‘in the end…’
September 8, 2019
Scripture: Jeremiah 18:1-10
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 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 a 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 had intended to do to it.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
O LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you 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. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them-they are more than the sand; I come to the end-I am still with you.
Over the course of my life, in all my years of seeking to serve the Lord, I have come across many who feel that they could not possibly be of any use to the Lord…that there is no way that they would ever rise to the level of ‘worthiness’ they feel would be required of one such as that. And a part of that perception is usually their own recollection and understanding of the record of their life unto that point…and in particular, those things which they feel are definitely not pleasing to the Lord, or that in their opinion, do not measure up to whatever it is that is required for one to live a purposed and holy life. Most people go on about the living of life, day in and day out, doing whatever it is that is in front of them, hoping that somehow, in the ‘final accounting’…at that point when they imagine they are standing before God…that their past ‘good’ deeds manage to outweigh whatever they happened to do that may have missed the mark.
For many who were raised in the faith, it is the way they have lived their life, the way they have spent their resources, their time and energy in seeking to be and to do good, that matters, at least in terms of how they feel God views them.
But another factor in many people’s personal feelings of less than usefulness when it comes to doing great things or being at all important to God, is what I see as a lack of understanding as to just how forgiving, just how merciful, and just how persistent our Lord is in seeking after the hearts of those whom God sees as critical to his plan. Not knowing of this stubborn pursuit of an individual soul by our Lord, coupled with the fact that every life in its totality can be useful to the purposes of God, is what I believe allows for many to feel as though God is at best ‘out there somewhere’, and at worst ‘not interested in the affairs of their life whatsoever’.
And when I say, ‘every life in its totality is useful to God’, I mean that we each live out a story over the course of our life, we each walk along a certain path with its own unique hills and valleys, its own victories, as well as its own points along the way where but for the grace we would not have made it. And that story, that narrative of personal experience and ultimately instruction, that path we have each walked on up until this point, equips each one of us to serve our Lord in a unique way, and to play a role in bringing about the full and present reality of God’s kingdom here on earth.
For in truth, some of our own valleys or moments of darkness and uncertainty are similar to what others around us may currently find themselves in. There is never a point at which God ‘gives up on us’, or looks at us and says, ‘Oh well, can’t do much with that one!’ No, in truth, we are and always have been a work in divine progress, from before we were born up until this present moment.
And that is the message I hear in both our reading from Jeremiah and the Psalms today. It is a message of hope, of promise, and of mercy, and is intended to inspire each one of us to accept the yoke of God’s purpose in and for our own life.
The Psalmist writes very clearly how it is that God has claimed us for his own even before we were born, that he already knew the pathways we would walk and the person we would become. He does not say, ‘If you stay true to the narrow path laid out before you, if you do all the right things and never stray from what is good, right, and holy, then you will be acceptable in my eyes’. Rather, you were known from the beginning, the paths you would choose were known as well, and by grace you were kept safe enough for God’s purposes by being ‘hemmed in’ by the action of the Holy Spirit watching over you. This is not a psalm about a pre-determined pathway for you, but rather an affirmation that whatever your life story ends up looking and sounding like, it can and will be used by our Lord in furthering holy purposes if you allow it. The words of the psalmist are an affirmation that the one who said he would never leave or abandon us, meant what he said, even though there are surely times when we choose not to be aware of the fact that there is someone who deeply loves us watching over us 24/7.
But it is in Jeremiah that we hear more specifically just how involved God can be in our life…taking the raw clay that we are to begin with and working with it in order to create a vessel of usefulness in the Lord’s plans and purposes.
This passage resonated with me particularly as I have spent a good deal of time on a potter’s wheel, trying, not always successfully, to make a pot or a vessel that conforms to my idea or vision for it. Clay that has been prepared and centered on a wheel cannot be formed into anything with just one hand applying pressure to it. It will yield to the potter’s single touch to be sure but will only move into a place of being off-center and of no use to one seeking to make a vessel of strength or beauty. To make a pot or a bowl, or any other object of usefulness on a pottery wheel requires both outward pressure as well as inward pressure upon the lump of clay. The two hands work in concert, alternatively pushing and yielding in order to move and form the clay into the desired shape. Each hand must be given its due time to be the one that either applies of reduces the pressure on the clay.
So too with each one of us as we sit upon the potter’s wheel of our Lord. We are asked to work together with the Lord, applying our own pressure from within as we stretch and seek to grow into our hopes, dreams, and potential, and conversely, yielding to the outward pressure upon us by God’s Holy Spirit as our enthusiasm or out-sized desires may from time to time need just a touch of correction.
And then of course, as Jeremiah notes, there is the possibility that our actions may make our clay, our future, our seeming potential for usefulness to God pull us far off center on the wheel, making whatever progress we may have made up until that point pretty much just a lesson in what not to do. But as Jeremiah tells us, at that point the Lord reserves the right to take that misshapen and awkward lump of clay and to re-center it upon the potter’s wheel, starting the process of making a truly useful vessel all over again. However, I can tell you truly from my own past experience, deep within that clay the memory of past struggles remains, even though the new vessel may look brand new. As I said before, the totality of our life-story is who we are, and how we are of greatest use to our Lord…good, bad, and less that pretty!
So far, we have spoken of clay in formation and on the wheel, of how it is that God can take and use the clay of who we are deep within and form it into a vessel that one day might be filled far too full with grace. A vessel that has indeed been formed from within and without as the Spirit of Grace has given instruction or guidance as well as protection in seeking to maximize our eventual usefulness.
But at some point, the vessel is complete. With time and with the pressures of a life lived long and hard, certain vessels become hardened, some with the fires of trial or struggle, others with just the rigors life can bring along the way. With time we can get set in our ways, set in who we feel we are and set in what it is we feel we wish to do or not to do. Our clay can become rigid and fixed in place, even though it may indeed still be a beautiful vessel and even though it may still be capable of being filled to overflowing by our Lord.
However, sometimes, the circumstances of life may deal a blow that just seems insurmountable as our clay vessel, our life and life-story is suddenly shattered into pieces with tragedy or loss, with disappointment or weariness, causing old feelings of uselessness to once again rise up and take over our self-understanding or our ambition.
Years ago I was in a similar position of feeling that all that I had sought to become, all that I had tried to be and to do for God just hadn’t worked out the way I had planned, and all I felt like I had left were broken pieces. Broken pieces of a pot that was now not of much use to anyone. And I found myself writing down words to a poem that I know now was meant as much for me as for anyone I am sure. And it had to do with this notion that at some point, after years of being formed by God, and after years of living and becoming hardened by trial and the rigor of work, at that point when my old and tired pot had somehow become shattered and felt broken into pieces…there still was a God, and there still was hope for a pile of broken pieces lying off to one side.
The final line of our psalm today caught my attention and is probably the reason I chose this passage on which to reflect today. That line reads, ‘I come to the end-I am still with you.’ There truly is no point, no moment in the life of any of God’s children when our Lord just gets tired of us, tired of our miss-steps, or tired of our tendency to be less that we could be…no, in truth there is always another sunrise after every dark night, and there is always an angel song of forgiveness and inspiration being sung in the pre-dawn darkness to any soul that hungers for reunion with our Lord of love.
‘I come to the end’…even at the very end of our resources, our energy, our hopes, our dreams…even there…the psalmist writes, ‘I am still with you’.
So whether you are still in the formative stages in partnership with the Lord as together you work your particular piece of clay, or if you are fully formed and now, after a life of serving you are just a bit tired, or your pot is just a bit chipped or cracked…our Lord still has work for you to do…work that will not only fill you with energy and joy, but work as well that will spread the good news that God’s kingdom is there for all to see, there for all of us to be a part of.
The poem I wrote so long ago is titled, ‘Broken Vessels’
Broken and shattered, small pieces of clay,
Gathered and fashioned, a vessel again.
To the unknowing, a flawless repair,
To the one within, forever reformed.
A chip here and there, a small tiny crack.
Makes one to wonder, how strong, for how long?
As strong as the Potter, it is of his hand,
He will keep it and use it as one of His own.
With His hand he has gathered, and fitted each shard,
Set them in place with infinite care
Then filled far too full with goodness so sweet,
Though broken, still useful, this vessel of clay.
May God continue ever to hold you, whether on the potter’s wheel, or in his cupboard of finished and useful vessels, calling and equipping you to share the message that his kingdom of love has drawn very near indeed!