Connections 09.08.2019: Grace Greater than our Self-Evaluation

Jeremiah 18:1-12

God goes to a lot of trouble to make sure we know about God’s grace and mercy.

In this week’s lesson text, God sends the prophet Jeremiah to watch a potter at work. After Jeremiah sees the potter reshape a pot that has become malformed on the wheel, God tells the prophet that God could similarly reform and repair a broken people.

God is willing to forgive and restore.

Sadly, the people aren’t willing to change their ways.

Or maybe they believe they aren’t able to do so.

Or maybe they know they won’t change. Maybe they have resigned themselves to what they consider inevitable. Maybe they are so set in their patterns that they can’t imagine deviating from them, even if it would be for their own good. Maybe they are lazy. Maybe they lack faith.

Look at what the people say after hearing God promise to forgive and restore them if they’ll repent: “It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will” (v. 12).

Do the people not believe that God can and will do what God has said God would do? Do they not believe that God will show grace and mercy if they repent?

I’m not sure that’s the issue. I think the issue is that the people think they’re gone so far down the path they’ve chosen, they can’t turn back God.

Imagine a worship service that incorporates God’s offer and the people’s response:

Leader: God is gracious and merciful! God will forgive!
People: Well, you know how it is.

On the other hand, maybe we should give the people in Jeremiah’s audience

credit for being self-aware and honest. How often do people respond to God’s offer of grace and mercy by saying good words that mask a half- or quarter-hearted commitment?

Maybe we should give the people credit for not saying they were going to do something that they knew they wouldn’t do.

In Luke 14:25-33 (the lectionary’s Gospel reading for this Sunday), Jesus encourages people to count the cost of following him before making the commitment to do so. He ends by saying, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (14:33).

Given the way many people these days (as in all days) feel about money and the stuff they can buy with it, they might well respond to Jesus’ words with, “It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.”

Again, that may be more honest than saying, “Yes, we will follow you, Jesus (and we’ll keep on clinging to our stuff)!”

Still, as I said at the beginning, God goes to a lot of trouble to make sure we know about God’s grace and mercy. God went so far as to send Jesus, who died on the cross for our sins.

When you want to know how committed God is to grace, mercy, and forgiveness, look at the cross.

Surely such love, mercy, and grace can overcome any contrary opinion we may have about ourselves.

Discussion

  1. What might we make of the fact that the potter’s hand was on the clay both when the vessel became spoiled and when it became sound?
  2. Can we hear God’s words in such ordinary, regular circumstances as Jeremiah did in watching the potter work? Have you ever had such an experience? What was it like? How can we become more attentive to what God might want to say through ordinary events?
  3. God tells Jeremiah that God will change God’s mind about a people’s fate according to their actions. What are some ways we might describe this characteristic of God?
  4. What images of God might we use to communicate the same truths about God as the image of God as a potter?

Reference Shelf

The Potter and the Clay, 18:1-11

First of all, we consider the potter (God). The potter initiates all stages of work with the clay. To make the vessel is the potter’s will as is the decision to rework it when it turns out badly. The potter certainly wants to make the best vessel possible with the materials with which he has to work, and will work perseveringly to that end. At the same time, this potter is faced with a problem; his work now and then turns out badly. The story does not assume an ideal situation in which the potter’s work always turns out well. Given the analogy that the potter is God, it can be assumed that God is not the reason for the inferior results; it is the clay/people that are corrupt. The issue for the potter, then, is to make the best pottery out of the situation that he possibly can.

Second, we consider the clay (Israel). It is often wondered whether the clay/people analogy really works. Clay is inanimate and people are living, and the range of response possible for people is barely analogous to the clay’s responsiveness to the potter. Yet, knowledge of pottery making suggests that the clay can adversely affect the potter’s work, depending upon the quality of the clay and the centrifugal forces at work on the pottery wheel. This is sufficient to make the analogy work with respect to people who are not passive and whose future is not absolutely predetermined. We are presented with a dynamic situation in which God is faced with the task of working with positive and negative factors in order to shape Israel into the best vessel possible. The focus is not on God’s power and control over the people, but on God’s initiative, creativity, patience, and responsiveness in relation to the possibilities inherent in the situation.

Terence E. Fretheim, Jeremiah, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 269-70.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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