Jeremiah: The Season of Discontent
Dr. Randy L. Hyde
Sometimes God is found in the simplest of things.
I do believe, that of all the people I have ever known, my friend John Killinger exhibits most this gift of being able to see God in simple things, the holy in the mundane. When John was an active pastor, he would send me his printed sermons, reproduced as we do here, in pamphlet form once they had been preached. I would read his sermons eagerly, not so much to borrow sermon ideas, but to see yet again the many and varied ways he found to envision the presence of God.
In one sermon he tells of the day he was walking downtown in Lynchburg, Virginia. He spied an old black man walking out of a local grocery store. The man had in his hand a small brown bag. No, it’s not what you think. John watched as he sat down on a nearby park bench, took out of the bag a couple of slices of bologna, folded them over gingerly and began eating. For some reason, John says, he found himself at that very moment looking into the face of God.
Whenever I think of that, I consider the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I’m not a big poetry aficionado, but I do know that she once wrote…
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries. 1
Some people just seem better at taking off their shoes than others. They have a way of finding the holy, even in the simplest of things.
That was true of the prophets. They found God in the most common images. Amos looked at a basket of summer fruit and saw the spiritual destruction of his people (8:1f.). Ezekiel saw the future in, of all things, a brick (4:1f.). And Jeremiah found the message of God in the hands of a potter.
Not that he had any choice in the matter. We don’t know how God chose to do it, we can only trust the prophet in what he tells us. And what he says is that the word came to him from the Lord.
“Come, go down to the potter’s house,
and there I will let you hear my words.”
There’s a lot of imagery in that word, “Come.” You want to know how I envision it? Jeremiah is in bed. He’s not the most popular guy in town because his preaching cuts against the grain and flies in the face of the people to whom he proclaims the word of God. His livelihood, because of this, is little, his bank account meager. So we’ll find him in a simple, dirt floor abode, sleeping on a narrow cot in the corner of the one room. He may not be the most popular preacher in Israel, but his conscience is clear. So he sleeps soundly.
One morning, early, he feels a finger poking him in the shoulder. “Jeremiah, Jeremiah, wake up. Come on, wake up. I’ve got a job for you… Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words. Come.”
Can’t you just see God beckoning Jeremiah with his index finger? “Come, come, follow me. Come.”
Now, if you were in Jeremiah’s sandals, what would you do? Exactly what he did. You would rub the sleep from your eyes and follow God down the narrow streets to the potter’s house, wobbling along while you’re trying to get your legs under you.
The potter was already at work.
I have reminded you that social customs in those days were a bit different from ours. There were no locks on the doors, so people wandered in and out all the time in places that were not their own. If someone hosted a dinner – especially if that someone was rich and prominent – the uninvited would mosey on in to see what the excitement was all about, catch up on the latest gossip, see what the other side of society was wearing and doing and saying. They might not be invited to table, but they could observe. Happened all the time. Their world was divided between those who had and those who didn’t, and the “hadless” were always checking in to see what the other side, the rich side, was doing. It seems strange to us, but that’s the way it was.
It wasn’t just at dinners that such things occurred. It happened at work as well. After all, that’s the way the potter made his living, by letting people observe. Who knows? Maybe he could sell something.
Last summer, when Janet and were on the Isle of Iona in Scotland, we went one day to the small pottery shop near the abbey. It was interesting to observe the potter at work. One of my favorite pictures is the one I took of him with his hands working the pottery wheel.
The potter didn’t mind that Jeremiah had come to see what he was doing. Or did he? Jeremiah probably had a reputation, and it wasn’t a good one. A troublemaker, that’s what he was, so he was looked upon with scorn everywhere he went. Maybe the potter looked at the prophet out of the corner of his eye and thought, “What is he doing here?” But, business is business. Jeremiah’s money would spend just like everybody else’s, though everybody knew the prophet didn’t have much of it. But, he’d let Jeremiah watch. No harm in letting him watch.
And that’s when it happened. The vessel he was creating on his wheel became flawed in his hands. The potter had two choices… to curse that such a thing would happen, or to mash it down and start all over again. Since this was not an unusual thing, he chose the latter, and on his second effort it came out as he wanted it to. “As seemed good to him,” the story goes. “As seemed good to him.”
“The word of the Lord came to me,” Jeremiah says. Do you think it happened right then and there, in the potter’s house? Or do you think Jeremiah might have sauntered back to his little house, sat down on his bed, and pondered what he had just seen? Only then did it make sense?
We don’t know, of course, but we do know that the lesson of the story is unmistakably clear.
Will you allow me some more leeway – to use my imagination a bit more – as I interpret this story? I see Jeremiah sitting on the side of his bed as he begins to tremble. It starts with his hands and works its way up to the shoulders. If you’ve ever been there – and who hasn’t? – you know how it is. His heart begins to ache and his eyes fill with tears. The point God is making to him cannot be clearer.
But what is at stake here cannot be left up to Jeremiah’s imagination, or even his interpretation. Just in case the young prophet doesn’t get it, God speaks to him directly so there won’t be any misunderstanding. Again, how God speaks we do not know, but the words are clear and truly awful…
“Say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem:
Thus says the Lord:
Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you
and devising a plan against you.”
It is when Jeremiah hears those words that the tears begin to flow.
“I am a potter shaping evil against you
and devising a plan against you.”
But God isn’t through with his message. That’s not all God has to say, which doesn’t make Jeremiah feel any better because he can see the outcome of all this as plainly as he can see the nose on his face.
“Turn now,” God says to Jeremiah, who is then to repeat this to the people of Judah – his neighbors, his kinfolk, his friends (i.e. if he has any friends) – “Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”
Here’s the saddest thing of all… Jeremiah knows they’re not going to do it. He knows these people, and he is aware of just how much they’ve hardened their hearts. He knows that the last thing they’re going to do is turn.
Since we’re talking about the imagery of the potter’s vessel, let’s take it a step further. There’s a pretty strong imagery in the word turn as well. Turn. In fact, it is at the very center of the idea of repentance. Repentance is turning from the direction in which you are going and doing a 180. That’s what God wants Judah to do, and both God and Jeremiah know they’ re not going to do that on their own accord.
I will remind you that one definition of insanity is to continue in the same behavior expecting a different result. Well, if that’s the case, there’ s a lot of insanity in the land of Judah.
God refuses to let them continue in the way they are going. They are either going to have to repent or pay the consequences for their refusal to do so. The consequences are huge, but sometimes you get caught up in your behavior and can’t see the bigger picture. The last thing you can do, when you’re engaged in wrongdoing, is to see where your actions are taking you. It may be insanity, but this time you can’t blame it on someone or something else. You’ve got nobody to blame but yourself.
A SERMONWRITER SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “Thanks, Dick! I love what you do………….it makes my preaching so much more informed and joyful!”
This is what I’d like for you to do, as painful as it may be. Think back to that time when you were engaged in some cycle of wrongdoing. You may be saying to yourself, “Think back?! I’m in it right now!” Okay, okay. The point is to get in touch with it. What was at the heart, the center, of what you were doing? Strip it down to its most basic element and you realize that you were out of relationship, weren’t you? With someone, with yourself even. And it is a basic reality that when you are out of relationship with someone, you are out of relationship with God.
What God is telling the people of Judah through Jeremiah the weeping prophet, is that they need to repent. Then what is repentance? Is it not a turning – actually a returning – to right relationship?
Have you ever been estranged from someone, and then found reconciliation with that person? You might not have called it repentance, but that’s what it was, wasn’t it? It was the decision to make things right with the person who was at the center of your actions… whether that person was someone else, yourself, or God.
I don’t know for certain, but there may be some of us here today feeling guilty for some past or present behavior that we know is outside the redemptive relationship offered us by God. If that’s true of you, what have you done? You’ve brought that guilt to church, a guilt that is closer to you than the clothes on your back. I would ask you to consider this: your guilt is the price you are paying willingly in order to avoid changing.2 Maybe you think that if you feel badly enough about what you are doing, you can somehow keep doing it. The guilt becomes a security blanket that feels warmer to you than the presence of God.
If that is true, I would ask you to consider further… Do you really want guilt to be your most intimate companion? Is it your desire for your most important relationship to be with something that is so far from the will of God? If so, then you just may be living out the classic definition of insanity, except that the Bible would refer to it as something else. The Bible would call it sin. But my guess is, this isn’t the desire of your heart. My guess is that you want to walk hand-in-hand with God, but you don’t know how to do it or you don’t think you have the courage to turn in God’s direction.
Again, if that is true, may I be a spokesman of hope for you? I commented Wednesday night that some of my best and most basic theology has come to me through the classic hymns and songs of faith. One of those tells me that my hope is “built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” My hope is in the atoning life and death of Jesus Christ.
So, if you would turn, turn in the direction of the cross. The cross tells me that my past, and yours, doesn’t have to be the measure of our future. It tells me that if we will allow God’s healing and saving Spirit into our lives, even if it involves God’s remaking us as a potter would a piece of lumpy clay, we might then have the relationship with God that leads to eternal life. God will mold us and make us after God’s will. And when that happens, it becomes much more than imagery… it becomes our present and eternal reality.
May we pray that it would be so.
Lord, indeed, mold us and make us after your will. You have already overcome our sin through the atoning life and death of Jesus. Now, may your Spirit open our hearts to receive it. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1Elizabeth Barrett Browning, (Aurora Leigh, book vii).
2Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Press, 2000), p. 66.
Copyright 2004, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.