My wife says I make the best apple pies. I don’t know if that’s true. Our now grown sons didn’t seem to mind helping devour them (with some melting vanilla ice cream on top) on those rare occasions when I ventured into the kitchen and the aroma of a fresh baked pie soon filled the house. When it comes to baking apple pie, it’s really not preparing the apples that discourages me; that’s the simple part. And it’s a cinch to mix in the sugar and cinnamon. The part that’s tough, the part that keeps me from making apple pie more often, is the crust.
Crust either makes your pie, or breaks it. Where I usually get into trouble is not when adding the butter, or the small amounts of water. That’s easy; what’s tough is using the rolling pin. You have to roll it out to just the right thickness, just the right size to fit in the bottom of the pie plate. And the real trick is making sure you put enough flour on the rolling pin. Otherwise, the dough will stick to it. A time or two, when I was trying to roll out the dough to just the right thickness, it became so hopelessly stuck to the pin, that I had no choice. I gathered up the dough, shaped it back into a round dough ball, and started all over again. The second time around, I had enough flour. The dough cooperated this time, and I ended up with a nice, thin, tasty crust. What was the secret? I had to be willing to start over.
Lessons from Jeremiah 18:1-4
They didn’t have pie crust back in the prophet Jeremiah’s time, but God was about to teach Jeremiah a similar lesson. Sometimes, you just have to start over. In chapter 18, the Lord tells the prophet to go down to the potter’s house. In some ways, I think Jeremiah must have been relieved. At least God wasn’t asking him to do what he asked the prophet Isaiah to do once as a sign to Israel, to parade around stripped and naked! This assignment seems pretty simple. Jeremiah is to watch the potter as he works the clay on the wheel, making a pot.
I wish I could show you what the wheel looks like. I found a drawing in one of my books. Imagine a large stone wheel on bottom, then connected by an axle to a smaller stone wheel on top. The potter sits at the wheel, with the clay resting on the top, smaller wheel. Then, with his feet, he turns the bottom wheel, which makes the top wheel spin. And of course, that makes the clay spin, allowing the potter to form it with his hands.
So there sits Jeremiah, watching this craftsman working. And the more he watches, the more enthralled he becomes. Jeremiah was probably never a priest himself, but he came from a long line of priests. So while he might have seen a lot of sacrificing of animals by members of his family, it’s doubtful he knew much about pottery. And as he sits and watches the pot take shape, suddenly, something goes wrong. Look at verses 3 and 4 of Jeremiah 18: “But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him” (NIV). Here’s how the New Living Translation reads: “But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so the potter squashed the jar into a lump of clay and started again.”
There are lots of lessons that Jeremiah 18 has for us. Let’s take a few minutes and look at three of those lessons:
- God believes in second chances.
- New beginnings are usually painful.
- God wants to mold us into the image of Christ.
God believes in second chances.
Let’s take a look at that first lesson. God believes in second chances. There’s a word for that; it’s called grace. Theologians define grace as “the unmerited favor of God.” That means we don’t deserve it. In fact, because of our sin, our disobedience to God’s good law, the only thing we deserve is punishment.
Punishment is certainly what Israel, God’s chosen people, more than deserved. God had warned them long ago, when they were just starting out as a nation, that obedience would bring God’s blessing, but disobedience would result in divine curses. Deuteronomy 27-28 talks about those blessings and curses. Listen to the words of Deut. 28:1-6 (NIV):
If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all hiscommands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all nations on earth. All these blessings will accompany you if you obey the LORD your God: You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock – the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flock. Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed. You will be blessed when you come in, and blessed when you go out.
But something had gone terribly wrong. Jeremiah 18:3 says that the clay pot was marred in the hands of the potter. God’s people, using their own God-given free will, had chosen poorly. They forgot that the same God who has promised blessings for obedience in Deut. 28 had warned of curses for disobedience just one chapter earlier. Deut. 27:15 says: “Cursed is the man who carves or casts an idol – a thing detestable to the LORD, the work of the craftsman’s hands – and sets it up in secret.” Yet we now that, with the exception of King Josiah, who had tried to turn the people to the worship of the one true God, most of the recent kings of Judah had set-up public worship to other gods. The true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had become just one more god worshipped alongside others.
But there’s the potter, working away on his wheel. The jar he was making didn’t turn out as he had hoped. Jeremiah doesn’t go into too much detail, he just says it was “marred.” In any case, there was no way in its present condition that it would be a useful jar. No one would pay good money for it at the marketplace. The potter could have said: “Forget it. This clay is no good.” He could have thrown it aside, sent out his apprentice for some fresh clay. But he does something else. The potter squashes the clay, and starts all over again. The potter doesn’t give up. Brothers and sisters, hear the Word of the Lord this morning: God is a God of grace. God believes in second chances.
I don’t know what you’ve done; I don’t know what your sin is. I’m pretty sure, though, that Satan has told you time and again: “Forget it. God can’t forgive that. You’re over the line. You’re beyond help.” But Jesus tells it like it is. Satan is the Father of lies; don’t listen to him. Jesus stands with his arms outstretched, ready to forgive you, ready to say to you, like he said to the woman caught in adultery: “Woman, where are your accusers? Has none condemned you? Then neither do I condemn you. Go now, and leave your life of sin” (John 8:10-11, NIV). Jesus believed in second chances. And even if you need a third chance or a fourth or maybe even more, there is a place of beginning again. Just like the potter squashed the clay, and started over again, you can have a fresh start. You can’t change yourself, but God can change you. Are you willing to be changed?
New beginnings are usually painful.
Beyond the lesson of second chances, there’s something else that Jeremiah 18 teaches us. The imagery of the potter’s house reminds us that new beginnings are usually painful.
Why is there pain? When we come to Christ, he forgives us of our sins and sets us on a better path. But if we’ve been traveling a destructive road, God cannot simply cancel out the temporal consequences of our poor choices.
When I was in Côte d’Ivoire (West Africa), I had a brilliant student in our Bible Institute. We’ll call him Kouadio (not his real name). Kouadio was a vibrant Christian. He was the pastor of a newly planted church, and his people loved him. As time went on, I noticed that Kouadio was getting thinner. Soon, he started to miss class. A few months later, Kouadio passed away. Though no one said it out loud, the signs were there for all to see. Kouadio had died from HIV-AIDS, contracted during a time five years earlier when he had wandered away from the Lord. His sister, who was with him shortly before he died, said that Kouadio saw a vision of the next life. And during his waking moments, he told his sister: “Ma place est trop jolie” (My place is too beautiful).
The Apostle Paul warns us in Galatians 6:7: “Do not be deceived. God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” And while I firmly believe that Kouadio found peace and forgiveness with the Lord and that I’ll see him again one day in the resurrection, he could not escape the temporal consequences of his sin, nor can we.
There are other times, however, when God can take those temporal consequences and use them to shape us. The potter saw that the clay was marred, so what did he do? He squashed it and started over. Ouch. Did you hear that? In order to start over, the potter had to take the clay and squash it. New beginnings are usually painful.
The Lord was telling Jeremiah something about the future of His people. We know that in 586 BC the Babylonian armies razed the Temple to the ground. Why? The Kings of Judah had aligned themselves with Egypt and refused to pay tribute to the King of Babylon. Once the Babylonian king had consolidated his power back home, he turned his attention to foreign policy, and that included punishing Judah for her rebellion. Besides destroying the Temple, many of the Jewish nobles were taken in chains to Babylon. For the next 70 years, God’s people suffered what we now call the “Babylonian Captivity.”
Psalm 137 (NIV) is a reminder that new beginnings usually are painful. These words are some of the most beautiful poetry in Scripture:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
Back in Jeremiah 18, we see not only the potter and the clay, but also the wheel. The wheel symbolizes the circumstances of life that God, the potter, uses to shape us. Those circumstances are often painful. When God is doing something new in our lives, when God is making changes, those changes don’t come easy. It hurts to be squashed, no doubt about it, but it’s necessary.
Well do I recall one of those “squashing” times in my life. I’d been burning the candle on both ends, as they say, neglecting my time with the LORD, working around the clock to write the next lecture for the Bible Institute. I’d taken on too much, and one night, I just broke down. For the next three days, I was flat on my back, unable to teach, just totally exhausted. The doctor called it a “stress reaction.” Through that experience, I learned that none of us can break the simple laws of the human body and get away with it indefinitely. You can do it for a while, but in the end, you’ll pay. Maybe it’ll be a heart attack, maybe something like what happened to me, but it will happen. Three days on my back left me feeling squashed, no doubt about it. It was painful, but God used that experience to give me a new beginning. He taught me that to rely solely on my own talents, and not to rely on Him, was a recipe for disaster.
God wants to mold us into the image of Christ.
As we look at Jeremiah 18, we learn that God is a God of the second chance. He can forgive our sins and help us start all over again, if we’ll let Him. Also, we discover that while God can give us a new beginning, those beginnings are often painful. Sometimes there is the temporal consequence of our sin that the Lord does not cancel out. Thankfully, he can use those painful consequences for His purpose, to make us better than before, to make us a new vessel for His glory.
Finally, we see in Jeremiah 18 the ultimate purpose of God for our lives. God wants to mold us into the image of Christ.
Look again at verse 4: “But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.” No doubt the potter had another pot sitting up on his shelf. This pot was perfect, carefully rounded, the proper thickness, just the right texture. And as he shapes the new pot upon the turning wheel, he constantly looks at the perfect pot, comparing the new pot to his model. He thinks to himself: “I want this new pot to be just like my best one.”
When we first come to Christ, we place ourselves in the hands of the Master Potter. Before then, we were not in a place where God had our permission to begin to make us like Jesus. We were still in the hands of the devil, and we know what a mess he was making of things. But when we ask forgiveness for the wrong things we have done and give the Lord permission to begin changing things, He never lets us down. Little by little, he shapes and molds us until we begin to resemble Christ. 2 Corinthians 3:18 (NIV) says that as we look at God’s glory, we are transformed “from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory.” Thomas Chisholm penned these words:
I have one deep, supreme desire; that I may be like Jesus.
To this I humbly aspire, that I may be like Jesus.
I want my heart his throne to be,
So that a watching world may see
His likeness shining forth in me,
I want to be like Jesus.
God wants to shape us in the image of Christ. How is it coming? Are we looking less like him every day or more like him?
Summing it all up
God sent Jeremiah to the pottery shop to teach him some life lessons. He wants to do the same with us. God wants us to know that He believes in second chances. A new beginning awaits us, though it won’t be easy. It will involve some pain. Yet God’s purpose for our lives is well-worth it. He wants to mold us into the image of His Son, Jesus Christ. Are you ready for the adventure?
Greg Crofford, a Senior Lecturer in the Religion Department of Africa Nazarene University (Nairobi, Kenya), grew up in Greece, New York, one of six sons. His octogenarian mother, Marilyn, is still an amazing baker.