Jeremiah 18; Psalm 139
You might’ve heard the joke about the kindergartener. She was meticulously drawing a picture one day when her teacher came over and asked her what she was drawing. “I’m drawing a picture of God,” she told her teacher. Her teacher responded with, “But no one knows what God looks like.” And without missing a beat the kindergartener said, “They will when I’m done.”
Many people have tried over the years to depict God in some way. Michelangelo painted God as an old white man in the sky reaching out to Adam, and yet he also gave us the famous Pieta— Mary holding Jesus’ body, grieving, suffering, vulnerable. Two very different images of God. In the St. John’s Bible, when the monks finally decided on how to make God come to life, they decided to use the color gold— not just because it’s precious and valuable, but also because gold is highly reflective, and as you turn the pages of the Bible, you can see yourself and your neighbor reflected in the image of God.
What does God's image look like? We talk a lot about being created in God’s image, but which part of us reflects that image? Are we looking for the right thing?
In Psalm 139 we get this beautiful poetry about being made in God's image. The psalmist tells us that we are wonderfully and fearfully made-- that God knit us together in our mother's womb. It is a comforting image to know that God knows each hair on our head; that God has called us by name before we ever had an earthly name; that God knows us intimately-- better than we even know ourselves. Here God sees the best in us and knows the possibilities and gifts we have.
In our passage from Jeremiah, God is angry at the people. God's people have turned away; they are relying on their own wisdom and strength, which is not working out so well for them. Jeremiah is looking for a word from God, a way to talk to the people, and if Jeremiah is anything like myself, than he has plenty to tell the world about all the things that are going wrong. His frustration is mounting by the day with all the ways he sees the world falling apart. So God sends Jeremiah to the potter's house. How long he is there, we don't know. He goes and watches the potter-- watches as the potter places the clay on the wheel, wets his or her hands, and then begins to spin the wheel, most likely with their feet, keeping the speed steady and their hands steady and slowly forming the lump of clay into something useful, something good, something that can hold water or soup or bread. But in the process, the clay folds. The conditions aren't right. There is a flaw somewhere. And so the potter stops; takes the clay off of the wheel; and begins again-- forming it over and over until it forms the image that the potter has in mind.
It is a radical idea in our culture today that God sends Jeremiah to a potter's house instead of an art gallery. God sends Jeremiah to a place where things are still being formed, not where the images are already beautiful and perfect and worthy of praise. And God also doesn't send Jeremiah to the garbage dump to see how things are wasted or useless or given up on or trash. God's message to Jeremiah is that God hasn't given up on the people. God is showing Jeremiah that the people are still in process; they are still being formed; there is hope. The message to Jeremiah, and the message that Jeremiah speaks to the people, is that God is saying, ”If you change, I'll change; none of this has to be the way it is.”
You see God's judgment is upon the people in Jeremiah's time because of all of the ways that they have broken God's law and turned away from God. And while God's judgment is something we don’t like to talk about, it’s mostly because it's often been indistinguishable from our own judgment. How often have we heard about God's judgment and anger towards a person or a group of people from someone who is angry and judgmental? But here in Jeremiah we are told that indeed, God's judgment only lasts for as long as we are turning away. Scripture is very clear that God does get angry, but these are the reasons God gets angry— when we forget to love our neighbor; when we refuse to feed the poor; when we take advantage of the vulnerable— these are the times when God’s judgment is upon us, and the moment we turn towards God seek God's face and are gracious to the stranger and our neighbor and even our enemy, then God’s judgment is eased and we are forgiven. Those who do not know God’s forgiveness for themselves or others hold back not because God’s mercy is lacking, but because too often we create God in our own image and thus make God a God of retaliation or resentment. But as much as the Bible is clear about how we ought to act as children of God, it is also crystal clear that forgiveness and love and mercy always precede our actions and follow our actions— for unlike us, God is slow to anger, merciful, and abounding in steadfast love.
So when we imagine what God's image looks like within us or within those around us, so often what we think of is strength or beauty or perfection. But from this passage of Jeremiah, I think we see a completely different image of God that is definitely worth exploring. I wonder if God's image in us is exactly what makes it possible for us to change— to change our minds as God says God will change God's mind; to change our hearts into hearts of flesh instead of hearts of stone; to change our attitudes from that of hatred and death to love and new life. I wonder if God's image within us is our ability to start over and be made new; to be forgiven and to forgive others. I wonder if the image of God within us is not the part of us that never changes, but instead is the part of us that grows and bends and learns; the part that is creative and flexible and forgiving, always growing, alway reaching out. I wonder if God's image in us is the ability to experience resurrection in this life as well as in the life to come.
God's fingerprints are all over us. And it may be that we get to see God's image the most in places where we have failed and we find the love and grace from God to start over; in places where we have chosen to be vulnerable even though it is risky; in places where we have been able to name how we have been wrong and choose to try again in a more faithful way.
The verb "to form," that Jeremiah uses is the same verb used in Genesis 2, where God forms humans from the dust of the earth, from the soil of the garden. We have been created in God's image. And the good news for all of us, is that God isn't finished with us yet. We are like clay in God’s hands— always being formed, always being gently nudged to reflect the image of the Maker, always finding that we can start again. As Psalm 139 reminds us, nothing is hidden from God. There is nowhere we can go where God won't find us. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. God is always forming us, shaping us, teaching us how to be the jars that hold the treasure of God's love and mercy that is never ending. Thanks be to God.