7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. 8 And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,
“See, I am setting a plumb line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said,
‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’”
12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15 and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
16 “Now therefore hear the word of the LORD.
You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’
17 Therefore thus says the LORD:
‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”
The God of Amos, the God we worship these many years later, is a dangerous God. Do you remember there was a scene in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the character who represented God was the Lion, Aslan.
“Is Aslan,” one of the characters asks another, “is he a tame lion?”
“Tame? The response came, “Goodness, no? He’s not tame, he’s wild. But he is good.”
The God of Amos is not tame at all. But he is good. It’s interesting to me that God promises the people of Israel that he will not “pass them by,” verse 8. Is that a promise (such as the Good Samaritan, who does not pass by the injured man) or is it a threat—as in I will not pass by here again? Or is it intentionally both—both promise and threat, both law and gospel, both judgment and grace.
God sets a plumb line against Israel, using a divine standard to measure the fidelity of God’s people. Plumb is vertical—stray off the straight and narrow, either side and you are out of plumb.
If you are out of plumb, according to the revelations presented to the prophet Amos, will lead to judgment. It is an interesting image. Of God stopping, stooping to measure each of us, taking time with Israel in order to judge.
Most of the time when we hear the church calling on God to pass us by, it’s for the purpose of blessing. Take grace at meals, for example; “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts” is our prayer. But Amos dares to preach that God might come and not bless us but judge us!
Chief of the sins of the people in the book of Amos are: oppression of the poor by the rich, and a kind of self-righteous worship which looks nice but is hollow inside. To be the object of divine attention is not necessarily good news. We gather in church to do just this don’t we? To be closer to God? To get God’s attention?
Yet, the Living God of Amos does not pass by but remains long enough among us to judge us, to hold a higher standard of judgment against us than that by which we measure ourselves? The God of the book of Amos is no limp projection of ourselves and our wants and needs—needs for money, power, self-esteem.
That is the difference between the prophet Amos and the priest Amaziah and Jeroboam the King. Amaziah is out there selling a message of everything is going to be all right. “You’re fine, I love you and God loves you.”
Amos says, “You’re crazy! Everything is not fine in world where the poor go to bed hungry and the rich just go to Church. Everything is not fine! God loves you enough to change you—to require better behavior of you.”
Notice in the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan, both the priest and the Levite pass by the victimized man near death. Good, Bible-believers, born again, church going, moral people passed by this man. There’s the plumb line. We’ve spent all morning in church, and yet our behavior is a scandal to what we profess.
We are in a similar struggle these days. No one likes to be like Amos, bringing the bad news. Especially when there are religions, television commercials, programs that tell you what to do, think or understand. It seems to me that the self-improvement section of the bookstore gets larger by the day while the call of Amos to repent and act justly gets drowned out.
With the economy limping along, more than 16 million children in the US will face some sort of hunger this summer, because they aren’t in school and their normal source of food will dry up. Teachers in inner city Oklahoma City report that even during the school year many children would come in unfocused troubled, on Monday morning because they had little to eat over the weekend. Multiply that by the roughly three months of summer vacation. Sadly, many of these children’s parents are working at jobs will little in way of benefits, job security. One illness, one major repair to a car, could wipe out what little support this family needs over the summer.
Amos doesn’t let his listeners off the hook, nor does his message give us a break. Actions have results. Worship of money leads to disaster. It’s still undetermined what happened on the Deep Water Horizon Oil Rig in the Gulf of Mexico. But one theory at the moment is that one supervisor, one man, over-ruled the safety protocols in trying to make a better profit. Can you imagine? One man causing the greatest environmental disaster the Gulf has ever seen? Actions have results. Worship of money leads to disaster.
Amaziah the priest attempts to silence this outsider. “Amos,” he taunts, “Where are your credentials? Where’s your diploma? Don’t prophesy against your own people, neighbors?”
Today, we might be wise to follow this advice, “Don’t prophesy against the big banks or the energy companies or the tax evaders. We need something inspirational on a Sunday morning, even if it’s a half-truth. Don’t say anything controversial, it might upset somebody.”
But, Amos presses on, “Immoral business practices are off plumb. Unrestrained profit-seeking are off plumb. Going to Bible study and then passing the injured on your way home is far from the straight line.”
I don’t know about you. I find this a little uncomfortable. To be confronted with my economic and social comfort, when I came to worship. While I might not like the theology of God’s plumb line, I admit that I need to be convicted as much as the next person: my salvation is not found in my retirement funds or my nice new possessions, but in relationship to the Living God who commands me to not pass by the poor or the weak. Amen.