a horizontal beam?”.

That’s ridiculous! 

But that’s also the point that is being made in Jeremiah.

Verse 6: “Can I not do with you” – my covenant people – “just as this potter has done?  Just like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand”.

No, the potter, a skilled and careful master at their trade, takes the lump of clay and sets out to turn it, to mould it, to shape it into something useful; the potter’s desire is to take that raw clay and give it a purpose.

The potter takes what the world looks at as dirt, but the potter knows its value. and skillfully, lovingly, brings that value to the surface as it is shaped to do the work that the potter intends.

And, in these terms, in this context, the image of the clay and the potter takes on a different light. 

Uncooperative Clay

In Jeremiah, we’re told that the clay is not cooperating with what the potter has in mind.  The potter set to work, but they clay was spoiled – as the clay is moulded, it dries out, it cracks, it won’t hold its shape.

But the potter isn’t wasteful; the potter doesn’t throw tantrums because of the wasted effort.

The potter, calmly, as a skilled master, simply pushes the spoiled clay back into a ball, washes it, pours on water to make it malleable again, and reworks it, again and again, until the clay takes the shape that the potter intends.

You are the potter, I am the clay.

If that’s true, then God is – even now – shaping you and me into a vessel that serves a purpose in his Kingdom.

He doesn’t need our permission, and our loving, patient God is working on every one of us, every person made in his image, whom he loves, and for whom he is willing to leave his throne and get his hands dirty.

Our call, though, as the Lord said to Jeremiah, is to cooperate as he shapes us by his hand.

Israel was given the covenant which was intended bless them, but, in the days of Jeremiah, they had forgotten that their obedience wasn’t just about rites and rituals, but about their actions and attitudes; the clay was drying out and wouldn’t keep its shape.

Our New Testament lessons today call us to cooperate, making the hard decisions asked of us under the New Covenant. 

To make the decision to put pride aside, and to welcome back those who have wronged us as a brother or sister.  The decision to prioritize and to trust in God, and to realize that, so often, we take the blessings that God has given us – family, talents, possessions – and turn those blessings into idols, or allow them to become badges of pride, as though one lump of clay sitting on the potter’s wheel could look down at another, when both are a work in progress.

The Cost of Discipleship

Our call is to cooperate – “to count the cost”, realizing that whenever we let go of those blessings that we have idolized – whether it’s the wealth and power to build a tower, or whether it’s the wholesome, God-given blessings of family – whenever we let go of our grip on what God has given us, we’ll find that we’re able to really receive the peace of Christ, to receive forgiveness for the past failings that we’ve been clinging to, and to find that – to our amazement – the potter is never done with us; when we’re broken down, when we’re worn out, he doesn’t throw us away, but reshapes us and gives us a purpose in his Kingdom. 

Our call is to count the cost and be a disciple.  When we’re worn out, when we’re exhausted, when we’re dried up, trying to resist the potter’s hands, we hear the call of Jesus to give up everything – mother, father, family, and even life itself.  And that sounds crazy.  But, you see, when we’re resisting the hands of the potter, it feels like to give in, to let God reshape us, will cost us everything. 

But, in the hands of the potter, cooperation with the will of God doesn’t cost us anything except our pride.

Let us pray:

Have thine own way, Lord.
You are the potter, and I am the clay.
Mould me, and make me after your will;
Fill me with your Spirit,
Till all shall see Christ:
only, always living in me.  Amen.

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