Potters & Clay

Potters & Clay

Isaiah 29:13-16; 64:1-8

by Daniel Harrell

Potters have been making pots for a long time. The first known clay implements appear in the neolithic era where bowls and the like were molded by hand. The potter’s wheel surfaces sometime in the fourth millennium BC. Its value to human culture is undeniable: practically, we get cups, bowls, water pitchers, storage jars, cooking pots and coffins for the dead; but artistically and religiously too, archaeology has uncovered temples and palaces adorned with decorative clay artifacts that conveyed high social status to those who possessed them. Pottery continues to serve and delight our senses as both function and art, providing joy and beauty as well as a comforting container for good coffee.

At the same time any clay vessel or cup—for all its fundamental beauty and usefulness—is fundamentally fragile with no say as to its form or function. Clay is fully subject to the potter’s mercy. As such, potters and clay pots work throughout Scripture as a simile for our relationship as creatures to our Creator. The earliest verses of Genesis remind how, “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground.” Amidst suffering and broken shards, Job cried out to God for mercy, “remember, O Lord, that you fashioned me like clay.” The prophet Jeremiah famously preached from a potter’s house for the sake of an object lesson (I’ve brought the potter to church). And the apostle Paul twice tapped into the analogy: in Romans to uphold God’s pottery prerogative when it comes to his purposes for us, and then again to the Corinthians to stress our fragility as human beings. We are mere jars of clay—created to hold glorious treasure, but so easily broken.

Here in Isaiah, the analogy is deployed in an attempt to reshape Israel’s faith. The occasion is the reign of King Hezekiah, one of only three kings ever described as good in the Bible. Hezekiah was a first rate reformer who drew Israel away from its conformity to pagan culture and back to scripture, back to genuine worship and back to a right relationship with God. And yet for all of his goodness, Hezekiah was a breakable jar too. Israel squirmed under the political thumb of a neighboring powerhouse, Assyria, and King Hezekiah grew restless. Rather than faithfully wait on the Lord for deliverance, the King took the wheel with his own hands. He struck a shady deal with the corrupt Egyptians to try and thwart Assyria, a dumb and disobedient move Isaiah had warned him against doing. But Hezekiah did it anyway. Was he not a good king God had blessed with success?

On this past Wednesday, the Public Research and Religion Institute released yet another depressing report on the decline of Christianity in America; specifically white Christianity in America. Based on a massive survey, seems we’ve crossed the threshold of being a majority white Christian country to white Christians being a minority religion—be we Catholic, mainline Protestant or evangelical. Plenty will wonder why this is a depressing report, but peel back the layers and news bodes badly for organized religion whatever its color or theological stripe. After years of equating growth with divine favor and obedience, white evangelicals are now losing too. The report’s author, Robert Jones, commented in USA Today on white evangelicalism’s scramble to hold on to political power and cultural influence—to the extent that they enthusiastically support compromised politicians who by their own admission, eschew basic Christian morality and conviction. Jones writes, “When the stakes are high enough and the sun is setting, grand bargains are struck. And it is in the nature of these deals that they are marked not by principle but by desperation.”

Such was King Hezekiah’s desperation and Israel’s folly. Scrambling to hold onto their own power and influence, they presumed that being God’s chosen people meant whatever they chose to do would be right. Isaiah denounced their sham piety—their pretense at thinking they were the potter instead of disfigured clay. The Lord resolved to “shock and amaze” them back to their senses—to expose their wisdom and discernment as cracked and deformed. “You turn things upside down!” shouted the prophet, “Shall the potter be regarded as clay? Shall the thing made say of its maker, ‘He did not make me,’ or the thing formed say of the one who formed it, ‘He has no understanding and doesn’t know what he’s doing?’” The king and the people wrongly presumed they could shape their own destiny, but they had it backwards.

Life falls apart and we claim to have  lost control, but what we’ve actually lost is the illusion we had control in the first place.

“These people draw near with their mouths and worship me with their lips,” said the Lord, “but their hearts are not in it.” We imagine that going through the motions suffices; that God does not see our real motives, how even our best deeds are chipped by self-interest. As the Swiss Reformer, John Calvin, wrote: “Your pride is astonishing; for you act as if you had created yourselves, and as if you had everything in your own power. …When you dare to assume such power and authority, you are too little acquainted with your condition, and you do not know that you are human.”

That we are finite, sinful and fragile, prone to wander and leave—this is terribly hard to accept. Humility must be pressed hard into our clay hearts. And thus we began our own worship this morning by coming before our Maker and praying words the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans about not being conformed to the ways of the world, but being transformed by God’s Spirit. Paul had been a fabulous Pharisee, a religious professional with an impeccable resumé who knew all the right moves. His righteousness was like priceless porcelain until Jesus broke his pride. Throughout the gospels, proud Pharisees condemned Jesus for not playing by the rules. He socialized with tax collectors and sinners, didn’t fast and pray the way he was supposed to, and he refused to abide by tradition for tradition’s sake. Too full of themselves to be filled with the spirit. Jesus turned over their tables, upended their self-righteous traditions for the sake of real relationship with God. Temple Judaism as organized religion was doomed. Strolling through the magnificent Temple, perched high on its mountain, Jesus declared not one stone would be left on top of another. It was the potter’s prerogative to do what he wills with his clay. As Son of David and Son of God, Jesus came to reform and renew ancient covenants, to reconcile sinners and redeem life as intended to be lived before humans so badly messed everything up by thinking we knew better than God.

Years ago I interviewed to be the minister of this small, declining church whose gorgeous sanctuary sat perched on a high hill outside Palo Alto with a glorious view of the bay. As any pastor with a messiah complex and love for the sea, I was eager to save and to serve, especially since the call came with a fantastic parsonage amidst the redwoods and ocean breezes, close to good coffee and hip culture and all that the Bay area offers. I’d long dreamed of living in California and this was my open door.

The Search Committee asked my vision for the church, and so I laid out my plan of a deeper devotion to Scripture, more openness to the Holy Spirit, love and service, confession, obedience, holy curiosity and adventure, fear and faith, as well as a tolerance of ambiguity since we can never fully know what Jesus is up to. I thought it all sounded so inspiring.

“But what about our Christmas Plum Pudding Festival?” they asked. “It’s our signature event. Everybody in town looks forward to celebrating Christmas with our Plum Pudding Festival. We’ve done our Plum Pudding Festival since our church was founded. Unfortunately, not many people come anymore. What’s your plan for reviving it?”

I replied, “Why would you want to revive it?”

This is why I’m preaching in Minnesota this morning.

The history of the church, and of any particular church, rides its waves of faithfulness and failure, crests of success but also deeper, stormy waters where loss reveals our true character. “How much of what we have learned to call church are we willing to lose in order to follow Jesus?”

“Let us not conform to the ways of this world,” we prayed, “but transform us by your Holy Spirit; O Lord, renew us mind and heart that we may discern and do Your Will for us—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Genuine discernment demands a renewed mind and heart, a reformation of character that fully and gladly enfolds God’s good and perfect will, whatever it is. Perfect does not mean flawless, but fulfillment of purpose—a pot doing what we are crafted to do. A water jar is perfect when it carries water. A church is perfect when it carries out worship and service with love and long-suffering. True faith cannot survive as civic assumption or majority rule. We worship a Savior crucified by privileged power. Affluent white churches may be in decline, but growth remains strong among racial-ethnic congregations, among the marginalized and disenfranchised, among people with whom Jesus has always done his best work. As the late Peter Gomes once preached it, “Any god can make something good out of the exceptional and the extraordinary. It is our God who makes something out of nothing.”

We do long for the exceptional. We dream of greatness more than goodness. We yearn for proven power and influence. Turn ahead to Isaiah 64, and God’s people again pray for the Lord to bless their efforts and blow away the competition. To bless their good intentions and plans. “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down as of old, that the mountains might quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and causes water to boil—make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!” We read this verse even as Irma barrels through Florida and Mexico reels from a devastating earthquake and the islands lay waste. May. Did Israel realize what they asked for?

As actuarial acts of God, natural disasters display ferocious majesty and evoke human fear and awe. But hurricanes and earthquakes existed long before humans ever inhabited earth, an outcome of a creation made competent to freely evolve and become. It was our free choice as humans to live close to the beaches or along known geologic fault lines, and then pray God might redirect the weather or stabilize tectonic plates. “The price of living in paradise,” one Floridian said. But paradise is getting warmer and its waters are rising, consequences of other human choices, meaning stronger storms and stalled weather systems, all to our detriment. As Isaiah puts it, we are delivered into the hands of our iniquity. This is hard to accept. Living on God’s green earth does demand we abide by its limits—and not expect God to comply with our demands. The potter shall not be regarded as the clay.

Still, a hurricane’s ferocity can evoke a change of heart. As another Florida resident admitted on the radio last night, as Hurricane Irma’s winds began blowing, “I am not a religious man,” he said. “But this is all in God’s hands.”

And thankfully, in God’s merciful hands, pottery can experience perfection—not as flawlessness but as fulfillment of purpose—clay pots doing what we are crafted to do. Two pastor friends in Miami and Vero Beach have flung open their churches as refuge for those damaged by the storm. In the aftermath of Harvey, exhausted Houstonians bereft of their worldly possessions poured into churches for solace and prayer. Countless church members volunteered and cooked and fed and sheltered the newly homeless, helped clean wrecked houses, provided new shoes and transportation for victims whose cars were destroyed. One Catholic priest, his home knee-high with water and his church accessible only by boat, stuck to the scheduled liturgy for last Sunday, a passage from Paul’s letter to Rome: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” “We are already living in the storm,” he preached. “What can I add or subtract from that?” We have Jesus and each other and this is enough. We will ride this ship. It is our baptism and we will be made better people because of the water.

Here in Isaiah, disaster shifted Israel’s nostalgic prayers for remembered greatness to corporate confession and humbled obedience. God acted powerfully in the past but they took it for granted. They loved the thunder but failed to heed what it spoke. We hold onto our sin, refashioned as virtue. Long-suffering faith impatiently clutches a desire for control. We cannot wait for the Lord nor abide his will. We forget we are dust and to dust we return. “We have all become like one who is unclean,” Isaiah confessed, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We fade like autumn leaves, and our iniquities, like the wind, sweep us away.” Who are we to be saved or loved? We are prodigal children and deformed lumps of clay.

And this is good news and our hope. For as Isaiah declares, the Lord is our Father and God is our potter. We are the work of his hands, to be lovingly formed and reformed, for both beauty and purpose, with passion and pleasure. “Any god can make something good out of the exceptional and the extraordinary. It is our God who makes something out of nothing.”