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Oct. 1973–Jan. 1974 · Vol. 2 No. 4 · pp. 153–56 

The Preaching Lab

John Regehr

  1. Sometimes a truth from God’s Word falls into my mind like a seed, and begins to germinate. The growth from that original sprouting to the finished sermon may take time. To work “from hand to mouth” in preaching (i.e. to leave the initial preparation to Saturday night, when we should already be at the stage of final preparation) is to deprive the church of the maturity of thought which the Holy Spirit can work in us if he is given time. Remember, it is we who are slow, not he.

    Two months ago the Sunday school lesson of the class I attend dealt with Jeremiah 18. The image which God used to teach Jeremiah gripped me. I read, and re-read the text, Jer. 18:1-11. I recalled earlier experiences with the text, even childhood impressions. Suddenly it struck: I had always seen the image as depicting judgment. Always the picture of the potter crushing the spoiled vessel and “lumping” it again stood out. But Jeremiah picked up quite the other truth as being the prominent one. He saw God’s grace!

    There is the theme: Grace is to be able to start all over again. This is the burden of the text. If I had left preparation till Saturday night, I might have missed the big truth.

  2. Now we must deal with the temptation to push the image to dull allegory. I suppose we could make a dozen fanciful applications

    1. The potter’s wheel is the earth a-turning. (Or the solar system, or the milky-way galaxy—well, maybe not that far out.)
    2. The two opposing hands of the potter are law and grace. (I’m not sure how that would shape up.)
    3. The water with which the clay is mixed is the mental capacity which makes us pliable. (Whoops, what will I do with this when the vessel is fired in the kiln?)
    4. The place from which the clay is dug is my culture and family heritage. That has promise: each person becomes a unique individual even though he is rooted in a tradition. The only trouble is that the text doesn’t talk about this.

    Let’s overcome the enticing temptation to let our minds roam freely in pursuit of fanciful imaginings. After all, it is not our ideas which we are to proclaim, but the truth of the Word. When we let our minds roam about undisciplined, allowing them to pick flowers of insight among our treasured ideas, we may end up with a sermon which is a bouquet given in our honor.

  3. We come back to the big truth of the text: Grace is to be able to begin again. If the truth is worth preaching, it must be a truth that touches people where they are. Therefore, an early question in the {154} preparation must be: How does the truth touch me? I recalled the feeling of newness when I began my present job. I remembered how good it felt to be able to leave a church where, in my awkwardness and sinfulness, I had allowed embarrassing entanglements and unpleasantness. My mind skipped back in time, and with a thud came to stop in my adolescence. Let me tell you, I know the wonder of being able to cut loose from the past and start all over again! No question: the text would speak to me, and I was ready to listen to what it had to say. Indeed I found it thrilling to work through the sermon.

  4. The outline which follows is the one I used (in an abbreviated form) for the third preaching of the sermon. (With the persistent if not particularly patient help of my wife, I have begun to overcome the pride which used to insist that I could preach each sermon only once.) The first time was not satisfactory. I read it, since I was using extensive notes and was rather ill at ease. The occasion was the MBBC chapel hour on the first day of the second semester. The second occasion was a German service, and the third a worship hour in a Salvation Army Citadel in Winnipeg. By this time it had become more a spoken message, rather than a written message read.

    You get the point, do you? A preacher may do with his sermon what the potter did with his vessel. When it spoils in your hands, lump it again! Kneed it! Give another shape to the same material.

  5. There is value in repetition if it is carefully used. You will notice that I have made an effort to keep the image of the text in the foreground throughout the sermon. The image is introduced in the introduction, elaborated in section A, and reinforced in section B and in the conclusion.


Text: Jeremiah 18:1-21


  1. Something of the adolescent remains with us.
    1. The immature desire, when we’ve messed things up, to cut ourselves off from our past and start all over again.
    2. Recall the feeling of relief when we could go off to a new school, or when our parents moved to a new locality.
    3. A new pastorate has the same effect.
  2. New beginnings are a built-in feature of our ongoing development.
    1. A young couple at marriage makes a new beginning, vowing that they will not make the mistakes their parents made.
    2. The first child born into a family is a new beginning.
      (Aside: This is the message of Christmas. God so completely joined us in our humanness, that he made a new beginning with a baby, too.)
    3. The first grandchild is a significant new beginning.
      In the midst of discouragement and disappointment, and in the sad discovery that dreams are mirages, there is the opportunity to begin again.
    4. Within the relentless progression of time, there are moments of new beginnings. {155}
  3. Jeremiah learned this truth in his visit to the potter in Jerusalem. (read text, Jeremiah 18:1-11)
  4. Can it be that God is not successful in everything he undertakes?
    1. He chose Israel, a people of his own possession.
      He placed this lump of clay on the wheel in Egypt, and kneaded it.
      At Sinai he began forming the vessel into the kind of people he wanted.
      At the border of Canaan the vessel spoiled in his hand, and he lumped it together again and began the wedging process which dragged through 38 more years.
    2. The entry into Canaan was a new beginning, and again God began again to form his people. Recall judges, and the repeated cycle: forming, disobedience, enslavement, crying to God, redemption, return to obedience, God’s continued forming, and then disobedience again.
    3. Jeremiah now sees God’s hand coming down to kneed Jerusalem into a heap of clay again. The thunder of Nebuchadnezzar’s approaching war machine booms in his brain.
  1. Four Observations Which Jeremiah Made (vs. 1-6).
    God himself suggests the parallel. Compare v. 2 with vs. 5 and 6. We can therefore expect to find God’s principle of operation in the activity of the potter.
    1. Observation No. 1—The potter is working at his wheel.
      So God is at work—tirelessly, creatively.
      God is at work with his people purposefully, creatively.
    2. Observation No. 2—The vessel was spoiled in the potter’s hand.
      It is not stated whether the fault was the potter’s, or the clay’s. If I had done the shaping, the vessel would have been spoiled because of my clumsiness, or because I hadn’t centred the lump properly. Certainly this cannot be said of God, who is all-wise, and omnipotent, and omniscient.
      The fault was in the clay.
      Perhaps it was not wedged sufficiently (wedging is cutting it in half, joining the pieces, kneeding it, cutting it in half, etc.)
      Perhaps not all lumps had disappeared. (Small lumps that are not assimilated will mar the vessel.)
      Perhaps not all air bubbles had been kneaded out. (Air bubbles will burst in the kiln later and spoil the vessel.)
      In any case, the clay did not respond to the will of the potter.
    3. Observation No. 3—The potter lumps the clay together again.
      He begins the wedging process once more.
      The touch of God in my life may sometimes be very hard, but it is not therefore less patient.
    4. Observation No. 4—The mulish resistance of the clay does not liberate it from the hand of the potter.
      The potter may change his mind about the clay, but it remains clay in his hand.
      It remains subject to his decisions.
  2. Two Big Truths Grow out of These Observations (vs. 7-11).
    1. There is judgment (vs. 9-10).
      God does change his mind from good to ill regarding his people. {156}
      1. Recall Adam and Eve.
        God had planned good for them, and had given them the tree of life. Then he changed his mind, and drove them out.
      2. God had planned one people, a worldwide community which should provide mutual strength in carrying out God’s mandate, and produce a universal sense of belonging. Then God changed his mind at Babel. He scattered and divided the people and allowed them to become the self-destructive race which they are today.
      3. And then the flood. Again God changed his mind, and snuffed out the life which he created.
      (Summary: If man does not respond well, if the vessel is spoiled in God’s hand, God changes his mind about the good he intended, and starts the kneading process again.)
    2. There is grace (vs. 7-8, 11).
      1. This is the dominant truth for the prophet. This is where he begins (vs. 7-8).
      2. Why do I have a negative memory regarding this image?
        Do I have a morbid sense of guilt that clouds my vision for God’s grace?
        The fact is that the potter reworked the clay and made of it another vessel as it seemed good to him!
      3. Even God has already announced the judgment, there is the offer of grace (vs. 11).
        Even when God has already said: “I guess I’ll have to lump it again,” if then the clay becomes responsive, he says “No, I won’t.”
        This is grace.
      4. There is grace in judgment too.
        The potter makes a new vessel!
        He lumps it together, that is true; he kneads it thoroughly, that is true; but it remains in his hands and he makes a new vessel as seems good to him.
        That is grace. Wonderful grace.


  1. There is an ultimate judgment too (19:1-2, 10-11a).
    The image is clear. There is an irreversible judgment. When even the repeated kneading is futile, then God judges with irrevocable judgment.
  2. Hell spells the eternal impossibility for a new beginning (cf. Rev. 20:10, 14).
  3. Heaven spells the last new beginning eternalized (cf. Rev. 21:1).
  4. Today God offers grace the opportunity to begin again.
    1. Grace is when God, already threatening judgment, recognizes our repentance and our responsiveness, and then withdraws the judgment. This is a new beginning! This is grace!
    2. Grace is when God crushes us, kneads us thoroughly, and then in patience and determination begins again to make of us a vessel such as seems good to him. This is a new beginning! This is grace!

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