Jeremiah 4:11-28, Psalm 51 "What is True Repentance?"

Jeremiah 18:1-12; Psalm 139 "What Does it Take to Shape a Human?"

I once tried to make a clay pot and it was a disaster.  The clay spun so rapidly on the wheel that each little wrong move I made created a weird imperfection.  First, I made one side higher than the other, so I molded the clay into a ball and started again.  I made the edges too thick, then too thin.  When I finally made a rounded object, my thumb slipped and created a lip I didn’t want.  I finally gave up and said that I made an ashtray.  I watched the teacher mold the spinning clay, rounding it out, bringing up the sides and fluting the edges into a flower vase.  It looked marvelous, beautiful, easy – but I knew better.  Clay may be supple and stretchy, but that doesn’t mean you can make what your mind envisions without a great deal of skill and practice.  


Jeremiah watched a potter at work and saw this analogy to God’s work with humans.  Sometimes the pot gets marred on the wheel; and sometimes humans, who are created to do good, go astray and do evil.  With clay, you can roll it back into a ball and start again, but with humans, we are more challenging.  When I worked briefly with clay it felt like the clay had a mind of its own, and this is the issue with humans- we do have a mind of our own.   So while we may be easily shaped, we don’t necessarily stay that way.  Think back to the creation story in Genesis 2, where God forms the first human from the dust of the ground, perhaps alluding to the way an expert potter forms the clay, and then breathes into the nostrils of this earthen vessel and makes it-us- alive.  Here is where we differ from a clay pot.  Pots get fired and then they are set.  A beautiful vase will sit there and look marvelous-flower after flower.  But we had free will breathed into our nostrils, so we are always be molded and changed.  We sometimes talk of humans being set in our ways, but even our habits lead us down a path towards change.  It may not be the change we like or anticipate, but one thing we can count on is change.  When humans are set and immovable, we are actually dead.  Our success as a species is our remarkable adaptability.  We can live in many climates, make tools, tell stories and share knowledge in ways that make our lives ever changing – except apparently in the US Senate. 


Unfortunately we sometimes use our remarkable adaptability and God-given freedom in destructive ways.  This issue creates great anguish for Jeremiah.  He sees Israel on the wrong track, acting in ways that are evil and unjust, oppressing the poor and forgetting God’s commandments.  They act as if they are a marred pot that can’t properly hold or pour water, not like the beautiful vessels God created in Genesis.  Can God start again and mold humanity once more?   This is an important question, one we all ask, especially on a bad day when we see human evil, stupidity or just flat out apathy.  Can we become less selfish, turn away from greed, war and prejudice?  Can we overcome our addictions, apathy and anxiety?  Sometimes our maladaptive misbehavior seems determined and fixed, the human pot is already fired and set beyond all hope of change.


Jeremiah was stern and blunt.  While he may have been saying things that are hard to hear, he firmly believed in the possibility of repentance and change.  His message in chapter 18 is that God is not done with us yet.  That can be good news or bad news, depending upon your point of view.  If you want to change, that is the most hopeful thing you can hear.  If you are comfortable with the way things are, perhaps even benefitting from evil things, then look out ahead.  As Dante warned, “Hell is truth seen too late.”   Jeremiah makes it clear that the nation of Israel, and all of us who come afterword, that they are still like clay in God’s hands.  He warns of disaster ahead if they do not change, but if the people repent of their ways, God will not bring about the planned destruction of Judah.  There is a choice to make.  As it is written in Dueteronomy 30:19, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”  Chose whether you are going to be flexible and supple like clay in God’s hands, or if you are already fired in the kiln and set and beyond God’s help. 


I am struck by the answer Jeremiah anticipates in verse 12.  People say, “It’s no use.  We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart.”  This statement aptly sums the predicament. The first human problem is hopelessness.  “It’s no use!” people say, “Change isn’t possible for me.  I’ve already been to therapy but it didn’t help.  I tried every diet and it didn’t work.  The problems of the world are too big, so what can I do?  Other people may be able to change, but not me.  I’m a special case.  I can screw anything up!”  The national mood is so negative right now that we are skeptical of hopeful people.  I learned a valuable lesson catching crabs on vacation.  Every day we would throw a cage and bait off the dock to catch crabs.  There is a big hole for the crabs to crawl in to get the food, but they don’t crawl out because other crabs in the cage will pull down any optimist attempting a jail break.  Only a few strong and brave crabs will escape.  Most will succumb to their peers, sink to the bottom and pull down any other crab trying to get out.  That puts a new twist on saying people are “crabby”, doesn’t it?  Negative, crabby people have a tendency to pull everyone else down with them.     


Humans are generally more subtle than crabs.  Hopelessness is an easily learned behavior, because we can get so much affirmation for it.  I think for every person that says, “You can do it,” there are five others who will say, “Giving up?  Great come down here and join me on the couch.  And before you settle would you turn up the volume and pass the cheese whiz?!”  Most people are not seeking to do the evil that Jeremiah warns against, we are just succumbing to the banal, armed with a cynical wit, a channel changer and a bag of Doritos.  Don’t get me wrong about evil, since I have worked with ex-drug dealers and murders.  There are a few really evil people out there, but I believe the true road to Hell passes through a Lazy Boy.  But it is hopelessness that precedes the laziness.  So how do we fight hopelessness?


Listen to some selected verses from Psalm 139:

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me….You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.  Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely….


Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. 

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. 


Let me repeat, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  This is where hope begins.  If you know that, then you know that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.  If you know you are wonderfully and fearfully made by God, then you will shake of the crabs clawing at your mind and climb out of the trap towards true freedom and hope.  If you trust that God created your inmost being and knit you together in your mother’s womb, then you know you are made of the right stuff and can set your path towards abundant life.  There is no place you can go, no situation you can encounter, where God is not there. 


Is it hard to believe that God made you, knows you, loves you and is always there?  It may be easier to believe nothing ever changes, because you already know the outcome of this self-fulfilling prophecy.  That is like being a fired pot, already hardened.  You don’t have to fear death, because you are dead already.  Jeremiah announced to Israel, “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand.”  The path toward hope is believing that God is not done with you yet.  You are still like supple, moist clay; ready to be molded; waiting for the expert potter to create something amazing. You weren’t just fearfully and wonderfully made at your birth- for God’s creative spirit is always at work throughout your whole life. 


Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way! 
        Thou art the potter, I am the clay. 
        Mold me and make me after thy will, 
        while I am waiting, yielded and still.


(If you have the song, “Have thine own way, Lord” in your hymnal, that is a good place to end.)