February 4, 2007

Caravan: Clay
Jeremiah 18:1-12; Isaiah 45:9

I first visited the city of Hebron back in 1980. Hebron, located some 18 miles south of Jerusalem, is the largest Arab city in all of Israel-Palestine—130,000 Palestinians live there. Home of the renowned Mosque of Abraham, the traditional burial site for Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah, Hebron is also known for its outdoor market, grapes, limestone, blown glass, and… pottery. People knowledgeable about pottery know about Hebron ware.

At one point during this first visit to Hebron, several of us stepped into a potter’s shop located just a stones throw to the east of the mosque. The walls were covered with finely decorated plates, and the shelves in the room stocked with equally impressive objects of one sort or another. In the middle of the room, surrounded by a potter’s wheel, bucket of water, utensils needed for his craft, and mounds of clay, sat a rather reserved, unassuming young man who quietly went about his work. He was a Hebron potter, gifted and respected, and we watched with profound admiration as he fashioned ordinary lumps of clay into beautiful vessels right before our eyes.

I’ve thought about that potter many times in the last 26 years—he left a great impression on me that day. Apparently, another potter, perhaps a distant relative of the one that I met, left a similar impression on the prophet Jeremiah years and years ago. As a child, Jeremiah no doubt wandered into a potter’s shop from time to time, dirtied his hands on chunks of clay, and perhaps even broke a dish or two. And at some point during his lengthy span of years, a thought struck Jeremiah as he sat and reflected on the everyday world around him. “God is much like a potter,” he said to himself. Then, with a puzzled look on his face, he asked, “If God is like a potter, what does that make me?” “If God is like a potter, what does that make me?”

Jeremiah invites us here in 18:1-12 to join him in a local potter’s shop, much like the one some of my friends and I visited in Hebron some 26 years ago. Look, first, at the potter. It’s the potter, isn’t it, who determines what he will make out of each chunk of clay (v. 6). He may, of course, select from any number of options, and he will consider both what the buyers in the village need as well as what he himself wants to make. He may choose to fashion a plate or cup for use at mealtime. He may decide to form a large jar for storing water or grain. Or he may instead decide to make a lamp to light a tent or house at night.

And once the potter determines what to create, he must likewise decide what each piece of finished pottery will look like. He might, depending upon the vessel, leave the piece generally unornamented. Cooking pots and other household items that are used in ordinary tasks at home need not be richly decorated. What matters primarily is their usefulness, not their appearance. Should the potter instead decide to make a vase for someone special in the community or a sacred vessel for use in religious ceremonies, he might either paint it himself or ask one of the artists in the village to do so. Whatever the potter chooses to create out of the clay, it is the potter, Jeremiah realizes, not the clay, who decides what he will or will not make. The potter chooses what to do with the clay, not the other way around.

Having decided what to make, the potter next begins working on the clay (v. 4). He does this, Jeremiah observes, in two separate stages. The potter first prepares the clay so that it can be shaped more effectively. He removes various impurities found in the clay—small particles of stone or splinters of wood are taken out to form a smooth and pure material. The potter wants also to make sure that the clay is of the proper consistency. If the clay is too firm, it resists the potter’s maneuvers. If it is too thin, it refuses to hold its shape. Carefully, without cutting any corners, the potter prepares the clay before beginning to shape it.

When the experienced potter senses that the clay is suitable for forming, he begins crafting it into the actual product. The potter works and reworks the clay to finally get it into the desired shape. Whether working by hand or with a wheel, the potter places pressure here, removes an unwanted bump over there, and gradually shifts the vessel so that it stands straight. He will use various techniques to work any unwanted air out of the clay and ensure that no bubbles form in the final product. He will check each piece’s dimensions, determine its thickness, and fiddle with the rim until he gets it just the way he wants it. He may attach ledge handles to the side of a jar or a single loop with which to grasp a lamp. Through all of this, the potter sometimes discovers that various pieces of clay are more difficult to work with than others. Some require extra attention. Others need some tender loving care. Nevertheless, the potter patiently continues rubbing, pressing, squeezing and pinching until he sees before him the vessel he had imagined at the start.

And finally, Jeremiah points to some clay on the floor beside the wheel and tells us that the potter sometimes discards certain pieces that are simply unworkable (vv. 7-11). He never makes such a decision hastily—the clay is too valuable to him to casually discard. He’ll painstakingly remove even the most deeply embedded containments, no matter how long it takes. He’ll add water if it is too thick and let it set for awhile if it is too wet. And he works the clay and reworks it and reworks it again, hoping that his years of experience and accomplished skills might enable him to create something special out of even the most dreadful piece. Jeremiah has seen it again and again over the years—the potter does not want to discard the clay. He has learned that at times the toughest clay to work produces the finest vessels. But occasionally, even the best potter finds some clay that resists all of his efforts. Some clay, for example, is simply too dry and too hard to be worked properly. Clay that has been in the sun so long that it is now cracked and brittle. Clay that is stubborn and inflexible. Clay that, in spite of the potter’s Herculean efforts, refuses to be shaped. When the potter discovers clay like that, he—regrettably—discards it.

As Jeremiah thinks about his visits to the potter’s shop—he has learned to pay attention to the spiritual lessons that can be learned from life’s ordinary experiences—it is apparent to him that the potter is the primary actor there. The potter determines what the finished product will be used for and what it will look like. The potter prepares and works the clay, and the potter eventually discards whatever clay he finds unworkable. The potter designs the script and initiates the action.

And so it is, Jeremiah realizes, with God. God decides what to fashion out of “human” clay. He is the one with the skills, experience and insight to choose whether to shape you into a plate and me into a jar. God alone selects our proper function, fashioning some to be teachers, pastors, construction workers, homemakers, musicians, administrative assistants, missionaries, poets, farmers, consultants, social workers and computer technologists. And he alone determines our appearance, making us short or tall and painting us white, black, yellow or brown. God, like the potter, chooses what to do with the clay.

God, likewise, prepares and works the clay in order to transform it into what he intends. God carefully roots out unwanted debris from deep within us, making us pure and consistent. He softens our hardened hearts and quickens our deadened minds. He then works us and reworks us until we one day reach our final form. He presses, squeezes and pinches. He cuts, removes and attaches, and at times even flattens us on the wheel when he finds us unshapeable. For however long it takes, God patiently but determinedly fashions, fires and paints the clay—us—into the desired image, into the image of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Sadly, Jeremiah also notes a final similarity between God and the potter. The chunks of discarded clay beside the wheel remind him that some of us are simply too hard, too dry, and too brittle for even the potter to rework. He tries—we are, after all, of inestimable valuable to him—hoping to transform even the worst of us. No contaminants are too deep within us for him to remove. There is nothing about our actual make-up or composition that automatically renders us unshapeable. God, the potter, possesses all of the skills, tools and experience to mold every one of us. Yet like the discarded clay, some of us are so hard-hearted, so consumed with ourselves and our own needs and desires, so preoccupied with our own dreams and ambitions, so convinced that we can fend for ourselves, that even the caring and enduring efforts of the potter seem to make no difference. God keeps trying and trying, but we just don’t respond. What else can the potter—God—do but to discard such clay?

God is like the potter, Jeremiah comes to realize. “So where does that leave me?” he asks himself? “What am I?” And he arrives at only one conclusion. “I am like the clay. I, like the clay, am ill-equipped to decide what to make of myself. I am incapable of transforming myself. And I, even if I am the finest piece of clay the world has ever seen, am destined to remain unformed and unfinished apart from the caring and experienced hands of the potter. I, too, will be discarded if I prove to be perpetually unworkable and unmovable.”

Yet at precisely this moment—the sober realization that he could be discarded—Jeremiah sees in himself and in other people something that he never saw in the actual clay. We, unlike the clay, have been given the ability to either work in cooperation with the potter or against him. We have been endowed by the potter with the freedom to get on or off of the wheel. If the potter digs too deep to remove unwanted particles, we can abort the procedure. If the potter presses too hard in his efforts to form the desired shape, we can refuse to participate. Or we can remain in his hands, endure whatever shaping needs to be done, and trust that the potter actually knows better than we do what to make of our lives. The potter has apparently given us that right.

But look around the potter’s shop one more time. Glance for a moment at either the unworked lumps of clay sitting on the table or the discarded pieces lying on the floor. Now look at the beautiful plates hanging on the wall or the magnificent jars and bowls waiting on the shelves. Look at what the potter did with the clay. A lump of clay. A beautiful vessel. Jeremiah, like Isaiah before him, can only scratch his head in amazement at the thought that the clay would actually refuse to trust the potter. A lump of clay. A beautiful vessel. Which, after all, would you rather be?