Sunday September 8th 2019
Pastor Galen Zook
Jeremiah 18:1-11; 1 John 1:5-9
Secret Decoder Ring
How many of you when you were younger were ever fortunate enough to acquire a “secret decoder ring”? When I was little, the best place to get these was from the inside of a cereal box or Cracker Jack box. With a secret decoder ring you could send encrypted messages back and forth to your friends. And if a friend send a message to you that was written in code, you could use the secret decoder ring to decipher their encrypted message.
Well here in Jeremiah, the prophet Jeremiah is given a sort of secret decoder ring that helps him understand the nature and purpose of biblical prophecy. God’s words to Jeremiah here in Jeremiah 18 help us decode not only Jeremiah’s prophecies, but all of the prophetic passages throughout the Bible.
But before we get to that, we have to journey along with the prophet Jeremiah down to the potter’s house.
The Potter’s House
I don’t know what Jeremiah had been doing or what his plans were for that day, but one day Jeremiah felt God telling him to go down to the potter’s house and to observe the potter in action, making clay pots on a pottery wheel.
Today handmade pottery is a luxury item. Most of us probably only have handmade pottery if we know someone who makes pottery, or if we like to invest in expensive artifacts.
But in Bible times, pottery would have been a standard household item. People used clay pots for hauling water and storing food, and they would have used clay bowls for serving and eating food. And all of this pottery would have been made by hand.
Since pottery was such a standard household item, going to the pottery store was sort of like making a trip to Wal-mart or Target. It would have been a normal household chore, something that one would not normally write about in their journal or diary.
But for Jeremiah, this trip was unique, because he felt like God had something to teach him, something to show him. So he watched the potter with careful, rapt attention.
And as he watched, he noticed that the potter never threw clay away. If he made a mistake, or if there was some sort of flaw in the pot that he was making, he simply balled the clay up, set it back on the pottery wheel, and began again, sometimes molding the clay into a completely different type of vessel.
I took a pottery class in college, and one of my favorite things about working with clay was that it was so easy to start over, because I made a lot of mistakes.
There are any number of reasons why a potter might choose to start over. Perhaps the lump of clay isn’t completely centered on the pottery wheel, causing the bowl or cup to become slanted or skewed. Perhaps the clay is too dry, and the potter needs to add some more water to it. Or perhaps there might be a small stone or pebble mixed into the clay and the potter might want to remove it before reworking it into a new vessel. Or perhaps, as in my college ceramics class, the potter is simply learning, and wants to experiment with making different types of pots.
As Jeremiah stood there watching the potter at work, he sensed God telling him that what this potter was doing represented what God was doing with the people of Israel. God was molding and shaping them, God was molding them like a potter molds a piece of clay.
Jeremiah’s Prophetic Vocation
As Jeremiah continued to watch the potter at work, Jeremiah sensed God telling him something even bigger and more profound than what God was doing at that moment — and it had to do with the very nature and purpose of prophecy, which was Jeremiah’s life work. God wanted him to understand the purpose of the words that God was asking Jeremiah to speak to the people.
You see, often we think of prophecy as a prediction, a statement about what’s going to happen in the future, sort of like a fortune teller staring into a crystal ball. But in the Bible, prophets such as Jeremiah were tasked with speaking God’s words to the people.
For Jeremiah, those words usually had to do with God’s impending judgement on people. Because of this, many people probably thought of Jeremiah as a prophet of “doom and gloom” — sort of a half-crazed man walking around shouting that “the end is near”!
But God reveals something to Jeremiah at the potter’s house that radically reshapes his understanding of the purpose of biblical prophecy. And this is a perspective that should make us go back and take a new look at every other piece of prophetic literature in the Bible. Because in this passage in Jeremiah, God’s heart is revealed.
And here’s the radical truth that we learn at the potter’s house: the prophecies that were written down in the Bible did not have to take place. All the doom and gloom, all the foretelling of death and destruction, all of the wars, and violence, the invading armies and the plagues and floods were not written in stone. They were meant as warnings.
We learn here that the Bible is not some sort of fatalistic book about a dystopian future over which we have no control. Instead, each and every one of the prophecies in the Bible is written for the purpose of waking people up, to cause them to turn from their destructive patterns, to stop sinning and committing injustice, and to turn back to God.
Biblical prophecy is meant to compel people to repent and turn back to God. This is why God sent the prophets, this is why God sent Jeremiah.
This is why God asked the prophets to write their prophecies down, this is why God sent prophets not just to the people of Israel, but to other nations as well. God wanted the people to know the end results, the logical outcome of their evil actions. God wanted them to know what would happen if they didn’t turn back.
God wanted them to heed the warnings before it was too late.
God tells Jeremiah that any time a nation that God has promised to destroy repents and turns from their sin, then God will forgive. God will not bring the disaster that God had intended to bring on it.
This is good news! This is actually wonderful news! It means that there is always a glimmer of hope, always a path to life. The future has not been written in stone, there is always time to turn back and be healed and forgiven.
As 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
We see this played out in the story of Jonah. Jonah walked through the city of Nineveh prophesying that the city would be destroyed. But the citizens of Nineveh repented in response to Jonah’s preaching, and God does not bring the destruction upon their city that Jonah had foretold.
The Flip Side
But there was also a flip side to all of this as well. And that is that God also told Jeremiah that no nation was safe either. That when God prophesied blessings and bountiful provisions on a nation, if that nation turned away from God and began to do evil, then God could also change God’s mind about the good that God had intended to do to that nation.
Just as God was ready and willing to forgive any nation that repented and turned to God, so too God’s blessings were provisional. No nation gets a pass. No nation gets total immunity.
And then this section ends with God warning even the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, God’s chosen possession, that they too would be judged unless they turned back to God in repentance and changed their evil ways.
All of this must have come as quite a surprise to many of the Israelite people, who thought that because they were God’s chosen people, it didn’t matter what they did, God would overlook their sin and wrongdoing. They thought by nature of their culture and ethnicity and nationality that they had an “in” with God. But God wanted them to know before it was too late that the path they were heading down was a path towards destruction. God wanted them to turn back before it was too late.
As Americans living in the twenty-first century, it’s easy for us to think that we, like the Israelites in Jeremiah’s day, are God’s chosen, special people. After all, our nation was founded on the stated principles of freedom and equality (although that freedom and equality did not extend to women, slaves, or Native Americans). Our Pledge of Allegiance states that we are “one nation under God,” and even our currency proclaims that “In God We Trust.” Because of this, so often we think that as a nation God will give us a pass, that we have total immunity.
But Jeremiah’s journey to the potter’s house is a cautionary tale that reminds us that even the most blessed nations are accountable to God, that no nation has total immunity, that even nations that put their faith and trust in God will have to answer to God for the deeds that they have done.
On the other hand we are also reminded that no nation is outside of the limits of God’s grace, that God is always ready and willing to forgive, that, as 2 Chronicles 7:14 says, “ if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
Pray for Our Nation
And so this morning I want to invite and remind us to pray for our nation and for the leaders of our country, and for other countries around the world. Many of us here this morning probably have a variety of concerns about the direction that our world is headed. It would be easy to wish or even hope that God might just come and bring judgment on the people who disagree with us, people who we think are trying to take our world down the wrong path.
But instead, let’s pray that our world would heed the warning signs before it’s too late. Let’s pray that people and nations would turn to God. Let’s pray for our own country, that we would truly live out our stated principles of freedom and equality for everyone.
In the Potter’s Hands
Although this passage is primarily speaking about nations, I think there are some individual applications to us as well. Because every time there has been a move of God throughout history, every time that nations have repented and turned to God, it has always consisted of individuals and families who allowed themselves to be used by God, who have allowed God to shape and mold them and lead the way for others to follow their example.
So let’s lead the way. Let’s be examples. Let’s allow ourselves to be sensitive to the work of God in our own lives, let’s allow God to mold us and shape us as clay in the hands of a loving potter.