Christ Lutheran Church of the Deaf
Silver Spring, Maryland
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Jeremiah, the reluctant prophet

The Story about the Potter
Rev. Ron Friedrich
August 20, 2006

Jeremiah 18:1-6 (NCV)
    This is the word the LORD spoke to Jeremiah:  "Go down to the potter's house, and I will give you my message there."  So I went down to the potter's house and saw him working at the potter's wheel.  He was using his hands to make a pot from clay, but something went wrong with it. So he used that clay to make another pot the way he wanted it to be.
    Then the LORD spoke his word to me: "Family of Israel, can't I do the same thing with you?" says the LORD. "You are in my hands like the clay in the potter's hands."

The picture of God as the potter begins long before Jeremiah's time... "In the beginning" God was the first potter.

Then the LORD God took dust from the ground and formed a man from it. He breathed the breath of life into the man's nose, and the man became a living person. (Genesis 27 NCV)

Later, closer to Jeremiah's time, the prophet Isaiah calls God "the potter."

All of us are dirty with sin.
All the right things we have done are like filthy pieces of cloth.
All of us are like dead leaves, and our sins, like the wind, have carried us away.
No one worships you or even asks you to help us.
That is because you have turned away from us and have let our sins destroy us.
But LORD, you are our father. We are like clay, and you are the potter;
your hands made us all. (Isaiah 64:6-8)

Now, God uses the picture of a potter to teach Jeremiah about His plan for the nation of Israel.

Jeremiah saw a potter working in his shop.  The potter put wet clay on a spinning wheel, and he began to shape it.  But the clay had a flaw in it.  Something in the clay was hard and resisted the potter's hands.  So the pot or the bowl that the potter was trying to make was ruined.

Now notice that the potter did not throw out the clay. No, the potter took the clay off the wheel.  He kneaded it into a big ball again, trying to get that hard spot to soften up.  Then he put it back on the wheel, and starting shaping the clay into a vessel again.  But this time, Jeremiah saw the potter shaping the clay into a different kind of pot than he had attempted the first time.

What was the message in this story for Israel?

God told the people of Israel, "You are in my hands like the clay in the potter's hands."   God had taken a little family -- the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and God took that family to Egypt. Through the pressure of slavery, God shaped and kneaded that family into a nation.  God established a covenant relationship with Israel at Mount Sinai.   God explained to Israel His moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments.  He also gave Israel a special identity among nations by giving them their ceremonial law (sacrifices and religious holidays) and civil law (rules for government).

Through Moses, God told the people of Israel:

    "Every one of you has seen what I did to the people of Egypt. You saw how I carried you out of Egypt, as if on eagle's wings. And I brought you here to me. So now if you obey me and keep my agreement, you will be my own possession, chosen from all nations. Even though the whole earth is mine, you will be my kingdom of priests and a holy nation."...
    All the people answered together, "We will do everything he has said."  (Exodus 19:4-8 NCV)

However, they didn't do much of anything that the Lord had said.

Oh, they did build the temple for the Lord in Jerusalem, and they offered ceremonial sacrifices there, thinking that was enough to satisfy God.  But in their hearts they worshipped idols.  The religions of the pagans were a lot more fun.

Year after year God sent prophets to call the people back to Him.  But the people ignored the prophets – or worse.  Like the hard clay in the potter's hand, Israel resisted God's hand. They refused to become the people He had planned.  So like the potter in Jeremiah's story, God took them off the wheel -- took them out of the land of Israel -- and kneaded them through slavery in Babylon.  Then God sent the back to Israel, with a plan to do something new with them. 

The Old Covenant did not work, not because the Covenant was flawed, but because Israel was flawed.   But God had plans for the New Covenant. 

Jeremiah 31:31-34
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt -- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORDBut this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more."  (NIrV)

As the potter kneaded the hard clay and made it into a new vessel, so God "reformed" Israel, taking them back into bondage (Babylon), and make a New Covenant with them.  God planned to make Israel into a vessel in which to bring Christ to the world.  In Babylon, Israel was suppose to yield to the Potter's new design, and not try to form themselves back to the old failed vessel.

But what really happened?    The people of Israel tried to remake themselves into the old vessel.  Religious leaders, like the Pharisees, put a "fence" around God's law.  They added human rules, more difficult than God's rules, to make sure that people would obey God's rules.   But soon they confused man-made rules for God's rules.  They thought that their man-made rules were God's rules, and they condemned all people who did not obey the man-made rules.

For example:

In Babylon they learned the importance of the First Commandment.  Never again did they worship idols. They became so strict that they refused to let Pontius Pilate hang ceremonial shields on his palace walls because they had images representing Roman authority. 

The fence they built around the Second Commandment (Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord your God in vain) by refusing to even say the name of God (Yahweh).  Whenever the name of God appeared in the Scriptures, they would say the Hebrew word for "Lord"  (Adonai)  This tradition carries over even to our English translations of the Old Testament.  Every place in the Bible where you see the word "
LORD" printed in all uppercase letters, that is a signal that the Hebrew text uses the holy name of God.  Conservative Judaism extends this "fence" around the Second Commandment even further:  Look on Jewish information web sites, and you will see that they won't even write the English word "God."  Rather, they type "G-d."

The fence they built around the Third Commandment did not permit Jesus to heal sick people on the Sabbath.  Now the Third Commandment extends to prohibitions against using electrical equipment -- even turning on an electric light -- on the Sabbath.

There is nothing wrong if people want to show respect for God in these ways.  But often people who choose to follow invented rules make two terrible mistakes.  First, they believe that they are better people by following those rules.  Second, they mix up God's rules with their man-made rules, and they sincerely believe that the man-made rules are God's rules.  So they judge everyone who does not follow their man-made rules.  And that is exactly what happened in Israel.

Did it work?  Did all those rules make people better?  No.  The Rule-Keepers failed to recognize the Messiah, the Christ, the One whom God sent as He promised to Moses and the Prophets.  And what is worse, when He broke their religious rules, they plotted to kill Him.


We tend to do the same thing.  We think that if we invent lots of rules, that will make us good.
    That didn't work the first time [with Sinai].
    That didn't work the second time [with the Pharisees].
    That won't work now.

God gives us something better than RULES.
He gives us MERCY!

When we mess up, because we fail to yield to God's hands,
    just like the clay in Jeremiah's story,
when we fail to become as God designed us,
God does not throw us out.
He kneads us and makes us into new vessels.

Jesus Himself became clay with us.
He became clay for us.
Jesus submitted to all of the rules that we break,
and He obeyed the Law of the Old Covenant perfectly.
Then He accepted the punishment that we earn for breaking the rules.

You have been saved by grace through believing. You did not save yourselves; it was a gift from God. It was not the result of your own efforts, so you cannot brag about it.   (Ephesians 2:8,9 NCV)


Now, our motivation for doing good things is not rules.  Now God Himself does good things through us

God has made us what we are. In Christ Jesus, God made us to do good works, which God planned in advance for us to live our lives doing.  (Ephesians 2:10 NCV)

    What is a pot for?
    What is the purpose of a pot?
    What is a pot suppose to do?

The pot fulfills its purpose only when it is filled with something -- water, wine, oil, grain, or flour.

God shapes us into pots, and then He fills us with Himself!
He fills us to overflowing, so that through us He touches other people.
Then He reshapes them and fills them.


This story from Jeremiah offers special comfort to every Christian who still struggles against sin, temptation, and rebellion against God. 

We are often like that hard clay that does not yield to God's hands.
Fear not!  God does not throw you out.  He forives all your sins and your sinful attitudes.  He still can use you in His service, perhaps in a different way than He first planned. ...or just as He originally planned.


In my Junior year in college, God began to show me that He wanted me to prepare for Deaf ministry.  I attended the Sign Language class the pastor taught every week.  But my heart was not in it.  The one time I visited the Deaf church, I felt very uncomfortable because of my own inability to communicate.   After two years in Sign Language class, all I could do was fingerspell my name and Sign the Lord's Prayer.  Finally, when the pastor asked me to come to the Deaf church, I quit the class.

My personal interests for special ministry was missionary radio.  I had both Amateur Radio and commercial radio licenses from the Federal government.  I had six years of experience as a short-wave radio operator and three years experience in broadcasting.  My friends who where either preparing for missions or working in missions encouraged me to use my experience in mission work.  That idea really appealed to me, and I explored several different paths to go.

But the Lord's nudge toward Deaf ministry still bothered me.   And Jeremiah's story about the potter had a message for me.  I prayed,

Lord, I am like that hard clay in the potter's hands.  I have not yielded to You.  I have not allowed You to shape me into the vessel that You had planned.  Please forgive me, and use me as You wish.

In Jeremiah's story, the potter fixed the problem of the hard clay by making a different vessel.  If You want to use me in a different way than in deaf work, I have a real good suggestion for You....  How about radio?

However, if You still want me to work in Deaf ministry, You need to change my mind about it, because You know that I don't want to do it.

That was a dangerous prayer.  ...because here I am.  God did indeed change my mind.  He slowly and gently reshaped my heart to make me something different than what I had planned.

Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.

Take my will and make it Thine,
It shall be no longer mine;
Take my heart, it is Thine own,
It shall be Thy royal throne.

Take my love, my Lord, I pour
At Thy feet its treasure-store;
Take myself, and I will be
Ever, only, all, for Thee.

TLH 400 "Take My Life and Let It Be"
by Frances R. Havergal