I love the image of God as a potter and we as clay creations. Perhaps this is because my mother worked as a potter for part of my growing up. I watched her spinning clay on a wheel, centring it and pulling it up and down, shaping it until it met the image she was thinking of. I like the idea that we are made in God’s image, not that we look like God, but that God has an image in God’s mind for each of us, uniquely different, each designed for a different purpose and fashioned accordingly, like a potter turns a bowl and a pitcher from the same clay on the same wheel. As today’s Psalmist says, we are fearfully and wonderfully made right from our very beginnings. And it’s not just us – each living thing on earth is made in an image of God’s design, sacred and holy.
Another thing I like about Jeremiah’s idea that God is like a potter and we, the clay, is the fact that clay is messy. It slaps and splatters around the wheel. When you work with clay, not only do your hands get messy, but the clay works it’s way all the way up your arms and across your clothes. I remember my mother’s glasses getting speckled, along with her hair. Being human is a messy business. Like clay, we don’t always go where the potter wants us right away. We resist being centred. We’re flexible like clay, but we’re also susceptible to bad influences. We wobble and collapse and need to be built back up again. But the good news is that we can be reshaped when things have gone wrong. We can be brought back to the image that God has in mind for us.
Jeremiah, of course, is not so kind in his picture of God the potter. His message is for the nation of Israel, which has enjoyed a long stretch of relative prosperity under the Davidic kings, but has lost sight of what it means to be God’s people. His warning is that God built up their nation for a purpose, but if the shape they are choosing doesn’t serve that purpose, God can break them down again as easily as a potter pushes clay back down to the wheel, before raising it back up again. As uncomfortable as this prophetic idea may be, we should not ignore it. We should always be asking ourselves, are we taking shape in a way that serves the loving purpose for which God intended us, or have we fallen into a pattern of selfishness or complacency that gets in the way? Are we living into God’s love to the best of our ability?
We know from the book of Jeremiah that the prophet himself was a young man when God called him to speak before his nation of the dangers of the shape they were taking, not unlike our young people today speaking out for action around climate change. Jeremiah had seen the north of Israel invaded and overcome, while the rulers and priests down south in Judah and Jerusalem denied that such problems could ever touch them. They had bought into the narrative that they were somehow special – God’s chosen people – but Jeremiah points out that in order to be special, they also have to ACT like God’s chosen people. But when they are acting like all the other nations around them, allowing the divide between rich and poor to grow larger and larger and building corrupt double standards into their justice system, they should expect to face the same problems as other nations.
We also know from the book of Jeremiah, that when this young man took his words of warning to King Josiah, instead of paying attention, the King had the scroll on which they were written, burned. Josiah didn’t want to hear criticism. He didn’t want to have to make sacrifices to his own economic interest for the good of his people. The king made the mistake confusing goods with goodness. An easy mistake for humans to make. In his lifetime, Jeremiah saw Jerusalem fall, Solomon’s temple destroyed and the Jewish ruling class carried off to Babylon in bondage. Talk about messy!
In all of this, it is not hard to see a warning to ourselves about the effects of climate change and our need for personal action towards environmental justice, especially as the mountain of scientific evidence grows and grows. But changing is hard when we are as comfortable as we are. I like my long hot showers made possible by my natural gas-powered hot water heater. I like the convenience of being able to fly off to the east coast to see family and friends there. I like being able to get fresh grapes in January. All things that contribute to greenhouse gases and their destruction of the planet as we know it. It’s hard for me to trust that whatever purpose God has for me, it could be better than all these things I’ve got.
But, thinking more about Jeremiah’s description of being called down to watch the potter and then receiving God-inspired insight, I got thinking about other kinds of craftspeople. Some of you know this, but I worked as a jeweler for about four years. So I got thinking about a process for making jewelry called lost wax casting. I made this ring that way. The process has several important steps that need to be done just right. First off, you carve a model of what you want your piece to look like out of wax. You have to make just a hair bigger than you really want it, because later on, the metal you use will contract and be smaller.
Next, you pour plaster around that model to create a mold. Now that wax is all nice and cozy, surrounded in a nice blanket of plaster. Have you ever felt that way? Where you’re nice and comfortable, yet somehow, you know that this is not quite what you were meant to be? There’s something else in store for you ahead, but you just can’t imagine what it might be from where you are currently sitting? I know I have.
Then, you put your plaster mold with the wax, inside in a kiln. Slowly, so you don’t crack the plaster, you heat the kiln hotter and hotter. First the wax melts, then it burns away completely, leaving a perfect imprint in the plaster of your wax model. Have you ever felt this way? Burned out and hollow? A seeming shell of what you once were? I know I have.
After that, you take the hot mold and put it into a centrifuge caster. The properties of molten metal don’t allow for you to pour it like water. It beads up, like mercury, if you are old enough to have seen a broken mercury thermometer. So, to get the metal into all the delicate details you may have put in your original wax, you need to use force. Nowadays a lot of jewelers use electric vacuum casters, but the simplest force to us is the force of gravity in a spinning centrifuge. You wind it up, put your hot mold in one end, your melted gold in the other, then pull out the pin and let her rip! The gold spins into the mold, filling every empty space left behind by the burned out wax. Have you ever felt like your life was spinning out of your control and all you could do was just hang in there for the ride? I know I have.
The next step is to pick up that hot mold filled with liquid metal using a pair of tongs and plunge it into a bucket of cold water. The water froths and boils at its touch. The plaster cracks from the extreme temperature change and disintegrates into the water. The metal cools quickly, contracting and becoming harder and more durable than it would be if you just left it out to cool on a table slowly. Have you ever felt this way? Like your world is dissolving around you and you have no idea what’s next? You just want to pull into yourself, away from the chaos around you? I know I have.
What’s next is a carefully scrubbing the metal with a soft toothbrush to get the last of the plaster out, sanding off any rough edges from where the gold entered the mold, setting in any gems, and giving the piece a final polish. Done! Beautiful and wonderfully made!
How much more complex then, are we living things, spoken into being by God using the same forces that made the stars and galaxies above us? And how wonderful that we are all here together, journeying through the steps of our constant creation together, loving each other through the confusing times, the painful hollow times and the sparkling golden ones! How wonderful to know that we can grow and change, and reshape in God’s loving hands – that we are created with love and to love.
May it be so.