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God's Plumb Line

God's Plumb Line
Preaching from the Not-So-Minor Prophets
Amos wasn't born a prophet, but he was a farmer. And many farmers are pretty handy at building things, aren't they? A farmer is a "Jack of all trades," and master of many. We have farmers in our congregation. I checked with some. They've poured foundations, designed and built sheds, put additions on their houses, assembled windmills, built garages, and raised barns. The quintessential farmers/builders are the Amish. They're noted for the quality of their construction: remarkable, since it's often done without power tools!

Like most farmers, Amos knew something about building. He understood the importance of keeping foundations level and walls plumb. Today we use spirit levels and laser levels to keep things vertically and horizontally straight. These are examples of each.

In Amos' day a plumb bob was one of the few leveling tools available. Here's one (show tool). A plumb bob goes back to the ancient Egyptians. It is hung from a high spot on your structure. Gravity pulls the weight straight down. As you build, moving up, you measure your structure against the line to see if it's vertical.

If a building isn't plumb, straight up and down, its walls will be weak and begin to buckle, because they can't support the weight. The wall will fall and the building will collapse.

Perhaps Amos, our farmer/builder, was working on a wall when he received his vision. He was struggling to line up a wall. Suddenly Amos realized if a builder has high standards, certainly God's standards must be higher. God was measuring Israel against a plumb line, just like Amos was using a plumb line. "See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people, Israel," says God, speaking through the prophet (Amos 7:8b). God's people were being measured -- and they were found to be crooked.

Where was ancient Israel "out of line"? For one thing, lots of Israelites were addicted to luxury and sunk in self-indulgence. Trusting in their wealth, they forgot their need for God.

Amos attacked their attitudes like this: "Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp... who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils" (vv. 4-6a). God was angry because Israel was going soft.

In another place the prophet compares the women of Samaria to fat cows grazing. "Listen to this, you cows of Basham," he shouts, "indolent and pampered..." (4:1 The Message). Amos, a southerner, called northern women "cows"! That didn't make him friends. It would be like someone from the Deep South going to New England and saying its lovely ladies look like livestock.

Along with Israel's greed and laziness went sexual sins, and elders misleading and perverting youngsters (2:7b and 12a, respectively). Just as bad as these "sins of the flesh" were corruption and bribery in the courts (5:12b) and economic injustice.

"They'd sell a poor man for a pair of shoes... They drive the penniless into the dirt, shove the luckless into a ditch. They'd sell their own grandmother," complained Amos (2:6b-7). He continued, "(Y)ou run roughshod over the poor and take the bread right out of their mouths" (5:11 The Message).

The God of the Bible is vitally concerned with how the least and last are treated in any society. The measure of a nation is not how powerful or how wealthy it is. It's whether or not it takes care of its outcasts and the poor. In Isaiah God says, "I'll make justice the measuring stick and righteousness the plumb line..." (28:17 The Message). God's people were lined up against God's plumb line of righteousness and justice and found lacking. They had to straighten up.

Because Israel wasn't just, God wasn't pleased with their worship. Their gatherings in the temples, and their offerings, without righteousness, made God sick. Some of Amos' strongest attacks arrive in chapter 5. God is speaking, through the prophet.

God says,
I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

So it wasn't just the commoners who were corrupt. The religious establishment was rotten too, like Amaziah, the priest, who confronted Amos and told him to go home. Honest, straight-talking priests and prophets were so rare in Israel that God had to import them from the south. That's a warning to preachers like me. If we don't preach God's word, we will be judged.

Amos dared speak the truth to power, even ugly truths about Israel's failed religion. He knew full well he would be attacked. For, as Amos puts it, "Raw truth is never popular" (5:10 The Message). Like many farmers, Amos wasn't shy about speaking his mind. He was down to earth and told it like he saw it with earthy speech.

What would please God, if God wasn't happy with empty worship? Nothing less than this. Amos said, "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream." That's maybe the most important line in Amos, "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream" (5:21-24 RSV). You might remember Martin Luther King Jr. quoted that line in his last speech, the night before he was killed. In another place Amos demanded, "Seek good, and not evil, and you may live..." (5:14 RSV).

The situation was critical. Israel was like a dangerous, tottering wall. God, the builder, had measured them against a plumb line and found them lacking. Sometimes the best thing you can do with a bad wall is tear it down and start over again. Ask a farmer.

That's what Amos the farmer/prophet was warning Israel would happen. God was about to dismantle their nation. There would be no escape. It would be as if a man ran away from a lion at night, and instead ran into a hungry bear, said Amos. Or made it to his house safely, only to put his hand on a poisonous snake in the dark (5:19).

Truth be told, the book of Amos is mostly gloom and doom. Its 141 verses focused on Israel's failures and judgment, and only five hopeful ones at the end.

That was Amos' message 760 years before Christ. What does this straight-talking farmer have to say to us today? The same things! God's word doesn't change. But now God's plumb line is applied to us. How well do you and I, and our nation, measure up? Remember, a plumb line doesn't lie!

Would God measure our love of comfort and ease and find us wanting? Are we so addicted to material things that we forget about God? Of course, our economy is down right now. Unlike the ancient Israelites in Amos' day, many aren't lying in the lap of luxury, on "ivory couches."

But are we still possessed by our possessions -- overly worried about what we don't have and not trusting God will provide? Jesus said, "(D)o not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?" He continued, famously, "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns (an image any farmer could understand), and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" (Matthew 6:25-26).

Trusting God and God's goodness should be a firm foundation for all of us in prosperity and in adversity. The economy might have changed, but God hasn't. Are we living up to the motto on our coins, "In God We Trust"?

God also holds a plumb line against our families. God sees their brokenness, their tensions, the way we sometimes fight. The Ten Commandments tell us "honor your father and mother." Ephesians advises wives to support and understand their husbands, and husbands to "go all out" for their wives. Parents are not to "exasperate" their children or "provoke" them "to anger" (Ephesians 5:22, 25; 6:1 The Message; also 6:1 NRSV).

Every Christian family is supposed to be a miniature church, a Body of Christ, where each member is loved and valued. The late John Paul II called our homes "the domestic church."

But are our families filled with Christian love? If God measured our home life against the plumb line of God's word, would God find us wanting -- wanting more of the acceptance, tolerance, and patience we are supposed to give?

God also holds a plumb line against our business dealings. Amos was shocked by the use of false measures, dishonest selling, and abuses of the poor. If God were to put a level against our nation and our finances, would we come out crooked?

Shortchanging customers, producing inferior products, stealing from the boss, goofing off on the job, and cheating on our taxes are all theft. Are our business practices in line? We don't have to be as big a crook as the convicted financier Bernie Madoff to be crooked.

Are we seeking justice for the least and the last in America? Amos might well be shocked by the way our (mostly) wealthy society still has an underclass. In fact, the number of American children going to bed hungry at night has grown in the last year. That, by the way, is also true in our city, where families served by our local food banks are up by 50%.

This ad once ran in a local paper. It was about hunger in America, and read "HUNGER: It's a problem when you are a child who can't concentrate in school because he didn't eat dinner last night (or when) you are elderly and must choose between food and life-sustaining medicine (or when) you are a single parent who wonders whether to pay her electricity bill or buy food." Those are real problems for real people, right here, right now.

What would God say about our worship? Would God be pleased with our Sunday songs and offerings? Or are we going through the motions without real conviction? Does what we hear on Sunday "spill over" into Monday? Do we drink so deeply at the well of worship that justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream the rest of the week? Would someone know you've been to church by the way you treat the needy? How does our worship measure up?

Another question sums them all up. If you or I were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict us? Tough questions prompted by Amos, that plain-talking farmer. There's no place in our lives where God's plumb line doesn't apply and nowhere to hide.

Truth be told, most of us, much of the time, come out a little bit crooked; sometimes more than a bit. If we're honest, we have to admit that we don't always measure up. When we're out-of-line, something in our lives is sure to crumble. No happy life can be built with weak walls or a bad foundation.

But in the end Amos was hopeful. After nine chapters of anger and judgment, the prophet saw some light. There's a day coming when God will "restore" the "house that has fallen," when God will "repair the holes in the roof, replace the broken windows (and) fix it up like new" (Amos 9:11 The Message). That comes from chapter 9, the end of the book of Amos.

The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible titles this section, "The Restoration of David's Kingdom." The restoration of David's kingdom. For Christians, the restoration of David's kingdom is the coming of Christ. Jesus is David's descendant. He's the new yardstick you and I measure ourselves against. His words and example are the plumb line we must meet.

Clearly, we all come up short when measured against Jesus' perfection. Yet the same carpenter who points out our crookedness is also our Savior; a firm foundation, a cornerstone (1 Peter 2:6), upon which we can build.

Standing alone, none of us will ever measure up. But built on a foundation of faith in Jesus Christ, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can be straightened morally, day by day. Theologians call this "sanctification."
How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord, Is laid for your faith in (God's) excellent word (Jesus being the Word)! What more can God say than to you (God) has said, To you, who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
(John Rippon, 1787)

Everything depends on what -- or who -- we choose to build on. Laziness, lies, and lovelessness will not long stand, but faith in Christ is a firm foundation. Amos, the farmer/builder/ prophet, just might say "Amen!" to that.

Questions for Discussion

1. How does the metaphor/imagery of a plumb line resonate with us as Christians? What does "being out of plumb" mean to you as an individual? As a congregation? As a society?

2. How do we determine "plumb" to God?

3. Which aspects of our society have "gone soft," in your estimation?

4. Whose voices can proclaim and reproach in our society? What can we do to re-establish God's purpose in our times?

5. Explain how Jesus addresses the concerns voiced in Amos. How does Jesus provide a "new yardstick"?

6. Although we cannot match Jesus' plumb line, how can we still use him as a cornerstone? What role will Jesus' life and the Holy Spirit play in your life?

7. What does Amos gain in his instruction by being a simple man and a prophet?
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