(Written by Pastor Tim Redfield)
Jeremiah 18:1-11 – This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. 4 But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6 “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7 If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, 8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. 9 And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
11 “Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the Lord says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’
Why do we celebrate the Lutheran Reformation? Why is it important? Is the point to honor Martin Luther or to put what he said on the same level as God’s Word? That’s not why we celebrate. Martin Luther’s writings are not equal to God’s Word and we do not worship Luther. Luther was a sinful human being just like us. We celebrate the Reformation because God used Martin Luther to bring the gospel of Christ to a world that had forgotten that message. An important point is that every generation needs to discover the gospel truth for itself. Look at the Jews at Jeremiah’s time and then again at Jesus’ time. Even the Christians after Luther’s death almost lost the gospel. We need God’s gracious gospel working in our hearts because many people try to turn Christianity into a message of Law. God needs to work in our hearts to remind us of Christ. God works to continually reform our hearts. God does this Through the Law and its Threats and then Through the Gospel and its Comfort.
The prophet Jeremiah had a very difficult ministry. The people of Israel were not following God’s Will. Instead of acting like God’s chosen people, they were joining in the detestable religious practices of the pagan nations around them. They tried to combine the true faith in God with man-made religions. They thought that because they had God’s Temple, no harm would ever come to them. They treated the temple of God like a good luck charm.
In Israel there were many false teachers who told the people what they wanted to hear. They told the people that there would be peace and prosperity. They told the people that they had nothing to fear from the growing empire of Babylon. The truth was different. Babylon was threatening to take over the land. God told Jeremiah to preach a message of judgment. Jeremiah told the people that Babylon was going to conquer them and take them into captivity. This would happen because they had sinned against God. The people did not want to listen to Jeremiah’s message. They wanted to listen to false prophets who told them that even if they went into captivity it would not be that bad. Jeremiah told them that they needed to repent.
In Jeremiah 18, God uses an interesting picture. He had Jeremiah go down to the house of a potter and observe how the potter deals with a pot that had been ruined. The potter took it and reshaped it into another pot. A pot that was good and useful. This illustration describes what God can do with individuals and with nations. God can take people who have been ruined by sin and reshape them through the gospel. In order to do this, God first has to bring them to repentance through the message of the Law.
Originally God had intended good for his people. He wanted them “to be built up and planted” but they had done evil in his sight and had not obeyed him (v9-10). Because of their wickedness he had to “reconsider the good” he “had intended to do for” them. Certainly God wanted to bless his chosen people. He told them at Mount Sinai that they would have many blessings if they followed his commands. Unfortunately, we see them fall away from him repeatedly throughout the Old Testament.
In verse 11, God gives Jeremiah the message to give to these wicked people. He says, “Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and actions.” God told the people that he was going to send disaster on them. Babylon was going to conquer them. He wanted them to turn from their sinful lifestyle. He wanted them to trust in their coming Messiah. The people did not turn away from their sin.
Think about the life of Martin Luther. Luther was a man who understood the Law very well. He wanted to turn away from his sins. He knew that God took sins seriously and that God hated sins. Early on in his life, he never heard the message of grace. He didn’t understand what forgiveness in Christ truly meant. He tried to make up for his sins. He tried to earn God’s favor by becoming a monk. He would spend hours in devotion and prayer. He would even whip himself to try to make up for all his sins.
The church in Luther’s day taught about Purgatory. This is the false idea that after we die, we have to go to a place of suffering to make up for our sins before we can be allowed into heaven. Luther saw God as a righteous judge who wanted to punish sins. The church had made so many laws and regulations that it became a burden to be a Christian. Luther felt this burden until he understood the Gospel. Once he realized that God’s righteousness is freely given to us in Christ, it changed his life. Then he saw that the law and its threats are not a burden but rather they point us to Christ.
When the law is preached to us, there are two things that can happen. We can either be like the people of Israel or we can be like Luther. The Jews had been going through the motions of their religion. They offered sacrifices and obeyed man-made laws but they did not have a heart of repentance. They thought that by doing certain activities, God would be pleased. They thought that since they had the Temple, they would be safe. Sometimes we can fall into the same kind of sin. We might just go through the motions of coming to church. We might come and listen but not really take it to heart. Sometimes the devil might whisper, “Don’t worry about the law that the pastor is talking about, he will soon give you the gospel.” This kind of thinking tries to make our sin OK. It tries to turn the gospel into a license to sin.
On the other hand, we see Luther. Luther was so crushed by the Law that he could not see his forgiveness. Luther fell into despair. He thought that he was so terrible that God wanted to punish him for all that he had done wrong. We too can fall into this sin. Our conscience might be so weighed down by our sins that we do not see God’s grace. We think we are so terrible that God could not possibly love us. This means that the message of the law has had an effect on our heart. It has crushed our heart and made us see our wickedness. This is what the law is intended to do. To make us see that we are sinful and that we cannot save ourselves.
When we are crushed by the law that is when we need the comfort of the gospel. If we have the attitude of the Jews which doesn’t see sins, then we need the Law preached to us so that our sinful heart can be led to repentance. If we have the crushed heart like Luther, then we need to be reformed by God through the Gospel and its Comfort.
Look at the picture of the potter and his pot. The potter took the pot that was ruined and reshaped it into something useful. We are ruined because of our sin. God came up with the way to reshape us into useful believers. He promised to send his Son. Jesus came to earth and lived the perfect life in our place. He suffered the death that we deserved and then rose from the grave as the proof that we too will rise from the grave to join him in heaven. Then he sent the Holy Spirit into our heart to create faith in us. He reshaped our heart. He gave us the perfect robe of Jesus’ righteousness. We have been reformed through the blood of Christ.
God had wanted to reform the people of Israel at Jeremiah’s time. He announced that they were to be “uprooted, torn down and destroyed” (v7). If they had repented, he would have “relented, and not” inflicted on them “the disaster” he had planned (v8). We know that the nation of Israel did not repent and they were taken into captivity. Eventually, many people did return to the Lord. Many people came back to faith in God and he allowed them to return to the land of Israel. When the next generation believed in the Lord, he was compassionate and gracious toward them. God is gracious to repentant sinners.
When God revealed the truths of the gospel to Luther, his life changed. Luther understood that he was saved by grace and that there was nothing that he had to do to make up for his sins. He realized that the church of his day was leading people away from God. He stood up for the truth. He posted the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg. He wanted people to see that they are saved through Christ and what he did. No one can be saved through their own merit.
Luther wanted to change the church of his day. He wanted everyone to appreciate the gospel. He wrote many letters which spoke against the Catholic Church and the Pope. The Catholic Church wanted him to take back what he had written. Luther said that they had to show him from God’s Word that what he was saying was wrong. They could not point to God’s Word. Luther stuck to the Bible in all of its truth and purity. All of the confessions that Luther wrote are based on the wonderful gospel of Christ. Luther no longer felt the burden of his sin because the grace of God had been revealed to him.
God works in our hearts just like he worked in the heart of Luther. The Holy Spirit comes to us and begins reforming our hearts in our Baptisms. Through that wonderful sacrament, we are washed clean and the Holy Spirit creates a heart of faith in us. Of course our sinful nature stays with us and that is why we continually need to be reformed by our God. We see what Paul was talking about when he said, “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18b-19). Because of this struggle God continues to reform us with the gospel.
God gives us his Word on a regular basis to comfort us. This is why we, like Luther, hold the Word of God in such high regard. This is why we celebrate the Reformation. We celebrate the importance of God’s Word in the life of Luther and in our own lives. We want to stay in the Word so that God can reform us. He crushes our sinful nature with the law and then brings us the wonderful comfort of the gospel. Our Lord Jesus has saved us and he gives us the strength to live for him. We can joyfully exclaim with Paul, Luther, and all Christians, “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
The Festival of the Reformation is an important day for a Lutheran Church. We celebrate how God used the man Martin Luther to proclaim the wonderful gospel. God’s Word is our heritage. We use God’s Word for two main purposes. The Law is used to crush our sinful hearts and to lead us to repentance. When people stubbornly hold to their sin, we preach the law and its threats about hell. When the sinful nature is beaten down by the law, then we proclaim that glorious gospel of Christ. The gospel gives the comfort of forgiveness and eternal life. Luther really appreciated this comfort when he discovered it and dedicated his life to proclaiming this message. As we think about what God did through Luther, we are reminded that God also reforms our hearts continually. As a church we dedicate ourselves to proclaiming the gospel of Christ.