I was asked to contribute at church this week, and this was the result. It is not exactly a word study, although it relates to several already posted: #23, 84 and 85 in particular.
I offer it here as a greeting and blessing to you all at this Christmas season.
Incarnation: Lessons from Clay
Scriptures: OT: Jeremiah 18:1-6, Isaiah 29:16
NT: I Corinthians 12:12-26, Romans 9:20-21
This is the season when the Incarnation is celebrated. Unfortunately, the standard celebration stops far too soon. It is easy to be sentimental about a baby in a manger; and pick it up later at Easter time with a lot of talk, most of it not supported by scripture, about Jesus’ death. But that ignores what is probably among the most amazing – and most crucial – parts of the story, the statement in John 1:14 : “The Word became flesh, and lived for a while among us!
“Flesh”: a real, live person! Somewhere along the line, I think probably in the middle ages, “flesh” came to be considered “evil” or “sinful”. The NIV even translates it that way. That can not possibly be true, or Jesus would not have adopted it, or emphasized it to his disciples after the resurrection, when they were frightened, thinking they were seeing a ghost – “A spirit has no flesh and bones, as you see I do!”
In the early church, the acid test of faithfulness (I Jn.4:1-3) was the acknowledgment that “Jesus Christ was come in the flesh!” that he was REAL. Hebrews 2 goes into considerable detail about why that was necessary, in order for him to definitively DESTROY death; but basically, it was because he knew that “show” was superior to “tell” when it came to forming a faithful Kingdom. “Tell” had been tried for a long time – the whole Old Testament period. The letter to the Hebrews makes it abundantly clear that “tell” did not work. That’s why Jesus decided he needed to “show.”
Even that, though, is only half of the story. The concept of Incarnation has TWO branches: Jesus becoming a genuine, human person for our benefit, and his people becoming a manifestation of his own Body, for the benefit of the rest of the world! Incarnation has become OUR JOB!
Fortunately, the Creator of the universe has graciously undertaken the task of creating that Body – which is a good thing, since we ourselves can be pretty clueless, and often mess things up royally!
Since he created, and therefore owns, all that exists, he is entitled to use every bit of creation to reveal himself and his ways. NOTHING is off-limits – even the dirt under our feet.
Both Isaiah and Jeremiah referred to God as a potter, and his people as clay, although that analogy appears only once in the new Testament. Notice that God told Jeremiah, “Go down to the potter’s house, and there, my word will come to you!”
Since beginning to work with clay, I have learned many things about how he chooses to work – starting long before a potter begins to form any vessel. I prepare my clay from scratch – digging and mixing it, to achieve a “clay body” which I can use. There are many ways in which this illustrates the effort the Lord expends, also, to create a Body he can use. You can’t understand this without getting your hands dirty, just as we are of no use to the Kingdom unless we are willing to get our hands dirty.
While in some places, usable clay can be found in a single deposit, in this area, successful pottery requires a mixture of four different kinds of clay, none of which is useful alone! This is also true of the Lord’s clay body. You need to feel and handle these clays in order to understand.
The red clay is strong – but good for nothing but bricks. It cracks when shaped, bent, or rolled thin.
The yellow is smooth and pliable, but not strong enough to stand up by itself.
The gray is grainy. It doesn’t stain like the other two, but will not polish to a nice surface. However, I always add it if the pot is intended for cookware, as the grit helps it to resist thermal shock.
The white is sticky, and while it can be used alone if one works very slowly, it does not polish well, but it can be used to remedy the problems of some of the others, and they also shine better with some white added. The mix can also be improved by some clay from elsewhere, like some very fine clay from a streambed in Alaska. Do you see any parallels in the types of people you know?
Before any of these can be used, they need to be powdered, soaked, and strained to remove gravel,sticks, roots, and assorted junk. Only the “junk” is removed. This pounding and straining process does not change the “being” of any of the clays. They still have their created attributes to contribute to the mix, but they are no longer individually recognizable. They have become a part of something entirely new. I can only guess at the proper proportions at this point; it will need to be adjusted later.
Notice that the clay cannot have the “junk” strained out without being wet. The proper amount of water at any time is essential. You all are familiar with the references to “water” as the Holy Spirit. There are just a few attributes that are relevant here. It is not for nothing that Jesus told his disciples to WAIT for the Spirit to empower their assignment. At many points in the process of clay preparation, YOU HAVE TO WAIT. To get the mix properly strained, I would soak this for a week or two, in order that the particles be completely absorbed and soak up as much water as possible.
Then, after straining, you have to WAIT again – while it settles, and excess water is poured off. Until then you can’t even check if you have a useful mix.
After it is dried to a consistency you can handle, if the proportions are not right, one or more ingredients can be added to improve the texture. At each point, the clay has to be thoroughly mixed.
When you are satisfied with the mix, it then has to WAIT again – to sit – for several weeks – (the Japanese potters are said to never use the clay they mix, but leave it for their grandchildren!) – to “mature”. (I don’t know what this does, but the product does not work well if you don’t let it sit.)
Notice that there is a difference between mixing and combining. I tried combining two clays, because I thought it might “look nice”. But they cracked in the firing. Their shrinkage was not alike. Thorough MIXING is necessary for a successful product. A lot of talk is bounced around today about “diversity.” And that can be a good thing – but only if the diverse people are MIXED, and not just “combined.”
The forming of a pot, its finishing and firing, also require extensive experience on the part of a potter. They must be regulated by both the characteristics and content of the clay body, and the final result that is desired. (Jeremiah and Paul were not potters! The clay does NOT always perform as the potter may have in mind!) But as Jeremiah observed, if a pot is “spoiled”, the potter can readily use the clay for something else. Unfired clay is completely recyclable.
Perhaps the potter will adjust the mix, or even modify his earlier plan.
Perhaps he will need to work more slowly, allowing the clay to become partly firm before adding more.
Perhaps he will need thicker walls, to be scraped later to the shape and thickness he intended.
Perhaps it will be necessary to do preliminary smoothing and polishing before the piece is finished. Even after it is mostly dry, an even, polished surface may require the addition of a thin coating of finer clay, known as “slip”, to correct imperfections. Many hours of rubbing with a smooth stone are needed to create a good shine.
The firing, too, requires that the potter be very familiar with his clay, and know how much heat it can endure.. Earthenware, with its high iron content, cannot endure high-fire temperatures. It melts. But other clays, like fine porcelains, would crumble if only fired to low temperatures. Blackware and horsehair decorations require even lower firing temperatures, or they will be ruined.
Our focus today, however, is simply upon the preparation of the clay body, and the Body into which the Lord intends to form his people, in order that we may actually become a credible part of the Christmas miracle of the Incarnation. I was not able to find a Gospel reference to the quotation attributed to Jesus in Heb.10:5, but I believe it is hugely relevant to correct many of the common misperceptions that have persisted in what is labeled “Christian doctrine”. Jesus says very plainly, (presumably to his Father), “You didn’t want sacrifices and offerings, but you fashioned a Body for me!” And after detailing some of the failings of the old system, he declares, “Look, I have come to do your will!”
As a celebration of Jesus’ incarnation at the Christmas season, I commend to you the exercise of combing through the Gospels to list all the reasons why Jesus said he came! I expect you will be as surprised as I was, how radically his own statements differ from “standard Christian teaching”.
But if we are rightly to fulfill the mandate to participate in the Incarnation, it behooves us to find out what Jesus considers that it involves.
May we be properly strained, mixed, and blended into the Body that our Master Potter can use for his purposes!