Being Formed | Jeremiah 18:1-6
Richard Black was the middle school art teacher at Stewart Middle School, a large, serious man with the critical eye of a collector or curator. I learned more about art and aesthetic in three years of being in that classroom than I did at anytime outside of it afterward. I also spent more time working with clay there than at any other time. I was never great at it, but I could make a few passable things.
There are several things I remember about working with clay. It was usually a dark, ruddy brown color with some occasional reddish tinge in it. I remember how it felt in my hands. There was a coldness to it, almost like touching ice but not as intense. There was also a smoothness, a sense that the surface while textured was uniform as it slid under my fingers and palms. It had an earthy smell, sometimes like wet leaves on a fall day other times like turned soil in my mother’s garden.
And once you started working with it, all these things told you something about the clay. Good clay had a certain feel, texture, smell that let you know the difference between good clay and bad clay. Good clay was clay that could molded and pressed to remove the bubbles in it, bubbles that would cause the clay to crack and break in the kiln when fired. Good clay just felt right; there was no tangible way of explaining it, it just felt right in your hands and you knew it was clay you could work with.
Speaking from the Potter’s Shop
The passage we read earlier is something theologians calla sign-action. It is a way of showing something to the reader through symbolic acts that reflect a real-life situation. In this case, the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah “did not turn out” as God had hoped. They continued to drift farther and farther away from God spiritually and so farther away from what God had hoped the kingdom would be. Because of this, God leads the prophet Jeremiah to a potter’s workshop and shows him this sight of a potter throwing a pot, realizing the pot wasn’t what he wanted, and throwing the pot again; something I was all too familiar with in Mr. Black’s art class.
Verse six says very plainly, “O Israel, can I not do to you as this potter has done to his clay?” In other words, can I not take the nation and the people that I called through Abraham and Moses and Samuel – a people who have been lukewarm at their best in their obedience and devotion – and recreate them, reform them. God goes on to give Jeremiah a bit of foreshadowing saying, “As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.” While one could take this as comforting, God goes on in the following verse to say,
7 If I announce that a certain nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down, and destroyed, 8 but then that nation renounces its evil ways, I will not destroy it as I had planned. 9 And if I announce that I will plant and build up a certain nation or kingdom, 10 but then that nation turns to evil and refuses to obey me, I will not bless it as I said I would. 11 “Therefore, Jeremiah, go and warn all Judah and Jerusalem. Say to them, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am planning disaster for you instead of good. So turn from your evil ways, each of you, and do what is right.’”
12 But the people replied, “Don’t waste your breath. We will continue to live as we want to, stubbornly following our own evil desires.”
So, God tells his people through Jeremiah, I don’t like the way you refused to yield yourself to me. I am getting ready to pick up this lump of clay, this thing I called Israel, and I’m going to fling it back on the wheel and begin the process of making it into something else. And the people basically said to God, so? Not only that, but God pronounces judgment on them, again through Jeremiah, and the people say among themselves, “Come on, let’s plot a way to stop Jeremiah. We have plenty of priests and wise men and prophets. We don’t need him to teach the word and give us advice and prophecies. Let’s spread rumors about him and ignore what he says.”
Having given them ample opportunity to change and seeing the refusal of the people. God breaks what was made. The people refuse the offer to be pliable in the potter’s hand and they find themselves under siege and eventually carted off to Babylon in exile for several generations. They refused to be pliable in the hands of God, to be made into something whole and stable, and God, the master craftsman, could do nothing take the clay from the wheel and start again.
As we said last week, our first step in the process is engagement. For us to truly grow as part of the process, we must be willing to follow where God leads, listening to the Holy Spirit, learning to use the tools of spiritual discipline and the practices of spiritual formation to move along on the journey. We must be willing to grow up, growing into maturity in the faith.
The second part of preparing to be spiritually formed is to recognize we are being formed.
“Spiritual formation is a process of being formed in the image of Christ, a journey into becoming persons of compassion, persons who forgive, persons who care deeply for others and the world, persons who offer themselves to God to become agents of divine grace in the lives of others and their world¾in brief, persons who love and serve as Jesus did.”
Notice that this is not forming ourselves; it is a process where we give up the control of our lives to God. This is what is going on in the passage from Jeremiah this morning. The clay yields to the potter to be made into something that can be used and admired by the craftsman. When the clay yields properly, it becomes more than the earth it is made of, it becomes art, both practically and visually. When it does not yield, as in the passage, the potter must start again reforming the clay and working out the lumps and bubbles for the clay to be pliable.
The biggest problem we have with this is yielding. Like Israel, most of us want to continue to live as we want to and choose the way and the path that suits us now. We are often oblivious to the pain and heartache we are setting ourselves up for as we fight with God for control. Even those willing to try to follow the path of God often do so with the idea of being formed in the way we want to be formed rather than allowing God to do the forming.
Paul talks about this Romans 12 saying,
1 And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. 2 Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
Notice in verse two Paul says let God transform you. God is not going to force you, not going to stop you from trying to go your own way. You have free will to make your own decisions but there are also consequences for those things we do which are damaging to our souls and spirits and damaging to the souls and spirits of others. This damage, this brokenness – often called sin – is the reason that God picks up the clay and starts over with the crafting process.
There are several questions to ask yourself:
- Am I being an unruly lump of clay, fighting with God for control of my life?
- Am I deceiving myself, thinking I am being formed into the image of Jesus but trying to do the forming myself?
- Am I allowing myself to be formed, giving up control of the process and trusting in the One who is crafting me?
Frese, D. A. (2013). Lessons from the Potter’s Workshop: A New Look at Jeremiah 18.1-11. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 37(3), 371-388.
Marsh, A. B., & Domeris, B. (2018, September). God’s ‘Repentance’ in Light of the Convenental Relationship between shub and nachem in Jeremiah 18:1-10. Conspectus, 26, 114-123.
 Jeremiah 18:18
 (Mullholland, 2016, p. 31)