Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
July 14, 2019
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. 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; 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.”
Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has bear all his words. For thus Amos has said conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ “Now therefore hear the word of the Lord. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.” 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.’”
Every day a man used to walk by a clock shop, glance at a big clock in the display window, and then stop and set his own watch by that time. One day the owner of the store happened to be standing in the doorway of the shop. He recognized the man who walked by the store every day and said to him, “I see you set your watch by the large clock in our window. What kind of work do you do that demands such accurate time?” The man replied, “I’m the watchman at the factory just down the street. Part of my job is to blow the five o’clock whistle at the daily closing of the plant. I blow the whistle when my watch, set to your clock, tells me that it is five o’clock.” The shop owner was rather startled. “But you can’t do that!” he said. “I set the large clock in the window each day when the five o’clock whistle goes off!”
I am always amazed at the reactions of certain politicians and elected officials who have found themselves in the midst of scandal. The situation is not unique to any major political party or region of the country. Individuals, even with their hands caught in the proverbial cookie jar, even admitting that they participated in an illegal or immoral action, refuse to be ashamed or remorseful about their deeds. In fact is seems as if it weren’t for other people, like the media, these officials tell us that we would be much better off. We wouldn’t have to live with the knowledge that our government servants had done something wrong.
To avoid current controversy, I will offer some example over 20 years ago. Former mayor of New York City David Dinkins found himself in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service. His response to the press, “I haven’t committed a crime. What I did was fail to comply with the law.” George H.W. Bush’s budget director Richard Darman was once asked why the president didn’t keep a campaign promise. He replied, “The President didn’t say that. He only read what was given to him in a speech.” And we all remember Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington D.C. When asked about the notoriously high crime in his city Barry said, “Outside of all of the killings, Washington D.C. has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.”
The Scripture lesson this morning is from the book of Amos. In about 750 BC, Amos heard the word of the Lord to prophesy to the nation Israel, the northern kingdom of that then-divided land. Amos left his home in the southern kingdom of Judah, and traveled north to deliver a tongue lashing message of honest criticism. He predicted God’s judgement. He announced that Israel would fall to another nation. Needless to say, his message wasn’t a real popular one.
Nobody in Israel cared what Amos had to say. He was an outsider whose opinion really didn’t matter. Times were good. Most people were making money and living comfortably. Only the poor were suffering. So what if God was being ignored. The people were so selfish that they figured they didn’t need to take time or energy for God. Not even the temple priests cared to listen. They didn’t want to rock the boat. And in the year 721, just as Amos predicted, the neighboring Assyrians conquered Israel.
Amos offered the Word of God to Israel in an object lesson. He saw God standing beside a wall, holding a plumb line, a small weight tied to a piece of string. When dropped from the top of a wall or building, gravity allowed the plumb line to set a straight and accurate measurement, perpendicular to the wall. If a wall had been built out of plumb, the responsible thing to do was to tear it down otherwise it would soon fall from its own weakness.
I recall the home in which Laura and I lived in West Bloomfield years ago. Whenever we tried our hand at a home improvement project-carpet, replacement windows, wallpaper- we discovered that all of the walls were crooked. Whenever a contractor came into that home, he or she would stand back and scratch their heads as if they did not know what to do next. What they did was to take more time, make special cuts, and charge us more! Evidently, somewhere along the construction process, someone forgot the plumb line.
Amos used God’s expectation of justice and righteousness as a plumb line, as a level for how one’s spiritual life was reflected in decision making and personal behavior. Amos’ vision of the plumb line symbolized God’s unchanging demands to which those who profess to follow God are expected to conform. The plumb line was a series of not-so-subtle standards meant to convict. It is a reminder to each of us to honestly examine the standards upon which we have built our lives, make our daily decisions, and promote our values. In a commentary on the passage Dr. Arlene Nehring writes that Amos’ plumb line forces us to ask the questions: How to be make our everyday decisions? How do we establish our priorities? What do we teach our children and grandchildren about their choices? What do we expect from our leaders? Do our words and our actions seem to match?
A plumb line is like a moral compass or a bubble level of the spiritual life. There are some who prefer to live with absolute truth: black and white, right and wrong- and teach everyone these rules for following the truth. But the complexity of life often doesn’t allow for simple and clear responses. Amos wasn’t calling for the people of Israel to live by a strict sheet of answers. He was calling for them to consider and measure their actions against the truth of God as it spoke to them that day and in that situation.
Noted preacher James Forbes said, “From my perspective, Jesus the Christ could be viewed as God’s plumb line, sent from heaven on a line to earth; and who he was, and what he did, and what he said, held up to a standard by which we were to measure the quality of our lives and by which we were to assess the righteousness of our nation.” I think he is right. While we may not be comfortable telling others exactly what they must believe, while we might sincerely acknowledge the complexities of our modern world, we still have a standard of spirit by which to measure our choices and our behavior. We can hold up the plumb line of God’s intention for God’s people as we find it in the life and teachings of Jesus the Christ. Jesus is the level by which we measure our faithfulness. He is the plumb line we need.