Sermon Ideas For Isaiah 63:16-64:12 Part 3
Amidst the impassioned plea of Isaiah 63:16-64:8 for God to "come down", to be manifest, one image leaps out within Isaiah's appeal. In calling God `our potter' and us "the clay," Isaiah assigns vivid roles to the Creator and the creation. The reference to pottery calls up the functional, symbolic and storytelling aspects of clay vessels.
Isaiah's reference to potter and clay takes me back to Genesis to the formation of Adam from the dust of the earth. Dirt, water and God's skillful hands combine for a fabulous creation—humanity.
Imitating their Creator-Potter, artists have continued to fashion simple mud into glorious and functional pottery. Whether Greek vases from 650 B.C. or current Pueblo Indian pottery in America, objects made from common clay command thousands of dollars and hours of meticulous study.
In ancient Greek culture, clay pots reached lofty artistic heights. The black and brown vessels were used to hold wine and water. Yet, the personal signatures of the potters and painters attached to the vases suggest how much these utilitarian items were prized. The detailed decoration rimming the exterior of the vases communicated mythology and history. The Francois Vase bears the signature of both its potter and painter. Formed by Ergotimos and painted by Kleitas in c. 570 B.C.E., The Francois Vase illustrates the heroic stories of Theseus and Achilles.1 In his poem, Ode to a Grecian Urn, John Keats meditates upon the timeless elegance of Greek pottery. The scenes on the vase cause Keats to question the relationship between art and life, longing for permanence in a shifting world. Keats' famed conclusion, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," points to the sublime, divine power of pottery.
Pueblo Indian pottery making dates back at least two thousand years. Pottery served practical household purposes like cooking, food storage, and water gathering. Pots were meant to be used, to be worn out, traded, thrown away. The Cochise and Oshara farming peoples became the Mogollon and Anasazi Indian cultures. Abundant examples of black-on-white Anasazi pottery from 800-1000 A.D. have been unearthed near the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.2 The pots provide a glimpse into the mysterious history of the Anasazi. Pottery serves as an introduction to Indian cosmology, interpreted in the rhythm, color, line, designs, motifs and symbols rich in hidden meaning.3 Unfortunately, the pots fail to provide answers about how and why the Anasazi left the Mesa Verde area. Still, for a people pressed by practical, survival issues, the meticulous polishing, decorating and other artistic procedures displayed on the pottery lead to a clear conclusion. The process of pottery making, "the art itself," must have been valued.4
Anthropological research into the Pueblo Indians' modern pottery making process illumines the individual care suggested by Isaiah's analogy of God and potter. The potter personally chooses the clay from established quarries near the pueblo. A proper tempering agent must also be selected to reduce shrinkage and potential cracking during the firing process. Rather than using the familiar spinning potter's wheel, pueblo potters practice a coil and scrape technique. An Acoma pueblo potter describes the careful process:
First we mix our clay and add the temper of ground shards. The forming of the pot is done by pinching if it is small or by coiling on the larger pieces. We use gourds for scraping and a pumice stone for sanding. The drying is done on the stove or in the sun for three or four days. The white slip is applied and polished with a smooth stone, then we paint with the mixture our mother taught us how to make. We use cow or sheep manure for our firing and cover the pots with shards so they don't get clouded.5
While clearly complex, the craft cannot be reduced to measurements or formulas. The potter operates by instinct and experience. From clay and dung emerge glistening, fascinating stories.
As primarily a female art, pueblo pottery making involves intensive, maternal care. "Pueblo potters do not just manufacture `pots'; they create living things." When a scholar held up Elizabeth White's pots to his cheek, the Hopi artist declared, "Yes, they're my babies."6 The maternal roots within pueblo potters remain strong. Teresita Naranjo, a Santa Clara potter declares, "Pottery is handed down from generation to generation. As a little girl, I used to watch my grandmother (Sarafina Tafoya), and I thought someday I was going to be put in the Potter's Hands, which is God. I dedicated myself and my precious hands to the Lord to do this pottery . . . I have no one to help me, only God. And today, I thank Him. He is the Potter. He molds my life and I mold the potteries."7 The most renowned pueblo potter, Maria Martinez, spread the "secrets" of the glossy black-on-black style among her relatives in the San Ildefonso Pueblo. Consequently, four of Maria's sisters and twelve other relatives including her grandson carried on the San Ildefonso pottery tradition.8
Perhaps the biggest boost to pottery making classes at community colleges across America came from the 1990 film, Ghost. Demi Moore portrays a potter successful enough to own a fashionable Manhattan apartment. Her scenes creating a pot with the passionate help of co-star Patrick Swayze simmer on the screen. Creativity, art and passion intermingle quite completely in Ghost.
A moving song, The Potter's House, highlights Tramaine Hawkins' 1990 Live album on Sparrow Records. The songwriter, V. Micheal McKay, draws heavily from the imagery of Jeremiah 18, yet the message fits Isaiah 64, too. The lilting Gospel song declares:
In case your situation has turned upside down, And all that you've accomplished is now on the ground, You don't have to stay in the shape that you're in, The Potter wants to put you back together again. You who are broken STOP BY, The Potter's House. You who need mending STOP BY, The Potter's House. Give Him the fragments of your broken life. The Potter wants to put you back together again.
Tramaine Hawkins' Live album should be required listening for anyone doubting God's ability to heal our deepest areas of pain.
While the images of potter and clay provide ample opportunity for artistic comment and exploration, Isaiah's specific identification of God as "Father" lends itself to further screen images. The combination of wrath and love evident in Isaiah's God matches the comedic portrayal in Father of the Bride (1950). When his sole daughter makes a surprising engagement announcement, Dad's protective, jealous instincts take over. Questions about the intended groom arise. While Spencer Tracy (and more recently Steve Martin in the 1992 remake) demonstrates substantial aggravation with the marriage "industry", he nonetheless manages to keep his mouth closed and his wallet open. Dad may not agree with the ridiculous expenditures, but his love for his daughter outweighs the pain on his checkbook. Isaiah's Father-God certainly disapproves of Israel's behavior and choices. Yet, Isaiah and the people of God appeal to the Father's favoritism to outweigh his wrath. Isaiah begs God "to come down," to make a difference in their plight. Parental concern ultimately triumphs over any past grievances or sin.
1. Frederick Hartt, Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976), p. 117. 2. Stewart Peckham, From this Earth: The Ancient Art of Pueblo Pottery (Sante Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1990), pp. 1, 24. 3. Larry Frank and Francis H. Harlow, Historic Pottery of the Pueblo Indians, 1600-1880 (West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1990), p. 7. 4. Alfred E. Dittert, Jr. and Fred Plog, Generations in Clay: Pueblo Pottery of the American Southwest (Northland Publishing, 1980), p. 134. 5. Seven Families in Pueblo Pottery, Maxwell Musuem of Anthropology (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974), p. 4. 6. Dittert and Plog, p. 3. 7. Seven Families, p. 69 8. Dittert and Plog, p. 69.
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