The Potter’s Handbook
Readings from Exodus 20:1-17, John 2:13-22
Lent 3, March 7, 2021
We begin Lent each year by reminding one another that we are made from dust. But the point is not to think of yourself as a pile of dirt. We are more like a priceless piece of pottery which was painstakingly sculpted by a master potter. She started out by mixing a precise type of dust with water, dust that was once part of oceans and forests and stars, running her hands through the mix until it was just right.
As she worked, she had something very particular in mind. Perhaps the shape was a bit too narrow at first, and then it was a bit too flat. She continued to spin the clay late into the night until she got just the shape she had in mind.
Because the potter created her piece with her own hands, she knows its strengths and weaknesses intimately. She can tell you what it is strong enough to hold and whether it is intended to pour water. She knows how to care for her creation in a way which will make it last for many decades. She also knows that if this beautiful piece is used for something she didn’t intend, or if it is not well taken care of, it will chip and develop cracks.
I read a story on CBC this week about a rare pottery bowl which was recently bought at an American garage sale and then resold for half a million dollars. It turned out that the old family dish was a valuable artifact from 16th century China, one of only seven like it in the world. It’s particularly incredible that the dish survived because the family who owned it didn’t realize its value or purpose.
In our reading from Exodus today, God’s people are gathered in the wilderness completely unsure of who the potter created them to be. They have just emerged from a world of forced servitude, where they were more accustomed to being treated like a dog’s water bowl than a piece of valuable pottery.
But while the Israelites may think of themselves as an old family dish, God knows that they have been created as a priceless piece of art for the service of royalty. And so he presents them with the law, the heart of which are the ten commandments which we read today. The law is intended to be a life manual for God’s people so they will understand how they were created to live together.
For a people who have spent their entire lives enslaved, the law empowers them to recognize who they really are. It includes all kinds of directions which were unheard of at the time, such as freedom to rest from work, rights for the poor, and mutual respect regardless of class.
The Psalm for today is 19, where the writer calls God’s law “sweeter than honey” and “more valuable than gold.” He doesn’t say this because he’s a guy who loves the rules - it’s because God’s law is meant to bring people in, not push them out. This is what he writes in verses seven and eight: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes.”
Last week, the Gospel of Mark explained that following Jesus requires a complete shift away from the priorities of the empire. The giving of God’s law also required a huge shift from the way other cultures at the time were living. God’s way of being human was more egalitarian and gentle than any other culture’s laws. It was intended to free the people to live together in peace and solidarity. It was intended to be a guide outlining a way of life, not a hard and fast physics textbook.
Yet by the time Jesus arrives, the law is being used for exploitation instead of freedom. It has become a hardship which privileges the few instead of good news for everyone. Jesus shows up in the temple as they are getting ready for Passover and finds that the entire operation is aligned with the values of the empire rather than God’s shalom.
In fact, the whole temple system was built to keep most people out. Instead of the radical hospitality outlined for the ancient Israelites, Jesus found a system built upon wealth and power. If you were too foreign, too disabled, too female, too young, too odd - you were not welcomed by God.
Jesus realizes that the instruction manual of the law is not sufficient for helping people understand how to best be human, so he opts to use his own life as an example instead. This is what Jesus is talking about when he says that he came to fulfill the law and the prophets. And this is why the early Christians modelled their lives together after the life of Jesus instead of instituting the Hebrew law.
As radical and life-giving as it was at the time, the law was still just made up of words which could be reinterpreted and abused. But the life of Jesus was harder to ignore because he made the law come to life. In Jesus, the law stops being just words and becomes action.
In Lent, we intentionally stop and try to realign ourselves with Jesus. We begin by admitting that we are made from dust on Ash Wednesday, because only once we recognize that we are made from clay will we be ready to give ourselves to the way of the Creator. In Jeremiah, it is written, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are your ways higher than my ways, and your thoughts than my thoughts.”
It takes a certain humility for us to recognize that we are not our own creator and that we need God to direct us in the way which is best for our lives. On the other hand, it can be immensely empowering to finally realize that no one expects us to be God. The flip side of our pride is an immense pressure we put on ourselves to do everything and get it all right. If a clay pot is trying to be the potter, it is going to break.
So if you are that pot who says, “You could talk about reorienting myself all day, but right now I’m just trying to keep from cracking” - this is good news for you too. Because just as the potter gave us Jesus to show us how to live, so too does the potter know exactly what you need today.
Some years, Lent will bring you to Jesus to reorient your priorities and a lot will be asked of you. Other years, Lent will bring you to Jesus to rest and be cared for just as the ancient Israelites were finally allowed to rest on the Sabbath day.
No matter where you find yourself on the journey of learning God’s ways, you can resting in knowing that the potter who moulded you carefully knows that you are made of clay. And she will neither expect more nor less of you than you were created to be.