Spoiled and Reworked (Jeremiah 18:1-11)

(This is the message portion of what I shared on Sunday that follows a story I wrote. This message comes from Jeremiah 18:1-11.)

We in the middle of discussing various passages from the book of Jeremiah, asking what do these old stories have to teach us? Are there new ways to understand and approach these stories? Are there old ways that need to be set aside? Similar to this story about the two cobblers, Jeremiah’s time was a time of great upheaval and change.

Our faith in times of upheaval can be very much like these two cobblers. One is unable to allow himself to be opened up to new possibilities, new experiences, new creativity of what the people may want from him, his past experience became for him an idol that he was unable to reject, while the other cobbler was pliable, open to the painful process of being re-fashioned, fired in the clay oven, and turned into something new. Both are like clay spoiled, but only one gets reworked by the hands of the potter.

This week’s most prominent news about the pastor in Florida who said he was going to burn Quran’ on September 11, then seemingly changed his mind, is another example of, whether for good intentions or not, what it looks like to take a hold of something and making an idol out of it. The pastor took his idea of the right-kind-of-religion and turned it into an idol, turned it into something that could be controlled by his own hands and used against those who rejected the idol.

Here we see vividly a man standing there holding, as though a potter, out his hands with something that spoiled and is rotten.

But then something happened to him as well. He called the whole thing off. Sure, he waffled a lot, and didn’t really cancel it as much as “suspend it” and made it more about certain deals he made with this and that guy, but nonetheless, there were no Koran’s burned as far as I know. That pastor had spoiled and got reworked, at least a little. For whatever reason he didn’t host the burning after all (maybe having the entire globe mad at you helps?). Change comes, sometimes from small incremental changes, and some times from global outcry. But if we allow ourselves to be reworked, to set aside those idols, to be open to being remade, we can find God a fresh. And we can pray together that Terry Jones will actually remain connected to the Muslims he was in communication with over this period, and maybe even become an advocate for them. Who knows, God is the potter, and he shapes things in ways we cannot imagine or predict.

Spoiled and Reworked

Jeremiah’s prophetic poetry speaks to the condition of needing to be refashioned in order to be made useful again. Though it was written some 2, 500 years ago, it is still current. The people of God, this time it’s Israel, but we know that it could be any of us at any time, have royally missed the point. Further, what happened for the people during this time is that they became so enamored with, what I’m calling, their royal-consciousness, their “empire state of mind,” that it finally becomes their downfall. In other words, their practice of religion became for them an idol that had spoiled and needed to be reworked. And so, if anything Jeremiah is about YHWH challenging his people to return to the covenant that he established with them and to which they have been infidels. (Judgement is always predicated already on God’s covenant with us.)

For Israel, earlier experiences and loyalties about what they thought it meant to be the people of God, to have God’s blessing, finally led to their downfall. One write says, their thought was that they were:

“immune to covenant sanctions and God’s Judgement. This ideology articulated in the Jerusalem establishment, fostered by the king and articulated by temple priests, claimed that the God of Israel had made irrevocable promises to the temple and the monarch, had taken up permanent residence in Jerusalem, and was for all time a patron and guarantor of the Jerusalem establishment” (WB 1998: 6).

And so in a way, their previous experiences, actions, and beliefs spoiled became an obstacle for them, like the old shoe designs for the cobblers.

Closing

Then Jeremiah’s stands in front of his people, holds out his hands and says, this has all spoiled. It’s no good any longer. Will you let it be reworked?

Judgement finally comes, God will rework the clay and will reshape it however he sees fit. Upon them in the form of being exiled from their land because they wouldn’t accept a different path. Some of the people literally, and ironically, ran back to Egypt the place from which they had been liberated hundreds of years earlier. And some were deported, along with Jeremiah, to live in exile away from their homeland as prisoners in Babylon.

If we can simplify this down to its real basic part, the point here is that the people of God had a good thing going, they had a land all their own, they had a monarch, which is what they asked for, they had become established and in the process they began to live off the fat of the land, off the idea that they were privileged, that they deserved God’s favor and were immune to any challenge upon their status as the people of God. What they had at one point was a beautiful vessel, the clay was still moist and pliable, but then it became spoiled, it need to be smashed together and reworked. (Jer 19).

And this is true for us as well. We can begin to live off the old experiences (whether positive or negative), we get accustom to certain privileged lifestyle choices and become comfortable, certain ways of believing that keep God in our control, and things start to spoil and rot. We feel like the life has run out of us, we feel tired. Apathy is an appropriate word for our days. That sense of passion and first love has gone, but we aren’t open to self-sacrifice and change the way we once were either. We get caught in a particular way of acting out our beliefs, a particular mode of thinking that keeps us comfortable and never really allow us to be reworked by the potter. We will hang on to our idols, even if it will cost us our life.

I can’t help but think that many of us here in this room are sitting waiting for something to happen, hoping something beautiful will happen to us, around us, even for us. But yet, if we want maintain the comfort and control we’ve achieved, then we are not pliable clay in the potter’s hands. It’s not easy giving up self-enjoyment for self-sacrifice. But the process of spoiling and being reworked by the potter is the process of being made into new creations, Christians call it discipleship, we call it sanctification. If we want to hang onto the comfort and control that we have, nothing new is going to happen, or when it does we’ll be the ones who are in babylon looking on watching it take place.

[Sojourner editors writes] If we think about it, we also know that when we make something, if we allow the work of our hands to become an idol—whether it is made of clay, microchips, real estate, predator drones, mortgage-backed securities, or even a large email list with which we try to do good—its effects on our and our neighbors’ lives will go beyond what we had planned or intended, until and unless we turn back to God and seek deliverance.

Things spoil, things need to be reworked. The idols need to be set aside. This is the process of life, this is the process of faith. What will it take for us to continue to be pliable, and pliable in ways we can’t imagine? Like the cobblers and the Florida pastor, sometimes things need to be set aside because they’ve lost their life, they’ve become putrid and spoiled. They hold us back from finding real life in God.

YHWH is a skilled artist in complete creative control, master painter, who knows how to take even the most glaring blemish on the canvas and turn it into something beautiful. Are we willing to set aside these things and trust the hands of the master Potter?

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

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