“A Fresh Start”

Pentecost 16

September 4, 2016


Text:  Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Philemon 1-21


One day God told the prophet Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house to be given instructions.  When he got there, he observed the potter working at the potter’s wheel.  The pot he was making turned out to be flawed, so he started over.

God’s word then came to Jeremiah:  “House of Israel, can’t I deal with you like this potter?  You are to me like clay is to the potter.  If I announce that a nation is doomed, but they turn from their evil, I will not carry out the harm I intended for it.  Or if I declare that I will build and plant a nation, but they displease me with their disobedience, I will not do the good I intended for it.  Tell the people of Judah and Jerusalem that I am a potter planning disaster for them.  Turn from your evil ways, and reform your ways and your actions.”   

I find it significant that God sent Jeremiah to a potter.  With so many crafts, if what is being made gets spoiled, the material used has to be thrown away or set aside for another use later and new material has to be used.  But with clay, that is not necessary.  The potter simply works the clay back into a mound on the potter’s wheel and starts shaping another pot.

I find this to be an apt image of how God works with us.  When we don’t turn out right, God does not throw us away.  God instead continues to work with us to reshape us into what he wants us to be.  

That connects with our psalm today.  The psalmist asserts that God knows absolutely everything about us, which I sometimes find rather a scary thought at those moments when I can actually attempt to wrap my brain around the idea.  He knows what is good, bad, and indifferent in our lives.  God knows how we are made, everything we do, and what he has planned for us.  

Now at first glance that all can sound rather deterministic, like God has already decided everything that is going to happen in our lives and world and there is nothing we can do about it.  But I’m not persuaded that is an accurate explanation of what that means.  Yes, I believe that God has a plan and purpose for our lives.  But I also believe that God has given human beings and creation itself the freedom to follow or to ignore that plan.  Far too often, God’s plan is not followed.  It is either misunderstood and followed badly, or willfully disobeyed and not followed at all.  God has a good and wonderful plan for our lives, and invites us to take part in it.

The Apostle Paul saw this to be true in the life of Philemon.  He saw that plan already working in the way Philemon was a partner in his ministry and a blessing to God’s people.

Now Philemon had a runaway slave named Onesimus.  Onesimus had found his way to Paul, who was in prison at the time, and Paul had led him to faith in Christ and continued to mentor him in the Christian life.  Paul had come to see that God’s plan was for Onesimus to join Paul in his ministry.  But since Onesimus was still Philemon’s slave, Paul wanted Philemon’s consent for this to happen.  Indeed, Paul asked Philemon to recognize Onesimus as a beloved brother in Christ and release him from slavery so he could join Paul in his ministry.

We do not know if Philemon complied.  We do know, however, that there was an Onesimus who was Bishop of Byzantium (modern Istanbul, Turkey) from 54-68 AD who is said to have been martyred.  There also reportedly was an Onesimus who was Bishop of Ephesus in the first century AD.  Either or both of these individuals could have been the same man.  If so, that means Philemon did follow God’s plan as Paul discerned it and released Onesimus for ministry.

But back to the idea of God as potter and us as the clay.  God has a purpose and plan for our lives.  But things happen, and God’s plan doesn’t always get carried out.  

Sometimes we don’t understand that plan.  I find I do not always hear God’s leading clearly.  When that happens anything I do is a shot in the dark, and there is a high likelihood that I will miss what God wants me to aim toward.

Sometimes I think I hear God’s leading clearly, but I misunderstand it.  When that happens, what results is something different than what God intended.

Sometimes I do hear God clearly.  But what I hear may be something that I feel unprepared or unsuited to do.  I may find myself resisting or making a different choice.  Or I may respond faithfully, but may be derailed by circumstances beyond my control or by the actions of others.

In all of these cases, things do not turn out the way God has intended.  Does God throw us away when that happens?  No!  God gives us a fresh start.  God continues to work with us by the power of the Holy Spirit to shape us into the people he wants us to be in order that his plan for our lives might be fulfilled.

However, there is a way we are different than clay.  Clay cannot really resist the shaping efforts of the potter.  But there can be imperfections in the clay that have to be worked out by the potter.  We, too, have imperfections.  But sometimes we also actively resist God.  We don’t let him shape us.  We try to shape ourselves, and often turn out to be broken pots.  Even then, God does not throw us out.  God is still working to shape each of us into the person God wants us to be.  Let us not resist the work of our Heavenly Potter, but allow him to remake us according to his purposes.    Amen.

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