Jeremiah gets told to go to the potter's house to hear a word from God. Considering that one of the other things God told him to do to was to walk around with a yoke on his neck and that God once told Isaiah to walk around naked for three years, Jeremiah is probably quite relieved at this simple instruction.
While there, he watches the potter work at his wheel. His project is somehow spoiled, so the potter re-shapes it into something else. After Jeremiah sees this, God asks him, am I not to Israel as this potter is to his clay? Can't I reshape the people I called into something else if I want to? Warn the people that I will reshape them just as this potter reshaped what he was making.
Likening God's creative work to the potter at the wheel has a long history -- when God makes the first man from the dust of the ground in Genesis, the Hebrew verb used there also gets used to talk about the work of a potter. It can explain a lot of things as we consider how God works in our world today. We sometimes get caught up in the idea that when someone does good, God does good things to him and when he does bad, God does bad things to him. Boiled down: He had it coming.
While that may work in Chicago, the playground and a court of law, it's not how Christianity says God operates. We say God deals with humanity by grace, not retribution.
But if God shapes us as the potter shapes the pot, isn't God responsible for what kind of shape we have? The potter's hands smooth the clay, build it up, hollow it out, bend it in here and out there. The clay by itself is a lump that does nothing until the potter begins to work on it. If God is the potter and we are the clay, then surely we can say that God is at hand in whatever happens to us, good or bad. And since God is just, he wouldn't do something bad to us unless we'd done something bad to earn it, right?
Maybe. But look again at the potter at work. The potter's hands shape the clay, but when the clay is on the wheel, those hands are not the only force at work on it. There is the centrifugal force of the spinning wheel. There is the dryness or moisture of the clay. There is the composition of the clay itself -- some clay is dense while some is lighter weight. Some holds more air and some is smoother. And some combines different properties in the same lump.
Changes in any one of those factors can affect the clay as it turns on the potter's wheel. Maybe the wheel wobbles unexpectedly. On an old-fashioned human-powered wheel, that might happen if the potter gets a leg cramp or hiccups or sneezes. Maybe as the potter applies hands to the clay, the pressure needed to shape dense clay is too much for a patch of lighter clay and pushes the vessel off-center or otherwise upsets it. Many other things could happen. The point is that the potter's hands are not the only force at work on the clay, and sometimes the potter has to respond to what those other forces do to the clay.
God's hands weren't the only forces at work on the kingdom of Judah. Though they were God's chosen people, they themselves had chosen to rely on worshiping additional God's other than the Lord. They'd decided to rely on playing the games that nations played, allying with one great empire and then the other to play both ends against the middle and maintain some kind of sovereignty of their own. God's people had decided they could be whatever kind of people they wanted to be and still be God's people, regardless of what kind of people God said his people should be.
And so God would have to reshape the vessel that he had intended them to be, in order for them to still be useful to his purpose. Remember, as Jeremiah watched the potter, the vessel he was making didn't shape right and he had to reshape it into something else. He didn't change the shape arbitrarily. He had to re-shape based on what had happened to his clay. Over the course of time, the people God called to himself and led out of Egypt had become spoiled just as the original pot was spoiled. But God still wanted a people through which he could work in the world, just as the potter still wanted a vessel to contain some kind of liquid. So just as the potter reworked his pot, God would now rework his people. The potter didn't wreck the pot and God didn't wreck the kingdom of Judah. But both creators remade their creations in light of what they had to work with.
God's work with us has many of the same characteristics. Although we try, we know that sometimes there are other forces than God's hands at work in shaping our lives. We can't control some of them. People do things that affect us. Physical things such as the weather or disaster happen. But we do affect others. We try to shape our own lives according to what we think is good, sometimes paying little attention to the kind of shaping God wants to do. And so God will change what kind of shaping he does with us.
That change might be unpleasant. Unlike the clay in the potter's hands, we have our own feelings and perceptions, and the kind of drastic change that may come to us might overwhelm us. We might see it the way the people of Judah saw it -- as "evil" being done to us. Even if we don't have that strong of a view, we still might not like it. I know I haven't always liked it when it's happened to me. I like it less when I realize how often these changes occur because of some choice or another I made.
But with the healing power of time and distance from the shaping, I've usually found myself able to concentrate on something that helped me. The change that happened came from God's hands. God is still shaping me to be a vessel for his purpose. Which means I still have a purpose, and God neglects neither that purpose nor me. Whether I'm one kind of vessel or another, shaped by God this way or that way, I am still being made by God. And that, as I understand it, means I am not junk, even if I'm going to wind up being a different kind of not-junk than I thought I might have been otherwise.