We continue today with our sermon series called “Jesus, the Prophet” by examining the prophecy of the Ancient Jewish prophet Jeremiah and searching for connections to the words of Jesus. I must admit, this can be a mysterious adventure: one that feels sometimes like an impossible task. Why? You may ask.
Well, primarily because Jesus and Jeremiah were two learned men from two very different worlds. Yes, they both were raised Jewish in Judea, but they are separated by 600 years. Jeremiah’s work and life is dated between 627BCE – 580 BCE and during his lifetime, Jeremiah’s homeland Judah was a pawn between two superpowers: Egypt and Assyria.
After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the whole area of Judea became “Hellenized”: adopting Greek philosophies and eventually, Roman governance. And this was the Judea JESUS lived in…. (1) The two Judeas were very different: The Judea of Jeremiah and the Judea of Jesus.
So in these very different circumstances, we encounter these two prophets and we ask: what do the two have in common and moreover, does any of this mean something to us – not Jewish nor in Judea? Can ancient prophecies speak to contemporary issues?
Let us begin the answering of this question by looking at our prophecy from the book of Jeremiah, chapter 18. Before we do, I will remind you of a few things about Jeremiah. First: What is Jeremiah’s (or any prophet’s) “job description?” Author Gary W. Smith explains the role of a prophet this way: “The Old Testament prophets were God’s messengers to Judah and Israel. They declared God’s words to common men and women, wealthy kings and judges, and large groups at public events.” (2) Prophets function as a spokesperson for God, communicating God’s words to others.
Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet with some of the most beautiful language in the bible, in my opinion. Chapter 1, verse 5 says this:
5 ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ And then in verse 10, God gives him his job description:10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.’
And in the first 30 chapters of the book of Jeremiah, the prophet does his share of “plucking up and pulling down, destroying and overthrowing.” God is communicating his anger through the prophet, and God’s people would be better off to listen!
Here in Jeremiah 18:1-11, we have God instructing the prophet to go to the potter’s house and us there shown as image which explains how God works:
3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The 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.5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6Can 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. 7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but 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. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but 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. 11Now, 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.
This is a well-known analogy of how the Lord deals with the people, as a potter molds and develops on pot on a spinning wheel.
Do me a favor and turn in your hymnal to Hymn 393 “Spirit of the Living God” – let’s sing this together. The lyrics to the song, written by Daniel Iverson in 1926, describe the good work of God at the potter’s wheel: “Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.”
But it is interesting to me that if you look at our text from Jeremiah you will see many examples of how God will destroy us on the wheel – I will change my mind and destroy the pot, I am shaping all kinds of evil against you, at one moment I may declare a nation and pluck it up! But nowhere does it say, “Mold me and make me” as we sang in the hymn… Nowhere is there the life-giving image of creation we so often attribute to this text. But we infer that if God is like a potter, God can destroy and create, pluck up and plant, shaping evil and shaping good!
But in this analogy, God emphasizes the important role that God’s disciples play in achieving God’s goals. God and the nation of Israel had entered into a covenant, a partnership, and the purpose of the partnership is in fulfilling God’s mission. It is up to us, to use the gifts of God for good, to create beauty, to spread love… and if we misuse the gifts, God may have a response.
In the gospel lesson from Luke, Jesus is also talking about God’s mission, encouraging others to be a part of God’s mission.
25 Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
Jesus doesn’t emphasize the joy that comes in fulfilling God’s mission. Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples how proud they will be of themselves; Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples how when one chooses to follow God life is full – even if one’s purse is empty; Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples that following God brings meaning to one’s life, purpose to one’s actions and focus to one’s everyday living.
Instead, Jesus tells them to hate their family, to carry their cross and to give up their possessions. Why?
Jesus use of the phrase “hate your family” is disturbing and makes us question Jesus’ motives… Why does he say this? Well, first, we must understand that the way the ancient Jews understand this phrase is very different than the way we do:
“hate” is an expression meaning “to turn away from, to detach oneself from,” rather than our animosity-laden understanding.(3) Author Brian Stoffregen explains, “In Genesis, we read in one verse that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (29:30), but in the next verse, it literally says that Leah was hated (“unloved” in NRSV, see also v. 33). Leah was not hated like we usually use the word, but Jacob simply loved her less than he loved Rachel. Jacob didn’t have an intense dislike for Leah. In fact, he had seven children with her after these verses! (4)
Therefore when Jesus is calling his disciples to “hate their family” he is calling them to turn away from their families, to detach themselves from the security of their homes, their familial structure and to enter into a new family; to love their new family more than their family of origin; to dedicate themselves to serving God and to cut themselves off from everything that holds them back: family, obligations and possessions.
How does any of this ceramic talk or “hate your family” talk relate to us? Because God is calling us to be a part of His mission, too. We are God’s people and are charged with extending the love of God to others. So why do we choose other paths? Why do we turn away from God while clinging to those things on earth that bind us? Why do we choose to be the pot that is destroyed instead striving to be the clay that is recreated in God’s hands?
It is a challenging path, to be a disciple of God, to be involved in God’s mission. But inherent in those challenges is the possibility that we will be a part of a new family in God’s Kingdom. It requires sacrifice, giving up a little in order to gain much. It requires dedication to be a disciple, and persistence and a commitment to try again and again to do the “right” thing. If we so choose, we can be molded into the person we’re meant to be; we can be filled by the God who formed us; we may be welcomed guests at the banquet of God, invited to the table to share in the presence of the Lord.
As we call out to God this day, may we invite God to “mold us and make us” into true disciples of God’s mission.
- Gary V. Smith, The Prophets as Preachers, Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1994, 1.
- Brian Stoffregen, found on http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke14x25.htm