Sunday's Sermon: The Plumb Line
In case you missed it, here's today's sermon, based on Amos 7:7-17:
Agricultural work is a mixture of solitude and community. Whether you’re harvesting produce in California or dressing sycamore trees in ancient Israel, you’re usually working the field or the orchard in groups, but the nature of the work calls for focus, and allows each person in the team to be alone with his or her thoughts. Managing flocks even more so. Israelite shepherds, like Old West cowboys, spent a lot of time in very rural, even deserted places. This was the way Amos, an agricultural laborer from the town of Tekoa in Judea, made a living. Then one day, the silence and solitude about him, broken only by the wind rustling the tree leaves or the bleating of sheep, was broken by a new sound, the voice of God calling him to be a prophet.
In ancient Israel, prophets often organized themselves into guilds. They were the pollsters and economists of their culture, retained by kings to counsel them on which way the winds were blowing and what the future held. No self-respecting king would levy taxes or go to war without consulting the prophets. Prophets were also the moral conscience of their culture. They held the king’s policies and the ways of the people up to the penetrating light of the divine will.
(An aside: the existence of prophets undermines the idea that politics and religion should be kept separate; the whole point of prophecy was to inject religion into politics, to guide statecraft toward moral and humane goals and prevent it from being an exercise in sheer power.)
Amos, at any rate, was not a member of these guilds. He had no seminary education, no imprimatur from the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, no terms of call issued by a congregation. All he had was a God-given commission to preach. And that was sufficient. It’s important for us that we set educational and doctrinal standards for ministry, but the God does not have to jump through these man-made hoops when God gives the gift of prophecy.
In those days Israel was divided between Judah in the south, and 10 breakaway tribes in the north. The Lord sent Amos across the border to preach doom and gloom in the northern kingdom of Israel: the overthrow of its ruling dynasty, the destruction of its religious sanctuaries, and the exile of its people from the land God had promised to them. Why? We’ll get into this topic more next week, but the short answer is, the rich and powerful had rigged the system against the poor, and God would not abide a rigged system. Exorbitant interest, bribery, perjury, and fraud were just some of the tricks the high and mighty employed to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Their greed knew no limits, nor did their indifference to the plight of the less fortunate members of the community.
Amos prophesied at the shrine in Bethel. Bethel was where the Israelite patriarch Jacob had laid his weary head on a stone when he fled from his vengeful brother and dreamed of a ladder connecting heaven and earth; the shrine commemorated this founding father of the Israelite people and his visionary experience. In this place, a kind of Plymouth Rock of Israel, Amos’s words went over like a lead balloon. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, alerted the king that a foreigner was fomenting revolution in his kingdom, and he told the prophet to shut up and go home. “You wanna trash the King of Israel? Well go back to Judah; they’ll pay good money to hear sermons like that up there.” Amaziah regarded Amos as an outside agitator; his wagon boasted an “Israel: Love It or Leave It” bumper sticker.
Now the fact that there is a book of Amos in the Bible and not a book of Amaziah in the Bible makes it crystal clear that in this argument between prophet and priest, the prophet is right, and the priest is wrong. But how would their contemporaries have known it at the time? Some of the witnesses of the argument may have concluded that the priest of Bethel was a well-paid, well-connected, and utterly compromised defender of a corrupt status quo. But others might have sized up Amaziah as a prudent and competent manager of Israel’s religious traditions and institutions, while Amos, still smelling like sheep manure, was some wild man from south of the border who just wanted to burn everything down. And how do we know who’s preaching truth and who’s prophesying falsehoods when so many people claim to speak for God these days, and none of them agree?
There is a tipoff in the priest’s language. “This is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom. You can’t talk like that around here.” Whose sanctuary? God’s? No, the king’s. Whose temple? The Lord’s? No, the state’s. Amaziah’s faith is a kind of civil religion in which the King of the Universe is demoted to being a mascot for an earthly head of state. Amaziah’s God is like a genie in a bottle, always waiting to be summoned at the king’s leisure to bless the fields and flocks, chase enemies from the battlefield, and secure and expand the borders of the kingdom. Amaziah and the system he works for is in a one-way covenant with God. For them, being chosen by God meant, “We can be as greedy and as cruel as we want to, because we’re us!” But Amos understood that with rights come responsibilities for the well-being of our neighbor. Divine blessings are meant to be received with gratitude and shared with others. That’s how you tell a true prophet from a false one.
One tool that the construction workers used to build the shrine at Bethel and the king’s palace on Mt. Samaria was a plumb line, or a plumb bob. How do you know if you’re erecting a straight wall, especially if your building site is on a hillside or on uneven ground? You take a string, tie it to a weight; fix the string to a point, let the weight swing, and where it comes to rest is directly below the point where the string is fixed above. If you lay brick along that string, your wall will stand straight and tall.
Amos saw and foretold the collapse of Israel’s sanctuaries and palaces. They weren’t plumb. Not in an architectural sense. Rather, it was in a moral sense that Israel’s institutions were tottering. Both the political and the religious establishment had been built to a standard of power, prestige, and wealth. But the Almighty’s plumb line is justice and righteousness. God fixed that plumb line at the waters of the Red Sea, where God drowned Pharaoh’s army and freed the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, and the weight swung down through the centuries, where it exposed to the eyes of Amos just how precarious the kingdom was. Most, however, were blind to the prophet’s vision. The Northern Kingdom in the mid-8th century BC was at the apex of its military power and economic wealth. But a generation later, it all came crashing down.
In light of Amos’s call to be a prophet, I want to ask you to do three things today. First, carve out some quiet time in your life. You don’t have to become a shepherd. Just turn off the radio when you’re driving to work, or leave your ear buds at home when you go for a walk. Speaking the Word of God is not just for the people on this side of the pulpit. It may be that God has something to say through you too, and you’ll be more likely to hear it in moments of silence and in times of solitude.
Second, don’t shoot the messenger. Heed the prophets of doom. Prophets of doom come in all shapes and sizes these days: the physician who warns you that you must make lifestyle changes if you don’t want to die prematurely, the scientist who predicts disaster if governments don’t take urgent action to roll back climate change, the preacher or stray verse of scripture that foretells a final judgment beyond the grave. Their words are upsetting, offensive even, but they are your friends. They mean you well. Heed them.
Finally, let God be your plumb line. Let justice and righteousness be the measure of all things. National greatness isn’t a matter of military might or GDP. Great churches aren’t necessarily the fastest growing or most architecturally significant or socially prominent congregations in town. Success in life can’t be defined in terms of how many rungs you’ve ascended on the career ladder. Greatness is honesty. Greatness is power in defense of the powerless. Greatness is a willingness to live within limits that’s born of gratitude to God for all the good gifts God has given us. As long as you’re standing tall according to God’s justice and righteousness, wealth, power, and prestige are but trifling matters.
Plumb bob image: By Jim Thomas - Photo taken for upload to wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=946708