delftwareA few years ago, my family visited the city of Delft, outside Amsterdam. That is the center of fine Delft pottery with its trademark blue and white pattern.
We took the tour of the ceramic factory there. We were gathered into a room where a woman gave us a demonstration on the potting wheel. She took a lump of clay and started the wheel spinning. She began working the clay with her hands and as if by magic, it began to take one form after another as she talked. First it was a low round bowl, then a tall slender rose vase, then a Grecian urn then a lump again, and back into another bowl. It was incredible. It seemed there was some magical life in the clay itself, but of course it was the skillful hands of a master potter at work.

God sends the prophet Jeremiah to the potter's shop for a demonstration. I can imagine what he might have seen. The potter takes the clay from the large tub of clay sitting on the floor. potterswheelWith his feet he sets the wheel spinning and the vessel begins to emerge from a lump of the miry clay.

But the materials that Jeremiah's potter was working with were not the highly refined clay that our modern potter had at her disposal and as he shapes the vessel with his hands, and imperfection in the clay appears. Perhaps it is some foreign material, perhaps a piece of not well worked clay. Whatever it is, it cannot stay. The only thing the potter can do is to crush it down back into a lump, perhaps picking out the foreign material with his finger or a knife before crushing the clay back into a lump and then onto the wheel again for shaping.

As Jeremiah watches, God speaks into his spirit.

Oh house of Israel, cannot I do with you as the potter does? LIke clay in the hands of the potter so you are in my hands.
God goes on to describe to Jeremiah how He is in control of their destiny, in fact the destiny of all nations. It is the Lord God who builds up one nation and tears down another.

There is a parallel passage in Isaiah in which God says, "does the clay tell the potter what to do? Then why do you think you can direct me in what I do with you?" (Isaiah 45)

But with Jeremiah, there is a subtle difference. God indicates that we are not just passive lumps of dirt.  I bet that's good new to you all! In one sense we have a say in our destiny.

God says that he plans good things for us, but if we rebelliously turn away from what we know is right and turn our backs on the kind of life God can give us, then God will change his plans accordingly.
The same is true if God announces judgment. Until the judgment is executed, there is time to have a change of heart.

A few years ago when the church was new, my co church planter, Ruth McCowan and I attended a conference at Saddleback Church in southern California. We were billeted separately, but we rented a car so we could travel back and forth. Ruth was particularly struck by the fact that in Orange County, you can make legal U-turns at most large intersections.
It was kind of like finding out you can legitimately chew gum in school I guess.
She preached a sermon on "U-turns always allowed". Her point has stuck with me. God always allows us to make U-turns right up to the very last minute, providing its sincere.

The big difference between us and those lumps of clay is our will.
The potter removes the impurity with a flick of a knife.
It takes more than that just to get my attention, let alone my cooperation!

I said its good news that God does not regard us simply as lumps of clay. It is God who gives us our minds and our wills.
But for some, the notion of passivity in God's hands strikes at the heart of what it means to be us.
For some that is the hardest hurdle in entering a relationship with God--the sense of surrendering our will into God's hands and being nothing more than a lump of clay, or a dumb sheep. For some the notion of surrendering their will to God is offensive.

I read an article once on the highly artistic personality. The author was making the argument that authors, composers and artists find it hard to submit to God's will because the heartbeat of the creative personality is freedom, and that it rebels against constraint.
I would not argue the point.
I think its hard for us all.
God gives us a complex personality and mind which is capable of functioning totally without reference to God.
It had to be that way, or else our expressions of love for God are devalued.
Unless we can say "no" to God, our "yes" is empty.
Unless we can function independently of God, our willingness to enter into a relationship with the Lord has no meaning either.

In the parable of the prodigal son, the son comes home with a ready speech, "father I have sinned and am not worthy to be called a son, let me be a hired worker." In Jesus'story, there is no discussion about whether he will be a hired servant. The father welcomes the lost son home, not as a hired hand, but as a son. God does not want us as hourly laborers watching the clock every minute of the day. He wants us as family.

But the very gift that God has given us, our autonomy, is the very thing that gets in the way of our life together.
Submitting our lives in humility to God is the golden doorway into a wonderful relationship.
What keeps us back is our misunderstanding about who God is.

We turn away for many reasons, but they all come from the root of not really knowing God.
We may think that God is too remote to care, or too stern and fierce to understand us, or too domineering to allow us to exercise our freedom. There are many false images we have and none of those overcomes our reluctance.

In fact that was the very first temptation. In the garden, God gave the man and the woman total freedom with one exception. That exception was of the knowledge of good and of evil.
All was well when they accepted that God's plan was good and that life would be good as long as they followed it by trust.
But the temptation we all face is that we want to masters of our own life.

You see it in a child. An infant totally trusts the parent.
In adolescence, the need for independence kicks in and there is a tearing away from that close intimacy.
The goal of mature adulthood is a new sense of trust and love. This time not a childlike blindness to our faults, but a loving embracing of us, faults and all.

God looks for us to embrace Him in an opened adult willingness to trust. We don't need to embrace God's faults, but we need to be able to live with our uncertainties and our questions in a trusting relationship.
God gives us our sense of self and does not take that away from us.
What God looks for is a willingness on our part ot acknowledge that we are not the masters of the universe and to embrace God in humility and to listen to what the designer has to say about the design.

Charlie Steinmetz had one of the greatest minds in the field of electricity that the world has ever known. In his day no one knew more than he. Steinmetz built the great generators for Henry Ford in his first plant in Dearborn, Michigan. Once everything was in place, the assembly line worked like clockwork. Thanks to the electrical genius, cars began to roll off the production line, and the profits began to pour into Ford's pockets. Things ran along smoothly for months.

Suddenly, without warning, everything ground to a halt. Ford Motor Company went dark. One mechanic after another was unable to locate the problem, much to Ford's frustration. They were losing money. Finally, he contacted the brain behind the system. Steinmetz showed up and immediately went to work. He fiddled around with some switches and a gauge or two. He tinkered with this motor and that one, pushed a few buttons and messed with some wires. He then threw the master switch, and lights blinked on, engines began to whirl, and things were back to normal.

A few days later Henry Ford received a bill from Steinmetz for $10,000. Although Ford was a rich man, he couldn't believe it. Paying such an exorbitant amount of money was out of the question, especially for what appeared to be such a small amount of work. He returned the bill with a note: "Charlie, isn't this bill just a little high for a few hours of tinkering around with a few wires and switches?"

Steinmetz rewrote the bill and sent it back. It read: "For tinkering around on the motors: $10. For knowing where to tinker: $9,990. Total $10,000.

Henry Ford paid the bill.

As we open up our lives to God and allow him to minister to us, he knows where to "tinker," to put right what's gone wrong and repair what is broken. After all, he formed us and fashioned us in the first place. Jesus the great physician knows the right remedy because he is able to diagnose the exact problem.1

Not only does the designer know how the equipment works, but the design is meant to allow us to become fully who we can be, not crush or distort us. In other words,  you can trust God because God knows what he is doing and loves us at the same time.

We have this choice every day, even if you are a committed believer.
Every day it is your choice to say yes to what God wants for you, or to say yes to what you want for you.
The irony is when we say yes only to what we want, we end up getting what we don't want, and when we say yes to what God wants for us, we end up with far better than we thought possible.

But how?
Try this today and for the rest of the week. At the beginning of each day say this prayer: "Lord help me to understand what you want in my life today. I offer who I am to you. Work in me as you wish. I can pray this because I believe in what Jesus has done for me. Amen"

Then listen to God's inner prompting and then do what God shows you. You may be surprised at the results.

Preached  September 5, 2004
Dr. Harold McNabb
West Shore Presbyterian Church
Victoria, British Columbia

1. David A. Seamands, Healing for Damaged Emotions, Victor Books, 1981, p. 23; submitted by David Holdaway, South Wales, United Kingdom in

Return to Main Sermon Page
Email Harold McNabb