About five years ago, I visited for the first time the home of a family that would come to mean a great deal to my life and ministry. On this visit, as often happens on first visits, the family wanted to give me a tour of their home. The patriarch of the family, I will call him Steve, walked the shiny hardwood floors of the downstairs showing me the living room and dining room and kitchen. Then we climbed the carpeted stairs to the second floor. He showed me the bedrooms and told me that if I ever needed a place to rest, I was more than welcome to stay with his family.
As we were making our way back downstairs, we stopped at a small door in the middle of the upstairs hallway. When we had passed it earlier, I had assumed that it was a crawl space, probably a place to store files or Christmas decorations. The door was no more than three feet tall by three feet wide, and when Steve opened it, I was shocked. Inside this little room was what appeared to be a truck load of non-perishable food items. There were bags of rice and cans of vegetables that were categorized by expiration date. It was really amazing. I turned to Steve a little confused and said, "No offense, but this is a weird place to have a pantry." He let out a chuckle and said, "This isn't our pantry, David. This is our prep room." It turns out that Steve was a "prepper."
Now, I was thirty years old at the time of my visit to Steve's home; and to that point, I had never heard the term "prepper." It was so interesting to me, and if you've been paying attention to American culture over the last several years, you've probably heard the term prepper. It actually has a much longer history than that, but that's a story for another day. Prepper refers to a person or group of people who are taking steps to prepare in case a disaster happens in the world, whether natural or financial or political.
If you've heard the term, then you probably know that it is not monolithic. There is a whole spectrum of preppers. Some preppers live in areas that are prone to natural disasters like hurricanes, so they prepare by having supplies in case water and food are unavailable in the wake of a disaster. Others who believe that political or financial turmoil might lead to the breaking down of the American system of government are preparing for a post-democratic society. In addition to food, water, and shelter supplies, they might prepare by stockpiling weapons and ammunition in case the rule of law breaks down. Some have even designed their dwellings for such a situation, fortifying their homes or parts of their homes for their protection.
It is estimated that as many as 3.7 million Americans can be classified as "doomsday preppers," and they help fuel a multibillion dollar industry.
As someone who loves examining human motivation, what I find most interesting about the more fundamentalist prepper movement, generally, is the worldview inherent to it--a belief that our country and our world are so dangerously off track that at some point the whole dang system is going to breakdown and when that breakdown happens, it's best to be prepared.
If I'm being honest--even as a non-prepper--if I spend enough time examining the daily news, I can see where they're coming from.
Who hasn't stepped back to view the world that we live in and thought, "This ship is going down?!" Continuous war. The rise of extremism and terror. Fear over pandemics. The persistence of racism, sexism...a whole host of -isms. The questions linger. How'd we get to this place? Is there anything that can be done to stem the tide of destruction? Can we--as individuals, communities, and the world--be remade into something that is new and enduring? Is there any reason to hope?
In the same way, I imagine that there are many in today's listening audience who have asked or are asking similar questions about their lives. How did I get so off track? Is there anything that can stem the tide? Is there any hope for me?
You know, Jeremiah was called to prophesy to a people--God's people--who were precariously off track, not because they had laid waste to the land or because they were waging world against their heavenly family, but because they had forgotten their calling from the God of Israel to live in covenant with the Most High.
Jeremiah was invited, called by God, down to the Potter's House to "hear (God's) words." Jeremiah found the Potter working at his wheel. He was creating a vessel, but scripture tells us that the vessel was "spoiled in the potter's hands," and as Jeremiah looked on, "he reworked it into another vessel, that seemed good to him."
If you have ever sat at a potter's wheel, if you've ever dabbled in pottery, you know that it's pretty easy for a potter's work to spoil. If a potter does not spend time centering their clay, it WILL be wobbly and misshapen. If she uses too much sponge or not enough, it WILL affect her ability to shape her work. If her hands do not work in a rhythmic partnership of pressure, the vessel WILL in all probability spoil.
And what does a true and good potter do when the vessel spoils?
She begins again.
She re-centers the clay.
She runs her hands across it with perfect pressure.
She uses just the right amount of sponge.
She reworks it into something that seems good to her.
When a potter is at her wheel, there is always hope. There is always opportunity. Even if the vessel is off track. Even if it spoils in her hands. There is always the ability to be remade in the pleasing image of the creator.
Christian faith teaches that hope is a gift God wants to give to everyone of us. Hope for today and hope for tomorrow. Christian hope is not rooted in our circumstances; it is rooted in our maker. Hope is putting your trust in the belief that there really is a potter, God, who is shaping and reshaping our lives and the world into vessels that are pleasing in God's sight. To hope in Jesus Christ is to embrace the opportunity to witness God's redemptive power.
Jeremiah 18 invites us to Christian hope through three important disciplines. Let's take a few moments to examine the three invitations that the text presents to us: the first is to listen, the second is to turn, and the third is to trust.
The first invitation is to listen. In verse 2 God invites Jeremiah down to the Potter's House to hear God's words. Jeremiah has to be in a place where he can hear God's voice. Often, when we are in places of worry or despair or uncertainty, it is difficult to find a quiet place where God might communicate with us; but just as God invited the prophet, so God invites us into His presence that we might listen and that we might hear God's challenging and hope-filled word. For you, that invitation might come early in the morning before the busyness of the day begins. Maybe it's during your lunch break or even on an evening run. Whenever it is, just as God invited Jeremiah, God is inviting you to enter a space where you can make your ears attentive to God's voice.
The second invitation is to turn. In verse 8 God invites, actually calls, his people to turn from their evil. God calls the people to turn from the way that they have lived in the world. Jeremiah is to tell the people of the ways that they have strayed from God and the covenant that God established with them in love. Like the Israelites, God invites us personally and as citizens of the human race to turn from our former ways: ways that have led to war and oppression, ignorance and bigotry, exploitation and inequality. The invitation to turn, or as Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry in Matthew 4, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." The invitation is extended to each of us just as it was to the people of Israel. We are called to turn from the things that seemingly put us on a dangerous track where the whole system could come crashing down at any moment.
Listening and turning help people of faith to prepare for the third invitation--the invitation to trust. We are invited to trust in God's sovereignty, God's power to guide our lives and the world. This might be the hardest invitation to respond to because the need to control is so deeply rooted within us.
There's a great story about noted thinker and inventor Albert Einstein. Einstein was on a train leaving Princeton Junction in New Jersey, heading north. When the conductor came to his seat, Einstein was unable to find his ticket. He searched through all his pockets and looked in his briefcase, becoming extremely disturbed. The conductor tried to comfort him, saying, "Dr. Einstein, don't worry about the ticket. I know who you are and you don't have to present your ticket to me. I trust that you purchased a ticket."
About twenty minutes later, the conductor came down the aisle of the train once again and saw Einstein, still searching widely for the misplaced ticket. The conductor again said to him, "Dr. Einstein, please don't worry about the ticket. I know who you are!"
At that, Einstein stood and said in a gruff voice, "Young man, I know who I am, but I am trying to find my ticket because I want to know where I am going!"
I love that story because to one degree or another, we all want to know where we're going. We want to know what's next. We want to know that everything is going to be okay. In order to reach such semblance of certitude, we often decide that we need to rely on our own ingenuity. We decide that the only one we can trust to create our future is ourself.
If we were to relate this way of thinking to the central image of the text, we would say that we are both the clay and the potter. We want to occupy both positions--being seated AT the wheel AND being placed UPON the wheel. A close friend of mine once said, "We want to be the clay, but we also want to grow arms and hands out of our lumpy, muddy selves and mold ourselves."
The truth is that we can only occupy one of those stations. We are either AT the wheel or UPON it. To be a follower of Jesus, to be a disciple of the Lord, is to claim that one station is already occupied: the Creator is already seated AT the wheel. God is the potter and we are the clay. And when we step back for just a moment, we recognize what Good News that is.
When we listen and when we turn, the Spirit of God prepares our hearts and minds to trust in God.
Our text from Jeremiah today reminds us that God is in control. God is the potter and we are the clay. God is working on us. God never stops working on us. God wants us to listen, to turn, and to recognize that we are clay that He is shaping into a vessel that is pleasing to Him.
We want contingency plans for when the whole thing comes crashing down--when our love lives, our vocational lives, our relationships, our lives of faith come crashing down. We want to store up non-perishables and ammunition in case of disaster, but God wants us to have faith. God wants us to have faith that He is the GOOD potter--centering us, lovingly shaping us and our world into that which is pleasing to God.
So today, consider yourself invited by the word of God through the prophet Jeremiah. Consider yourself invited to listen, to turn, and to trust that no matter how misshapen your life or this world might appear, the God of Israel, the God that became flesh in Jesus the Christ, is not finished with you or the world. Your life, this world, and the future are in the hands of the One who invited Jeremiah and invites you today to abiding hope in the work of His sovereign hands.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.