Starting Over

Jeremiah 18:1-11

What do you think about when I say the words "starting over?" I'll bet a lot of you think about the devastating effects of Hurricane Betsy. 1965 went down in hurricane history as the year of Betsy.

The life of Betsy began officially on Friday, the 27th of August as a large rotary-cloud pattern in the Atlantic off the coast of South America. On the 2nd of September the storm roared north with increasing fury toward the southeastern Bahamas Islands. Too bad for the out-islands, but the residents of Florida and the east coast of the United States were assured that Betsy would not present a serious threat to any part of the continent.

But Betsy's northward course was altered by a high pressure system that brought a fine Labor Day weekend to parts of the United States. Blocked from her chosen path, the storm wheeled around and headed southwest. This time it aimed right at Nassau, capital of the Bahamas. For 12 hours it stayed anchored just north of this city. When the storm finally left, Nassau was battered but still in business.

So was Betsy.

Betsy was a major storm with 145 mph winds and was now headed southwest. By the 8th of September, the entire east coast of Florida was under a hurricane watch. The hurricane moved DOWN along the coast of Florida. Tides were surging over the Keys and accounts of deaths were beginning to filter in. As Betsy moved across the state, the west coast of Florida was spared. As Betsy headed out into the Gulf of Mexico it headed northwest.

In Louisiana, thousands of people started evacuating. Sugar cane planters were among Betsy's most anxious watchers. The September crop was tall and brittle, and every stalk was almost ready to harvest.

The storm that had ranged so far across the Atlantic, up and down the east coast of Florida and through the Bahamas, around the Keys and again into open water, was trapped like a maddened bull in an arena. For Betsy, the arena was the upper Gulf of Mexico and there was no way out-no way except for one final and headlong plunge at the land. The enraged Betsy pawed with head lowered. Its target was the coast of New Orleans.

Well, I know that I don't need to describe to you the effects of that terrible night 30 years ago... and the difficult days that followed. Louisiana was declared a major disaster area by President Johnson and the process of "starting over" began.

Jeremiah 18:1-11 puts a more positive spin on the concept of "starting over." Rightfully understood... the image of the potter at work is a picture of God's grace. When we soften our hearts, he can rework us into a beautiful and useful vessel for his use. Listen to God's word to you this morning:

1 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:
2 "Go down to the potter's house, and there I will give you my message."
3 So I went down to the potter's house, and I saw him working at the wheel.
4 But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
5 Then the word of the LORD came to me:
6 "O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?" declares the LORD. "Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
7 If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed,
8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
9 And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted,

10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
11 "Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, 'This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.' (NIV)

The image of the potter may be a little foreign to us... it is considered an art form today... and most of us don't even know anyone who works with clay. But what Jeremiah saw when he went to the potter's house was no doubt very familiar to him.

The potter's wheel consisted of two large discs made of stone or wood... attached by an central axil... one above the other. The potter turned the lower wheel with his foot... which in turn made the upper wheel spin around.

The potter was making a vessel on the wheels. As he turned the lower wheel with his foot... his hands shaped a lump of clay which was turning rapidly on the upper wheel. That lump of clay might turn out to be a beautiful ornament... painted and glazed... or it might be a plainer piece... but it always had a useful purpose.

There are several elements of this story that remind me of God's grace toward us... and I would like to share those with you this morning. Notice first of all... that God rebukes the people before the inevitable happens. Judah had turned against God... and they knew it. But God... in his mercy... was willing to forego their just punishment... if they would only listen to Jeremiah... and turn back to God.

But they didn't want to hear God's message. Instead they chose to believe a lie... one we are sometimes guilty of believing ourselves. In verse 12 we read:

12 But they will reply, 'It's no use.

How many times have we started the New Year with sincere resolutions... only to discover... once again... that the spirit may be willing... but the flesh still loses it's temper! How many times have we said to ourselves... "I can't change"... I am helpless... I might as well just give in to the temptation.

And that brings us to the second indication of God's grace in this story. Notice that clay cannot mold itself... the potter knows what he wants to make with that lump of clay... and it is in his hands to shape it accordingly.

Does forming something from a lump of clay ring a bell with you? Where else have you read a similar story? That's right... the creation story... where God formed a human from the dust of the earth... clay! God is the author... the creator... the one who has control over the whole project. Our lives are not in the hands of some invisible "force" like Hurricane Betsy. Our lives are in the hands of God... and he is our father... he has a personal concern for us... he wants us to "come home." He is the potter and our lives are in his hands... our God reigns!

And that brings me to my third word of grace... our God is a reforming God... and he is constantly reforming us... as individuals... and as his people. The Potter has a perfect plan for us... he sees the finished product in his mind... and... believe it or not... that finished product looks like Christ... perfect in every way. The Potter patiently works the clay... tenderly molding its shape. God patiently directs our lives... seeking to fulfill his will.

The most important quality of clay is that it yields to the potter's hand. If it fails to yield... as it often does... the lump of clay is not discarded. The Potter doesn't give up on it... but continues to work with it because he sees the great potential it has to be something beautiful and useful.

That process of formation continues throughout our lives if we allow it. Perhaps you've heard the express...

"Please be patient with me... God's not finished with me yet."

God is infinitely patient... he will not let us go... he waits patiently as the Spirit works in our lives... renewing us... and giving us the faith that allows him to act in and through us. It is my prayer that each of you will yield yourself to the tender touch of the Potter... always willing to confess and allow him to "start over." Amen.

A Sermon Preached on September 6, 1998
The Rev. Shirley R. Frazier
Carolyn Park Presbyterian Church, Arabi, LA

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