WHO IS THE POTTER?
Dr. Thomas R. McCormick
November 27, 2011—University Christian Church
Have you heard the news?
US economy takes a hit with the news of the debt panel’s failure.
Legislators appear to be deadlocked along partisan lines, preventing progress toward reasonable solutions.
The occupy Seattle movement continues, with demonstrations against the inequalities of wealth in this country.
400 families in America possess as much wealth as 50% of our population
Over 1,700 homeless in Seattle, about one-third are living in autos.
US stock market drops on word of a debt crisis in Euro-zone countries.
Rise in murders in Northern Mexico attributed to drug cartels—fueled by a seeming insatiable demand for drugs coming from the US.
Economic sanctions have not halted Iran’s nuclear program.
> > > > >
So, much of the news hitting our newspapers and television screens can clearly be classified as “bad news.” The world picture looks pretty bleak and the future doesn’t appear to offer many viable solutions to the problems confronting us as individuals, states, or nations. Ordinary Americans face a winter of discontent. Workers who desperately want to work cannot find a job. Many university students graduate in debt from student loans and are unable to find a job. Many laid-off workers remain unemployed. Many older citizens have seen their retirement funds dwindle and face the threat that Social Security and Medicare benefits they have counted on may be significantly reduced in the future by a national economy hobbled by recession and debt.. Our world picture looks bad---editorials claim that our good days are behind us. How do Christian people make sense out of this world picture and where is God in all of this?
Can anyone find a parallel, bad-news situation, in our Old Testament Scripture this morning, from the 64th chapter of Isaiah?
Around 740 BC, Isaiah began his work as a prophet and continued for about forty four years, he outlived Hezekiah, the king. His foray into prophesy coincided with the time when the Assyrian empire was beginning its westward expansion. A threat to Israel, the expansion was proclaimed by Isaiah as a warning from God to his people to forsake their sinful ways and to return to the Lord. “Behold, you were angry and we sinned; In our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?”
Although a member of the aristocracy, with access to the royal family and the ruling class, Isaiah often spoke against their corruption and the oppression of the common people. He also warned the rulers of Judah to trust in God and not to form alliances with other countries. Some in Israel favored an alliance with Egypt, others favored an alliance with the Assyrians---in hopes of finding security under the protection of a more powerful military force. Under their alliance with Assyria, the people chafed under the imposition of Assyrian bondage.
Then, Hezekiah, contrary to the wishes of Isaiah, formed an alliance with the Egyptians. Isaiah had advised the king to turn only to Yaweh for assistance, calling upon the people for repentance and a return to God. Hezekiah, along with Egyptians, planned a revolt against the oppressors, only to face disastrous consequences. As a result, the Kingdom of Judah was almost destroyed. Finally, the people turned to God, begging Him for help. Isaiah said that they could find a respite only by mending their evil ways.
Beginning in verse 3, the prophet recalls times when God had shown up in the past in a game-changing way. However, the prophet also acknowledges that the reason that the people of God find themselves in their current situation is their own sin and God's consequent abandonment of them into exile. He confesses this openly in verses 5b-7. It is on the basis of this confession of sin that the prophet makes a second appeal for God to act. Yes, the people are surely sinful, but they also are God's handiwork. Remember us, he cries, and come to us if only because you made us and we are yours. Isaiah invokes God’s Covenant with Israel—“I will be your God and you will be my people. . .” A covenant often broken---but never forgotten by the prophets, who see their work as calling God’s people back into relationship.
Here are the words of Isaiah:
Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O Lord, and remember not our iniquity for ever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people.”
Is this not a powerful metaphor---God is the potter---we are the clay? Similar ideas are scattered throughout scripture, particularly in the poetry of the Psalmists. Consider, for example, Psalms 8:3----“When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou doest care for him?” The Psalmist pondered how a God who created the far flung universe had time or interest in the particular problems of humans, yet he was convinced of such care.
Or, consider Genesis 2:7---“And the Lord God made man from the dust of the earth, breathing into him the breath of life: and man became a living soul.” Again, notice the beauty and the poetry of scripture; Science speaks in a different language, claiming that after the Big Bang, about 14 billion years ago, and after the first million years, the temperature dropped enough that atoms could begin to form. Our sun, a second or third generation star, was formed about 5 billlion years ago and the earth and planets were formed from materials not swept up into the coalescence of the sun. Our earth gradually cooled and became potentially hospitable to living things by about 4 billion years ago. About 150 million years after that, the earth became teeming with life. About 100,000 years ago, our human ancestors walked upon the earth. (Collins, Francis S., The Language of God. 2006, Free Press)
Psalms 139:13---“For thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb”
In is book, The Language of God, Dr. Francis Collins describes how he went from being an atheist to becoming a Christian. He recounts an incident when he was a 3rd year medical student, caring for a woman in North Carolina, suffering daily pain from untreatable angina. Yet, she had a serenity and peacefulness about her that she attributed to her faith in God. One day, she asked Collins, “do you believe?” Collins recalls stammering: “I’m not sure. . .” From this encounter, one of the foremost scientists of our time began a journey that led him to become a Christian, with a world view that allowed a synthesis of his understanding of science and his belief about God.
Dr. Francis Collins and Craig Venter stood in the East Room of the White House on June 26, 2000 to announce to then president Clinton, and to the world---that a first draft of the human instruction book had been determined. President Clinton claimed: “Today we are learning the language in which God created life.” The Human Genome project was completed and all of that information entered into the computer shortly afterward, in April, 2003---50 years after Watson and Crick had first described the double helix of DNA. Francis Collins describes his sense of awe claiming, “This book was written in the DNA language by which God spoke life into being.
It also turns out, that when there is (could we call it a typo—a spelling error), a “G” instead of a “C” in a specific position—the error causes an inborn genetic illness. (fetal hemoglobin) or, (cystic fibrosis from a faulty gene sequence on the 7th chromosome) or an extra chromosome in the 21st pair resulting in (Down Syndrome.) Genetic illnesses are indeed a source of suffering in our world and medical scientists are working to determine if we can use our new found information to prevent, or to remove genetic illnesses.
Over the years, the ever questioning methods of science have helped provide a clearer picture of the origins of the earth and its people. What we have learned does not refute the existence of God and in fact may offer us a deeper sense of awe and wonderment about the creative processes of God. It helps us see something of the patience of God if God waited a billion years for the earth to cool, another 150 million for life forms to evolve, and finally the emergence of human kind.
If God is the Potter---and we are the clay---then that potter gave an amazing gift to human kind, the gift of free will. It means we may choose God and choose to follow in his paths---or we may reject God and go our own way. In the words of the hymn, “Have Thine Own Way Lord” the author writes, “mold me and make me, after thy will, while I am waiting, yielded and still.” I think that is far too docile a picture. In granting human beings a free will, it is up to each individual to shape his or her will in harmony with God’s will—and it turns out that this is a mighty struggle. Who among us is without sin? We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Yet, it seems to be within our nature to seek God; it seems to be in our nature to seek to follow the moral law; it appears to be in our nature to be able to perform acts of altruism.
The stories of the prophets—like this account from Isaiah in this morning’s scriptures---shows a history of the people of Israel where rebellious disobedience occurred over and over. The prophets called their people back to the covenant, to repent and to choose God’s way.
Most of the suffering we observe in the world today is a result of human beings choosing to use their freedom of choice to pursue their own narrow goals—resulting in the suffering of others. For example, the fact that people are starving in our world is not because we can’t raise enough food---it is the mal-distribution of food or the resources to buy food. It isn’t because we don’t understand medicine that leads to the deaths of so many---but the lack of access to medical care. Today in Africa, one million children could be protected from malaria by a treated mosquito net, that costs $10.00 each.
It is in this context that we observe the season of Advent, the in-breaking of God into the powers of this world, bringing light in the midst of darkness and hope in the midst of despair. We read again, this Advent: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God’s incarnation in Jesus is a radical step in God’s effort to bridge the gap between God and his human creation. In Jesus, we not only have an example of one who chose to live a life of obedience to God, but the conviction that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” We see the power of God’s presence when Schindler risked his own life to save over 1,000 Jews during the holocaust; when Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned to German to confront the Nazi regime, leading to his own imprisonment and hanging just 3 weeks before the war ended; or Mother Teresa, devoting her life to the care of the poorest poor. Startling examples of agape---of God with us---of God becoming flesh, reconciling the world to himself.