First Reading Jeremiah 18:1-11
Second Reading Philemon 1:1-1:21
Gospel Reading Luke 14:25-33
Sermon “Construction Zone, Work in Progress”
A couple of months ago, we were driving down to Austin Texas for my son Ben’s wedding. We were cruising down I-35, making great time and feeling rather good about it – and then south of Norman – we begin to see the dreaded signs: Construction Zone Ahead, and then, Road work in progress next 10 miles. Slow speed zone ahead, watch for workers on the roadway, single lane ahead, slow traffic, merge right. And just like that our trip just got longer and our blood pressure higher. The construction wasn’t just 10 miles, it was zone after zone, almost all the way to Austin. The concrete barriers appear and you feel like you are driving down a narrow canyon. The heavy machinery churns up dust and makes it even worse. If you’re like me, you hate construction Zones, but let’s face it – they’re necessary. Without the work, roads would be treacherous with pot holes and rotten bridges, or there would only be a simple two lane road where a 4 or even 6 lane highway is urgently needed. But getting from one condition to the other can be messy indeed. It disrupts our habits and patterns, it ruins our carefully laid plans. Whether it’s new construction or redoing something that’s been there for years, we have this mixed response to the process: We yearn for the results, but we hate the process of actually doing it.
It is the same way with our individual lives and even the paths of nations. We need renewal, rebuilding and correction, but the process is almost always messy and unpleasant. The text from Jeremiah this morning shows us an object lesson about just such a process. In this case, we follow Jeremiah to the Potter’s shop and watch as the the Potter forms a vessel. As we watch the potter work, he is not satisfied with the way it is turning out, so he stops the wheel, reforms the vessel into a solid lump and begins again. It’s a simple story, but the application that God gives Jeremiah is startling.
You see, the clay is us! God is the potter and is diligently working to form, shape and reshape us into who God needs us to be in his Kingdom. Now some might say – No, No – I choose, I have free will to order my life. Yes, Yes you do, but God is still sovereign, God made us in the beginning and is guiding still, God is in control even when things seem so chaotic and for those with faith and trust, God is graciously at work remaking us according to the image of his Son Jesus Christ. There is also the aspect of obedience. Just as the clay yields to the guiding hand of the potter, so we are to be obedient and yield ourselves to the guidance and the will of God. Both things are true: God has chosen that we have free will; God is graciously remaking us, if we will allow the Spirit to work in us.
Let’s go back to the beginning for a moment Genesis 2:7 NIV “ Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” There are several interesting things here that relate directly to Jeremiah’s object lesson. The Hebrew word translated “Formed” commonly refers to the work of a potter as it does in both Isaiah and Jeremiah’s writings. It speaks of one who fashions vessels from clay. Furthermore, the Hebrew word Adam, the name of the first man, is also the word for Man and is closely related to the word Adamah – which means Earth or ground. Indeed it is a common way that the ancient people thought of themselves – when Elihu, one of Job’s comforters, speaks to Job, urging him to listen to what he says. He speaks of himself this way: Job 33:4-6 NIV  The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.  Answer me then, if you can; stand up and argue your case before me.  I am the same as you in God’s sight; I too am a piece of clay.
There is both nobility and humility in that statement. Being intentionally and purposefully formed by the hand of God, Given life by the breath of God, but being in basic substance – clay. And so it is with our lives – a peculiar and wondrous mixture of the material and the spirit. Paul says it this way in 2 Corinthians 4:6-7 NIV
 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.  But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.this is our nature, vulnerable and yet wondrous!
Now the prophets had the heavy task at times to announce to the people of Israel that God was about to reshape their world and their very selves because they did not conform to the pattern that God desired. They did not seek justice, they worshipped wealth and possessions and set up false gods, both they and their nation had gone astray. Isaiah says it this way:  “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?
While Jeremiah says: “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.  If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed,  and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.”
Indeed as dark as the warnings were, there was always, always the promise of a future after the reshaping and reforming: Jeremiah 29:10-13 NIV  This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.  For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Now there is much for us to take to heart here. When we look at our contemporary world, we see much the same things that the prophets of old saw. We too, live in a time of injustice and oppression. We too, often value our wealth, status and power over obedience to God. We too find that we are not conformed to the will of God.
Furthermore – life is not as simple as patiently forming a clay vessel, eventually getting it just right and firing it in an oven to keep it that way. No, this is a complicated world and life is a long journey with many many decisions. SO how are we to discern the hand of God on the wheel – shaping and reshaping us? And what of the complex interaction between God the artist and maker, on one hand, and, on the other hand, us – God’s people, We are like clay in God’s hands, but are also so much more. God does not make us do anything. God does not make us use our gifts or force good choices. No, God has graciously chosen to send his Holy Spirit to call us to saving faith and to direct our lives and our will to a new path and purpose. We also have the terrible freedom to refuse, to more resemble dry clods rather than yieldable clay.
We are neither robots nor brittle dried and fired vessels. The shape of our character and our lives is not fixed. Through the work of living water, and the work of the Spirit, we can become and remain supple clay. We, as individuals and as communities, can be formed through education and the practice of virtue. We can be deformed through abuse and ambition. We are susceptible to influence, suggestion, temptation, and corruption. We are also resilient, and capable of astonishing goodness and true conversion.
Paul’s brief letter to his friend Philemon is a case study in such a process in a very messy and complicated world. Philemon’s slave Onesimus had run away. Apparently he had made his way from Colossae in Asia Minor all the way to Rome, where he met Paul. Now Onesimus was also a work in progress, being reformed, reshaped. From useless to useful. It was a messy situation. He was a runaway slave and Paul was under house arrest in Rome. Somehow, he had come into Paul’s sphere and been radically reshaped, from run away slave and probable thief to devoted Christian brother.
But Onesimus’ life was not the only one reshaped. Paul’s brief letter not only reported on Onesimus’ conversion – but it asked for huge changes from Philemon also. It sought his conversion too – from slave holder to Christian brother, From criminal plaintiff to partner. Here is an wondrous thought: what Paul did for Onesimus is a what Jesus Christ has done for us: He took on himself anything that Onesimus owed Philemon – pure grace and atonement. Two lives were completely changed through a remarkable detour through a Roman prison. Such things can happen only with the hand of God on the wheel.
So don’t be surprised at the all the construction on the road of life. It may be frustrating and take us from our intended path through detours and lane changes. But it is God’s intention is to use it all for our good. God meets us just where we are on the journey of life, but loves us too much to leave us there!