Read Jeremiah 18:1-18
A few years ago, I came into the church building after having been away for a couple days. Something didn’t seem right. There was an odor that greeted me at the front door. It wasn’t evergreen or peppermint as one might expect since the Christmas decorations had not yet been taken down. It was worse. Perhaps there was a dead mouse somewhere in the building.
I walked towards the fellowship hall. The odor intensified. This was no dead mouse—a herd of dead mice, maybe—but no single rodent could produce this odor. It was downright putrid. I continued to the storeroom and opened the door. The odor had supplanted all of the breathable air. I had to step back and regain my breath before I could continue.
I knew what this was. A few years earlier I had returned from a trip to the East Coast only to find that our freezer had died. It had been full of meat. It had obviously not been frozen or refrigerated for at least a week.
That sort of odor sticks with you.
As I entered the storeroom at the church, I discovered the door to the freezer had been left ajar. The cooling and freezing functions could not compete with the warm air being blown into the room. The three turkeys that were left over from Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets existed in that state between refrigerated and cooked otherwise known as spoiled.
Surely something that would gag a maggot.
Everything was spoiled.
Needless to say on those two days, my plans were changed from unpacking from vacation and preparing the sermon for the week to come to cleaning and airing out.
Spoiled is spoiled.
About a dozen years ago on Memorial Day weekend, I watched a storm roll in from the East. It was quite a storm complete with very high winds and large hail. A couple years earlier, we had added a solarium on the north side of our house.
The wind crushed this room into a little ball, lifted it over my house, and dropped it on both of my vehicles. The storm then proceeded to peel my tar and gravel roof off and deposit it at various places in the neighborhood.
What a mess.
The solarium was destroyed—spoiled—marred if you will.
The roof was totaled.
It was something of a disaster.
But today I have a new roof. Actually, this is the second new roof I acquired since that first storm. It seems like if you live in western Oklahoma, you get a new roof every 7 or 8 years.
The house was surely marred and then reworked.
The last round of high winds and storms that came through a month ago—the one with hail that moved sideways—knocked out a bunch of my windows. They are still broken now, but soon there will be new windows in their place.
Donna, Cleo, Betsy, Andrew, Katrina, and Sandy. Do you remember these?
If you lived on the Atlantic or Gulf coasts, they would surely ring a bell or two. These were devastating hurricanes that turned prime real estate into rubble.
Moore, Joplin, Tuscaloosa, Moore. Do you remember these?
These disasters are closer to home for some. Wonderful homes with fences and basketball goals one moment and rubble the next. Thriving businesses with hopes of a long and prosperous future reduced to nothing in moments.
These words seem inadequate to describe what was left.
But what do you see in these places today?
People started over.
God awakens Jeremiah in this 18th chapter and tells him to get up and go receive his message.
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.”
If you will recall Jeremiah’s appointment as a prophet, he was just a little reluctant and full of excuses. By this time, Jeremiah was no longer wrestling with what God had called him to do.
So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel.
God told Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house and he went. God said go and he went.
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.
I can relate to this. With a 3-year old granddaughter, I have now re-entered the world of Play-Doh. I am asked to make something out of this colorful substance that generally conforms to the shape you intend. In my case, I emphasize the term generally. I often don’t recognize the end product when I set out to make something out of Play-Doh.
The good thing is that you can always just start over.
Jeremiah witnessed a tradesman practicing his craft. The pot that he was shaping was not coming out as it should. Some imperfection can be taken out along the way, but in this case the potter thought it best just to put the clay back into a big lump and start over.
And in this lump of clay that had been spoiled and was now being reworked came the prophecy of the Lord to the prophet Jeremiah.
Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
God’s people had been marred. They were spoiled. It seemed as if they had been discarded forever for the Babylonians had conquered their main city—Jerusalem—and deported and over the course of several years continued to deport almost anyone who could do anything productive. Before their eyes, the temple, the city, the city walls were being destroyed or soon to be destroyed and left in ruins and the people themselves truly knew what despair was.
You might look at the history of the world and reach this conclusion. Kingdoms come and kingdoms go. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
But these were God’s Chosen People.
They were the seed of Abraham.
They were delivered from bondage in Egypt by mighty acts of God.
They were witness to the provision and counsel of the Lord for 40 years in the wilderness.
They took possession of the Promised Land, to include dwellings that they didn’t build and vineyards that they didn’t plant.
And they did this against overwhelming odds, but it was the large people with large armies who were afraid as God’s people took what he had promised them.
And before Joshua’s death he challenged the people to choose whom they would worship and serve. Joshua told them that as far as he and his family were concerned, there wasn’t a choice. They would serve God.
Then the leaders of the land said that they would serve the one true God.
And they did, for a while, but it didn’t last.
God did not give up on his people. He sent prophets and warnings but the people would not listen. The leaders would not listen, and so God withdrew his protection from his people and used the ungodly armies of the day to execute the sentence of judgment.
And while God’s people were surely a stiffed necked people when it came to obeying God; they were also fully aware of what they had done. In many minds, this was the end.
This would be the end of God’s Chosen People, at least as a nation or a race or a group that would exert any influence upon a world that they were chosen to bless.
The people had hit rock bottom and they knew that what they had received was a just and very possibly a final judgment.
It was time for God to write off his chosen people. Their course of apostasy had alienated them from God forever.
Except that it had not. God was not through with his chosen people and so he told them:
If you are on the road to destruction and decide to make a U-turn; I am right there ready to welcome you home.
If you are enjoying my favor and decide to credit it to someone or something else; I will let you see what it is like to solo in this world for a while.
God—all knowing and all powerful God—tells his people through his prophet: If you will turn away from you sinful lives and turn your face back towards me, then you will find me right there ready to work with you.
And God’s people reply, “It’s hopeless. If we are all going to hell in a handbasket, then let’s enjoy the ride.”
And Jeremiah expressed the absurdity of it all. It is as if to ask, would you trade in your bottle of Evian for a bottle of filtered sewer water?
And when the people say, “Sure, I’ll take a six pack,” God says, “Then get ready for people who don’t even know me to shake their heads in astonishment at what you gave up.”
It is as if to say, “Get ready for the heathens and ungodly to laugh in your face and say, ‘Stupid is as stupid does.’”
But even though the message of God is that he is ready to restore his people if they will just turn away from their sin and turn their face back to him; the people will not listen. More than that, they despise the message.
What do they do?
They say, “Let’s get rid of this guy for if we don’t he is just going to keep on talking and we don’t like what he is saying.”
The law tells us we are defying God, but we can just not read the law or be where it is read.
The priests tell us to repent of our sin and make offerings of atonement, but we can just avoid the temple.
But this prophet is a pain in the neck as well as other parts. He is just going to keep on proclaiming God’s word which comes across as condemning what we are doing. We can’t hide from these words, so we had better just get this prophet out of the way.
It is the kind of thinking that says, “Let’s shoot the messenger.”
It is the sort of cognition that renders putting one’s head in the sand.
It is the line of reasoning that says, if we don’t hear the truth then it is not the truth.
Essentially, it is self-inflicted brainwashing.
For the truth was staring God’s people in the face. God’s favor was being withdrawn before their very eyes. Their choice—their obvious choice—was to turn back to God.
But they will reply, ‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; we will all follow the stubbornness of our evil hearts.’
We will follow the stubbornness of our evil hearts.
The stubbornness of our evil hearts.
Jeremiah has some Messianic prophecy in it, but mostly it is about the apostasy of God’s Chosen People and the consequences for continuing in their ungodly ways.
That is, until we read about following the stubbornness of evil hearts. That stubbornness transcends nationality, geography, and time; for within the human heart is the desire to serve only ourselves.
If we were to stop here, you might sleep easier tonight.
Because the doctrine of original sin becoming ancestral sin or even as Calvin would say, the total depravity of humankind really didn’t come into discussion until the second or third century and truly was not fully developed for another thousand years or so. For millennia, God’s Chosen People listened to and read the creation account and did not derive this doctrine of every person being born with sin or evil in their hearts.
That does not mean that we don’t have evil in our hearts. We do. It is there. Sometimes it prompts sinful actions. Sometimes it remains concupiscence and that is a matter of some discussion among Christians. Are the fleshly desires of our heart sin or just tinder for the flames of sin?
Our own Confession of Faith talks of Adam and Eve’s rebellion and that we also rebel, but does not go so far as to say that we are born with a sinful heart.
The Abuse of Freedom
2.03 In rejecting their dependence on God and in willful disobedience, the first human parents disrupted community with God, for which they had been created. They became inclined toward sin in all aspects of their being.
2.04 As did Adam and Eve, all persons rebel against God, lose the right relationship to God, and become slaves to sin and death. This condition becomes the source of all sinful attitudes and actions.
2.05 In willfully sinning all people become guilty before God and are under divine wrath and judgment, unless saved by God's grace through Jesus Christ.
2.06 The alienation of persons from God affects the rest of creation, so that the whole creation stands in need of God's redemption.
How can you look into a newborn baby’s eyes and say, “What a sweet face surrounding that sinful heart?”
We understand that God made all things good.
But we do profess that at some point we all rebel. We all fall short. We all give in to the temptations around us. We acknowledge that there is sin in the world and that the flesh is weak.
And so we come to the place where we know that sin and rebellion and just being in stubborn opposition to God has touched us all.
And sometimes we who know grace become judgmental of those who do not. Sometimes we forget that it took a mighty act of God to release us from our sin.
In Jeremiah’s time, that mighty act would be after 70 years of captivity. God would use Cyrus and the other leaders of the Persian empire to restore his chosen people.
Today, God stands ready to restore us one by one.
He stands ready to take the marred vessel which we have become and start over and shape us into the creature he made us to be.
In the case of Israel, He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.”
Today, God stands ready to receive us in right relationship through the blood of Jesus. We don’t have to wait 70 years. We don’t have to wait 70 seconds.
He made us in right relationship with him and despite our rebellion; he longs to bring us back to right relationship with him.
But some continue to reply, ‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; we will all follow the stubbornness of our evil hearts.’
But we should take heart in the message of God through the prophet Jeremiah:
If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
If at any time…
At any time…
Within the things that we call God’s will and God’s plan and God’s providence is this flexibility to respond to a nation or a single person who turns away from evil and seeks the face of God.
God did everything required to satisfy law and justice and righteousness in the atonement that we know in the blood of Christ Jesus.
God initiated this.
God completed this.
God did it all.
It was more than we could handle, but God stepped in and took away our sin.
But this same God who has done all of this for us, also gives us a chance to exercise our free will and turn towards him.
However immersed you are in your doctrine and theology—we were born into sin, we were born good and each of us rebelled against God, or we as a race are totally stained by sin—God stands ready to bring you to right standing with him.
Regardless of where we stand on how we arrive at our present condition, God stands ready to bring us to right standing with him.
As I grow older, the things that I do to entertain myself have changed. Football games and movies, have given way to television shows and falling asleep in the recliner. As Hank Jr. said long ago, “All my rowdy friends have settled down.”
What would engage me these days is to put on a pot of coffee one evening and sit down with some friends and break out Calvin’s TULIP or the CPC Confession of Faith or the Apostle’s Creed or some other doctrine and just explore and discuss and explore some more and get into not only the scriptures behind these doctrines but the minds and mindsets that brought them to fruition.
That’s what I would enjoy.
And I can do it without fear because the understanding of the doctrine and theology is less important than the understanding that regardless of how we explain how we got to our present circumstance; God stands ready to bring us to and keep us in right relationship with him.
God stands ready to shape us in the image and likeness of Christ Jesus.
God stands ready to take the marred or spoiled lump of clay that we call our lives and fashion us into a vessel of his liking.
So we understand that we are like clay in the hands of the potter and like Jeremiah as well. The world may not want to hear our message of good news. The world would be happy if we would just shut up about the gospel of peace. The world does not want to hear, “Repent and hear the good news!”
The world wants us to continue to follow the stubbornness of our own hearts and wouldn’t mind just getting us out of the way by one way or another.
Jeremiah spoke prophesy.
We speak gospel.
Jeremiah proclaimed disaster for a rebellious people.
We proclaim good news in broken and marred people for the Lord stands ready at any time to redeem those who turn away from evil.
We proclaim there is good news in a broken spirit for it is ready to renounce the world and receive the Spirit of the Lord.
We proclaim there is good news in a marred pot for it is ready to be reworked.
We serve a God of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration, and he stands ready at any time to show his favor to all who will come to him.
Like Jeremiah, we continue to proclaim the words that God gave us. We proclaim the gospel of Truth not because God placed his finger upon our lips but because he placed his Spirit within our hearts.
While God continues to shape us in the image and likeness of Christ Jesus, we proclaim to the marred and broken spirits of those we encounter that God stands ready to welcome them home.
We proclaim good news to those who are marred, and spoiled, and devastated by life without God.
We proclaim life and life abundant and life eternal through the gospel of Jesus Christ.