theolog cabin

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Monday, March 13, 2006

July 20, 2003 (Pentecost 6B)

[preached at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Everett, WA]
Amos 7:7-15 (primary text)
Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

Another attempt at preaching on the first reading! This one went a bit better (I think) than the one in February of the same year. But my memory could be sketchy; I am posting these three years after they were preached. Click the time link below to read the whole sermon.

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Traditionally the preacher preaches on the Gospel text. But this evening, we’re going to look at a few things about our reading from the book of Amos, a prophet who lived in the northern kingdom of Israel before it fell to the Assyrians. Since the Bible texts were actually shortened on Sunday to accommodate a longer service, I’m going to read the Amos text in full for us now.

A reading from the book of Amos, chapter seven, verses one through fifteen.
Amos 7:1 This is what the Lord GOD showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king's mowings).
2 When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said, "O Lord GOD, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!"
3 The LORD relented concerning this; "It shall not be," said the LORD.
4 This is what the Lord GOD showed me: the Lord GOD was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land.
5 Then I said, "O Lord GOD, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!"
6 The LORD relented concerning this; "This also shall not be," said the Lord GOD.
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.'

Here ends the reading.

“The land is not able to bear all his words.” We’re not talking about long-winded authors or preachers here (at least I hope not). We’re not talking about textbooks or speeches that seem to go on forever. We’re not even talking about the billions of words you can find on the Internet today. We are talking about words from the mouth of Amos, words that are few but heavy, words that cause the nation of Israel to strain under their weight.

The words of Amos that we are probably most familiar with are these from chapter 5: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” But they are preceded by heavy, heavy words: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies...Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.” And they are followed by more harsh words in chapter 6: “Do horses run on rocks? Does one plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood.” God gave Amos an incredibly difficult message to bear to Israel, a message that pointed out and rejected their hypocrisy and pleaded with Israel to be right with God, inside and out, to worship fully and live lives of mercy towards the poor and the oppressed.

The first two visions Amos relates here in chapter 7 are harsh and heavy; they show a God who has abandoned his people and consumed their sin with disasters that consume their lives as well. But in both of these visions God turns away from utter destruction. God refuses to wipe the slate clean, because it would wipe out his people. God will not lay a burden on us that is too heavy for us to bear.

So instead, God shows up in Amos’ third vision, standing by a wall, with a plumb line in his hand. Now, a plumb line is a kind of level; it’s a length of string with a weight tied to the bottom of it. Because gravity pulls it straight down, you can use it to align vertical edges of a house’s walls, for example, to make sure they are straight. They are still in use today--you can find instructions on the Internet for how to make one. So why does God need a plumb line? The point of this vision is that God places a plumb line among the people--a standard, something that can be used to measure us, something that does not change with popular opinion any more than gravity or level-ness changes. Think about when you hang a picture, and you eyeball it to make it as straight and level as possible. When you actually find the level and use it to check the picture, how often have you actually succeeded in making it perfectly level using only your eyes and your sense of balance? This plumb line was a standard that could not be applied to others without applying it to ourselves.

So God places this plumb line among his people, for them to measure themselves against and take account of their actions. Instead of destroying evil and the people together, because they are completely intertwined, God sets forth a standard that can reveal this to Israel. And God makes a very careful and serious promise here as well. “I will never again pass them by.” God will not overlook our needs, or ignore us. But God will not let us blunder aimlessly without giving us a model, without setting an example of what he expects of us. God will not destroy us in order to cleanse us--think of the promise made to Noah after the flood--but our own ignorance of the plumb line has the power to destroy us. With the plumb line, God is putting his cards on the table and challenging us to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

For the Jewish people, the plumb line set down by God was the Torah, the law of Moses, which was both a gift of God and a requirement for life. For observant Jews, every facet of their lives is determined by what is recorded in the Hebrew Bible. For us as Christians, we see through a different lens, and we have a different plumb line set by God. For us, that plumb line is Christ. The words and teachings of Christ, the example set by Christ, and the meal that is Christ. Jesus Christ--his life, his death, his resurrection--these are all proof that God has not passed us by. The very presence of the plumb line indicates God’s grace, that he will not let us flounder about without reaching out to us, trying to teach us what it means to be God’s children, trying to show us what will bring life by becoming human like us.

Amaziah knew--or thought he knew--that the land, the nation of Israel, the king’s government, could not bear all these words. His primary concerns were stability and security, a comfortable pace of life where things did not change much. The locusts, the fire, and the plumb line meant little to him--instead he accused Amos of treason and being unpatriotic, unable to see beyond Amos’ ominous words of destruction. He probably thought he was being merciful by shooing Amos and his troublesome words off to Judah, to go stir up trouble there. After all, he could have killed Amos for predicting the king’s assassination. And something about the location of these predictions was especially suspicious; Amos had dared to say such things right on the king’s doorstep--at Bethel, the king’s sanctuary, where professionally trained prophets predicted long life for the king and prosperity for the nation of Israel. Look, says Amaziah, this isn’t what people pay you to do. Nobody wants to hear such depressing and disturbing predictions, and they’re not true, anyway. Go do your prophet thing somewhere else.

And Amos replies, Look, I don’t do this for a living. I do this because God has given me a message that I can’t keep silent about. I’m an average guy, I do regular things. I have a normal job herding goats and trimming trees, I don’t work for the government. I’m not anybody special. I didn’t go to college to be a prophet. I didn’t come from God. God made me do and say these things because you need to hear. Then Amos says, you don’t want me to prophesy against the government, fine--God has words for you, too. And he breaks loose on Amaziah with harsh predictions about his wife, his sons and daughters, his land, and his very life.

Who are we in this story? When I first read it, I identified with the role of the prophet Amos--one who says, I am just a normal person who is learning how to do an abnormal job, thanks to a decision by God. Perhaps all of us today can identify with Amos, knowing what it is like to be Christian in a society that loves spirituality but disdains commitment.

But perhaps we can also see ourselves in the role of the people, who suddenly see a prophet in their midst and judge for themselves whether he or she is valid. How often do we simply screen out those who speak prophetically, those who call us to respond to injustice around us? Those who call us to see the plumb line? Don’t get me wrong, I have ignored my share of petitioners, signature gatherers, protesters, and sidewalk prophets. I’m sure you have too. It’s a sort of defense mechanism that allows us to stay focused on our own lives, on what we have to do that day, with a minimum of guilt. It allows us to sustain our belief system, our mode of operation, without challenges or threats. We carry on with our own business, everyone else carries on with theirs, and those who try to prod us out of complacency are the weirdoes. What’s unsettling in this situation is not that we disagree with those who disturb us, but that we can ignore them to the point where their existence has no influence on our own. We are effectively erasing people by not allowing them to bother us. Just like Herod in our Gospel lesson, we, too, kill our prophets. We kill those who disagree with us by using the terribly underrated weapon of apathy. Why? Because living with those who critique us and our way of life is simply too painful.

The land is not able to bear all his words. The people are not able to bear all his words. We are not able to bear all his words. But the miracle, the grace in this bleak picture, is the plumb line that God has extended to us, the example of Christ to whom every nobody was a somebody, and every person who had been erased was restored. This plumb line, this new standard for us, did not remain immovable and remote to preserve itself. It gave its very life so that it might become one of us. And thus, the standard that is impossible to achieve is suddenly something we are able to bear, something we are strengthened to bear. And God will never again pass us by.

And now may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, to life everlasting. Amen.