A sermon based on Psalm 139:1-6 and Jeremiah 18:1-11 preached on September 4th, 2016
I love to watch an artist at work. The start from nothingness and how, inside the silence of it all, with a few strokes of a brush or a pencil, a keyboard or a sewing needle, all the sudden, somethingness emerges from that nothingness.
I love those moments when you can see the spark in the artist’s eyes, and you know the boom is coming—when a few brush strokes make a mark on a blank canvas, and you can see something there, but for those first few moments, you’re left to wonder. The guesswork of it all! Something will come out of this nothingness, but what? Does the artist even know? Then the second dab of the paintbrush into paint, the second line of stitches sown, the next sentence coming into being on the computer screen. And little by little, stroke by stroke, a work of art is created.
Every time that happens, it’s like a little Genesis again. We are the creatures made in the image of a Divine Creator. Because even creatures bear the image of their Creator, we too have the ability to create. The imagination, the initiative, and the ingenuity it takes to make something out of raw material. Thread, canvas, wood, or ink.
Genesis begins with God making something out of nothing. Tohu-vavohu. That words is Hebrew for chaos and nothingness. God sees nothing and he touches it, declares something to it, and all the sudden, something—the chaos and emptiness turns into order and fullness. In the Creation story of Genesis, God the Artist takes a step back from His creative work at the end of each day and He calls it all Good.
When we watch an artist at work, we can learn something about God. Whenever you have the chance to make your way to Tamarack or the Dogwood Arts and Crafts Festival, or to Mountain Stage in Charleston to hear musicians play, to watch what comes about, pay attention to, and ask questions about how it all took shape in the first place, it’s a tiny echo of the first Creation.
When you spend time noticing how a woodworker takes a chisel and carves out of it until an image appears, that’s another tiny echo. Or on a stage paying attention to a violin having a conversation with a cello until a song is born on stage. Every time little things like that happen, Genesis 1 starts all over again in tinier way. The Creation story, with its refrains of And God said…, and It was evening, it was morning, the next day as well as God saw that it was good, is the song of an artist—the Divine Artist in his studio, taking His hands and creating something out of nothing. It’s poetry. There’s no talk of science in the first chapter of Genesis. No chemical interactions to speak of. As far as scripture is concerned, creation is no laboratory experiment. The authors had no interest in telling God’s story like that. The story they chose to share with us was, instead, the one about God, the Divine Artist, using his divine imagination and infinite creativity to bring the cosmos about!
And here is the prophet Jeremiah, daring to ask this Eternal God, the Artists of all artists, how He works. God answers Jeremiah,
There’s no need to tell you how I work when I can show you how I work. If you want to understand my ways, go visit the artist in residence. Head down to the potter’s house. Then you’ll see!
And with eyes wide open, young Jeremiah goes. He watches the potter spin his wheel, pumping a pedal to make it go ‘round and around. The potter starts with some water. He shapes a moistened, 3-pound pile of clay into a ball, and throws in at the center of his wheel. Jeremiah watches as each and every way the potter’s hands move, little by little, they form clay into vessels, bowls, plates. “This is how I work.” God says to his prophet.
Making pottery is all in the hands. Unless you hold your hands just so, the clay will escape you. Clay has a mind of its own. It does what it wants to do, and only a potter’s touch can help it take shape. Take your hand off for just a second, and the piece will collapse under the inertia of the spinning wheel and fly right off, wet clay splattered onto walls, and you’ll have a terrible mess on your hands. But these mistakes happen, even to the best craftsmen. The good news is that you can start over. Get the wheel going again, add a little more water to the clay, and press it back down into a ball. Clay is flexible. It moves in whatever ways the potter’s hands tell it to. Wet clay will yield to its creator.
Another thing about making pottery. It takes just the right amount of force to shape the walls of a vase or a bowl. A vessel is molded into shape only when the potter applies pressure to it, and without a good amount pressure, clay resists being shaped at all.
God is the Potter, and we are His handiwork. We are the clay He uses, and God is shaping us still. And just like clay, we too resist change. We do not want to be reshaped. We like our shape. We see nothing wrong with the shape we’re in. But God wants to make something new out of us.
The question for us is, are we willing to yield ourselves to the shaping hands of the Divine Potter? Are we still pliable and flexible enough to be reshaped in the first place?
Dried out, brittle, rigid clay is no good to the Potter. It’s only good for the trash can, because it already knows it’s final shape. It’s uncooperative; it refuses to be remade. Are we like that, or our are hearts and lives, bodies and spirits pliable—willing to be recreated, to undergo reshaping—to be molded into something new—by the careful yet unyielding, loving yet steadfast hands of God? Are we flexible enough to be remade?
Ask any church if they like change, and you’ll see a few hands go up. Ask the same church if they’d like to change and all the hands will go down again. Just like clay in a potter’s hands, we have the tendency to resist change. Being cast into something different, being reshaped into a brand new vessel, is often too threatening. But on the other hand, to think we shape ourselves, or to assume that we have the imagination and creativity it takes to re-build ourselves into something useful for God is to refuse the Potter’s hands altogether. To insist on our own ability to form and re-form ourselves is to give up on God, to be the piece of clay that says to the Potter,
You know, I don’t think I need your hands to shape me. I got this.
We who are clay forget that without the Potter’s involvement we’re lifeless, breathless. Unable or unwilling to change. And when that happens, the church dries out. And dry, unyielding clay is only good for the trash can.
The challenge of this text, the question it forces us to ask is,
Are we willing to be destroyed in order to be remade? Are we willing to let go of what we think our shape should be and give ourselves to the reshaping of the Divine Potter’s hands?
The Apostle Paul talks about dying to ourselves so that we can live for God. That hardly makes sense until you start thinking about it alongside a text like this. What Paul means is,
Are we willing to do away with our own sense of identity and our own will to be, so that we can start living our individual lives, as well as our life together as Church, in the shaping hands of our God?
It will only be when we say Yes to that question—that challenge—that we can be rebuilt into something useful—useful to God, useful to our neighbors, useful to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God among us. Until with all faith and confidence, we can say,
God, we hand ourselves and this church over to you. With your hands, change our shape!! Recast us into the vessels you intend for us to be!!
So, what kind of shape are we in? Can we truly say to God…
Take the clay of our lives and shape it to love. Take the clay of this church and shape it to grace. Take the clay of the world and shape it to peace. Take the clay of today and shape it to hope. And then breathe your spirit into us again.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!!