The Road to a New Identity

I want to be very intentional this year about reflecting, and framing my learning through scripture and prayer.  So I have spent a lot of time reflecting over the last few days about the lectionary text and theme from last weekend.  I found that this is not a particularly easy concept to take in.  And I have had a hard time figuring out how to talk about it on the blog.  At first I was going to talk about Zombies.  But now I think I will save that for another time.

The theme this week was “A New Identity,” and the scripture that I ended up focusing on was Jeremiah 18:1-12.  Now, the recomended text was only 1-11: The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
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. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”

So, just to recap, Israel is in the middle of a crisis, th land conquered and the people oppressed sent into exile by the conquering Babylonians.  The prophet Jeremiah is called to go down to the potter’s house, and it is in watching a potter create a vase, watching the potter destroy and reform the clay when it is not cooperating, watching the pattern of creation and destruction over and over that Jeremiah comes to understand what God is conveying to Israel.  God is the potter, set out to create vessels of love and service in God’s people Israel, but God tells Jeremiah that he will work towards Israel’s destruction if they refuse to cooperate with the reason why they were chosen in the first place.  God essentially tells Jeremiah that God is CREATING destruction for Israel, he is directly setting out to topple the Kingdom of Judah because this kingdom has refused to listen to God’s will; and just like a potter with a lump of clay that won’t form properly, God has made plans to destroy them.

Now, if we stick with this reading, then it ends with God offering, essentially, a plea bargain.  God says destruction is coming, but if Israel confesses its sins and changes its ways, God will spare them.  This is a nice ending to this little alagory.  It shows God as the Master Creator, the ONE in charge of everything in the universe, creation and destruction, order and chaos, everything is from God.  It also paints the image of God as someone who can be reasoned with, which is an important aspect of the prophetic tradition.  The prophets were generally the ones who could step in and reason with God, make a case for God’s people and why they should be spared God’s wrath.  However, if you look one verse further, you find that…this is not one of those times.  This is not a time when Jeremiah steps in and says, “OK, God, we will be good, I promise, change your plans for Israel.”  If you go one verse further, to verse 12, the story gets a different tone.  In verse 12, God is still speaking through Jeremiah, God has said if the people repent then God will change the plans God had in store, and now God is almost reading the minds of the people of Israel, and telling what their response to his deal is:

But they say, “It is no use!  We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.”

In the alagory of the potter and clay, God is not just telling the story of what he is doing with Israel and why, God via Jeremiah is also commenting on who Israel is.  They are stubbornly evil.  This is a recurring theme throughout Jeremiah, the prophet often makes reference to the heart of Israel, and how it has sin inscribed on it like stone.  Jeremiah is only able to make sense of the kind of suffering Israel faces, and hold faith in a loving God who has chosen Israel as His own child, by envisioning Israel as a person whose heart is cold rock with sin inscribed on it.  “Rotten to the core,” so to speak.  It is this idea that is reiterated in the vision from the potter’s house.  Even though God would offer a way that Israel could be spared, Israel is unable to take the deal.  Israel is driven to follow its own whims instead.

It is a hard and painful thing to hear that we may be beyond saving.  It is tempting to just go with the beautiful imagery of the potter and his clay and say, “See, God is always shaping and creating us,” and look at the hardships we face with the deep knowing that God is simply shaping us to be more beautiful.  And, this is true.  PLEASE KNOW that this is true!  Later in Jeremiah, the prophet gives us some of the most beautiful poetry I have heard about God loving Israel so much that God will change Israel’s heart from one with sin etched on to it, to one INSCRIBED with God’s Covenant!  This was a people who did not know the miracle of NyQuil, let alone organ transplants, and yet this prophet was able to dream of a God so loving and so powerful that He could reach into the core of Israel and give them a NEW heart!  That is the good news that Jeremiah delivers so wonderfully, in the end, God loves us too much to let us stay in the chaos, loves us too much to allow us to live with hardened hearts of sin.

But that is later.  That is the new identity which we hope for and long to discover, but it is later.  Before you can change, before you can take on a new identity, you have to take the time to know who you are.  The caterpillar must complete its journey as a caterpillar before it can understand what it means to be a butterfly.

After watching oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico for an entire summer…and doing nothing about it; while listening to people speak against people of faith in fear and terror, attempting to deny them rights assured them by both God and the US Constitution; while reading reports about the all time high suicide rate of our service men and women; while our country enters into an election season with a lot of headlines and soundbites, pursuing power rather than serving people…and while a sleepy population looks on in silence and allows it to continue…I think we can afford to take some time to think about the 12th verse.  I think this is an important concept, and it is one that we need to sit with for a little while, before moving on to the good news of God’s redemptive work in our hearts.  Before attempting to embrace a new identity in God’s Word, I think we need to take a moment to look at our current identity, the one that, yes indeed,  “It is no use!  We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.”

I have been very moved by this particular piece (click here, and make sure to catch all three parts!) It is a sermon that addresses exactly this identity, it gives time to holding up a mirror and saying, “Look at what is happening now” before allowing us to move on into what might be.  The best part is, it is not a clergy person delivering the message, but an actual prophet.  Environmental activist Bill McKibben gave this talk at Hancock UCC last week, and even though he reflects through a different scripture, I believe he is echoing Jeremiah’s sentiment.  Where Jeremiah looked at a potter and clay, McKibben looks at melting ice bergs.  It is a longer sermon than you are probably accustomed to, but it may also be a more interesting one.  And I truly believe it is worth all of our time to really sit with this question:  Who are we as a people?  If voting is our way of expressing the will of the people…what is our will this year?  What do we need?  What do we desire?  Who does God see us to be in this moment?  Are we able to honestly name that identity before aspiring to a new one?

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