The Potter’s Shed #1
August 6, 2017
Scripture: Genesis 2:4b-7, Jeremiah 18, Isa 64:8, 2 Cor. 4:5-10
Eight years ago, actually a month before being officially commissioned as your pastor, I preached a series of three sermons titled “The Potter’s Shed”. Over the years a number of people have remarked on how much they enjoyed those sermons and how much they were able to relate to the stories I had shared in them. So again four years later in 2013 I shared the series again, and now I think it is a good time to revisit those thoughts and ideas one more time, to hear them again in light of our present experience to see if those same words of our Lord in the scriptures might yield new insight or deeper understanding for us today.
The series of messages is three weeks long and is focused on clay and on its role throughout the biblical narrative. It is also a message which is shared partially through demonstration…by looking at and touching clay, by watching how it is made ready to be thrown on a potter’s wheel, and finally by seeing and hearing about all that is required to fashion that clay into a vessel of true usefulness.
Today, we will be looking at the clay itself…at what makes clay the ideal tool of choice to teach us so much about our God…and so much about ourselves. Next week we will look at how clay must be absolutely centered on the potter’s wheel and the related notion of ‘centering’ ourselves in the will and ways of our Lord. And then during the message
for the third week we will look at how an earthen vessel is actually formed, comparing it to the part each one of us must play in our own
personal formation as well as the work that is done by our Lord Jesus in fashioning us into vessels of true usefulness for the work of the kingdom.
So today…is a day to look at clay! There are numerous references to clay throughout the scriptures from the very beginning of the bible on through to the book of Revelations. Clay, like the other two dominant symbols of our faith – bread and wine, was a common, well understood, and accessible item to those who first hear the words of our Lord. Simple and accessible items such as these were often chosen to convey deep truths as well as to convey those truths in ways that everyone who heard might understand.
Our first instance of ‘clay’ is found in the very beginning, way back in the second Creation narrative in Genesis chapter 2. This story is the one that tells of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and of the earliest conversations between God and humankind…those first attempts by God to reveal Godself and God’s love to us. But even before the garden is mentioned the scripture says in Genesis 2:4-7, “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
As I have shared before, the Hebrew word for ground is adamah, dust or clay which the Lord scooped up from the earth and carefully fashioned
into humanity. Lovingly and with great care we were made from the stuff of the earth…stuff which modern science tells us was originally the dust of stars flung far out into the universe at the very beginning of time, there gathered and fashioned, as on a potter’s wheel, into unique and intimate reflections of our God of love. From adamah God made ‘Adam’, who after receiving the breath of life from the Spirit of love was then able to proclaim as in Psalm 139 verses 13-15, “For it was you Oh Lord who formed my inward parts; you who knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.”
And…as we all know…it was not long before things did not go that well in the Garden. Gifted by God with intelligence and free will as part of our ‘wonderful makeup’, we soon decided to exercise that creative freedom, making some truly good and loving choices…as well as others that were not so much. We hear God dealing with our occasional wayward tendencies in the words of the prophet Jeremiah in chapter 18 where he says, “This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: ‘Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the LORD came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?’ declares the LORD. ‘Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.’” And again in the words of the Prophet Isaiah in chapter 64 we hear, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
So we…like all life came from the clay or dust of the earth…and were fashioned through God’s love into earthen vessels. But also like the rest of life, we are still made originally of clay…clay that can be formed and reformed over the course of the life we each are blessed to live. Yes, we always remain as clay in the hands of our Lord…clay that is never forced against our will, but clay none the less…clay that if made available to the Holy Spirit can be made into amazing vessels…vessels of true usefulness in the hands of our Lord.
But the trouble is…that we still have those tendencies…those stubborn and persistent ‘needs’ or ‘wants’ to set about fashioning our own clay…without the guiding hand of the potter. Times when we turn from the Lord and let our clay dry out and lose its flexibility…its ‘formability’. Now truthfully, willingly giving over, or yielding our own clay into the hands of our Lord can be a fearful thing…a thing that requires a lot of trust and a willingness to step out in faith…perhaps to step out into places we may not yet see clearly at all. But it is nonetheless, something we each need to do if we are to fully experience the liberating freedom and joy of living into the glorious potential that God alone sees in each of us.
So…let’s look at some clay…what is it about clay that makes it so perfect for learning about how we each are made and at how God sets about to work within us? I have with me today some common earthenware clay…formed over many thousands of centuries as rocks weathered into minute particles which then were carried by rivers and streams and finally deposited in layers at the bottom of the sea. Now taken from that resting place and left out to dry, the clay can seem as hard as the rock from which it was originally made…and yet it still hints at usefulness as it feels soft or almost buttery to the touch.
However, this clay is not at all in a place of being able to be formed of fashioned into anything as it is. It is too hard and too dry to be worked or to be placed on a potter’s wheel. In order for clay to be fashioned or formed it must be soft and pliable, ready to accept the touch…the push and pull of the Potter; and at least in our case, ready and willing to be placed upon the Potter’s wheel. It simply cannot be molded at all if it remains hard, or dry, and unyielding.
There is a certain ‘yieldedness’ that must be present for clay to be formed or reformed…dry or hard clay, or perhaps for purposes of understanding; ‘bitter, disinterested, or stubborn clay’ cannot be forced into any shape but instead simply crumbles into pieces when any kind of pressure is applied to it. Very interestingly for our story however, these broken or crumbled pieces are still potentially of use and are never cast away by our Master Potter who alone still sees them as the clay from which they were originally formed and as clay that might still one day be reformed again.
In the Potter’s Shed of our Lord, that one we heard about from the Prophet Jeremiah, there is most likely a workbench, a few tools, a potter’s wheel, and various bits and pieces of unformed raw earthen clay lying about. Undoubtedly, some of these pieces of clay have been sitting around for a while and have dried out…like those that were just passed around…clay that has dried out and is of no use to the Potter in its present condition. But there are also other pieces of clay which the Potter has been preparing…pieces which are more pliable…pieces more like this…(show them soft clay)…pieces of clay that are soft and yielding under the skillful hand of the potter…flexible, elastic, and ready to be formed and fashioned into a vessel of the Potter’s choice.
And, while we are talking about our own individual ‘clay’, it is also critically important to remember that ‘your clay’…is your clay alone! Given to you, it belongs to you and is uniquely yours and uniquely ‘you’! You are the one who controls the future of your own piece of clay…only you can yield your own bit of clay into the care of the Potter…no one else
can do it for you; it is you alone who can surrender your life, your workable substance unto God. Your clay…is your clay…to hold back…or to give over.
But it is equally important to remember that clay is clay…and one person’s clay is the same as everyone else’s…no one person’s ‘clay’ is any better or of any greater value to God than any other…for clay is clay, period! And along those same lines we must remember that it is not about the quality of one’s clay but rather about what that clay can be fashioned into…that even after it is given over into the hands of God, clay is not an end in itself, it is not about your “clay-ness”, or even perhaps your beautiful or perfect “clay quality”.
Rather what we each are asked to yield in faith is merely the raw materials, the substance of our souls out of which God can then mold and fashion a particular vessel of use…a vessel to be used by God to do the work of God. Whenever we focus on our own clay being an end in itself…when what our own clay ‘looks like’ becomes more important than how it may be of use in the service of God, it is then that we move into vanity and judgment of others whose clay may not measure up to our own sense of ‘beautiful clay’.
Truly…we all are like common clay…sometimes dry, hard, and unyielding to the touch, but still able to be made useful…and other times soft and pliable in the skillful hands of our God, being ever formed and reformed into closer and more accurate reflections of our Lord of Love.
We are but common clay…given over into the hands of God…a God who may not always see us in the same way as we see ourselves…for whether we are ready to give in or not…whether we are fully yielded…or not quite so…whether we are young, or not so young as we once were…our Lord Jesus looks at our individual and particular piece of clay and sees nothing there…but pure potential.
And I am sure that this is true for I am convinced that somewhere out there, there is a perfect “you-shaped-hole” in the finely and intricately woven fabric of God’s plan…a hole that only you and no one else can fill…a hole that only a vessel made out of your clay can fit into perfectly…a vessel with your character, your personality, your gifts, your talents, and your unique life history…a vessel destined to fulfil a particular piece of God’s plan.
We all are clay…may we ever reflect and respond to God’s loving touch…