1. Looking for Guidance
Many people struggle with their spiritual lives.
On the one hand, some try to read the bible—but quickly find that it isn’t an easy a book to read—and in no time become discouraged and give up. Some try to set time to pray with God—a few minutes each day—but in no time find it’s all too hard and they fall away. And some try looking for guidance—and particularly for the big decisions in life—but end up giving up, because they seem to be getting nowhere.
On the other hand, there are some that spend hours and hours each day searching for guidance and for meaning. There are some that read this book and that book, go to spiritual expos, and try all different methods of meditation recommended by ‘so-called’ experts. And yet in the end they find their spiritual life still unsatisfying because nothing seems to work.
And what’s often common to both groups of people, is that what they are looking for is something that makes them feel good and often based on the supernatural—the flashes of lightning, the visions, the dreams, the visits from the angels, even the miracles. And they measure their spiritual life and spiritual growth based on those sorts of things. And when it doesn’t happen . . . well, they either give up, or they just continue on their search for that kind of response.
2. The Example of Jeremiah
The problem is that life’s not like that. And the spiritual life isn’t necessarily like that either. Because whereas we may wish to purse the more spectacular responses from God—and may not feel spiritually fulfilled unless we do—the reality is that God often speaks, not in the supernatural, but in the ordinary things of life.
And I’d like to use the example of Jeremiah—a great prophet—and open up the idea of finding God’s word in the simple events of every life. Because when we start looking for the miraculous, we should remind ourselves that Jeremiah, a man of his time, was spoken to by God in the ordinary things of life—the things that were around him at the time. And they included, a branch of an almond tree (1:11-12), a pot that was boiling (1:13-14), and, in today’s passage, a visit to a potter’s house.
B. THE PARABLE OF THE POTTER’S VESSEL
Now making pottery was a common enough activity in Jeremiah’s day. Indeed, it was an essential trade in the Middle East at the time. So, when Jeremiah felt God calling him to go down to the potter’s house, this is what he saw and experienced.
1. What Jeremiah Saw (1-4)
First of all, when he arrived at the potter’s house, the potter was already there at his wheel, moulding a lump of clay into a vessel of some description. And he was probably using an ordinary potter’s wheel—two stone wheels (one top one bottom) connected by a wooden pole. The lower wheel being spun by kicking with the feet, and the upper wheel holding the clay that the potter shaped.
And, as Jeremiah watched the potter work, what Jeremiah saw was that sometimes the vessel would come out perfect first time. But each time the potter came across a lump of clay that didn’t quite want to do as it was told, the potter would simply stop making the vessel, squash it back into lump of clay, and then he’d start all over again.
However, Jeremiah noted, that if the potter was unsuccessful the first time. He wouldn’t use that same piece of clay to make the same kind of pot again. Indeed, he would try to make it into something else. The potter realised that the quality of the clay wasn’t good enough for what he had originally intended, so he adjusted his plan to make something else.
And evidently that didn’t always work either. Because it appears that Jeremiah witnessed some pieces of clay being re-moulded and re-moulded again. And presumably to the extent that some pieces of clay were finally discarded.
However, in each case the potter had done his best. He had used all his skills to make something of each of those pieces of clay. But in the end, there were just some bits that weren’t suitable for anything. The fault was in the clay, not in the potter. And the useless bits of clay would consequently be discarded.
2. What It Meant (4-6)
Now, talk about God using the ordinary things in life. Making pottery was an ordinary every day event in Jeremiah’s time. And, yes, Jeremiah may have been a great prophet, but even to him, God began his message, this time, in a potter’s house, and using the simple imagery of a potter making pots.
And only after using this everyday image of Middle Eastern life, only then did God explain what he was trying to teach Jeremiah, and what exactly it was that he wanted him to do.
Because as far as God was concerned, he (God) was the potter, and the people around him (God’s people) were the clay. Some people he could mould and make into the people he wanted them to be. Others were more resistant, and, consequently, he had to make them into something else—something less than he originally intended. While others, because they stubbornly refused to be moulded at all, well with them there was nothing he could do. They were only fit to be discarded, only fit to be thrown away.
3. The Implications (7-12)
It was God’s intention to build up his people—to make something of them, to mould them into the kind of people that he could use and that he wanted them to be. However, the fact was that there were some who just wouldn’t co-operate—some who were resistant to his leading. He could shape them to some extent, but they would never be the kind of people that he really wanted them to be. And there were people who refused to be moulded at all. And it is to this group that would face divine judgement—and they would get tossed away like useless pieces of clay.
Modifying one’s behaviour, becoming more flexible, and becoming more open to being moulded, would modify God’s judgement plans. But in the end, those who steadfastly resisted any suggestion to budge . . . Well, divine judgement would be the only possible outcome, and that would be their only reward.
Of course this message that God gave Jeremiah—through the simple illustration from everyday life—was a response to a specific problem relating to a specific period of history. God’s people had gone too far following the stubborn intentions of their own hearts. They had refused to take God seriously. And they had refused to be fashioned into the noble people that God had intended. As a consequence, only the refining influences of judgement could make them amenable again to the potter’s touch.
And therefore, in this, was a message—a warning to them all to become more open to God and his ways; to become more flexible and more willing to be moulded. And if they refused, well the warning was that he would discard them; he would toss them way like useless bits of clay.
It’s a profound message that Jeremiah was given. God’s people were being given a challenge. But then they needed a challenge. Because even though they had kept up the pretence of going through the rituals, their heart really wasn’t in it with God at all.
As a consequence, the warning was very appropriate. Allow God to mould them into the people he wanted them to be and receive God’s blessings, or stick with being resistant to God and face the inevitability of God’s judgement. And that’s a message that is just as relevant for us today, as it was to people around Jeremiah.
However, it was not a message that Jeremiah was given in any spectacular way. Rather, it was given in the ordinary events of everyday life—by a visit to a potter’s shop, and a visit where all Jeremiah did was simply watch what the potter did with his clay.
And in that there should be a message for us. Because, when we try to read the bible—and find that the spectacular insight isn’t there—and are tempted to give up . . . When we try to set a time to pray with God—a few minutes each day—and we find that a loud and unmistakeable voice isn’t calling us and we are consequently tempted to give it away . . . And when we try looking for guidance—and the flashes of lightning don’t suddenly come—and we are tempted to give up because we seem to be getting nowhere . . .
1. Being Open to the ‘Simple’
. . . What we need to remember is that whilst those three things (bible reading, prayer, and seeking guidance) are important—and should be part of the makeup of any true believer—where we should be prepared to listen to God is not just in the spectacular (which may still happen occasionally) but in everyday life as well—in the routine of life, in the things that are common.
Because, whilst many people search for the complex, and are not happy with anything less—and many people go to extraordinary lengths to discover their spirituality—the spiritual life is not necessarily a complicated thing. And the prophet Jeremiah is only one example where God used normal everyday events to speak to him—even a visit to a potter’s house.
Many people’s spiritual searching ignores the mundane and only looks for the spectacular. And, if that is all we do, then we are probably missing out on the many things that God is trying to tell us. So, instead, we need to open our eyes and listen to God in the everyday events of life.
In other words, we don’t have to spiritual ‘giants’ to hear God’s word, we just have to be open to the different ways of God. Including, through the ordinary events of life.
2. Being Willing to Being ‘Moulded’
Furthermore, if we want to have any kind of meaningful relationship with God, then being rigid and determined not to change our ways should not be part of our make up at all. On the contrary, we need to be prepared to be moulded too. For we don’t set the agenda for life, God does.
Now, the potter was undoubtedly happy with the clay that he could fashion to the shape that he intended. But he squashed that which was resistant to being moulded—and with it he started again. Nevertheless, the shape he tried to re-mould it into was a shape less that he’d originally intended. And if we are earnest about seeking God, then we will get nowhere unless we are prepared to bend to God’s ways too.
If we want to have meaningful relationship with God, then, we need to not only look for God in the simple as well as the spectacular, but we also need to be willing to be shaped—to be the kind of people that he wants us to be.
And that, undoubtedly, means change. In fact, a lifetime of change. And it involves the willingness to give up the way we look at things and think about things. And it involves being willing to modify our attitudes and behaviour—on a whole host of things—and to be remodelled into a more godly way.
3. The Role of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13)
And the way we do that, today, is that we need to take the Holy Spirit who was given to us—when we first accepted Jesus into our lives—and we need to allow him to clean away the garbage from within. Not necessarily change things suddenly overnight—though in some things that may be true—but rather allowing the spirit to guide and mould us into the kind of people that God intended us to be.
Because even if we have the Holy Spirit dwelling inside us, that process is not automatic. For it something we can resist if we want to, every step of the way.
Rather, if we want to be the people of God, if we want to be the way God intended us to be, if we want to get rid of that struggle—that is most people’s experience of the spiritual life—then we need to accept the Spirit’s prompting, and willingly. And we need to accept that we need to be moulded, and we need to accept our need to be changed.
You know many people struggle with their spiritual lives. And many struggle and give up to easily—because they are looking for a more special, supernatural encouragement. So much so, that some pour much time into looking for a spiritual lift—and yet never seem to conclude their search.
The reality is though, that whilst it is nice to hear that voice or have a vision or a dream or a miracle or even a visit from an angel—or any one of a number of special responses from God— most of the time God speaks to us in the ordinary things of life.
And, unfortunately, because we don’t expect to see or hear God that way, we miss what he has to say. And that is our loss, because as we have seen today, what he has to say can be quite profound.
God spoke to prophets like Jeremiah, often in the ordinary events of everyday life. And that is the way that he often speaks to us today too.
The question is, however, are we always able to hear God speak, or have we placed limitations on the circumstances in which we are prepared to hear? And how open are we to the ways of God, or are we so rigid and unwilling to change?
Yes, developing a spiritual life is not always easy. Sometimes it can seem just like very hard work. But if we are willing to be open to all the possibilities of the way God speaks—not just the spectacular—and if we’re open to the way God wants to mould us into the kind of people that he wants us to be, then that’s not the end of the process, but only the beginning. But at least we will have made the right start.
Posted: 22nd September 2021
© Brian A Curtis