Prophetic Pains and Plumb Lines (Amos 7:7-15)

July 9th, 2013

Prophets are such pains. They just refuse to get with the program. Just when things are going smoothly, they start making waves.

Today we heard from Amos. What a pain Amos is. Amos lives in the good times of Israel. Jeroboam II is a powerful king. Israel is at peace with her neighbors. The economy is good. People are working. Life is humming along. Things are looking good. And along comes Amos. What is his problem? Why can't he get with the program?

Amos's problem is that God has given him a vision, and he cannot get God's vision out of his head. Amos would like to get with the program. He'd like to go back to his sheep and sycamore trees. But he can't. He can't because he no longer sees the world the way he used to. God has showed him how out of kilter Israel is.

“See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.”1

A plumb line—a reference point. A way of seeing how our ways are different from God's ways. Prophets give us a way of standing back and appraising our condition.

Our house in Nashville was built in 1924, so nothing was plumb. You could put a marble in the center of any floor and it would roll to the corner. We were constantly in need of a level, an outside authority. Because if we looked only at our environment, everything would look right, but nothing would really be right.

That's Amos. He tells us he is a dresser of sycamore trees. That means he cuts the top of the fruit open. If the fruit is healthy, letting in air makes it ripen sooner and become juicier. If there are insects inside, opening it up gets them out.

Amos is dressing Israel—cutting her open to show what is healthy and what is not.

And what does he find?

Underneath the prosperity and lack of conflict is a people who have forgotten God's command to care for the poor, the defenseless, the little ones of the world. Amos says the law courts only serve the rich.Wealthy merchants are concerned only with their profit and so they exploit the poor.

“They trample the heads of the weak into the dust of the earth and they force the lowly away.”2

The temples, he says, are only going through the motions, putting on better and better rituals, but not changing people's hearts or their actions.

That's why Amos, like all prophets, is a pain. Because they call us to account.

Well, what about us? What about our world? How does it look when we put it beside God's plumb line?

Our first temptation is to focus on rules of behavior and sins of the flesh. And we could talk about promiscuity or adultery or sex outside marriage or. . . . I always want to rail against violence and the abundance of guns. Or we could go for alcohol and drug abuse. All those are sinful. All lead us away from God's ways.

But I think Amos points us deeper. Amos points us to assumptions we make that are so insidious because they are so hidden. Let me try to get at this with a story:

Once a woman went into a café. She sat at a table for two, ordered coffee, and prepared to eat some cookies she had in her purse. The café was crowded, so a man took the other chair and also ordered coffee. The woman began reading her newspaper, and then she reached over and took a cookie out of the package. She noticed the man took a cookie as well. This upset her, but she kept on reading. After a while she took another cookie. And so did he.

She became angry and glared at the man as he reached over and took the last cookie in the package, smiled, and offered her half of it. The woman was indignant and left in a huff.

As she was paying for her coffee, she noticed that in her purse was her package of unopened cookies.

Let me take this story and mention three hidden sins.

First, we worship things, and we worship people who have things. We talk about obeying the Ten Commandments, but what about the eighth commandment: “Thou shalt not covet”? Our economy is driven by creating desire. Although we have benefited greatly from our economic system, its downside is that it makes us want beyond our needs. Why do we need so many things when there are so many who have no things? Like the woman, we fixate on who owns what, instead of sharing what lies before us. We forget that everything is given to us by God, and so we think we are entitled to these things.

Second, we are so afraid of one another. We think in terms of lawsuits, or being harmed, or being offended. I am all for making people accountable for their behavior. But we are called to see others as children of God, as brothers and sisters and not as threats. We know how to be wise as serpents. But what about innocent as doves?

Like the woman—we don't think there are enough things or love or community, so we are fearful that those next to us will take what we have; we forget that Christ is found in community.

We are the boat
We are the sea
I sail in you
You sail in me

Finally, we have forgotten our call to sacrifice. What if those cookies really were the woman's? Why not take bread, bless it, break it, and share it?

I don't expect our society to talk about giving up for others. But I expect Christians to. I expect myself to. And how often I fail. How often we fail.

The worship of things. The fear of others. The failure to sacrifice.

We gather together to remember that Jesus Christ is our plumb line. To ask God to be like the man in the café. The one who takes what by God's grace is given to him and shares it with others. So that Christ might join them at the table.

excerpted from: Sermons that Work, a sermon on Amos 7:7–15 by G. Porter Taylor. Available with a subscription to the Ministry Matters Library.

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