Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection June 28, 2020
"On the Potter’s Wheel" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
Two weeks ago, Sunday, June 7, I preached on the great prophet Jeremiah. I’ve decided to write further about Jeremiah in this week‘s Advance. I’ve recently grown to appreciate Jeremiah in a much-deeper way. And so more reflection!
As we know, Jeremiah was active in the years leading up to the destruction of Judah, Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. That event, coupled with the exile of over 10,000 Jewish people, is the second most important event chronicled in the Old Testament after the Exodus.
The Babylonian conquest and the subsequent 60 to 70 years of exile in Babylon shook the Israelites like nothing else up to that point. What had gone wrong? Why had God let them lose the land that had been promised them? Was their God weaker than the gods of the Babylonians? The days of the Captivity were very dark days as the exiles pondered such disturbing questions. (I spoke about some answers from the prophet Ezekiel this past Sunday).
It was during the Babylonian Captivity that much of the Old Testament as we know it began to be put together. It was also during the Captivity that the Jewish people began to be very concerned with keeping their identity in a foreign land. Paying stricter attention to kosher laws and careful observance of the Sabbath was much more evident.
The Jewish people in Exile did not want to become lost in the land of Babylon. They fought against what is called enculturation, a process by which immigrants or exiles lose their native identity when living in a foreign culture.
The Jews in Exile knew if they gave up their traditions and history, they could well disappear as a distinct people. This was a very real possibility facing the Jewish people in Babylonian Captivity.
But they did not lose their culture. They did not lose their religion. They banded together in Exile and survived as a distinct people. When the Exile ended in 538 B.C., Jewish people returned to the land of their ancestors and began to live in their ancestral land once again.
The Exile ended because the Persian king, Cyrus, conquered the Babylonians. Cyrus was declared to be God’s anointed in Isaiah chapter 45:1, (I’ll be preaching about 2nd Isaiah this coming Sunday, June 28). Cyrus allowed anyone held in captivity to return to their homelands.
Many of the Jewish people living in Babylon stayed there after the end of their captivity. They had been living in Babylon for two generations and did not want to travel back to the war-ravished and poverty-stricken country of their ancestors. Jewish people would henceforth be found in many places besides their homeland. This dispersal of the Jewish people is known as the Diaspora, a Greek word for “scattering.”
In chapter 18 of Jeremiah, God brings Jeremiah to a potter’s house to watch the potter work with clay. The first clay vessel the potter tried to fashion fails, which was not uncommon. So the potter takes the clay and makes it anew into a vessel that would work as intended by the mind of the potter.
The message Jeremiah receives is a very clear one. God works the same way as the potter. If something doesn’t work right, God will remake it, reshape it, into something new.
What this analogy means is that God will always make something new out of our failure and our disappointment. This passage reveals a vital belief we share as believers in God. This belief is that God has always been and will always be shaping and molding us along with the rest of creation. God’s work as Potter never ends.
We might well keep in mind, though, that after the potter has fashioned a piece of pottery on the wheel, the kiln comes next - the fire awaits. When a potter shapes something out of clay, it must be placed in the kiln to harden. The hardened clay is then considered pottery. The potter can then add glazes or decorations to the pottery but then it’s back to the kiln, back to the fire. A piece of pottery might endure any number of “firings” in the kiln. And the kiln is hot, normally over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
In Isaiah 64, 8 we read: “O Lord … we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” This image of humans as clay, shaped by God is a very old image. The potter’s wheel is an ancient instrument, perhaps 10,000 years old. So we may well have this imagery of being clay in the hands of God deep within our collective human memory.
I believe that we are continually being shaped and reshaped by our God, by our Creator. When are we done? When is a human person finally finished? When does God stop working on us? I don’t know the answer but it seems God never tires of working on us, adding more glaze, adding a touch of gold here and there. And every time something new is added, we must be returned to the kiln, returned to the fire!
I know God has never stopped working on me, trying to rid me of the many imperfections mingled throughout my human nature. When I was formed in my mother’s womb, God saw what I could become. And I believe God has never ceased trying to fashion me, to form me, into who God envisioned me becoming.
God creates everything with a divine eye to perfection. It’s obvious I’m a long way from perfection. But imagine what I can become as God continues God’s creative shaping, the divine Potter’s work, throughout time. God is not nearly done with me.
And God is not nearly done with any of us. While I’m close to the end of my time as pastor of our beloved congregation, I don’t believe the creative fashioning at the hands of the Divine Potter will ever cease, individually or collectively.
And just as I know that God is not done with me (and may never be done with me!), so God is not nearly done with our beloved church. As a beloved congregation, we help each other move along into the perfection God has in mind for us.
God cannot leave us alone. God cannot keep God’s holy hands off any of us. God is the Potter. We are the clay. God has been working everywhere through time expanse of time to fashion creation into the fullness of God’s intention.
Just as the potter at the wheel has an image in mind of what he or she wishes to create, so it is with God. God has been hard at work all these many years since creation first exploded into the primordial emptiness, the nothingness existing before God spoke the words of creation.
When I taught at Moraine Valley Community College, I began each course with the question of how old the universe is. If we were to have a birthday party for the universe, for God’s astonishing cosmos, how many candles would we put on the cake? A lot to be sure! But what is science’s best estimate for the age of our universe?
Not many years ago, with the help of a NASA space microwave probe known as WAMP, we’ve garnered a pretty good guess at the age of the cosmos. The age is 13.75 billion years old.
I hope the age of our universe doesn’t startle or unsettle anyone. I’ve been teaching and preaching this throughout my over 12 years at our church. Yet there are some who still crazily argue the universe is only about 6,000 or 7,000 years old. But there’s too much sound scientific evidence abounding to honestly hold such a position.
We all need to pay attention to what good science tells us, what good science teaches us. Science helps describe what is. Religion, our faith, helps us find meaning in what is. Science and religion should not be enemies. They both share in God’s continual revelation.
Science should do what it does best which is to describe our reality. Religion should do what it does best which is to seek to understand and participate in the mystery surrounding reality.
Now we can be easily overwhelmed by the immense age and expanse of creation. Has God been hard at work for these 13 billion 750 million years? Yes, indeed. God the Almighty Potter has been fashioning and shaping God’s beloved creation for all these years.
We may well blanch a bit at the length and breadth of creation but it might help us to recall Psalm 90, verse 4: “For a thousand years in your sight, O Lord, are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” God is both immersed in time and yet also beyond time.
I certainly don’t understand how God experiences time. I am, after all, a humble pastor. Yet one thing I do know, as Jeremiah learned at the potter’s house, God never stops working. Our God never stops loving everything God has made. Our God never stops shaping everything and everyone toward the perfection God has intended. God is surely not done with me nor is God done with our congregation.
And just as the clay on the potter’s wheel must yield to the gentle hands of the potter, so we must yield to the gentle hands of our Creator. Just as the clay must trust the gentle hands of the potter, so we must trust the gentle hands of our Creator. I say without hesitation, God is making us into something beautiful beyond the power of my words to describe.
Unfortunately, we’ll soon need to go our separate ways. Yet I believe God will hold us linked together throughout time. I will never forget our beloved church. I hope I will be remember with a certain fondness as the time-gap between us widens. But together let us fully, faithfully, trust the hands of our divine, our loving, our perfect Potter.