Sunday, 4 September 2016

Jeremiah 18: Unable to Change

We have been following the Book of Jerimiah over the last three weeks. 

We started in Chapter 1 and were challenged to listen to Jerimiah because God puts the words into his mouth.

Then last week in Chapter 2 we listened as Jerimiah set up the conditions for repentance.  He declared to the people that they has passed the wrong way go back sign – that they had done something wrong.  To use a colloquial expression he was naming the elephant in the room.  And I( emphasised last week that this is true for all of us – we all pass the wrong way go back sign.

Now today we have jumped ahead to Chapter 18.  This is not to suggest that the previous chapters are not worth reading and I would encourage you that you might take the time as I preach this series on Jeremiah to read the whole book.

Nonetheless, today we find ourselves in Chapter 18 and Jeremiah goes down into the potter’s house to watch the potter at work.  Whenever I have heard this passage I have heard it as a fairly positive message.  God is moulding and shaping our lives like a potter at a wheel. 

Christian teachers often speak about Christian formation.  God’s hands upon us moulding and shaping us and if God is not happy with the shape of what is emerging God can change the shape.

As nice as this image is and as helpful as it can be to speak about Christian formation the imagery is a bit jarring as the passage goes on because as the scene is explained further it appears that God is calling the clay to change itself, for Israel to change itself: to turn away from doing evil and to turn toward the good.  In Christian jargon we call this repentance.

What God appears to be shaping as God works with the clay is not an individual but a consequence to come against the nation.  Will God shape destruction or will God shape life and peace.

The ideas contained here about God’s character are difficult.  Is God like a puppeteer determining everything? Is God like the God in the cartoon on the screen? Is God shaping consequences for people’s lives essentially punishing the bad and rewarding the good?  It can be easy to stumble and get caught on these questions and so ignore the fundamental problem that Jeremiah has been naming for the last 18 chapters and what he is calling the people to now

The people have turned away from God, they have ignored those who need help in their midst, they have become violent, they have declared that there is peace when there is none and so they have deluded themselves.  Through Jeremiah God is holding up a mirror which shows what the people are up to and having exposed the wrong is inviting a response: turn away from evil and turn towards the good.

God was inviting the people to re-engage – to turn back to God and allow God’s love and mercy into their hearts to reshape their lives.

You and I should hear this message as well.  That when we have done wrong or when we have failed to do the right thing all is not lost because God is still working the clay. 

So, having established the condition for repentance by exposing the wrong Jerimiah indicated that turning back to God would change the trajectory that Israel was on.

This is one of those situations in following the set readings that I wonder why the next verse was not included because in the next verse we hear what we might think is shocking response:

But they say, “It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.”

The people are heading for disaster, pretty much shaped by their own violence and disregard for those who are marginalised, but God can change the outcome.  Yet the people say no!

It is one of the points at which we could sit back and think about how foolish the ancient Israelites were but I always see the people of God in the Old Testament and the people of God since Christ’s coming as two sides of the one coin.

Change is difficult.  None of us like change that much.  And when we have to make changes often we need a heck of a lot of support.

Think about changes you have had to make or tried to make.  Establishing a new routine like a daily devotional time, going on a diet, beginning an exercise regime, stopping smoking, going to church more, stopping swearing, giving time to serve the poor.  And think about changes that you have sought to be part of in a community or even a whole society.  Change is not easy.

Today we heard what I think is possibly one of the most confronting passages in the New Testament.  It began with these words:

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

And finished with these ones:

“None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

If turning back to God means following Jesus then in these matters I think it could be argued most of us fail miserably.  Sell all your possessions!

But we say, “It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.”

We will not sell all of our possessions.  We will make our own plans.  We will build our nest eggs and protect our wealth.

So where does this leave us?  Is the potter still at the wheel?  Can a different future be formed for us as well?

The indication of Jeremiah to the people is yes.  The promise of God to us is yes! As we try to navigate through our lives God’s promises to keep working the clay.  

Ultimately, we believe the shape the clay takes is Jesus presence with us and when we fail to respond and repent as we should, when we fail to sell all our possessions or follow Jesus wholeheartedly, just as the rich young man who came to Jesus did, Jesus declares the hope of us all, “with God all things are possible”.

This is the good news:  With God all things are possible and the faithfulness of Jesus himself carries us back even when we fail to change.  So we gather, we listen, we hear the conditions for repentance and sometimes we respond well and sometimes not so much but here at the table this day we will recall that however well or badly we have responded God is for us  and God is with us in Christ and there is always hope.   

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