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Some Lessons Learned At The Potter’s Wheel

Jeremiah 18:1-6

I want to read to you from the eighteenth chapter of the prophecy of Jeremiah, beginning at the first verse. This is the Word of God. “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, ‘Arise and 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. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand. And he reworked it into another vessel as it seemed good to the potter to do. Then the word of the Lord came to me, ‘O, house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done?’ says the Lord. ‘Behold. Like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel.'” 

Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory. 

Let us pray. Now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen. 

Jeremiah understood the meaning of the word “frustration.” Well, you see, here was a man whose family had forsaken him. They had, in fact, quite literally and quite openly turned against him. And here was a man who had been ridiculed and repudiated by his own church, the church he sought faithfully to serve. No one ever loved his country more than Jeremiah loved his country. And yet, that country would have nothing whatever to do with him. He sought to proclaim the Word of God as he understood it. And all he received in return was a seemingly unending stream of discouragements and defeats and disappointments. Jeremiah understood the meaning of the word frustration.

If you ever travel to the city of Rome and go to visit there the Sistine Chapel, on the west wall of that room, the room which has been called the most beautifully adorned room in all the world – if you look on the west wall of that room, you will see Michelangelo’s portrayal of the Prophet Jeremiah. You will see. And he’s easy to spot. You will see a man obviously broken, dejected, weeping, brooding over his own frustrations. That is a rather accurate picture, I think, of the Prophet Jeremiah because Jeremiah understood the meaning of the word “frustration.” But in this passage of Scripture which we are dealing with today, the Word of God came to Jeremiah right in the midst of that frustration. And God said to Jeremiah, “Get up and go on down to the potter’s house.” Now, Jeremiah, as always in his life, was responsive to the leading of God.

And so he got up, and he went down to the potter’s house. And apparently, he spent all day there, watching the potter at work, watching as he would take a lump of clay and place it on the wheel and set the wheel to spinning and then apply his hands and his fingers to that lump of clay, making of it something beautiful. And he saw that, sometimes, a lump of clay would not be responsive to the potter’s hands. And so the potter would take that clay. And he would remove from the clay any imperfections or impurities which were there, and then he would knead that clay again and again and again to make it pliable once more. And then he’d set it on the wheel and set the wheel to spinning and then apply his hands and fingers once more and, ultimately, would indeed create from it something useful and beautiful. And Jeremiah watched that all day long, and then he went home. But when he went home, he went home with a new hope in his heart because, you see, Jeremiah learned some great lessons that day at the potter’s wheel, some lessons which I believe you and I would do well to learn as well.

So here they are. 

The first lesson that Jeremiah learned at the potter’s wheel was this. He learned that the potter always is at work with the clay.

You see, Jeremiah came to understand that that clay could never, in and of itself, create something beautiful from itself. That could only happen once the potter put his hands to the clay. The potter always had to work with the clay in order to make something beautiful. Jeremiah learned that, and he began to realize that God is exactly like that, that God works with His creation. Now, you know, I believe that most people understand that in the general sense, but not too many understand it in the specific sense. I mean by that, most people do feel way down deep inside that God is at work in the great things in life. God is working in the progress or the regress of nations. God is at work in the great time and events of history. As year succeeds to year, God is at work in His world.

But too many people fail to see that God is also at work in the humdrum experiences of our everyday lives. God – the Bible underscores this truth again and again – God is not only at work in the world, yes; God is also at work in your life and in mine. Now, I suppose that I could illustrate how God works in our lives in literally dozens of ways. But since we’re talking about the subject of frustration, let me speak about the way God works in our lives in time of frustration. We do not have to be Rembrandts in order to be able to understand that a painting, to be a good painting, must have in it both dark and light, both brightness and shadow. You see, the contrast contributes to the beauty. And we don’t have to be Beethovens in order to realize that a discord placed right in the midst of a melody may, in fact, accentuate the beauty of that melody. Well, that’s the way God works in our lives in time of frustration, those frustrating times, those shadow times, those discordant times. Those are the times when God is hard at work accentuating the beauty of our living.

That’s why James could say in his epistle, “Praise God for the tribulation that you know.” That’s why Martin Luther could say, “My temptations were my teachers in divinity.” That’s why the Bible is bold enough to say that even Jesus managed to learn from what He suffered. So if there’s any honesty in us at all, we will know that the times when God is most actively engaged in carving upon our lives the lines of His beauty are those times when we experience hurt or hardship or frustration or suffering. 

My friends, never say, “Why has God made me so?” because you are not made. You are being made. God is still at work in you. On my son’s bedroom wall, there hangs a little needlepoint plaque that says, “Please be patient with me. God isn’t finished with me yet.” Well, now, while that’s absolutely true of my son, John David, I would be willing to say that it’s also true of every person within the sound of my voice at this moment. God isn’t finished with you yet. God is still at work in you. He is applying His great, loving fingers to your life. He’s molding you, shaping you, fashioning you into what he wants you to become. And it doesn’t matter who you are, what your age or circumstance in life may be, God isn’t finished with you yet. He is still at work in your life. And that’s why I want to plead with you today to learn to see God at work, not only in your blessings, but also in your bruisings. That’s the first lesson that Jeremiah learned at the potter’s wheel, that God is always at work in our lives.

But the second lesson that Jeremiah learned at the potter’s wheel that day was this, that some lumps of clay, because they contain impurities or imperfections, will not yield to the potter’s touch. 

And as Jeremiah watched the potter encounter a lump of clay which had those imperfections in it, a lump of clay which wouldn’t yield the way he wanted it to yield, he would notice that the potter would simply remove that clay and then remove the imperfections and then knead it and then place it again on the wheel and work with it once more. And Jeremiah came to realize that that’s precisely the way God works with us, that we can reject God’s work in our lives. We can refuse to yield to God’s movement within us. We can do that. You know, we have free will. We can make that decision. We can opt to deny or reject the reality of God working in our daily experience. Oh, it’s a tragic thing when someone does that, because a person who turns away from the great, loving providence of God, instead of becoming a glorious masterpiece of God’s creation, winds up being bent and broken and cracked and twisted.

Take John Randolph as an example. If you go back in American history, you will discover that name. For back in the early days of this country, he was one of the significant leaders in the movement for independence, John Randolph, a remarkable man with a great future ahead of him. But then there came a point when the effectiveness of his leadership stopped. And you know why it stopped? And history will tell you this. It stopped because he made a conscious decision to turn away from the working of God in his life. He made a decision to pursue his own will rather than the will of God in his daily experience. And that decision ultimately broke him so that he came to his deathbed in Philadelphia. And all he could say – my heavens, all he could say was one word repeated over and over and over again until he died, one word, “remorse, remorse, remorse.” I suggest to you that that was a man staring into the jaws of Hell itself. 

Now, don’t ever listen to anyone who tells you that Hell is nothing other than the idle creation of some preachers and theologians designed to scare you into the church. Oh, I’ll admit. It’s unfortunate, but I’ll admit it. There are some preachers who use Hell like that. But if that’s all that Hell happened to be, a vehicle for scaring people into the church, it would have been forgotten about long ago. But you see, the Bible talks about Hell. And Jesus talks about Hell. And He doesn’t talk about it in those terms at all. He talks about it in terms of being out of relationship with God. That is Hell, to have no relationship at all with the Father who made us and who loves us and who wants us for His own. If you doubt that, then sidle up alongside individuals you know who have made a conscious decision to turn away from God and the working of God in their life. Sidle up to them. Get to know them well. Understand what’s happening in their life. And if you do that, then I promise you you’re going to discover the deep sense of remorse that’s eating away at them way down deep inside. It’s a tragic thing when people turn away from the great, loving providence of God. I wish that I could have such people stand in this pulpit and tell you what’s true, that when you say goodbye to God in your life, you say goodbye to peace. And when you say goodbye to peace in your life, sooner or later, you say hello to remorse.

That’s the second lesson that Jeremiah learned at the potter’s wheel, that yes, we can reject the working of God in our lives. But if we do, ultimately, we shall suffer for it. 

But Jeremiah learned a third lesson that day at the potter’s wheel. It’s the grandest of them all. He learned that the potter never gives up on a lump of clay. 

He’ll keep right on working with it until, at last, he creates something beautiful. You see, Jeremiah discovered there the determination of God. Did you ever stop to think where you and I would be if it weren’t for the determination of God? God just will not give up on us. Why, ever since Eden, God has been engaged in the business of remaking things and people. 

Here was Jacob, sly, crafty, selfish, the kind of man we would have imagined that God might have wanted to toss out to the junk heap of the human experience. But God didn’t do it because God was determined to make something good and beautiful out of Jacob. And He did it. 

Or here was David, who literally committed murder because of his own lust, the kind of man we would have imagined God would want to cross off His list. But God didn’t do it because God was determined that He would make something good and beautiful out of David. And He did it.

Or Simon Peter in the courtyard of the high priest, just before the dawn, denied that he had ever known or met Jesus. “I never knew Him,” he cried. And we can imagine that the Father of that Jesus would have liked to have forgotten about that Simon Peter right then and there and forgotten about him for good. But God didn’t do it. God was determined to make something good and something beautiful out of Simon Peter. And He did it. 

Do you get the message? This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that God is equally determined to make something good and beautiful out of your life and mine. 

Hubert von Herkomer is a great Bavarian sculptor. His father was a sculptor before him, though, not as great as the son. And his father, in his declining years – he was well up into his eighties – came to live at the son’s home. And every evening, in a way to pass the time, the old man loved to work with the clay. But all the years he had collected had caused his fingers to become weak and stiff and his eyesight to grow dim. So he would work the evening. And then when he’d finished, he would step back and look at what he had done. And he would always be plunged into disappointment and discouragement. And he would say, “I guess I’m just not capable of good work anymore.” And then he would go off to bed. And while his dad was sleeping, the great sculptor himself, Hubert von Herkomer, would go to his father’s work and rework it very carefully so that the next morning, when the old man would get up and would come down and would look at what he had done in the bright light of the day, he would always say, “You know, maybe it isn’t so bad after all.” 

That’s what God does for us. No matter how many times we turn away from Him, no matter how many times we fail in our commitment to Him, if we return to Him and if we sincerely ask Him to go to work in our lives, He will do it. And we shall be surprised to discover that what He creates of us, what He fashions of us, what He makes of you and of me isn’t so bad after all.

I think I should tell you what triggered this sermon. Two weeks ago, I spoke at the Christian Life Conference in Montreat, North Carolina. And among those who came up to speak to me afterwards, there was a man who is a minister in Texas. Now, to understand what he said to me two weeks ago, you have to know that in the Autumn of 1970, fifteen years ago, I was privileged to speak to a large gathering of students and faculty at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. And you also have to know that 10 years after that, in January of 1980, I preached at the Austin Theological Seminary in Texas. And after preaching in the chapel service there, engaged with the faculty and the students and visitors to the campus in a question-and-answer time, during which I tried as best I could to communicate my conviction that there is simply no joy and satisfaction on earth like that of being a minister in the Church of Jesus Christ – now with that in mind, two weeks ago, this man came up to me. And he said that unbeknownst to me, he had been in the audience that night, fifteen years ago, in Nacogdoches, Texas, and that what had happened there had been a confirmation to him of a sense of call to the ministry. He’d gone on from that college to seminary, and he’d been ordained. And he’d served in a small church for a while, and then he moved on to a larger church. And things were wonderful there for a time, but then he encountered deep frustration. He got into a squabble with some of the members of the church. And he began to feel that people weren’t responding to his leading the way he wanted them to. And so he was losing his zeal to serve them, and his preaching was deteriorating. And the tension was creating trouble at home. And so it was that it was an escape. “That’s all it was,” he said, “a way of getting away for a while from the reality of it all.” He had left, and he had gone to Austin Theological Seminary to spend a week in a continuing education seminar there. And it was in January of 1980. And one day – he hadn’t gone to chapel before – but one day, he decided that he would go to chapel while he was there. And by accident or providence, it was the day I was preaching.
And he had gone to the question-and-answer time afterwards. And he said that he went home from there with a freshened relationship to Christ and a new commitment to his church and a new spirit of love for his people there and that in the five years since, God has performed a marvelous healing work in his life and in his church. And he said that when he learned through the publicity that I would be speaking in Montreat on the subject of encouragement, he gathered together a delegation of people from his church, and they traveled all the way from Texas to North Carolina to be there. And he said to me then, “Three times, including tonight, God has used you to speak a word of encouragement to me in my life. Tonight I speak one word of encouragement to you: ‘Please keep preaching the gospel.’” And that was encouragement enough.

But you know, I got to thinking about that man, and I got to thinking about Jeremiah and the lessons that Jeremiah learned at the potter’s wheel, that God is always at work in our lives. And three times, God had woven the fabric of my testimony into that man’s life – and I never even knew it – just as God has used so many other people, including you, to touch me in my life. God is always at work. But there came a time for that man when he refused to yield to the working of God in his life. And he encountered then a time of deep frustration. But then there came another time when he yielded himself anew, and God proceeded to make of him and of his ministry something very beautiful indeed.

I don’t know about you, but when I begin to realize that the lessons that Jeremiah learned at the potter’s wheel are actually being worked out in the experience of people around me, well, it moves me to want to sing and to pray the words of that great old hymn, “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’m waiting here, yielded and still.” 

Let us pray. Gracious God, mold us and make us after Thy will through the power and for the sake of and in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.


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