JEREMIAH 18: 1-11 

We’ve spent the entire summer with the prophets, and to some of us putting together these services (and maybe to some of you)… they’re beginning to feel like house-guests who’ve stayed a little too long. We invited them; we’re glad they came; we need them in our lives… And now: thanks for coming; it’s time to go home.

The next two Sundays, the Word will be proclaimed in our worship services by FPC guests: Rev. Dr. Lynn Turnage from Montreat next Sunday, and Rev. Dr. Victor Aloyo from Columbia Seminary the week after that. We aren’t asking them to preach on the prophets, but I believe Patrick will conclude our series in late September (before our retreat), and then we’ll have a much more uplifting and joyful series that we’re very excited about.

 But before all that… we have one more Sunday with Jeremiah. As Shannon touched on the past two weeks – Jeremiah can be a bit of a downer, even in comparison to the other prophets (which is like describing a particular snail as especially slow, even for a snail). 

 You may remember that Jeremiah lived through the invasion and fall of Jerusalem, and was with his people, speaking God’s word to them, during at least the first part of their time of exile. A pall of death and a tone of lament hangs over the book; Jeremiah’s often tearfully bemoaning how awful their situation is, and often connecting it directly to the awful behavior of his people – God’s people – Israel. But he does, from time to time, make space to ask the question: how will God bring good from this? How might God use this time to create a new, faithful people through this experience of exile? So let’s listen for God’s word through Jeremiah, in this passage from chapter 18:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

 Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, 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. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

 The grass withers, and the flowers fade, but the Word of our God will stand forever.

Thanks be to God.

 There are some beautiful, hopeful, uplifting things in this passage. God the artist – the Potter at the wheel, plying a trade – molding and forming the clay. It’s hard for some of us to not picture Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore when we think of a potter’s wheel – from the movie Ghost. It’s not the ideal image – that’s a deeply romantic scene with a shirtless Patrick Swayze. But the potter’s wheel scenes from Jeremiah and from Ghost do have something in common. There’s a mistake with the clay… but that’s not a devastating end to the clay; the potter reworks it into something even more beautiful.

 I think it would be fun to preach an entire sermon about those opening verses! God is always at work on and in us, and even when things seem spoiled or sloppy or broken… God doesn’t give up! God keeps at it, doesn’t only see our blemishes and mistakes, but can rework us and make beautiful things out of us. That would preach, as they say. You are like this clay, O Israel, and I am the potter.

 Don’t you love that?

 But Jeremiah keeps going, because the Word of the Lord continues to Jeremiah, with a few scenarios.

 Scenario 1, God says: “I might say that bad things are going to happen – destruction… but if those people turn from their evil, good things will happen.” So far… mostly so good. It’s a little strange and surprising that God says, literally, “I’ll change my mind,” but let’s leave that aside for now.

 OR, Scenario 2, God continues: “I might say that good things are going to happen – building and planting… but if they don’t listen, and do evil… bad things will happen.” That’s a little troubling, but at least there’s some clarity – there’s a logic to what God is saying, with those two scenarios.

 And then the conclusion: God brings it home with a nice threat: “right now I have bad things planned for you. I am the potter… but don’t think gentle caressing hands and romantic music and playful mess-ups and easy fresh starts like in Ghost… I am shaping evil and devising a plan against you.”

 As so many of these prophetic texts do (or at least the ones that have consistently fallen on my preaching weeks) – it raises questions that we have to wrestle and struggle with. Questions like:

 Does God change God’s mind? and

Is God plotting evil against us? (and if so, why? and what can we do about it?)

Let’s look at those questions.

 Is the mind of God changeable?

 This passage, quite clearly, says: yes.

 Now… there’s a certain reaction a lot of people have, and you might instantly have, to someone suggesting that God changes. Your instinct might be to say: “Pfftt – that person doesn’t understand God. God is unchanging.” I think it is true to say, and important to say, that the character of God is unchaining – in our Hebrew passage from just two weeks ago – God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But not only in today’s Jeremiah passage, but in several places in Scripture – God’s mind IS changed.

 A few things that may be helpful to remember, or to see, about this:

 God’s mind does sometimes change; but when that happens, it is always in order to show more mercy, not less. Some examples:

 Think of God’s being talked down from plans to destroy the city of Sodom, by Abraham, who negotiates with God to spare the city if he can find first 50, then 45, then 40, all the down to just 10 righteous people. (Unfortunately, even that is too high a number for that inhospitable city)… but Abraham talked God into more mercy – God’s mind was changed.

 Or think of God’s showing mercy, to the horror of the prophet Jonah, to the city of Ninevah, when they repent. Jonah, remember, ran from God’s call, as it turned out, because he knew that God’s character – merciful and compassion – didn’t change, and knew that God’s mind (intending destruction for Ninevah) could be changed. And… it did. God’s mind is changed, due to their changed heart.

 Not only that, but again and again, throughout the story of God’s relating to God’s people – they don’t hold up their end of the covenant… and God is gracious and merciful; forgives them. God’s mind is changed. God gives them another chance.

 But in the scenario in which people persist in doing evil, and don’t listen to God, and things don’t go well for the people… that actually isn’t an example of God’s mind changing, but an example of God’s doing what God has said, again in again, in the covenants with Moses, and David, and the prophets, including Jeremiah himself: “Follow me, obey my commands, care for the poor, seek justice, worship only me, and things will go well for you; but if you don’t do those things – disobey, worship other gods, forget and mistreat the poor, things will go badly for you.” When exactly that happens, it’s not really an example of a change, but a reminder and opportunity to course correct.

 Are any of you sailors? (Or have any of you ever been sailing?) I haven’t… but I once had a seminary professor – actually my Hebrew prophets professor, whose other passion was sailing; he gave us an image that has stuck with me, to help understand these depictions (so common in the prophets) of God’s wrath and punishment. Things we don’t like to talk about, but the prophets did.

 (And let me offer this caveat. I am probably misremembering some of the intricacies of the analogy, because I’m NOT a sailor. After the early service this morning I learned all kinds of exceptions and terms that make this analogy a little less straightforward… so if you do know about sailing, my apologies, and please just go with me).

 Imagine you are out on the water, sailing in the middle of a great sea, and you are trying to reach the other side, and the wind is blowing, mightily, toward your destination. There is no greater feeling, than getting your sail up and positioned correctly, feeling the wind at your back, and being pushed exactly where you are going. What if we thought of the force of that wind as the force of God’s justice, compassion, mercy, and redeeming love?

 But, if you decide to resist that wind, if you decide you are going to go in the opposite direction, the force of the wind – the exact same good and mighty and beautiful wind force – feels like wrath, punishment, destruction. Nothing about the wind has changed… but our experience of it is entirely different, based on whether or not we work to, or allow ourselves to be aligned with it, and where it is taking and blowing us.

 Patrick noted, several weeks ago, that so often, in these prophetic texts, God is depicted in such a human manner. In this passage, God sounds like a reactionary parent – making a threat in order to provoke a particular response, a change of behavior… but then sometimes God’s mind is changed, and the threat isn’t followed through. I’m embarrassed to admit that as a parent, that sounds a little familiar.

 To be clear, I’ve never threatened destruction or “plotted evil” against my kids. My threats have been more along the lines of: “No screens for the rest of the week”… (which to them maybe does sound like I’m plotting evil against them).

 Now, is God really like me, when I’m at my worst, as a parent? Or… is this a relatable, understandable image for God’s people? It’s important to remember that the Bible looks and sounds the way it does, sometimes, because God allows God’s children to tell the story. I repeat: the Bible looks and sounds the way it does, sometimes, because God allows God’s children to tell the story. That doesn’t give us license to dismiss the things we don’t like or don’t understand in the Bible, but it does allow us to hold fast to the things we know most clearly about God, who is merciful, not vindictive… AND, who insists on us acting rightly. God wants the Israelites to understand, and Jeremiah wants them to understand, that things will not go well for them if they are determined to resist what God has set out before them.

 It’s not that God is easily swayed by us, it’s that we are so easily swayed – put out of alignment – by what is happening around us.

 And the first 17 chapters of Jeremiah show us that they seemed determined to resist what God has set before them, and were significantly out of alignment. They are sailing directly against the wind, not listening to God. Bound and determined to not cooperate with the shaping, formative work of God, the potter. So, of course, God’s work of molding them, against their will, is going to feel like destruction and plotting evil against them.

 What about us? Is God plotting evil against us, and if so, why, and what can we do about it?

The question really is: Are we sailing against God’s wind? Where are we doing evil in God’s sight? Where are we not listening to God, not cooperating with God’s artistic shaping of us?

 Here’s a list of complaints Jeremiah lofts at the people, prior to chapter 18: theft; not keeping the sabbath; commitment to hollow religious and cultural rituals; cheating other people; lying and “clinging to deceit”; indifference to the plight of the orphan; reluctance to defend the rights of the poor. And idolatry – making something that isn’t God the thing that we worship – the thing around which we center our lives, giving it undue religious and spiritual significance and authority.

 We may be quick to say: I work hard to not do those things. I’m glad. But I want to invite you to see something significant here. God’s word through Jeremiah here is not directed to individuals. We don’t see God with a list a names separating the good from the bad. And, interestingly, this is both good and bad news.

 It’s good news in that we don’t have to, and are not invited to read this passage as a personal warning: shape up, or else! Don’t have those judgmental thoughts about homeless people, or bad things will happen to you. Be more patient with your kids or your spouse. Conduct yourself at work, or in traffic, the way you’d want your church family to see you conducting yourself… or God will devise evil against you: [insert your name here]. That’s not what is happening here.

 Scripture and Jesus do invite us to think personally and specifically about our actions… but what Jeremiah is on about is something different. It is corporate – societal – plural. All of these warning situations in our passage… are plural. I am plotting evil against y’all; devising a plan against y’all. Turn now, all of you. Amend y’all’s ways!

 So the bad news… is that we are held accountable for – we are lumped in with – the sin or our society. The ways that our broader culture, and nation, and church miss the mark. And I’m not sure our situation is all that different from the people of Israel, all those centuries ago, when the things that the prophets most consistently highlighted and called out in the people, were lack of care for the most vulnerable, and idolatry.

 We name and list our societies’ sins often – in confession and prayers of the people, in sermons and classes. Too often, though, I catch myself tacking my own ending on to those prayers and acknowledgments, and it is almost the exact prayer of the Pharisee and one of Jesus’ short parables about humility: “Thank you, God, that I am not like them.” I am comfortable naming our societal sins – inaction related to gun violence, racism, environmental degradation, the homelessness and housing crisis. But too often, I separate myself from the sin, because “it’s not me!” Jeremiah is not leaving that option open to the Israelites, or to us.

 I mentioned idolatry. In closing, I want to briefly say something about a specific form of idolatry that I think we have to pay attention to, and resist, together… not because we at FPC are especially susceptible to it, but because it is so prevalent around us, and we are implicated… and that is the idol of Christian nationalism. (Are you familiar?)

 Here’s a definition of Christian nationalism:

Christian nationalism is a cultural framework that seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.

 So much more can and should be said. I encourage you to read more about Christian Nationalism, so that we can face, with eyes fully open, this reality.

 Many political historians see this as the greatest threat to democracy, and many Christian historians see this as the greatest threat to the witness of the gospel in our century.

 It’s so tempting to look at Christian nationalism, or any of those other cultural issues, through the lens of the good side and bad side – we who are against those things, and those who aren’t. But this passage doesn’t allow us to separate the good from bad, the Christian nationalists from us. It invites us to see the ways we are complicit, the ways that the church has been formed and is forming people in our culture, and invites us to work creatively and graciously to make sure that we are following Jesus and compellingly inviting others to do so, with us. Our Jeremiah passage is alarming and troubling because we hear God’s acknowledging that their society is out of alignment with God’s justice and love, and that bad things will come of that. But the passage ends with an invitation – the same invitation Jesus’ begins his public ministry with: repent. Turn from evil, to good, and to God. Together, let us repent, and take ownership and responsibility for what is happening around us. Amen.


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