By Rev. Dr. William McDowell
This is the third special article which was distributed to General Council last August.
The prophet Jeremiah went down to the potter’s house and took notice of how the potter was working at his wheel. There he received a revelation to be addressed to the people of Israel. That the United Church’s 40th General Council has chosen this theme, “Down to the Potter’s House” (Jeremiah 18)(1) is a sign of hope and encouragement. Could it be that the revelation given to Jeremiah holds a particular message for our United Church as this “crossroads Council” faces the “tough new realities of declining membership and eroding finances”? Look carefully at the passage Jeremiah 18:1-12.
As Jeremiah pondered the meaning of the master craftsman trying to shape a useful vessel, he caught an insight, “a classic illustration of divine sovereignty in relation to human freedom”, a picture of the sovereign God as a free Person over us humans who are likewise free persons.(2) Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. Here also is a picture of God who has in mind a purpose and design. The fathers of the United Church believed that “the eternal, wise, holy and loving purpose of God so embraces all events that… in His providence He makes all things work together in the fulfilment of His sovereign design and the manifestation of His glory.”(3)
Jeremiah’s picture of God as the potter who has an unfolding purpose is a revelation which permeates the entire Judeo-Christian understanding of the Bible. In the Letter to the Ephesians God’s purpose is made more explicit as the ultimate design for the redemption of the world, a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things in earth. In Christ we have also received an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will (Eph 1:10 11).
How do we of the United Church of Canada fit into God’s purpose to redeem the whole world? Will the commissioners to General Council underline for us all these basic tenets of our faith?
As Jeremiah watched the potter working at his wheel, what seized his attention was also a picture of God’s patience and persistence. The vessel the potter was trying to shape and mould was marred, so he made it again. Was it a pebble, a bit of stubborn, rigid, unyielding clay? Jeremiah noticed that the potter did not discard the stubborn clay, but crushed it down to make it soft and malleable. Then using the same clay, the potter reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to him.
In keeping with this ultimate design and purpose, God does not cast his people aside. Rather, God can take us with our “selfishness, cowardice, apathy… our brokenness in human life and community,”(4) and remould, refashion, recreate us as a renewed church. God makes things new (Jer 31:22; Is 65:17; Rev 21:5). If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new (2 Cor 5:17).
Can we match the vision God has in mind for the United Church? How can we recognize it? One key to recognizing God’s will may lie in Paul’s letter to the Romans. In response to the gospel we are not to allow the world to press us into its mould; we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2).
Transformed by the renewing of the mind! Our God is in business to transform individuals, churches, nations and situations in order to make vessels fit for the Master’s use.
God’s message through Jeremiah is a call to repent –Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings (Jer 18:11). Jewish teaching on repentance is one of the ideas unifying both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Repentance, as Jeremiah understood, is a conscious turning toward God in such a way that we might live obediently and righteously.5 Jesus’ basic message was to repent: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news (Mk 1:15). Our human response to God’s message is consciously, deliberately to turn toward God and seek his direction, to renew our minds and be open to discern what God wants us to be and do.
By the call to repentance both as a church and as individuals we face a choice. Will we hear or refuse to hear? Will we follow our own plans, and will each of us act according to the stubbornness of our evil will?
“God forgives, and calls all of us to confess our fears and failings with honesty and humility. God reconciles, and calls us to repent the part we have played in damaging our world, ourselves, and each other. God transforms….”(6)
Could it be that God the Potter has a design and the will to re-mould the United Church to make us more effective in the decades ahead? Is the call to this “crossroads Council” for all of us, every person with any connection to the United Church, to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith, that the world may believe (John 17:21)?
Thou has given us little power to mould things to our own desire; therefore use Thine own omnipotence to bring Thy desires to pass within us.(7)
Thou art the potter; we are the clay. Mould us and make us after Thy will……. Hold o’er our being absolute sway? Fill with Thy Spirit till all shall see Christ only, always, living in us!(8)
1 The United Church Observer, July/August (2009) 27.
2 Interpreter’s Bible, 5, 960, 784.
3 THE BASIS OF UNION, Article III. Of the Divine Purpose.
4 A Song of Faith.
5 Interpreter’s Bible, 5, 786.
6 A Song of Faith.
7 John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer, 20th day morning, adapted.
8 Hymn. “Have Thine Own Way, Lord!” adapted.