Midweek 3 – 2019 LSB #915
Text – Romans 9:21
Does not a potter have the right over his clay to make out of the same lump of clay one thing for a noble purpose & another for a lowly purpose?
GOD’S WILL & MY EXPECTATIONS
Nestled among towering spruce & fir trees, at the base of the Chugach Mountains in south-central Alaska, sits a rustic cabin. It’s a modest structure. Not much to look at. Those who fish in the nearby salmon stream probably don’t even know it’s there.
From the outside, this cabin looks like any other, but the inside is quite different. It isn’t filled with hunting or fishing gear. It’s not furnished for the weekend explorer. It is the home of a potter. Peter Brondz is his name, & he’s been throwing pottery in this cabin for more than three decades.
Now, there are many different types of potters producing many different types of pottery. Some craft fine & fragile works of art, which you can barely touch without holding your breath. Other potters are interested in durability & functionality. Peter Brondz is that type of potter.
Shaped by childhood memories of hefty crocks & sturdy bowls on the kitchen table, he designs his pottery for daily, practical use. But make no mistake, Peter Brondz is an artist. His pottery isn’t merely functional. It is also beautiful, & you don’t have to visit Alaska to know what goes on inside that cabin. Words can paint that picture.
Imagine a man in his late fifties pulling up his stool to his well-used pottery wheel. His graying curls are as unkempt as his frizzled beard. His light blue coveralls, which haven’t been washed in months, are dusty & worn. Before him lies a lump of clay. He sits there for a time, quiet & thoughtful, looking at the shapeless lump. Gradually, he begins to see something.
It’s something that does not yet exist, but soon enough will. He stretches out his hands &
reaches for the clay. Notice those hands. They are strong, but gentle, steady & deliberate. Scraps from yesterday’s work still hide under his nails. He’s thrown thousands of pots with those hands. They know how much pressure to apply, & exactly when to let up.
With those careful & caring hands, the potter picks up his clay. The wheel begins to spin, & the shapeless lump is transformed into something beautifully useful. It’s an inspiring image; a reminder that behind every piece of pottery there is a caring & capable craftsman.
In the 9th chapter of his letter to the Romans St. Paul calls to mind just such an image – one of a potter & his clay. But Paul doesn’t use this image to inspire. No, he calls to mind the potter & his clay in order to rebuke.
Paul wasn’t the 1st to use this image. Indeed, potters are as old as dinner, & the prophets weren’t afraid to use them as illustrations. Isaiah describes a potter & his clay to emphasize our accountability to God (29:16); to call out those who question the ways of God (45:9); & to highlight our complete reliance upon God (64:8).
In Jeremiah 18 God tells the prophet to visit a potter’s house. Jeremiah obeys & takes a fieldtrip. As the local potter spins at his wheel, Jeremiah watches him work a piece of clay that isn’t turning out right. So the potter changes his plan, starts over & reshapes the clay into something entirely different.
After this God told Jeremiah: The people of Israel are as dependent on God as clay is in the hands of a potter. Therefore, when Paul describes our relationship to God with this image, he continues a long tradition of prophetic vision. God is a potter & He’s in charge. He decides what to make & how to make it. As for us, we are the clay.
That’s a fine image, as long as God behaves properly, as long as He does what we think He should be doing. When He doesn’t, the image turns distressing. Some people at the Roman church looked at the ways of God & took offense. God isn’t fair, they claimed, & found plenty of examples. Take Pharaoh, for instance. God used him to demonstrate His power & glory, but then He punished the very same Pharaoh as the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. How is that fair?
Or, consider Jacob & Esau. Jacob was a liar & a thief – a conniving little brother. Yet, God gave him the blessing that belonged to his older brother. Where’s the justice? All the way back to Abraham God made an incredible promise to bless all nations through him. But that promise passed through Isaac & Sarah, not Ishmael & Hagar. Where’s the justice?
The Christians in Rome looked at the ways of God & came to an understandable conclusion: God isn’t fair. But God didn’t take kindly to this criticism: “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay…?” (Romans 9:20-21a)
To those presuming to know better than God, the image of the potter & the clay is a sharp & stinging rebuke. God is in charge. We are not. It’s that simple. We have no more right to object than the clay in the hands of a potter. Yet, there is something else in this image, that is more than a rebuke.
What was it in the heart of the potter that led him to create each piece in the 1st place? Surrounding & overshadowing the rebuke in Romans 9 is a heart of mercy, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,” God says, “I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” (Romans 9:15-16)
Out of mercy God made this world & everything therein. Out of mercy God came to Abraham, Isaac & Jacob with a promise to bless the nations. Out of mercy God remained with His people even when they rebelled against Him. The story of God’s dealing with humankind is a story of overwhelming & recurring mercy. It is the story of a potter who mercifully chooses to turn shapeless lumps of clay into beautiful & useful works of art. It’s most obvious when we look at His hands – the hand of Jesus, I mean. They were strong, but gentle, steady & deliberate. They were the hands of a carpenter, a craftsman, yet so much more than a craftsman.
Jesus lifted His hands above the storm, & the storm dissolved. Jesus placed His hands on lepers & the lame, & their disease dissolved. He reached out His hands to the little girl who had died, & lifted her from the bed & from the dead. With His hands Jesus blessed the children. With His hands Jesus welcomed sinners. With His hands Jesus broke bread & gave us Himself.
This son of a carpenter knew how to work with His hands, & He wasn’t afraid to get them dirty. He wasn’t afraid to get them bloody. The same hands that reached out to the children stretched forth on that dark Friday. The same hands that calmed the storm calmed the fears of the disciples in the upper room on Easter evening, nail marks & all.
God the potter was unwilling to give up on the clay that would not turn out right, so He sent forth His Son to reshape & reform & recreate you & me: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, & I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (Romans 9”15) God the potter had mercy on the Romans, & He has had mercy on each of us.
“Thy will be done.” We say those words every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, & I think we mean them. As children speak to their dear father, we trust that God knows best. But there are times, in your life & mine, when God’s will doesn’t seem right. At such times this image of a potter & his clay can be extremely difficult to comprehend & accept.
However, it is precisely then that the image of God as a potter can also be comforting. God the potter makes beautiful pieces of pottery – beautiful & useful works of art. Every single one of us is the evidence. Our very existence, our presence here this morning, our coming together as the body of Christ, it is all evidence that God the potter has been at work. He has shaped us & formed us to this point, & continues to shape & form us according to His will. What is His will? In a word, it is mercy – mercy to us & mercy through us. That is where we see the beauty of the work of our Father in heaven. Yahweh’s will begins with mercy to us.
Through His Son & in His Spirit, God comes to us in mercy. He comes to forgive our sin & receive our prayers. He brings us in to His presence & seats us at His table. We have not turned out right in so many ways, yet God the potter does not throw us to the scrap pile. He takes us again in His strong, gentle hands, & in mercy He steadily & deliberately recreates us.
But His mercy doesn’t stop when it comes to us. It continues as He has compassion on others through us. That’s actually why He continues shaping & reshaping us throughout our lives – so we might be useful to others. And sometimes God uses us in unexpected ways.
Her name was Pam. By the world’s standards she was no longer beautiful. Neither would many have called her useful. Four decades of battling cancer had left her a shadow of her former self. For the last ten years she was confined to the hospital or the home, in great pain & in greater weakness. Finally, at the age of 67 (& probably the same weight), Pam died.
She was fairly new to her congregation, so it was a bit of a surprise when the sanctuary was packed for her funeral. It wasn’t that she had so many friends. Indeed, many of the people at her funeral had never met her. But they had heard from her. You see, Pam refused to let her pain & confinement prevent her from caring for others.
Because she couldn’t get out to visit anyone, Pam made it her mission in life to write notes. Not emails. Not text messages. No posting on Facebook. She wrote the old-fashioned kind that require envelopes & stamps. She’d send cards & letters of encouragement, written carefully & lovingly & painstakingly by hand.
If you were friends with her children, if you worked with her husband or joined her
congregation, Pam would write to you. The notes must have taken hours to write. Her weak hands showed in her shaky handwriting. But with those shaky letters she sent out messages of hope & joy & love that she had found in Jesus. That was her ministry. That was her vocation.
During the funeral sermon, the pastor described a note he’d received from Pam. He spoke of how her joyful words in difficult circumstances inspired him in his ministry. Then he asked the people in that packed sanctuary to raise their hands if they had received one of her encouraging notes. Almost every hand went up. The response was visibly moving.
The pastor had no idea how many lives she had touched. He had no idea how useful she had been as a vessel of God’s mercy. Often you & I are clueless as well when life does not go the way we expect. We face difficulties & disappointments, pain & heartaches. As a result, our plans & accomplishments fall far short of our hopes & dreams.
In those times, it seems like God’s will is either left undone, or He’s left us out of the picture. But make no mistake, brothers & sisters; God is a careful & caring potter. He shapes & molds us according to His merciful & compassionate will. He makes us, & remakes us, again & again – even here tonight – into beautiful & useful instruments of His mercy.
When God’s will & His actions seem difficult to understand, it’s easy for the clay to get confused; for what is molded to speak back to its molder. Yet even in the midst of our confusion that wants to call God unfair, He remains the potter: the faithful, compassionate, & merciful potter, who shapes in you again & again renewed trust in His will & mercy.
He won’t give up molding us, for we are His dearly loved clay – the beautifully useful work of His hands. Amen.
Today Your mercy calls us to wash away our sin. However great our trespass, whatever we have been, however long from mercy our hearts have turned away, Your precious blood can wash us & make us clean today. Amen. LSB 915:1.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet