In the Hands of the Potter

             I.      Introduction

We are continuing our study of Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth, and today’s scripture is 2 Corinthians 4.  It’s a simple topic.  It’s instructions on how to live our lives as Christians.  When I studied for this lesson, I began by thinking how entirely unworthy I am to give a lesson on how to live a life as a Christian.  Some of my sins I’ve shared with all of you, others are between me and God.  All of which makes me entirely unfit to give advice to other Christians.

My prayer to God when preparing for this lesson was, “please God, find something within me that you can use.  I surrender to you because I know I cannot do it on my own.”  And that might have been the whole lesson for today, “Find something within me that you can use.”

What was the purpose of the trials in my life, or the life of any Christian?  Isn’t the life of the Christian filled with love and happiness and the abundant life?  If God is good to His children, then why do we lose our jobs, lose our health, lose a loved one?  What is God doing with us, and how are we supposed to respond?

Since our scripture today begins with verse 1,

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.

I decided not to lose heart.  Continue with the ministry God has given me.   I know it’s a stretch, but that’s how I understood this verse.  I run into trouble when I study when I think the lesson has anything to do with me.  Sure, I bring in experiences and abilities that God has given me, but it’s not about my experiences or abilities, any more than if Chris taught this lesson it would be about Chris.  Or if Theresa taught, the lesson is about Theresa.  We’re in bible study, not Michael study.  Verse 5-6 of our lesson,

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  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.

Slide4This is the purpose of our existence in this world.  Let the world see Christ within us.  Let me get out of the way and let the love of Christ be known.  Or as John the Baptist put it in the book of John, verse 3:30 –

“He must become greater; I must become less.”

Slide5So who am I to teach about Jesus?  Nobody.  Jesus is everything.  But God created me to have worth to Him and bring glory to God, and I’m thankful He has given me work to do.  Not that the work saves me or makes me a better Christian, but shines the light of Christ so that others may be drawn to Jesus.

          II.      Genesis 2:7: The Breath of Life

God created each and every one of us for a purpose, given each one of us spiritual gifts to use, and we are all here this morning because each of us has heard that voice and we are coming here to know God better.  God has been making people for His purpose since the beginning of time, starting in Genesis 2:7,

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 soul.

Slide6God created man from dust of the ground.  Like the way a potter will begin making a vessel by beginning with dirt and water mixed together to form clay. 

After the potter has the clay he needs, the clay is ready to give instructions to the potter.  Or is that just me, trying to tell the potter what he is trying to make? 

Many of our struggles in life are the result of trying to tell the potter what to do.  I want God to make me something I’m not instead of me accepting who God made and using the tools He gave me.  I want God to listen to me, I know how to run my own life.  I know what’s best for me.  Don’t I?

Do you know how God answers me when I argue with Him over what’s best for me?  Jeremiah 18:5-6,

Then the word of the Lord came to me.  He said, “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.”

The almighty Lord is omniscient, omnipresent, and all powerful.  His will be done.  But he has the patience and the love to let us struggle until we realize it on our own.  And my struggle continues until I surrender, as it says in Isaiah 64:8 –

Yet you, Lord, are our Father.

We are the clay, you are the potter;

we are all the work of your hand.

When we examine ourselves and our own personal struggles, who are we trying to be?  The potter, or the clay?  Is Gold molding me, or am I trying to mold Him?

       III.      Jars of Clay

I read an article by a professional ceramic artist with a bachelor’s degree in Studio Art on the making of a ceramic vessel to understand the metaphor of being a “jar of clay,” and it was illuminating.  I want to share with you the process –

A.    Wedging

Slide9A ceramic artist, a potter, starts with a large block of clay and to cut a piece the right size and begin “wedging” it.  The unformed, unworked block of clay is full of lumps and air pockets and one cannot simple spin it into a beautiful work of art.  Wedging involves kneading the clay like dough, softening the lumps and letting the air bubbles work themselves out of the clay.  Before the clay can be placed on that spinning wheel, this wedging takes time, otherwise the clay is structurally unsound and full of imperfections.

You probably see where I’m going with this.  New Christians, selected by God, are first wedged by God.  On our own, our characters are shaped by our upbringing, our good and bad decisions and experiences.  God selects us as lumps of clay, just as we are, decisions and experiences and abilities and all, to be used for His purpose, but before He can begin to use us, he wedges us, kneading out the major imperfections and pockets of resistance.

It’s not punishment.  It’s not punishment any more than wedging the clay is somehow punishing the clay.  It’s just that we are being prepared for His use.  Remember when John the Baptist baptized Jesus?  Here is Matthew 3:16 – 17 –

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Do you think God the Father loved Jesus?  Read that last sentence again.  God loved Jesus and was well pleased with Him.  But you know what the very next verse says?  Matthew 4:1 –

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Every Christian is wedged and prepared for God’s purposes. 

B.    Centering

After the clay is wedged, plop, it’s thrown into the center of the potter’s wheel and the potter spins it in a process known as “centering.”  The potter adds water to the clay so that it glides easily through his fingers.  The spinning force tries to throw the clay off the spinning wheel, and the potter pushes the clay firmly back toward the center.  It’s important to get the clay perfect centered; this sets the foundation for all the remaining work on the clay.  If the clay isn’t centered, the vessel will be lopsided, or worse, topple completely.

Slide12Just like the clay, if we want to be used by God, we will allow Him to push us, center us in His will as we learn about God and build a foundation of knowledge.  When we are off-center, we can feel it, we feel lopsided and out of kilter, like things are going out of control.  That’s when we learn to be still and know that He is God.

C.     Creating the Form

Once centered, the potter decides the basic form.  For a vase, the potter pushes and pulls in just the right way to open the vessel up.  Both hands are constantly on the vessel, and opening up the center and pulling the walls up by constantly adding water. 

Slide13Like a vase, God begins to pull and push us with His tender hands constantly on us, shaping us to be the beautiful work He created.  He opens us up, fills us with the Holy Spirit, and pulls up the walls so our shape reaches up toward our maker.

Does the vase argue?  Of course it does.  “I don’t want to be a vase.  I want to be a bicycle.  No wait, I want to be a unicorn.  I want to be unique so people will notice me.  I want a big house and a loving family and lots of money and a great job that pays me too much and has 50 weeks of vacation every year.  And a boat.  I want to be a boat.”

Slide14God says, I designed you to be a vase.  Perhaps ordinary looking by human standards, but beautiful in my eyes.  I want you to hold flowers and bring smiles and love and joy to others around you.  And you won’t be able to show off my handiwork in you if you’re … a boat.”

Of course we argue.  He’s molding us, we’re fighting back.  He wants us to surrender our pride and give Him glory for being the Lord.  And if we continue resisting?  God gives us what we ask.  The potter steps back and lets us attempt it without Him.

We try to make a boat or a unicorn or a bicycle out of our clay using our own will and ability.  We are completely unqualified to be anything other than the vase God has designed us to be, but we try on our own.  Sometimes we ask for help from others – hey Tony, how can I become a unicorn?

One of two things happen.  We can look at the mess we created and say, “Lord, I’ve messed up.  I want what you want.  Use me for your glory.”  And God begins to shape us, again, into the vase he designed us to be.  Or we can turn our back on God, and say God doesn’t exist, or God doesn’t love me, or I don’t ever see God at work in my life.

C.S. Lewis put it this way in his book, The Great Divorce, when he describes Heaven and Hell.  C.S. Lewis says,

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”

Slide15Those that seek God’s will return to the pottery wheel and again ask the potter to continue the work He began in them.

Here’s a short video called 4 Steps of the Potter to help visualize the making of a unique piece of pottery:

D.    Drying

But wait, there’s still more.

Slide17Once the form has been created, the potter sets it aside to dry.  During this period, some fine details are added, like adding a handle.  And the potter is patient and follows His perfect timing.  If the potter waits too long, it is impossible to add details such as the handle.  And if the potter is impatient and moves to the baking stage, then moisture will expand and crumble the vessel.  Sometimes the vessel will explode, and any other created vessels nearby will also be damaged.

God’s timing is always perfect.  Sometimes He says, “No.”  Other times He says, “Yes.”  And sometimes, “Not yet.”  God knows when we are ready for Him to continue His work in us.

E.     Baking

The potter then takes the dried vessel and puts it in an oven to bake.  The clay is soft when it is put in the oven but tough and hard when it’s taken out.  They say that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.  Sometimes the trials of life seem to bring intense heat upon us, but there is a purpose to these trials.  We are stronger than before we experienced the heat.

Slide18

F.     Glazing

But though the baking process has made the vessel stronger, it is still not finished.  There is a glaze or paint to be applied with care and the true purpose of the vessel starts to become apparent.  Without the glaze, the vessel won’t hold water, it’ll seep through the porous sides and bottom.  To reach it’s potential, it’s time to put it through fire. 

Slide19

G.    Firing

Wait, didn’t we already go through the heat?  Weren’t we already baked and dried to make us stronger? 

Slide20

Our growth, our sanctification, our spiritual walk becomes stronger through the trials of life.  If we attempt to get through it on our own, we don’t fulfill our potential and God’s plan.  If we rely on God, if we put our faith and trust in Him, we are stronger still. 

This is a lifelong process.   Each time the heat is turned up, we learn, we grow, we depend on God and we bring glory to Him for what He is doing.  And I know in my own life, each time I’ve been through a time where I felt overwhelmed and in over my head and I’ve trusted in God to get me through it, I’ve grown closer to God.  My foundation is more firm, my faith is more firm, I see God’s work in my life like I never saw before the trial.  I am so much closer to the God who loves me.

And knowing all that… can I then pray for God to put me through another trial?  To apply the intense heat yet again and put me through the fire?  I know it’s for my benefit and it’ll grow my faith even more than the last time.  Can I pray for more trials to come to me?

James 1:2-4 puts it this way,

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

God has a plan for each and everyone of us.  Sometimes it’s hard to see that purpose, we are so focused on being a unicorn that we don’t even notice God’s work in us.  But when we center ourselves and go through fire for God’s purposes, we begin to fulfill the plans He has for us. 

          IV.      Death in Us to Show Life to Others

Let’s go back to our scripture for today.  We earlier read 2 Corinthians 4:5-6,

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  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.

This is the vessel God has created, to show Jesus Christ within us, for us to get out of the way of the message and stop trying to do things on our own power and our own will.  2 Corinthians 4 goes on in verse 7-9 –

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

Slide23God kneads us like bread, centers us, shapes us, bakes us, glazes us, and puts us through fire, and the crazy thing is that it’s not even for our own benefit.  It is to show that joy in the Lord and the gift of salvation is greater than anything the world can throw at us.  And our joy through the fire is to demonstrate the love of Christ to others so that they, too, may taste the joy of salvation.  Our trials, our spiritual walk, our lives in this world has a purpose.  It is to show Christ within us to a lost and dying world, that they may know joy and peace and life eternal.

Our vessels are made of clay.  From dust they were created and to dust they shall return.  But our treasure within this jar of clay is the life of Jesus within us.  Death will come to each one of us; we all have an expiration date.  Our purpose to is to show that though death may overtake our earthly bodies, eternal life is available to all who accept the gift that Christ so freely offered to us while we were still sinners.

            V.      Conclusion

There is nothing more important than sharing the Word of God.  Everything God puts us through in this life is to make us stronger and draw us closer to Him so that when the lost look at us, they see Christ at work in our lives.  Here’s a short video of our study scripture 2 Corinthians 4 verses 1 through 15 taken from The Contemporary English version.  God has shaped us for His good pleasure to demonstrate His love to others:

Ephesians 2:10,

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

Slide25

To God be the glory.  Amen.

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