Before we go down to the Potter’s House with Jeremiah, I want to say something about the context in which Jeremiah finds himself --and not just for our edification, but because I believe there is lots there that speaks to our moment now.
So here’s the context in a nutshell. The time is the late 6th century BCE. There’s a massive crisis looming, like it has been for some time. And even though there’s real evidence on the ground that the region of Judah and the people of Israel are under threat --in this case it’s the Babylonian Empire to the north that’s moving in-- for the most part, life is business as usual. But the prophet Jeremiah sees the end is coming.
Of course no one wants to hear it, but that doesn’t stop him from talking about it. Instead of framing what he sees in terms of a political analysis, what he offers is a theological perspective -- which allows for a whole other read on reality … and one that opens up possibilities that wouldn’t otherwise be imagined.
This is the gift and the challenge of the prophet Jeremiah.
So how does Jeremiah interpret what’s happening?
Of course he understands that Babylon is a rising power and is expanding its territory, but he dares to interpret the defeat of Judah as a consequence of the people’s failure to keep the terms of the covenant that God has made with them … the covenant that described how they would live justly with one another, generously with the orphan, widow and the stranger in the land, and the land itself … a covenant that is about loving God and loving neighbour.
It was spelled out from the beginning: that keeping the covenant would make for abundant life; breaking the covenant would bring death and destruction. Jeremiah announces that at the heart of Judah’s demise is that morally, ethically, the people have lost their way. They have disregarded the covenant.
But then Jeremiah doesn’t leave it there. He dares to make another claim … that while keeping the covenant matters deeply to God, there is this anguished yearning in the heart of God for a continuing relationship with the people. It’s that yearning we hear over and over through the Hebrew scriptures … God saying “how can I give you up” … “how can I let you go?“ … “come back to me with all your heart.” So it’s not over for God with this failure to keep the covenant … even while that was the condition laid out from the beginning.
And then there’s one more thing Jeremiah picks up on. He exposes and critiques this unquestioned assumption, this mindset really, that Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah, the Holy City, is God’s stronghold. Nothing can possibly come to grief in the city of God! The temple after all is God’s home; the people are God’s chosen. So the people imagine there’s no need to worry. But they are wrong … and Jeremiah knows it.
So why does it matter that we get a feel for Jeremiah’s context and his deeper reading of reality?
This is what happened to me when I started to get clearer on what Jeremiah was about … and is about.
Here I’d been, over these last few weeks, finding myself more and more convinced that this up-coming election will determine our future … and I’m talking the future and fate of our planet ... as though everything hangs on the outcome of this election … like, if we don’t choose politicians that will enact a Green New Deal, we’re done … it’s over. So I’ve been thinking that somehow it has to go that way.
And yet, that’s a recipe for a kind of zealousness that can get ugly. It’s one thing to be hugely passionate … but to be zealous… And then come election night … and if doesn’t go well, what would keep me from total despair?
Thanks to Jeremiah, this crucial corrective comes into view. I’m able to see that what I’ve been doing is imagining that politics has all the power, and that a political read on reality is the ultimate one.
Still I get it -- we do need to care … it matters how this election goes. But Jeremiah reminds us there’s still a deeper truth … another power at work, in and through the presence of God.
Which brings us now to the Potter’s house, where Jeremiah is led to hear a word from the Lord. At first it’s a visual experience … the potter working, the clay taking shape in her hands, only then to see her smush the whole thing and start over … re-working the clay into another vessel that was pleasing to her. And what comes to Jeremiah as he watches? It comes to him that God is saying “Can I not do with you O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so you are in my hand. 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 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 intended to do to it.”
So now we get the sense this is not your ordinary clay. This is not a passive neutral substance that will be manipulated at the potters will. This is clay with it’s own agency … with a capacity to choose … to decide for itself. This is the clay of Genisis chapter one, where God forms the human creature out of the stuff of earth and breathes God’s own spirit into it, such that it becomse a living being. This is God inspired, Spirit infused clay. This is clay that possesses something of the essence of God! … not the least of which is freedom. This is clay that must wrestle with choosing for good or for ill. And this is clay that has the capacity to respond to the yearning of God’s heart.
And so the fearsome task is given to Jeremiah: Now therefore say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem (and to us): 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.”
In case we imagine that somehow God won’t let utter disater come upon the earth, let’s remember that actually Jerusalem was destroyed, and Jesus was crucified.
Let us also remember that for several generations we have had the nuclear capacity to annihilate ourselves, the entire planet … and we have not … as though we have been aided by God’s own endless anguished yearning that we choose life.
For all the catastrophic damage that we have wrought upon the earth still we are given to trust that God so loves the world … not only that -- but that God so loves even the people of the earth … us … each and every last one of us.
And still it is for us to respond to that Love … to turn and open our hearts to that most powerful loving desire that, blessed be, continues to hum and throb and pulse through the whole creation, willing us, haunting us, wooing us to choose the things that make for life.
So what would it be for us to pray with the writer of that Psalm
Search me O God, and know my heart;
Test me and know my thoughts.
Watch closely lest I follow a path of error
and guide me in the everlasting way.