Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Pastor Alan Watt
In the art of
preaching, using images is always crucial. That’s because by nature, we tend
to be much more “eye-minded” than “ear-minded.” As the cliché goes,
“A picture is worth a thousand words.” Yet, except for churches with
projection screens in worship, that’s not an option. It’s up to us
preachers, then, to rely on what are known as “word-pictures.” Fortunately,
we ministers can usually turn to whichever image is already in the gospel or one
of the lessons. When there’s no “world-picture”at all, then the best we
can do is come up with one on our own.
In two of today’s
readings, we have the opposite problem. In other words, there are too many
images to choose from. In Mark alone we have three:
servants waiting for their master to come home;
leaves growing on the branches of a fig tree;
and heavenly bodies doing all manner of strange things.
In the Book of Isaiah,
we also read about powerful goings-on—both in sky and on land. There’s also
the picture of an artisan fashioning pottery. If anything, in today’s readings
we have what could be called “image overload! ”So, instead of trying to use
all or even most of them—and ending up all over the place—I’m going to
focus more on the potter and clay, but do that in keeping with the overall theme
of Advent. And that’s the theme of expectant waiting.
Before getting into
that, I do want to say something about the frightening events in both readings.
In Bible times, when God’s people felt extremely distressed, they sometimes
interpreted—even exaggerated—events in the night sky as signs of God coming
to rescue them—in mysterious and powerful ways. The darkening of the sun and
the moon—that sounds like the major eclipse that we had this past summer. And
the falling of stars could refer to something like a meteor shower. Regardless,
such signs actually gave hope to early Christians that God would deliver them
from whatever trial they were undergoing.
What may have
especially alarmed them was the Romans destroying the temple in Jerusalem, which
Jesus had foretold. We need to remember that the first Christians were also
Jews, and so the destruction of the temple, the destruction of the center of
their religious life, was nothing less than a catastrophe. As a result, they
desperately needed a sign of hope.
In the Book of Isaiah,
the condition of the temple also was a source of distress. Jews who had been
exiled many years in Babylon had just returned home. When they first had to
leave their homeland, the temple had been destroyed. So when they returned, they
faced the challenge of rebuilding it under very difficult circumstances.
Enemies—adversaries—tried to prevent them
…tear open the
heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would
quake at [his] presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to
so that the nations might
But an interesting
thing happens: God’s people realize they are as much at fault—they are as
much to blame—as anyone.
We have all become like one who
and all our righteous deeds are
like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the
wind, take us away.
That sounds really
dire. Isaiah even adds that God’s face is completely hidden from them,
suggesting God has totally abandoned them.
Yet God hasn’t.
That’s not the end of the story.
They are not truly left to their own
devices. Isaiah turns to yet one more image: And that’s the picture of the
potter fashioning clay into a new creation.
Yet, O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our
we are all the work of your
Two things happen
here: First, the people realize they still have an intimate and permanent
relationship with God. God is the one who has created them and continues to
shape them. Second, in acknowledging that relationship ,they realize how
dependent they are on God. Apart from God they can do nothing. They are at the
mercy of their Creator and Sustainer. All they can do in the face of such power
and glory is simply surrender.[i]
All they can do is submit to the will of the One who has made them—to be
fashioned and refashioned as the
divine Potter sees fit.
This picture of the
potter, the potter’s wheel, and the fresh, wet clay is a frequent one in the
Bible. The most common meaning behind this image is as we have it in today’s
first reading—that God is the one
who’s in charge. Here are some examples:
Jeremiah, chapter 18: But the vessel that [the potter] was making
of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another
vessel, as it pleased [him]…
Isaiah, chapter 29: Shall the potter be considered as equal with
the clay, that what is made would say to its maker, “He did not make me?”
Job, chapter 10: Remember now, [O God] that you have made me as
clay; and would you turn me into dust again?
And in 2 Corinthians, chapter 4: But we have this treasure [that
is, “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in Christ”] in clay jars,
so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and
does not come from us.
As clay pots, we
Christians can see ourselves in two ways. First, we can imagine ourselves as
finished products—not only formed, but also fired in the furnace and then put
to use. We hold in ourselves the word of God, carrying it around and offering it
others. In a second way, though, the forming of our faith is never really
done—at least not in this world. In this sense—during our entire earthly
lives—we remain on the potter’s wheel, constantly being spinned about, being
reformed and refashioned as God sees fit.
As an interim pastor
for a number of years, I often did a fair amount of driving. To help lessen the
commute time, I would try to find shortcuts here and there. Sometimes they
worked; sometimes they didn’t. On one route I occasionally used, I would drive
by a little church set off from the road. Located in a cluster of trailer houses
and prefabricated homes, it had a sign posted high enough for everyone to see.
The sign had on it the weekly worship times and, of course, the name as well. It
was called, “The Potter’s House.” Not only an interesting
name for a place of worship—for a fellowship of believers—but also I think a
very fitting name. On this first
Sunday of the season of Advent, it reminds us that—while we await the coming
of Christ as servants do for their master’s return—with a sense of
vigilance—we also wait as those who are completely dependent on the goodness
of the One who has made us and, until the day we die, continuously shapes and
reshapes us into his image.
Now may the peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and
your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
[i] For this theme of surrender, I am indebted to Dr. Corrine Carvalho of the University of St. Thomas (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3485).