To Live and To Love is To Change

Sermon on Jeremiah 18:1-11

Psalm 139:16-17  How deep I find your thoughts, O God! how great is the sum of them! If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand; to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.

Introduction

In seminary, my professor mentioned a philosopher who didn’t think change was real. When Dr. Witt said this, half my face squinched up. He said, “Yes! That’s the right reaction!”

I couldn’t really wrap my head around the idea that someone somewhere thought change wasn’t real. I mean, yes, I understand you can see different moments of existence as separate and independent phases of existence, like stepping from one stone to another. But what the heck do you call the process and momentum of going from one stone to another? Sorcery? The entire process of going from one thing to another, from one place to another, from one conception to another is change because it necessitates the process of what was giving way to what will be. These aren’t independent phases; it’s one substance being reformed, transitioning into another form from a previous one.

Physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, we change. We’re not the same as we were yesterday; we will not be the same tomorrow as we are today. Who here is still a baby? Who here sees things in the same way as you did a year ago? Too much has occurred (physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually) bringing you out of one form and into another. In fact, you’re not the same now as you were when you sat down this morning—you’re different!

While you’ll always be human—made up of the substance of flesh and bone, conscience and essence—you’re constantly changing in and around and with that substance as you come into alignment with yourself as yourself. New information in any form causes us to change. With the smallest amount of new information, we change ourselves, our presence in the world, our view of the world, and our activity in the world.

I know that change is terrifying; it threatens our comfortableness, it takes from us that which we have known, it makes us anxious as we are ushered into what feels like chaos. Change forces us to either move with change’s momentum, struggling and scrambling to a new ground, like running up a landslide. Or change causes us to struggle and scramble to fight against it’s momentum, like trying to redirect a waterfall from the bottom up. As much as we may dislike it and the discomfort that comes with our rupture from “normal”, change is a thing and it’s not going anywhere. Nothing stays the same, everything changes. It’s as constant as God’s love and might be of the same substance.

Jeremiah 18:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from [God]: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 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. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

(Jer. 18:1-6)

Jeremiah is known as the “suffering servant.” While I’ve never read about a prophet of Israel who was the “easy-breezy servant”, Jeremiah seems to have a special summons into the divine pathos (passion) of God for God’s people. He is caught in the middle between Israel’s plight and God’s disdain for that plight. Essentially, especially here in chapter 18, Jeremiah’s stuck between what is and what will be, caught in the oncoming divine activity rupturing Israel’s what-has-been to bring forth Israel’s what-will-be,[1] captured like a deer in the headlights of God changing God’s mind.[2] Because God loves Israel, Israel will be God’s people even if it means starting over from scratch.[3]

So, Jeremiah is sent to a potter’s workshop to witness a revelation from God.[4] Jeremiah watches the scene unfold before him. He witnesses this potter work clay into a vessel, but it’s no good. The clay, according to Jeremiah, is marred[5]. Then, Jeremiah watches as the potter takes all that was before and crushes it into a shapeless mass of mud, starts over, and reforms it…not into what it was before, but into something completely different.[6] And then God’s words settle upon Jeremiah,[7] Did you see that? I’m the potter, and Israel’s the clay. I’ll start over, I’ll refashion Israel into another vessel.[8] Israel will be my people, and I’ll be Israel’s God. I’ll not forsake Israel and they’ll be the vessel of my presence in the world for the world.

There are two things to point out here. The first is that while the action of crushing the clay vessel into a formless mass of mud is violent, God does not ditch the substance of the clay. Rather, God changes directions and reforms it. This isn’t a stubborn, obstinate God, incapable of changing their mind. That God compares God’s self to a potter willing to start over and form a completely different vessel from what was indicates that not only is change a part of the divine person, but also that God will not forsake God’s people—the clay is still on the wheel, still the focus of God’s eye, mind, heart, and hands. The idea that God doesn’t change is only true when speaking of God’s substance, which is love; God loves, God is love. To say God never changes God’s mind is a truncated view of God. (Doesn’t love change our minds?). God changes God’s mind and God always loves you. Therefore, this crushing, reformation, and transformation is the handmaiden of God’s love: the door’s open for mercy and return, repentance and forgiveness. The marring and crushing aren’t the last words.[9]

The second thing to point out: Israel will go through a transition from what they were into what they will be. In that the clay is still on the wheel, still in God’s hands, Israel will be reformed into a completely different vessel. The entire first testament speaks to death never having the last word,[10] not only according to the repeated theme of repentance and forgiveness, but most notably in a story about a great storm flooding the earth; after which God promises, that…that….I will never ever do again.[11]Thus, the clay is still on the wheel; thus, life still wins, because God’s character is to love, to have mercy, and to bring life.[12]

Change hurts. Israel will go through their death and be brought through it into new life; Israel will be a vessel of good in the world, righting wrongs, bringing the world into alignment with the will of God. What is God’s will? The reign of life and liberation: the captives are set free, the hungry eat, the thirsty drink, the naked are clothed, the houseless housed, the threatened comforted, and the living are summoned from death into life.

Conclusion

So, change is scary. Change is hard. And it’s necessary. Our world must change. We must change. If this planet is going to recover, we must change. If humanity is going to have a fighting chance beyond another century, we must change. If we want violence against people of color, indigenous peoples, and LGBTQIA+ people to end, we have no choice: we must change.

If I want this world to be a better place for my daughter and her two older brothers, I must muscle up, roll my sleeves, and get to work, embracing all the change I can—and that necessarily means confessing where I’ve been wrong, where I’ve participated in violent ideologies and systems, where I’m captive and complicit. I must walk through my fear and discomfort, resisting the status-quo, in the name of love and life.

This change is the encounter with God in the event of faith in Christ. I must die to what was and allow God to mold me into another vessel, resembling the Christ, bringing me into new life, a life powered by the Holy Spirit, one better equipped to serve God’s people, bringing water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, shelter to the houseless, love to the unloved, liberation to the captives, comfort to the threatened, and life to the walking dead.

And the Church, too. We, you, me and this entire institution must give itself over to the transition of death into new life, we must be willing to let go of what was and sink into God who’s eager to bring us through the void into what will be. God will have a vessel in the world to right wrongs, to demythologize corrupt human systems, to call things what they are, to bring love to the people devoured by power and greed; the question is: will we be a part of that vessel? Will we take up our cross and follow Christ, who we claim to be the suffering servant of God and humanity, who’s the first born of the dead, fully God yet forsook equality with God to live and die and rise in solidarity with humankind? Will we, like Jesus, dare to set aside what-was so that what-will-be can come forth?


[1] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 173. “Awareness of a problem means awareness of a conflict or a tension between two ideas, forces or situations. In this sense the prophets discovered the problem of history as a tension between what happens now and what may happen next. The future is no simple continuation of the present. Just as the present, in their eyes, represented a violation of what was established in the past (Israel’s commitment to God), so may the future overturn the seeming solidity of what is being done in the present.”

[2] Heschel, The Prophets, 173-174. “Moreover, the situation here and now is but a stage in the drama of history. Whatever happens now affects the past; it either shapes or distorts events that are going on. By history we do not mean the ‘gone’ or the dead past, but the present in which past and future are interlocked.”

[3] Heschel, The Prophets, 174. “Life is not as fate designs, nor is history a realm to be tyrannized by man. Events are not like rocks on the shore shaped by wind and water. Choice, design, is what determines the shape of events. God is at work on man, intent to fashion history in accord with Himself.”

[4] Heschel, The Prophets, 174. “Jeremiah was told to go to a potter’s house where he would receive a revelation.”

[5] Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman Jeremiah: with Hebrew text and English Translation. Ed. Rev. Dr. A Cohen. Soncino Books of the Bible. 6th Impression. London: Soncino Press, 1970. 125. v. 4 (marred) “Thomson witnessed such a scene which he describes as follows: ‘From some defect in the clay, or because he had taken too little, the potter suddenly changed his mind, crushed his growing jar instantly into a shapeless mass of mud, and beginning anew, fashioned it into a totally different vessel.’ The application of the simile is not that the house of Israel is bound to be fashioned ultimately as God wishes, as might be concluded from verse 4, but that God dispose absolutely of the destinies of Israel and every other nation, in the same way that the potter does whatever h pleases with the clay.”

[6] ibid.

[7] Freedman, Jeremiah, 125. “The familiar sight of the potter at work with his clay suggests to Jeremiah’s mind a parallel to the working of God with His people. Chapter xviii describe the process of remaking a misshapen vessel and applies it to the fate of the nation.”

[8] John Bright Jeremiah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible. Eds. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965. 125-126. “Then a word from Yahweh came to Jeremiah explaining to him the meaning of this (vss. 5-6): Yahweh is the potter, and he can do with Israel as the potter does with the clay. But the point is not, as some think, that Yahweh will continue to work patiently with his people and, in spite of the fact that they may temporarily thwart him, will in the end make them the ‘vessel’ that he had intended them to be. This is to misunderstand vs. 4, the point of which is precisely that the clay can frustrate the potter’s intention and cause him to change it: as the quality of the clay determines what the potter can do with it, so the quality of a people determines what God will do with them.”

[9] Heschel, The Prophets, 174. “Sin is not a cul de sac, nor is guilt a final trap. Sin may be washed away by repentance and return, and beyond guilt is the dawn of forgiveness. The door is never locked, the threat of doom is not the last word.”

[10] Heschel, The Prophets, 104. “And yet, Jeremiah did not think that evil was inevitable. Over and above man’s blindness stood the wonder of repentance, the open gateway through which man could enter if he would. Jeremiah’s call was addressed to Israel as a whole as well as to every member of the people (18:11) …”

[11] Heschel, The Prophets, 297. “…the pathos of anger is by no means regarded as an attribute, as a basic disposition, as a quality inherent in the nature of God, but rather as a mood, a state of mind or soul. In both its origin and duration, anger is distinguished from mercy. It is never a spontaneous outburst, but rather a state which is occasioned and conditioned by man. There is a biblical belief in divine grace, in a mercy which is bestowed upon man to a degree greater than he deserves. There is no belief in divine arbitrariness, in an anger which consumes and afflicts without moral justification. The pathos of anger is, further, a transient state.”

[12] Heschel, The Prophets, 197. “The normal and original pathos is love or mercy. Anger is preceded as well as followed by compassion (Jer. 12:15; 33:26). For punishment to be imposed upon the people, God’s ‘love and steadfast mercy’ must be suppressed…Even in moments of indignation, His love remains alive.”

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