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Crumbling Clay

We are uniquely handmade by God for his glory.

In Isaiah 64:8 we read, "But now, O Lord, thou art our Father and we are the clay, and thou our potter, and we are all works of Thy hands." This verse talks about the Lord as Creator. It's talking about the fact that before God was forming there was no god before him. He tells us this in the Bible. He formed something, and the earth came into being. The earth was formless and empty, and God formed. And this word formed is the word that the potter uses to describe what he does to the clay. You only find it in this relationship. And if you just do a little study through the texts in the Bible with this word formed, you'd see in Psalm 95 that his hands formed the dry land, that he formed the light and created the darkness. He didn't only form material things, he formed things that we cannot touch and see. "Thou, O Lord, art our potter." For we learn in Psalm 119 that his hands formed me and made me, too.

"Thou, Father, art the Potter." I don't know a craft where the craftsman gets so involved with his material than that of the potter. I always imagine a great, big potter up to his elbows in the stuff just gray clay clinging to him. And I believe this is why the picture is given to us. That God is our potter and he's also our Father. That he got his hands involved in a very real sense with the clay that he was working with.

We are the work of God's hands.

First of all, of course, his hands formed the pot. And you are looking at a pot tonight. It's a lady pot. And I'm a dust dolly. We're pot people. You're mud men. That's all. And so I'm talking, first of all, about the potter making the pot, this body of ours. And there is no conflict here with science. Science tells us, in fact, that this pot in which we live is made up of dust. When the minister buries someone and he says, "From dust to dust, ashes to ashes," he's not being poetic. He's being very practical and realistic. He's telling the truth, for we are but dust. We come from dust and we shall return. And science tells us that our body is made up of the elements around us in the environment of which we are a part. In fact, we know that even with inflation we're worth about $10 and that's all at the moment—a bit of calcium and phosphorus and potassium and sodium and all these things that I don't know anything about but my scientific friends tell me makes up my pot. God made it all.

Now then, thinking about the body before we think about anything else, you can always tell a potter by his pottery. It's like you can always tell a painter by his paintings or a musician by his music. It's stamped with something of him. When I was preparing this message, I picked up the phone and I got my pen out and I phoned ten doctors in our church, all specialists in a certain area. And I said, "Off the top of your head, tell me the most wonderful thing you know about the human body in your area." It was a fascinating evening.

But when I rang the brain surgeon, he immediately said, "Oh, I'll tell you that. That's easy. Our human brain has little information cells, and they are connected by wires, if you like, called dendrites. And these link up all these little information things that take all the messages here, there and everywhere and help you do whatever you have to do at the end when the message gets through." He said, "These little information centers are marvelous in themselves, but these dendrites, these little wires that link them up," he said, "Did you know, Jill, that if you took them out of the human brain and stretched them out they would reach from here to the moon and back?" And he said, "Did you know that all that is there in the mind and the brain of an unborn baby?" I said, "No, I didn't know that. But I did know that you could always tell a potter by his pottery."

So the Lord, who is our Creator and our Potter, got involved with the clay. He made this dust vehicle. He made it to contain something else that he formed, for he formed the spirit of the man that is within him. And the same word is used that the potter uses when he forms something. Now when we talk about spirits and things like it's very difficult because we're in a realm that we cannot see and we cannot touch. It's very difficult to describe what a spirit looks like, if a spirit looks like anything at all.

When the potter finishes a handmade vehicleand incidentally, every one of us is handmade; every one of us unique. There are no two pots alike. I mean, even bodies, never mind personalities, even noses. Look at the person next to you. Have you ever seen a nose like that before? Just turn around and look. It's incredible. There are not two pots alike. But he also formed the spirit of the man. He formed the personality of a man. He formed the part of the man that goes on living forever, and he placed it within the pot. And that's why the Bible talks about spirit, soul, and body; whereas, the world talks about body, soul, and spirit. They've got it all the wrong way around. And the world puts such emphasis on the pot, but the Potter puts such emphasis on what's inside it. Sure it's a wonderful pot, but what's it for? What is it for?

We are made in the image of God to contain the Spirit of Christ.

Not long ago I was invited to go and speak at a secular function. I get a lot of these invitations, and I try to wriggle out of as many as I can. It scares me out of my mind. If my husband happens to be around, he doesn't let me wriggle. This time he happened to be around, and as I threw the invitation in the wastepaper basket, he picked it out and said, "This you must do." It was an invitation to give a graduation speech in Milwaukee, for the finishing school, Patricia Steven's Beauty School. I said to God, "What am I going to say? You mean you want me to go down there and tell them they're just decorated dust?" I couldn't do that. How could I do that graciously?

Well, I did. And somehow he enabled me to do it graciously enough. And I went down and I told those little girls that they were absolutely beautiful. They were absolutely beautiful. But in the end they were only decorated dust unless, unless And I talked about the Potter, and I talked about a pot only being as good outside as it is inside and that a potter has to get his hand inside the pot and outside the pot. If it's ever going to have any shape, if it's ever going to be functional at all, there has to be a hand inside as well as outside. And I said I have no doubt, girls, that the potter has been at work outside. That's obvious to everybody here. But I said I want to know how beautiful you are outside, really beautiful and what's being reflected. Does the potter have his hand inside the pot? To my amazement, I got asked back this year. They needed a hand. They needed a molding. They needed God to get his hands on them and make them over into a shape that would be a satisfying thing because it would be carrying the Spirit of Christ himself.

Now God has formed the spirit of a man and placed it within the pot and made it able to carry the Spirit of Christ himself. What an incredible Potter we have. And it's in this sense that we're like God. When the Bible talks about being in the image of God it is a potter's term. It's talking about the instrument. When a potter had finished a pot, he would take an instrument and stamp it with the impress of his initials. His personality. His express image. And everybody would know, because they'd turn the pot over, who had made the pot. We do this when we go into a china store today. Whose china is it? We turn it over and we say, "Oh, it's Havilland" or it's whatever it is.

People are meant to see in the little dust men he made—not only in their body as they look at it and wonder, but also in the sense of their personality—that they are like God. Well, then we have to ask What is God like? He is like many things. Let me give you a few examples.

He is spiritual. That means that he is a spiritual being, and spiritual beings last forever. They're eternal. So he is not only spiritual; he's eternal, and so are you and so am I. We are a spiritual being.

There was a time I used to think when we were merely animal, that we were not spiritual and eternal. And I lived 18 years of my life like that until somebody came along and said, "Jill, you're not an animal. You don't need to run with the pack any more and take your morals from those around you. You are a spiritual, eternal being and because of that, you're responsible." God is a responsible being. He is volitional. He knows what is right, and he knows what is wrong.

And you know even though I never went to church and never opened a Bible and never heard of Jesus Christ until I was 18 years of age, I knew what was right and I knew what was wrong. Sure I rationalized my sin and called it growing up and called it all sorts of things, but I knew it was sin. And no preacher had told me that. No Bible had told me. No Bible story. I knew. Why did I know? Because I'm made in the image of God. And impressed on this personality of mine was a consciousness that I am spiritual, that I am eternal, and that I am responsible.

God is mind. He's rational, too. He's omniscient. Omni means all,. all knowing. He knows and understands himself complete and everybody else as well. You know, what do you hear mostly these days? When I get around on the campusesI've been on a lot of campuses lately. I just love it. I hear kids saying "Who am I? What am I? Why am I? Where am I? Who am I? What am I? Where am I? Why am I?" This is why you go to college, apparently. You spend your time wondering, asking, searching through these things and trying to find out who you are. Why do you think that is? Because we're made in the image of God. He is mind. He knows himself and everybody else completely. He knows who he is and he knows why he is, where he is and what he's about. And if you have those feelings Who am I and what am I doing and is life a whole ball of wasted time or not? It's because you're stamped with the impress of his image and these searchings are because you're like him.

We can choose to become vessels fit for God's glory.

God is all these things and so are you and so am I. We are made in his image. We are stamped after his likeness. Isn't it an incredible thing, then, folks, that even though we're just dust dollies and pot people and mud men that the little dust creature shakes a little dust face in the face of the Lord and Creator and the Potter and says of him who formed it He knows nothing? I can't believe it, but it's happening. People are running around this globe doing just that. Shall a word say of him who made it "He made me not"? And the answer is yes, people are saying that. I said that for 18 years. Stupid little dust teenager saying God didn't make me. I don't believe that. And if there is a God, he knows nothing. I know better than him. I'll be my own god. You see, the clay is marred.

Jeremiah talks about this and he says what's needed is for the Potter to make it over again while it's still soft, because, you see, once it goes into the kiln it's vitrified, it's hardened. And once it goes into the kiln it can never be remade again. The kiln, in this sense, can be used to picture death. And that's why it's so important that we get ourselves made over, that the Potter gets his hands on us and places within this vessel a treasure, Jesus Christ; so that we have in this vessel his treasure, and that we may then carry him before whatever Gentiles or heathen he has in mind for us.

Paul talks of himself in this way. He said, "I am God's chosen vessel to bear his name before the Gentiles." He carried Christ. A body is an earthly vehicle by which a spiritual entity gets around in a physical environment. And I am made, created, formed to carry Christ, my treasure, who has come within my vessel, before whatever Gentiles he has in mind. I may just sit on a shelf somewhere, folks. And the shelf is already been planned and already been chosen by the Potter, who had me in mind before I ever became anything at all and came into being.

Now it's a terrible thought to me that the book of Romans talks about two sorts of vessels—vessels of wrath prepared for judgment and vessels of mercy prepared for glory. And you can be a vessel prepared for judgment, prepared for wrath, prepared for eternal fire. And the longer you're in the fire the harder you'll get, and that's hell. That's why there's no chance after death, because it just goes on hardening and hardening and hardening and hardening. And if there's any making over that's got to be done, if there's any forgiveness, if there's any chance of us sitting on a shelf in heaven, it's got to happen now before we go through the fire. This is the teaching of Scripture. This is what Jesus came to tell us about, and this is what Jesus came to save us from.

The thing is the book of Romans teaches us that we can choose whether to be a vessel fitted for wrath or a vessel fitted for glory. Do you know where you are? Do you know what sort of a vessel you are at this point? Has Christ come in? Is he this treasure that you have? I remember the day he came into my life, and I became a forgiven sinner. The night before I had slept an unforgiven sinner. Christ, this treasure, came into my earthen vessel, and that night I slept a forgiven sinner and this vessel simply became the means whereby this spiritual entity began to get around in this physical environment. And I was privileged to carry him from that moment onwards. What a joy.

Now let's think for a little while about the plan, therefore, of the vessels of glory that receive this treasure in their earthen vessel. You know the Potter always has a plan. Psalm 139 tells me that before I was even formed his eyes saw me. While I was in my mother's womb while being yet unformed his eyes saw my substance. And this psalm tells me that God has a plan for this little pot and the personality that lives within it. And it's written in his book. Every single detail of this pot is written in his book. I have been on his mind. My members have been written in his book. I am marvelously made for a reason, for a purpose. He has specific plans before he ever begins to make me, and I am finished in his mind before I ever become what I become at this moment.

And what is this purpose, then? Well, he shapes us for the function of our future. That's for sure. He paints us with the colors of our culture. That's for sure. You know there's also different color clay? There's gray clay and red clay, black clay and white clay and yellow clay. Did you know that? You can't tell the difference until the potter has had his hands on them for a while and he's making them and eventually they go into the kiln. And we'll use the kiln as another picture in a minute. But the essence, the personality, the difference is all there, and the Potter knows it and he carefully chooses the colors of the clay and he carefully shapes for the function that he has in mind. We're all different types and shapes of pots. We're all made with a separate carrying capacity. Some are great, big kitchen pots. And others are pretty little pots that are just made to sit on the shelf and look pretty. We need all of them. We need the pots that are just good for holding a beautiful bunch of flowers, and we need the cut glass pots, we need all sorts and shapes of pots. And we need the pots that are useful. Every single pot is made with a function in mind.

Do you know what sort of a pot you are? Do you know your carrying capacity? I think about the shaping in my life. I think about the coloring in my life. I think about the patterns that have been scrolled all over my life as the formative years happened to me in the Potter's mind. I think about the fact that I'm English. I'm painted with the colors of my culture. I had no idea that the very fact that I talked funny, as somebody said to me today, the fact that I talked funny would be of use to God. No idea that Americans would love an English accent. I didn't know that. I went to West Point and talked to all the commanders and their wives. Why? Because I speak with an English accent, essentially. Incredible.

You're painted with the colors of your culture because God has a function for your future, and that's the excitement. I think of Moses painted with the colors of his culture, shaped for the function of his future in Pharaoh's schools in the army, in government for what God had in mind. Paul with all his background, wasn't he painted with the colors of his culture and shaped for the function of his future?

Hand painted. This is the purpose. And the excitement of being a Christian is to say How have you made me? How have you gifted me? Where do you want to use me? What do you want me to carry? Which shelf do you want me to sit on? Let's get on with it. Let's find out.

Now then, the process begins. Once we want to find out what God has in mind for us, then the process begins; and there are many things that happen in the process of being made a vessel fit for glory. The first thing is you've got to be pliable. As the Potter works the clay, he has a bowl of water and he takes a sponge and he continually bathes and bathes the water. And if he doesn't, it gets very dry and it tears and it pulls out of balance because there is friction between the pot on the wheel and the potter's hands, and in the end it can fly off the wheel all together and end up an unshapen lump good for nothing.

Are you moldable? Are you dry? Or are you bathed, perhaps, in tears? I don't believe unless we're bathed in tears God can make us anything at all. I really don't. And it doesn't surprise me when suffering comes to Christians, because God is bathing them with that sponge to keep them pliable. And the people that I have seen carrying this treasure in the most wonderful ways between the mostin front of the most incredible amount of Gentiles or heathens are people who have been bathed in tears.

Some people say that Christians shouldn't cry. In fact, I hear that a lot. I was standing at a funeral bier not long ago—One of the things I do hate about this culture, the open caskets and especially in Milwaukee. It seems worse there than the rest of the country.—with a little widow. And we were standing at this open casket and we were weeping together. And I saw coming in the door a lady that I knew very well, a bright, shiny Christian, a happy Christian, a Christian that doesn't believe you should cry. And I thought trouble. Trouble it was. Up she marches to the bier and up she looks at the little widow. And she said, "Christians don't cry." So the little widow snuffled and bit and muttered "How come Jesus wept then?" So I said, "Obviously, honey, he wasn't a very good Christian." The lady wasn't abashed at all and continued to give the poor little widow a good sermon with some verses sputtered here, there and everywhere. And it really distressed me.

I remember going home and saying O God, speak to that lady. Speak to her. Searching through my Bible I did a little study on tears. Very interesting. I found in Psalm 56 this verse "Put Thou my tears into Thy bottle. Are they not written in Thy book?" And I did a little bit of digging. What does it mean "Put Thou my tears in Thy bottle"? Well, in the East when somebody died, they cried over a wineskin, which was a bottle, their tears of mourning. And then they took the bottle, placed it at the place of death. They were putting their mourning in a bottle. And God says if we put our tears in his bottle he will write them in his book, and out of my great concern I scribbled down some lines that said this:

Tears talking,

pattering petition on the door of heaven.

Let me in.

Wet misery, fountains of fury,

Rivers of recriminations

Racing down the riverbed of doubt

Stopping at the throne.

Bottled bereavement

Arranged by angels,

Given to the King.

He tilts the bottle carefully over his book of remembrance

Letting the drops fall onto a clean page,

Transported in a teardrop,

Translated into eloquence,

My wounded woe writes its words of worry down.

Splashing sadness signs its name,

Then dry depression comes to stay,

For all the tears have gone.

The Father reads my tears,

Then he passes the book to the Son,

Who shares it with the Spirit,

And the angels gather around

Some small celestial spirits are lifted to the Father's knees

And the story is told, and they listen.

They all listen,

And I am heard.

I've heard her prayers,

I've seen her tears,

Says the Father.

I'm touched with the feelings of her infirmities,

Says the Son.

And I'll pray for her with groanings,

Which cannot be uttered,

Says the Spirit.

And God shall wipe away all tears from our eyes

Sing the angels.

And there shall be no more death,

Neither sorrow, nor crying,

Neither shall there be any more pain,

For the former things shall pass away.

It's all right to cry. Tears talk. What's more, tears keep you pliable in his hand. It's all part of the process, and next time it happens, next time it has to happen in his strange permissive will, which we will never understand, can you not yield, little lump of clay? Because you're simply a vessel being prepared for glory, that's all. This is all part of the process.

Then after you've been pliable you have to be poised, you have to be on center. If the Potter doesn't keep you on the center of the wheel, you'll go flying off. And you know, it takes the Potter an awful lot of strength. If you ever see a potter working pottery, you see him with his legs apart getting a good balance, and he's usually a very strong man if he's a good potter. It takes a lot of strength to keep the pot on center, especially when the wheel gets going really, really fast.

I just think for all the strength and power it takes for God to keep me on center when I'm whirling around on the wheel of life. And you know you meet so many unbalanced Christians; and that's why, because Christ isn't Lord and they're not on center. You can be a Christian, but you can be an unbalanced Christian. And God in the process of fitting you to be a vessel fitted for glory has to keep you poised.

Then, of course, he has to keep you pure. I always remember the shock as a young Christian of realizing that God was not going to allow me to be unholy. He was not going to allow it. I thought, well, I'll do most of it, but there will be this little bit in my pot and there will be that little bit that he can just leave there. But as I said before, a pot is only as good outside as it is inside, and he needs to get his hand inside and smooth and feel the little uneven surfaces and smooth them out, if I'm ever going to be worth anything at all where he's concerned.

And then the time comes for the kiln. And I want to use this picture another way. Before I used it as a matter of the vessel being prepared for destruction as death, the final firing. Now I want to us it in the sense of a firing that we go through here in life because the pot can be fired many times before the final firing. And you and I, little pot, have to have time in the kiln. You cannot have a pottery without the kiln. It's in the kiln that the color comes up, and I think this is a fantastic picture because I have observed pots in the kiln and I have seen the color come up in their character in a way it could never come up if they'd simply sat on a shelf and escaped a firing or a hot situation. It's true.

And you know, it's awfully well talking like that and preaching like that. As I'm doing that I'm thinking of my own small kiln experiences and small firings I've experience. The thing I've found it hard to do is to watch other people that I love in the kiln. That really gets to me, especially my children. And when my children have had a kiln experience I have fiddled with the hands of the potter and I've tried to undo the kiln. And I've said, "Let her out. Let her out. Long enough! Hot enough! Don't let her sit in there, Potter. You can't love her very much. What are you doing?" And he's saying The color is coming up; the color is coming up; take your hands away, because in every kiln there's a peephole, a peephole of 1 Corinthians 10:13. There is no firing given that is not common among men, but the Potter is faithful and he won't let you be fired longer than you can bear so you crumble into dust. He will with the firing make a time to open the door so the pot will be finished and ready, fit for the Master's use.

When I first came to the States I used to go into these gorgeous homes that I'd just think are more beautiful than anything I've ever seen in the rest of the world, and I just thought they were gorgeous. There was only one thing that really got to me, and this was sheer culture shock. I remember the first time it happened. We went into this beautiful home with chandeliers and a gorgeous oak table and lovely decorations and carpets and the silver teapot and this big silver tray you always have to serve. We don't have things like that at home. And she had the silver pot and the silver jug and paper cups. I remember struck dumb. I just stood there at the table in horror and watched her pour out of this silver teapot into this paper cup. Just was all wrong, I said because I'm English and because china is as much a part of me as my cup of tea at four o'clock, and I wasn't used to that.

There is certain china, if you know anything about china, that really is the, the china. It's called Havilland china. It has a final glossed firing. It's called a gloss firing that is really a final one, and it's the hottest firing that you can give it. And when it's had it, you can hold it up to the light, and see right through it. It's translucent. There's another thing about Havilland china, which is the finest bone china that there is. It has a golden crown, they call it, around the rim.

And one day you and I, little pots, will be bone china sitting on God's shelf in heaven translucent, Christ only, always living in me. Glorified dust we shall be.

Jill Briscoe is executive editor of the magazine Just Between Us. Her most recent book is Love that Lasts (Tyndale, 2002).

(c) Jill Briscoe

Preaching Today Tape #18


A resource of Christianity Today International

Jill Briscoe is executive editor of Just Between Us, serves on the boards of World Relief and Christianity Today International, and is a minister-at-large with her husband at Elmbrook Church in Wisconsin.

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Sermon Outline:


I. We are the work of God's hands

II. We are made in the image of God to contain the Spirit of Christ

III. We can choose to become vessels fit for God's glory