Monday, September 5, 2016

Sunday's Sermon – A Work in Progress

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, September 4, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can find a podcast of this sermon on the Cove Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.


Jeremiah 18:1-11

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.

Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

A Work in Progress

Well, here we are, approaching the mid-point in our long Labor Day weekend, and I’ve got to tell you, of all our major civic holidays, this is probably the least appreciated, at least as it relates to what it means. I mean, I think everybody is happy that they don’t have to work on the first Monday of September, I mean, dah, but I’m not sure a lot of folks appreciate what the day is supposed to represent. And I’ll tell you, that makes it kind of unique. You see, even though we might not celebrate them as they were intended or maybe even like we should, I think everybody knows the reason for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July and Veterans Day. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the focus of President’s Day or Columbus Day or Martin Luther King Day.

But Labor Day, well, it’s got something to do with labor, but few people go much deeper than that. I mean, if we wanted to name it for how most folks see it, it probably should be called something like “The Unofficial Last Day of Summer Day” or “The Day You Have to Winterize the Pool if You Have a Pool Day” or, and I think this is a good one, “The Day That Used to Be the Last Day of Summer Vacation for Kids Before Schools Got Air Conditioners and after Parents Stopped Needing Their Kids to Work on the Farm Day.” But Labor Day, given the fact that we’re suppose to get the day off, it should be Unlabor Day, if that is, you actually get the day off at all.

But of course, that’s not what this day is about. I mean, according to the Department of Labor website, and no, this has nothing to do with expectant mothers, this is what it says: “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” It also says, “The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.” Now that’s what it says.

And you know, personally I think this kind of recognition is extremely important, especially as we watch the middle class slowly disappear and the gap between the average worker and corporate executive get wider every year. As opposed to the 364 “It’s Great to Be Rich Days” (365 this past year), I think one day aside for the average John and Jane is really important.

And that’s why I was glad to see an allusion to a real, live worker in the passage we read this morning, and I’m talking about a potter doing his craft. And I’ll tell you, this was an extremely important job in the ancient world. You see, back then, pottery wasn’t just decorative. Rather it was absolute indispensable for two reasons. First, it was really the only way you could protect your gain and food from mice. Baskets didn’t work nor did bags. But clay pots with lids, they worked. And second, in a time before glass was easy to produce, pottery could also hold liquids, something else pretty important. And so the potter was crucial in the ancient world, and it was his work that God called Jeremiah to observe.

And that’s what he did. He watched the potter, this skilled worker, take some wet clay, clay that he had kneaded to get out any air bubbles, and put that soft clay on his wheel. And with the wheel turning, he manipulated the lump of clay with his hands until it had the shape and size he wanted. And then he’d put it aside to glaze and to fire so that it would become solid and hard and waterproof. But as he was working his wheel, if for some reason, he just couldn’t get what he wanted, the potter would stop the spinning, collapse the clay he was using back into a lump and start again. Now that’s what Jeremiah saw.

And the meaning, well, it had to do with a lot more than just a laborer working his craft. You see, according to the prophet, what he saw happening in the potter’s house represented what God was doing with his people. Speaking for God, he wrote, “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 a little later, “Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.” In other words, although the Lord was like the potter, shaping and forming his people into what he created them to be, the house of Israel wasn’t exactly like clay. You see, clay is passive, but God’s people had the opportunity and responsibility to participate in this process. And if they resisted, which by the way they were doing, like a good potter, the Lord would start over with the same clay, something that, from it’s perspective, is pretty difficult for the clay. And this was the message that God wanted Jeremiah to share with his people. They needed to straighten up and fly right.

And I’ll tell you, I think that’s still a message we need to hear today,  because, in my opinion, it’s just as true right now as it was back then. You see, like a potter, I believe God is still forming us into the people he created us to be, and he’s shaping us as individuals and congregations and the entire Body of Christ in our world. And I think he’s doing this all the time. You see, like a person throwing a pot, God has a very definite idea about what he wants us, his people, to be, and that’s something we’ve talked about before. I mean, according to his word, he wants us to “...love the Lord [our] God with all [our] hearts, and with all [our] souls, and with all [our] strength, and with all [our] mind; and [our] neighbor as [ourselves].” And he wants us to “...love one another as [he’s] loved [us].” And he wants us to “...make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that [Jesus has] commanded [us].” Now these are all words of Jesus himself; therefore, I think this is what God created his people to be.

And so, like a potter, he’s shaping us, you know, like wet clay. In fact, he doing the same kind of thing with us now, that he did when he created Adam from the dirt. God is shaping us just like a potter shapes the things that he’s making. And when it’s not coming out the way he wants, God may start the shaping process over. You see, since it’s still wet clay and it hasn’t been fired and harden, he doesn’t have to break what he’s made because it’s useless. And he certainly doesn’t throw away the wet clay because it didn’t acquire the shape he wanted. Instead, he continues to work with it patiently until it conforms to his design. You see, that’s what God is doing with us right now.

And if we were just regular, old clay, we’d just be passive through this whole process. But, as we talked about a little while ago, the people of Israel weren’t back in the day and that’s why Jeremiah told them that they needed to clean up their acts. And I’m telling you right here and now, neither are we. Remember, after God formed Adam, he breathed into his little mud man and he became a living being. And so, despite any appearances to the contrary, we aren’t just lumps of silent, passive clay.

Instead, we’re actively involved in this shaping process, or at least we can be involved. And we can to that by both turning from and turning to. You see, we can turn from all the stuff that Jeremiah said his people were doing, and I’m talking about things that are evil in the sight of the Lord. And if we want to get an idea about what that kind of stuff is, I don’t think there’s a better place to look than what the Apostle Paul called  the works of the flesh. Just listen to what he wrote to the Galatians: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. ...Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.” Man, if we want to be shaped into anything close to what God intends, this is the kind of stuff we need to turn from. While, at the same time, turning to the kind of actions and attitudes Paul called the fruit of the Spirit: “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” You see, if we want to get with the program and participate in what God is doing, this is the direction I think we probably should turn.

But even if we decide to turn from all the bad stuff we may have done in the past and even if we turn to the Lord and work as hard as we can to love God and neighbor and to love one another and to make disciples, I think it’s important for us to recognize that we’re still wet clay. And even though we’re participating in the process, God is still the potter. And I’ll tell you, when you think about it, this forces some humility and offers a lot of hope. I mean, on one hand, it’s kind of humbling to know that the best we’re going to be is pliable clay, you know, that we’re not the ones in control. That job belongs to God. But you know, on the other hand, when we really screw up and you know, fall off the spiritual wagon, I mean, when our lives reflect more flesh than spirit, we need to remember that, because we’re still wet clay, God hasn’t given up on us. That was certainly not the case with his people Israel. Even though they wandered all over the place and paid the consequences for they lack of focus, they never stopped being God’s people. And the same is true for us. Paul was right on the mark when he said, “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And I’ll tell you, that my friends, is the basis for our hope. The potter won’t toss away his clay.

Now tomorrow we’ll celebrate Labor Day, and in light of what we talked about today, maybe we can spend just a few minutes thinking about what the day means. But you know, we can also spend a little time thinking about the meaning of this passage. And as we ponder how this business about a potter and his clay applies to us, maybe we can recognize that like a potter shapes the clay, God is forming us into what he’s created us to be and we can participate in this process. Or put a slightly different way, we can accept that, as it relates to labor, God is the craftsman and we’re, well, we’re a work in progress.

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