“Plumb’s the Word”
Rev. James Rausch
Today’s Old Testament reading was from the minor prophet Amos. Do you know the difference between a minor prophet and a major prophet? Are major prophets more important? No. Do major prophets sound happy and bold while minor prophets sound sad and subdued? No. (That was a musical reference for Hyunmi.) No. It’s as simple as this: The written words of each of the three major prophets each filled up an entire scroll – 24 feet. The written words of all 12 minor prophet put together only filled one scroll. It’s only a matter of the length of the material we have from each prophet. I suppose the length of the material you get from me makes me a major pastor.
Okay – extra credit: Can anyone name the three major prophets? Great, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Can anyone name one of the minor prophets? Didn’t we just mention Amos? How could you not get that one? Well, I’m wondering if anyone here has Amos as their favorite book of the Bible. Anyone? Poor Amos. His book is only a few pages and is hard to find; it’s lumped in with 11 other minor prophets.
And when people do read Amos, they rarely make it past chapter one. Why? Well, I’ll give you a sample: Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have threshed Gilead with threshing sledges of iron… Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they carried into exile entire communities, to hand them over to Edom… Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Tyre, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because… blah, blah, blah. Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment… It continues this pattern over and over again, naming the Ammonites, the wall of Rabbah, Moab, and Judah; God’s anger pronounced by Amos on a laundry list of tribes.
Who wants to read that? What sense can be made of it? So, people give up and ignore it. Next time Erik smarts off, I’m going to make him read the book of Amos!
But what if it really is part of God’s inspired Word and has something we all would benefit from knowing? What a concept! Well, lucky for you, Pastor Jim has come to shed some light on the situation. Here’s the story. Amos was from the Southern Kingdom of Judah. This was after the ten Northern tribes of Israel had broken away from the two Southern tribes, and they became bitter rivals. So, Amos, who was minding his own business, tending his flock as a shepherd, is called upon by God to speak as a prophet a great word of judgment to the people of the Northern Kingdom! Oh, great, God, thanks; just send me into the midst of the enemy with bad news and watch me get beaten to death.
It’s like if God were to pick one of us and say, “Travel to Iran and tell them how angry God is with them.” Anyone like to volunteer? Well, this is what Amos was facing. How in the world was he going to get the people of the North to listen to him? Thus, the brilliant rhetorical technique Amos devised in chapters one and two. He names their rival tribes, one-by-one, and pronounces God’s displeasure with them. “For three sins, and for four, I will not forgive Damascus…” That was Syria, even further north. So, the Northern Israelites, who were skeptical of what this Southerner had to say, said, “Well he’s off to an okay start… “For three sins and for four, God will not forgive Gaza…” the home of the hated Philistines. “Hey,” the audience perked up, “maybe this guy is a true prophet after all.”
“For three sins and for four, God will not forgive Edom…” enemies to the Southeast. “We’re with you, Amos! You speak God’s truth!” And Amos continued with the condemnations of neighboring tribes, listing some of the bad things they had done. And then, the icing on the cake, “For three sins and for four, God will not forgive Judah!” That was where Amos was from. By now, his Northern audience was eating out of his hands. “This guy really is speaking God’s Word. Go, Amos, Go!” Now that he had them where he wanted them, he gets to the reason he was sent there in the first place, and POW, he let’s them have it with both barrels. Turns out that all those early pronouncements were small potatoes, and Amos ripped that list off rapid-fire-style in just over one chapter. The next eight or nine chapters are all God’s message of judgment on the Northern kingdom of Israel. Amos drew them in to assigning him credibility as a true prophet by first speaking things that they agreed with, and then he lowered the boom on them.
And that brings us to today’s passage, Amos’ vision, in which God was using a plumb line to teach a lesson. A plumb line is used as a reference to see if a wall is standing straight. And in the lesson the wall represented God’s people, Israel. A wall that isn’t true to plumb – that’s leaning one way or the other – will eventually topple over by the force of its own weight. Builders learn quickly how critical it is to have an accurate reference point like a plumb line, because you can’t just trust what looks right. You might be standing on a slope, even a slight one, and what looks right to your eyes will not likely be true to plumb.
Have you ever been in a house that was not true to plumb? I’ll bet some of you have some stories about homes where dropping anything that would roll on the floor meant that you would have to chase it all the way to the other side of the room. When I was a kid, I remember once visiting the house of my best friend’s grandfather. It was so far out of plumb I remember it was hard to walk in it. His family used to kid him a lot about it. They said that he’d gotten so used to his leaning house that whenever he got out and walked on level ground, he ended up walking in circles. Of course, they were joking, but it is amazing how our bodies can adjust to the reference points around them, whether or not they are true standards.
Some of you may have heard of a study that was done where a person was given glasses to wear that made everything appear upside down. The whole world appeared flip-flopped! Now this person was not to remove these glasses and try to function in an upside-down world. At first it was nearly impossible. Something as simple as drinking from a glass of water was chaotic. However, with each day, things became easier. The person became oriented to the new reference point. And to the amazement of all involved with the study, after 7 days the person wearing the glasses reported that the world was appearing right-side up again. The glasses were still turning everything he saw upside down, but remarkably, his brain had adapted and made everything appear right-side up.
Sure enough, when they asked him to remove the glasses, now the whole world was upside down again, and he had to take another week before his brain adapted again to the true reference. All this goes to show how we adapt to the things we choose as reference points. If we see the world through lenses that make everything the opposite of what it is, soon we will come to think that this is normal, and what’s really upside down, we will call right-side up. If we choose to live by standards that say, I’ll look out for me and mine… I don’t need God… or I can be Christian without being active in a Christian community, how very quickly those upside-down standards begin to look perfectly right-side up to us.
That’s how “love your neighbor as yourself” has come to be replaced by “mind your own business,” as the most valued virtue by many in our country today. We live by the reference points we choose, whether we care to admit it or not.
Without a true and objective standard to go by, we end up trying to eyeball it. And any builder knows, you won’t get it straight. The tribe who was feared the most in Bible times was the Chaldeans. Another minor prophet, Habakkuk, affirmed that they were known as a ruthless and impetuous people. You didn’t ever want to be captured by them. Better to fall on your own sword than be taken by them and suffer unspeakable things. Why were the Chaldeans so dreaded and fearsome? Habakkuk nailed it: “Their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.” They had no law or authority outside themselves to which they were accountable. They did as they pleased with no standards. They eyeballed their own justice, and it made them barbaric.
Even in the stories of the Native American tribes, the memory still remains of a particular tribe whose reputation was ruthlessness, and other tribes and early Americans were especially afraid of them. Do you know which tribe? Right, the Apache tribe. Humans need a true standard to live by to keep our crooked tendencies from causing chaos. In the news recently was a disturbing message from an activist group which posted a threat to continue to commit violent and destructive acts against property and people on the other side of an issue. Their threat stated, “We we are mercurial, and we answer to no one but ourselves.”
No matter what side of an issue we find ourselves to be passionately committed, if we answer to no one but ourselves, we become our own law, and because we are fallen and broken humans, all of us, our way will be far from true and just. It will be crooked and twisted, yet we will be blind to that fact. A plumb line is needed if the wall is to be built sturdy and true.
And in Old Testament times, Amos, a simple herdsman, saw around him a society where the people were living by standards that led them to selfish, cruel, and wicked behaviors. They did not worship God, and what was so thoroughly crippling was that nearly the whole society had been seeing the world through their upside-down glasses so long that what they were doing seemed perfectly fine to them. It had gotten to the point that when God’s word was spoken, they asked the prophet who spoke the word to leave. You see Amos didn’t wear the same glasses. And his vision was God holding a plumb line. The straight and true standard by which God calls us to live and judges us.
The job of the prophets was to call the people back to God’s standard, to ask them to take a look at how they measured up. Israel heard the call and rejected it. And like a wall that is out of plumb, Israel collapsed. Do we measure up? That was the essence of what the lawyer in our Gospel reading was asking. He said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other words, “Do I measure up to God’s standards to get into heaven?” The man answered his own question: “Love the Lord your God . . . and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “You’re right. Now do it!” Now the lawyer was an upstanding citizen. He paid his taxes. He gave to charities. He was nice to his family and friends. So, he pursued the question, “Who is my neighbor.”
Jesus’ answer was the parable of the good Samaritan, a story that gives an example of love for neighbor that goes above and beyond, transcends race and religion. A story that says the neighbor is everyone… especially the last person in the world that you would help or be helped by. The Samaritans were the descendants of those Northern tribes Amos spoke to. The example of love that Jesus gave here is hard to live up to. To love one’s enemy as the Samaritan did is exceptional. Even the religious leaders in the story failed to stop for the injured Jew. But the despised Samaritan risked the possibility of being attacked himself to stop and help the Jewish stranger. That is God’s plumb line. Do we measure up?
A seminary professor at a large school was known for being a stickler for on time attendance at his classes. One day, when he planned to lecture on the parable of the Good Samaritan, he arranged to hold his class on the opposite side of campus. Then he planted an actor playing the role of a disoriented, homeless person in need of assistance right on the path that the students would have to walk to get to the class. Boy did he make an impact with his lesson after each one had passed by that person in their rush to get to class.
It made those students squirm in their seats. But what about us? God showed Amos that he has placed a plumb line in the midst of his people to measure them. In Amos’ time that plumb line was God’s word, revealed by Moses and the prophets. God’s plumb line for the lawyer was Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan, a story that called him to love his enemy. That was God’s measure of righteousness. But ultimately both of these are merely reflections of the complete revelation of God’s word: Jesus himself. He is the plumb line God has placed in our midst. His life and death are the living example of everything that Amos and the other prophets told Israel. His love for everyone, even those who made themselves enemies to God, is what was behind the Samaritan. Jesus Christ, who died for us while we were yet sinners, is the measure God uses to judge us.
Do we measure up? Look at your life, and judge for yourself. Does your devotional life measure up to Jesus? He prayed all the time and attended his local Synagogue every Sabbath. Does your obedience measure up to Jesus? Jesus was obedient even to the point of death. Does our forgiveness measure up to Jesus? He was wrongly accused and nailed to a cross, yet he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Does your sacrifice measure up to Jesus? He gave it all up for God. He loved the world so much that he gave up his life in heaven to come live in our sinful world. He sacrificed the glories of heaven for a cattle stall, and then sacrificed his life for the sins of the world.
I could go on, but I have my answer. I don’t measure up. Compared to the plumb line of Jesus’ life I am a leaning wall on the verge of collapse. God might as well knock me over now. If we are honest with ourselves, none of us measure up. Amos tells us that God has placed a plumb line in the midst of his people. That plumb line is Jesus Christ, and we don’t measure up. So, what will happen to us? Will we topple over like a leaning wall? Will God get us someday? Our Scripture lessons give us two parts to the answer. First, as Amos had warned, Israel collapsed and became another example of the truth most of us already know. We can’t continue to live seeing the world through our glasses of selfishness and idolatry, pretending that what’s upside down is right side up.
Eventually we will fall with a great thud, not at the hands of God, but just as an out of plumb wall collapses under its own weight. There is a reason in this life for learning and practicing our faith passionately. But there is also a second part. God will not will not crucify us for our sins because God has already allowed us to crucify His Son for our sins. We couldn’t possibly live up to God’s standards, but Jesus did. And he paid the debt for all our sins. It is just up to us to accept the new life he bought for us with his blood. Then we can stand tall for Jesus. Not because we have made ourselves straight with our own judgments. We can stand tall because Jesus straightened us out by his standards.