Wednesday, March 18, 2015

God the Potter; We the Clay

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

What does it mean for God to change God’s mind? We read about that several times in the bible. It happens when Moses pleads with God, and God “relents of the disaster that he intended to bring upon the people” (Exodus 32:14). And it happens again in today’s reading from Jeremiah, when God says to the prophet, “If that [evil] nation…turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it” (18:1-11). But what does that really mean? For us—not for God—what does it mean for God to change God’s mind?

God asks the prophet to accompany him to the potter’s house, and, while standing there looking at the potter throwing a pot on his wheel, the Lord says, “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?” In some ways, it is a beautiful image—to think of God’s people as the clay that God uses to make a piece of art or something useful in the kitchen. Not long ago, my parents bought a bowl from a potter in North Carolina, and it has quickly become a cherished possession. If you look carefully, you can see how the artist shaped the clay before firing it and glazing it. The concentric circular marks all along the vessel remind us of the time and skill and care that the potter used to make the bowl. So, too, do we enjoy thinking of our relationship with God like that—that he molds us into something worth beholding.

But there is one powerful and consequential limit to that image: the potter shapes the clay with zero regard for what the clay wants to become. That might seem obvious to us. In fact, the prophet Isaiah explores that very aspect of the potter/clay relationship in Isaiah 29:16: “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’? If we are going to be the Lord’s handiwork, we need to accept that he is the potter—not us.

Sometimes things don’t work out the way they should. The underdog fumbles on the goal line and barely misses beating its rival. The Cinderella team makes it to the Sweet 16 but doesn’t have what it takes to make it further in the tournament. Relationships that have lasted for decades sometimes fall apart. Cancers come back even after a long remission. Even when we are certain that we know what the right thing is—what God’s will is—sometimes it doesn’t happen that way.

Does God change his mind? Well, it depend on whom you ask. Other places in the bible (like Malachi 3:6) make it clear that God does not change. To me, it seems like there are times when the only way we can explain an about-face—a gap between our understanding and God’s understanding—is to say that God has changed his mind…even if that doesn’t really make sense. And the good news is that God can handle our incorrect approximations.

Through it all, however, we are taught that God is God and we are not. It’s the first lesson in life: we are not in control. Learning that—accepting that—makes it possible for God to do wonderful, beautiful, remarkable things with us…even if they aren’t the things we were expecting.

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