Israel, Clay In The Potter's Hands

Selected highlights from this sermon.

Jeremiah was sent on a field trip to watch a potter working with his wheel and clay. This analogy illustrates how God shapes the lives of nations and individuals. He patiently uses circumstances and people to turn us into what He desires. 

When we face difficulties, often we ask, “God, why is this happening?” But we must remember to trust the hands of the Potter. His way is best, even when we can’t understand it.  

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The question is this: What is happening in the United States of America that is of importance? As we see various dominoes coming down, one after another, what are the great lessons that we learn from the situation in Israel and Judah? If ever there was a message that you really need to hear, it’s particularly the next message when I’m going to describe for you exactly what happened - how the Babylonians came down, how Jerusalem was destroyed and the suffering that the people went through, all of which is going to be relevant to where we are in the United States. It’s not that I think the United States is Israel, but sometimes my breath is taken away when I think of what God is willing to do to a nation that abandons Him.

Today we are going to be in Jeremiah 18. The title of this series is The Church in Babylon – Unleashing the Power of a Spirit-filled Witness. You say, “Well, you haven’t spent a lot of time so far talking about the Spirit-filled witness.” Well, eventually in this series we will when we talk about the land of Judah being inhabited by Babylonians, and the folks of Judah are in Babylon, and we’re going to talk about their witness in a pagan culture. But in Jeremiah 18 God sends Jeremiah on a field trip, and He says, “What I want you to do is to go down to the potter’s house because I have a message for Israel and the best way to illustrate it is for you to go there and watch a potter at work.”

I’m going to pick it up actually at verse 3 of Jeremiah 18, “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?’ declares the Lord. ‘Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.’” But if the opposite happens, well then verse 9 says that God will judge. And notice this. I’m skipping to the middle of verse 11. “Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you.’”

Is that what God is saying against His people? Is he saying, “I am devising a plan against you and shaping disaster against you”? Wow! It takes your breath away. God hates sin.

Well, now what we’re going to do is I want you to take your cameras. Don’t take out your cell phones and take a picture right now, but pretend that you have your cell phone camera or another camera (Everybody has cameras today.) because we’re going down to the potter’s house with Jeremiah and we are going to take four pictures that I want you to visualize in your mind.

Picture number one is the potter, who in this analogy of course, is God. And how does the potter work? He works purposefully. He has in his mind the image of a vessel he wants to make. Maybe it is a vessel for water. It may be a flowerpot. It may be a water pot, but he has in his mind its size and its shape and he begins to work with a purpose.

Now not only does he work purposefully, he works very patiently. He’s not going to substitute beauty for speed so he takes his time. And there he is. He is shaping this vessel, as it seems good to him. He’s working authoritatively. In other words, the vessel has no right to say to the potter, “Don’t make me like that. Make me like this.” He is working with authority because he knows exactly what he has in mind. He is, after all, the potter.

Let’s look at the second feature and take a second picture very quickly, and that is the wheel. It says there in the last part of verse 3 that he was sitting at the wheel. Now, what is the wheel? Well, we’re going to relate this passage to ourselves but also to Israel. Its first interpretation has to do with Israel but I think it applies to us as well. What is the wheel that God uses to shape us into the vessel that he desires? Well, first of all, it’s circumstances. It’s promotions. It is demotions. It is the hardships of life. It is sickness. It is discouragement. All of that gets poured into our lives because God says, “I have something in mind that I am shaping that only difficult circumstances will bring about. I want you to be a special shape, a special vessel of honor, and that can’t happen in your life as long as everything goes well.” So He uses circumstances. He uses other people. He uses people with their injustice, with their intolerance perhaps in the sense that they are judgmental of us. He uses pain that others bring upon us, and the point to be made is that the pot has no right to say to the potter, “You can’t use that.”

Paul says in Romans 9, “Can it be that the thing that is formed, namely the pot, can say to the potter, ‘Why have you made me this way?’ He says, “Does not the potter have even power over the clay to make a vessel unto honor and one unto dishonor? Isn’t the potter the one that is in charge?” And the answer is yes. In fact, the potter can even use the devil, as he did in the case of Job, who experienced all of this grief because God gave Satan the right and the power to be able to destroy his family and children, or, as in the case of Peter, where Jesus said, “Simon, Simon, Satan has desired to have you that he might sift you as wheat, and I pray for you that your faith may not fail.”

You see, because the potter is sovereign he can use whatever he likes. Now in the case of Israel, God was using Jeremiah as the wheel - Jeremiah’s message of judgment, Jeremiah’s message that says, “Repent. Hear, oh Israel. Turn from your sin and repent.” And He was using Ezekiel and other prophets who lived during this period of time. God says, “This is the wheel. I am shaping you into a certain vessel and you can’t be the vessel that I want you to be unless you listen to Me and you obey Me and you turn to Me.” Alright, that’s the second picture that we’ve taken. We’ve taken a picture of the potter, and by the way when you go to Israel today you can actually go into a potter’s house and watch him work. We’ve taken a picture of the potter, and we’ve taken a picture of the wheel.

Now what we need to do is to look at the first vessel. Your Bibles are open and you’ll notice it says there in verse 4, “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.”

Vessel number one! Here is the potter. He is at work and suddenly he notices that the clay is lumpy, and because the clay is lumpy, the vessel loses its symmetry. And once you begin to try to straighten it out, no matter what instruments you use, as it spins on the wheel you discover that it is not going to be what you had in mind. It is not going to be an ideal pot at all. And so the potter notices that it was spoiled. I think the King James Version, if I remember correctly, says that it was marred in the hands of the potter. I love that word marred. It was lumpy, lacked symmetry, and perhaps within it there were even some ingredients that caused it to be that way. And so the first vessel is spoiled in the potter’s hands.

Now what we need to do as theologians, and every Christian is a theologian, is ask ourselves a question. You can’t get saved unless you know some doctrine about Jesus and the whole doctrine of sin and how you need to believe in Him. But we have to back off just a moment and catch our breaths and ask ourselves this question: Does God the Father sometimes fail when He’s making a vessel? Clearly this potter was making a vessel that didn’t turn out to be what he had in mind. Does God fail?

Today it seems as if we have hundreds of students here from the Moody Bible Institute. I suggest that you ask your professors tomorrow morning whether or not God fails. The fact is that this is the time when I wish that this wasn’t just a sermon. A classroom would be ideal where we could talk back and forth and clarify, but this has to be a sermon. You can’t talk back to me out loud right now. You can in your mind but not directly. But let me say this. When it comes to God’s eternal purposes – his invisible eternal purposes – God, of course, never fails. God always achieves His purpose. Our God is in the heavens. He can do whatever He pleases, and He does do whatever He pleases. God never, never fails in His eternal purpose. And the reason for that is because God, even in His sovereignty, has in mind something for the vessels of destruction, of all things. Paul makes that clear in Romans 9. I’ll tell you that this is going to be a tough message that some of you will turn away from, but for others it is going be the means of deliverance, so hang on with me.

The fact is that God even uses marred vessels, spoiled vessels, for His eternal purposes, so God never fails in His eternal purposes, but if you look at it narrowly, and you look at that through a very narrow lens, it certainly appears to us as if God has one thing in mind and it doesn’t turn out to be the way in which God intended it. And so the first vessel is actually spoiled and marred in the hands of the potter.

Now there’s a fourth picture that we have to take today, and the fourth picture is the next vessel that the potter makes. You will notice that it says that the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hands (I’m still in verse 4) and he reworked it into another vessel as it seemed good to the potter to do. It is the fourth picture. It is the other vessel.

Now you and I might, if we were working with this lump of clay and it was lumpy and it lacked symmetry, and it resisted what we were trying to do (and that of course is the impression we get here that Israel was clearly resisting what God intended to do), say to ourselves, “Well, let me take that lump of clay and let me simply throw it away against the wall. Eventually it will become hardened and it’ll be entirely useless. And let me take a brand new lump and make a vessel that I think is going to turn out much better.”

You and I would do that, but I find it interesting in the text that this particular potter doesn’t do that. He takes the lump of clay and the Bible says he remakes it. That is, he takes it and he crushes it, and he starts over again as it were so that he can finally make it into the vessel that really will be a blessing to him, a vessel unto honor and one that is for His use so that it can become a flower pot or a water pot rather than a crackpot. (laughter) I thought I’d throw that in to just see if you were totally with me here.

Now when he reshapes it, aren’t you glad that God uses the same piece of clay? In the case of Israel, God says,
“I’m going to reshape you.” It won’t be that same generation of Israelites. It’ll be another generation of Israelites. But we believe that a day is coming when God is even going to reshape Israel, and Israel will still recognize its Messiah and eventually the nation to which it is referred here. You’ll notice the Bible applies this in verse 6. “Oh house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done, declares the Lord?” God is going to remake the nation. The nation is going to recognize that Jesus is Messiah and God is going to get glory from the vessel that will please Him.

But in our case, you see, what God does is He remakes the vessel. He begins with the raw material, and then when we come to know Him as Savior, what does He do? What does a potter do after he has shaped the clay, and it’s the proper size? What the potter does is he puts it into a kiln - that is, a blast furnace. I don’t know how many degrees it takes, but of course after it is glazed it is in this oven that bakes that vessel, and I can imagine that if that vessel could talk, it would say, “No, no, no, it’s too hot!” But the potter keeps his hand on the thermostat. And he knows what is best for that vessel, and he turns up the heat because he’s after something. He’s after a very special vessel, and it can’t be all that it can be unless it is put into the furnace.

Yesterday Rebecca read to me a blog of someone who is going through a very hard time. It is somebody whose child is actually dying of cancer, and this woman spilled out her heart to God. She said, “I am angry with God,” and she just wrote everything out, and you know I don’t judge her and I’ll tell you why. It’s because all of us have felt that way. Someday I’m going to preach on this. Someday I am going to preach on the need for many people to forgive God, not that He personally needs forgiveness, but we had better take care of some issues that we have with God. But we’ve all felt this way. David felt this way in the Psalms. I’ll point that out when I preach on it someday, where David said things like, “I’m giving my complaint to God. God, where are You when I need You? Why is that You give me always night and never day?” And on and on and on he goes. God can handle your doubts. He can even handle your anger.
At the end of the day though, I have no doubt that this woman will pass the test, but now when the heat is on, she is screaming like many of us have screamed and said, “Why?” and “No, God!”

And by the way, when I was in Brazil and had a few moments I wrote down eleven or twelve questions I’d like to ask God someday. God is even more mysterious to me in many ways the older I get than when I was younger when I thought I had Him figured out. I have officially given up trying to figure God out because, you see, of the mystery. I mean, why do young people die and good people die and the evil live long lives? I mean there are so many things about God we don’t understand, but He says, “Trust me. I’ll put you in the furnace and I will make you into the vessel that I desire.” And when the kiln (the furnace) had done its work the other vessel was exactly what the potter wanted. And so there is the remade vessel.

Now what are the lessons that should be transforming first of all as a nation and then even us as individuals? Let me give you two at least. Number one, what this passage teaches is that God is sovereign, not just in your life and mine, as He makes us into the vessel that He desires, but He is sovereign over nations. Let me read verses 7 to 11 to you again. “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the Lord, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’”

And how does the nation respond? I think it responds like much of America is responding today. “But they say (in verse 12), ‘That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’”

Thank you very much, God, but we are going to resist the potter at every opportunity and we will reshape ourselves into the vision individually and collectively as a nation. We will reshape ourselves into the kind of people and nation we want to be, and we will not listen to the voice of the Lord.

Now there may not be a whole lot that we can do as a result of what’s happening in our nation, though this coming week I am going to be meeting with about 50 or 60 religious leaders, and we’re going to be talking about what we should be doing, how we should be living and what information needs to be communicated in light of all that is happening around us. But I’m going to talk to you now as an individual, but first of all let me say another word about God’s sovereignty over nations.

You know, the Bible says that God is the God of kingdoms. Here God says, “I’m devising evil against you.” That doesn’t mean that God does evil but when He wants to judge a nation, for example, as the prophet Habakkuk outlined, God says, “I’m the one who is bringing the Babylonians.” God says, “I am the one who is bringing people from the north for the folks here at Judah” that we are going to discuss in the next message and see how the Babylonians came and decimated the city, and there was famine, and there were children dying. God said, “I’m the one doing it.”

Now along concurrently with that of course there is human responsibility. That’s one of the great mysteries in the Bible - God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, and that’s a topic that we could talk about for a long time. But the point is this. God is sovereign over our country, and yes, God might be devising evil even for us because we are losing our way and we are doing it very rapidly. God’s sovereignty over nations!

Now if that’s a little bit terrifying I said it that you might be encouraged. It’s not as if God watches the news everyday to say, “What in the world are they doing in Washington now?” You know that God never learns anything. Has it dawned on you that nothing has ever dawned on God? And so God sees it, but the fact that God is in charge, whether it’s America, whether it’s Egypt, whether it’s the Sudan, and ultimately though men do what men do, God rules over the nations of the earth. Remember that when you become discouraged. It is, after all, God’s sovereign hand.

So the first thing is a great lesson on the sovereignty of God over nations, but the second lesson is that God loves to remake marred vessels. God says, “I will take your life and I will remake it and reshape it.” Now, yesterday also when we arrived home there was a letter waiting for us that was such a great encouragement to me as a pastor. I thought to myself, “You know, it’s because of this that the ministry is made worthwhile.” It was from a woman who wrote to us from the congregation here who talked about the fact that she came to Moody Church with such a sense of shame and loss and so much hurt from other Christians in a different context, and how this was a time of healing and help and restoration.

Some of you may be here and the reason that you are here is you are just healing from past experiences. If that’s your experience I hope that you’ve come to the right place, that we might be able to speak hard things but speak hard things with huge doses of grace and restoration. That’s really our desire here at the Moody Church.

But she talked about this, and in the very same way, you see, God remakes vessels. First of all He goes and He finds some clay. That’s our conversion story. He maybe found clay in your part of the world, in your home or wherever, and God says, “I’m going to make this vessel into something.” And then after our conversion what God does is He begins to remake it.

Years ago Rebecca and I had lunch with a couple that’s rather famous. I won’t mention their names, but the wife wrote a book about this. This isn’t any great secret but she had five abortions, was a street woman actually, and then came into a shelter in Los Angeles and was gloriously converted, memorized 400 verses of Scripture, and she became the woman that she is today.

God says, “Here’s a marred vessel, not just with lumps but with undoubtedly dirt mixed into the clay.” And God says, “I’m going to clean her up, so to speak, spiritually speaking, and then I’m going to remake her and reshape her into a vessel that honors Me.” No matter who you are today God can do that. He is in the business of making vessels that are honorable. I’ll show that to you in the New Testament in just one minute.

Now, the point that I’m trying to make today is don’t you try to remold yourself. Don’t you resist the Potter. Don’t you say, “God, if that’s the way in which You are going to treat me I’m going to harden my heart against You.” Don’t say that. Rather say, “God, I don’t understand Your ways. Your ways are mysterious, and Lord, it hurts, but make me into the vessel that You desire me to be.” Don’t resist the Potter.

We can resist the Potter even as believers, and we can resist the Potter as unbelievers. I’m thinking, for example, of Judas. Do you remember how Judas resisted Jesus and he never really became a vessel at all. He ended up being that clay that was thrown off to the side that became hard and unusable because Judas, in the presence of Jesus (Oh, it takes your breath away.) so hardened his heart that he became a vessel unto dishonor, and will be that for all eternity.

I pour my heart out today. The Potter has good designs toward you. The Potter’s way is best. Don’t remold yourself, but submit to the Potter’s hand. The Apostle Paul, in the book of Timothy, said this. “Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if any man cleanses himself from what is dishonorable he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.”

Become a vessel that God can use. He is after something. He doesn’t work helter-skelter, as I mentioned. It’s not kids playing around with Play Doh. He is trying to mold you and me so that our character pleases Him. God is in the people- molding character-building work, and He uses injustice (He uses everything), and the clay can never say to the Potter, “You can’t use that.” The Potter says, “Will you remember that you are the clay and I am the potter? I can use whatever I want to shape you into what I want you to be.”

You know, when Paul says, “Cleanse yourself,” obviously he’s not saying, “Okay, cleanse yourself!” In context, of course, what he means is, “Let God cleanse you.” That’s the beginning point. The beginning point for those of you who do not know Christ as Savior is to say, “I want to submit to Jesus Christ, to receive Him as my Savior so that God might begin the work in me of molding me and making me,” but after He’s done that, God says, “I have a wonderful agenda for you. Now I want you to submit to me every day of your life because I want you to be a vessel for honorable use in the Master’s hand.”

Are you willing to do that? Are you willing to receive Christ as Savior if you have never believed on Him? Are you willing to submit to Him if you have believed on Him? Say, “Okay, God, I’ve fought you tooth and nail, but today I submit to the Potter’s hand.”

Let’s pray.

Father, we thank You today that You are sovereign. We thank You today that we have no right to be able to tell You what You can use, what You can’t use. And so, Father, we say this hesitantly because we know that the implications are huge, but by Your grace, use whatever You like that we might become vessels fit for the Master’s use. Mold us, make us, come to us, and shape us. For those who have never trusted Christ as Savior, may they right now say, “Okay, I believe in Jesus. I trust His work on my behalf.” We pray in His blessed name, Amen.

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