Drawing the Line

Chaos seems to be the order of the day for God’s first people, the Israelites.

Not long after the Lord their God rescues them from the bonds of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites begin stepping way over the line, far out of bounds, and deeply into dangerous territory. They most definitely are not meeting God’s expectations for their life together. So, because no civil government yet exists, God gives them the Ten Commandments to restore order and right living. But the people’s idol worship and other fickle foolishness regularly give the Big Ten quite a beating.

Then, once they reach the land that the Lord has long promised, the Israelites are surrounded by constant threat of enemy attack. And, like they’ve done for generations, God’s people tend to get themselves caught up in surrounding pagan beliefs and practices, which are anything but faithful in the eyes of the Lord. Dazzled by shrines to other gods, and partaking in the depravity of their neighbors, and lining their own pockets with unprincipled wealth, the people conveniently forget about God, because life is good and everyone is fat and sassy.

Yet, whenever an enemy attacks, the Israelites suddenly remember the Lord and cry out to him for help. And God lifts up judges, women and men who serve as military and spiritual leaders charged with fending off the enemy and calling the wayward masses back to obedience to the Lord.

The judges are successful military leaders but not so much in their efforts to tame a renegade people and herd them back into heaven’s fold. Frustrated with the lack of powerful, get-’er-done, keep-’er-movin’ leadership, the people call for a king to take the helm, and they finally get one.

In last Sunday’s lesson, we heard the final great judge, Samuel, give his farewell speech to the people. Before turning the reins of leadership over to King Saul, Samuel calls out the faithlessness of the Israelites and urges them back to faithful living and right worship of God.

Thus begins the long era of royal rule for the Israelites. After Saul comes King David, then King Solomon, followed by an eclectic litany of other kings who are mixed bags of good and evil – in the end, as sinful and broken as the people over whom they rule, and unholy living continues unchecked among the Israelites.

To push back on that wickedness, God sends a long line of prophets – holy messengers – to deliver what most often are dire warnings. Different prophets, different times, different sins, yet always the same theme: Because of your disobedience and unfaithfulness to God, punishment is the result.

For their part, God’s people don’t heed warnings until it’s too late. Human nature hasn’t much changed over the millennia. We still hate to be told we are doing wrong, and we don’t really believe that consequences and punishment are coming our way.

In this morning’s Scripture lesson that continues the story of God and us, the Lord calls and sends the prophet Amos to condemn the people with a message of judgment.

In an act of prophetic imagination, Amos sees God standing next to a building and holding in the divine hand a plumb line, a weighted string of the building trade used to make sure walls are straight. Amos’s vision implies that Israel was built correctly but is now off base and off kilter, cracked and crooked – its integrity and righteousness so compromised as to be beyond repair.

As you prepare to listen for the Word of the Lord, please join your hearts with mine in prayer:

Holy God, this life of ours is full to the brim. Our days are overflowing with emails, tweets, and to-do lists; schedules and notifications; assignments and deadlines. We wake up feeling behind and go to sleep worrying about tomorrow. And we know the life should mean more than that. So we pray:

Bend down and show us the way. Leave breadcrumbs to follow in the street. Point us toward awe and wonder. Guide us to intimacy and trust. Gift us with mercy and hope that will make us feel alive. We want a new kind of full to the brim. Show us the way. We are listening for your cues. Gratefully we pray, amen.

I’m reading to you from The Message translation of Amos 7:

God, my Master, showed me this vision:

He was preparing a locust swarm. The first cutting, which went to the king, was complete, and the second crop for the people was just sprouting. The locusts ate everything green. Not even a blade of grass was left. I called out, “God, my Master! Excuse me, but what’s going to come of the people? They’re so weak and vulnerable.” And God gave in, saying, “It won’t happen.”

Then, God showed me this vision: God, my Master God, was calling up a firestorm. It burned up the ocean, then it burned up the Promised Land. I said, “God, My Master! Hold it – please! What’s going to come of the people? They’re so weak and vulnerable.” And again, God gave in. “All right, this won’t happen either,” God, my Master, said.

Finally, God showed me this vision: My Master was standing beside a wall. In his hand he held a plumb line. God said to me, “What do you see, Amos?” I said, “A plumb line.” Then my Master said, “Look what I’ve done. I’ve hung a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel. I’ve spared them for the last time. This is it!

Their unholy sex-and-religion shrines will be smashed, and their pagan monuments will be knocked to pieces. And I’m raising my sword against the royal family of corrupt King Jeroboam. (Amos 7:1-11, The Message)

YouTube offers dozens of online videos showing how to ensure that you correctly build a wall:  You use a plumb line.

Hang a cord with a weighted end next to the wall, and if your cord is perfectly parallel to your wall, then you know you’ve done it right. Your wall is straight, vertical, plumb. Carpenters, masons, and builders of every stripe have been using plumb lines for centuries, and God through Amos grabs hold of this ancient tool to make a blunt and disturbing assessment of God’s people and to express heaven’s utter dissatisfaction with their mischief and tomfoolery.

Here’s what gone haywire among the Israelites, which in many ways are the same dysfunctions that are corrupting our days and times.

The Lord creates his people to be upright and true, and God blesses them through the ages and across the generations. But God’s people no longer are straight and vertical. They are out of plumb with God, and God has lost patience with them.

The people and their kings are going through the motions and rituals of worship, but they are missing the real point of faith in wantonly neglecting the least among them. They have moved the boundary markers of compassion in their own sin-sick hearts, which provides the selfish leeway to trample the destitute and run roughshod over the needy.

The ruling class ignores clear signs of injustice to bring more wealth and greater success to themselves. They enact added taxes and unneeded rules to ruin to the poor. They worship God with their lips but do not serve God with their lives. And a plumb line in their midst reveals just how very out of whack these crooked people are when it comes to lining up God’s intentions, hopes, and dreams with theirs.

And God has run out of patience.

The Lord isn’t looking for repentance from these wayward people. God remains laser-focused on punishment!

Why? Again, as Amos says in earlier chapters, you cannot simply put on your Sunday best, stroll proudly into worship, sing a few hymns, recite the requisite prayers, and leave a token offering that’s anything but sincere or generous, only to turn around and go out into the world to take bribes from the powerful and take advantage of the vulnerable.

You cannot claim to be king and God’s chosen leader – and you cannot support and defend that king – while at the same time depriving the poor of justice, looking with blind eyes upon the misery of widows, orphans, and foreigners, and refusing to acknowledge the fundamental dignity that God weaves into every human life. You cannot stomach runaway greed in the halls of power and tolerate oppression and exploitation in the land.

When you’re so far off tempo and out of step with the Lord – and stubbornly refuse to adjust your attitude, the only things in store for you, sorry to say, are destruction and punishment.

And although Israel will not be completely destroyed – with swarms of locusts or flames of fire as we heard in our lesson, the nation will be punished. The Israelites will be sent into exile, away from their native, God-given land. We’ll get to that part of the story of God and us in a couple weeks. But for now, folks are so caught up in themselves and their achievements that they have lost focus and devotion to God, with whom they are supposed to be living in time-honored covenant.

That’s what happens when we are created for life with God and for God, and we shift our loyalties elsewhere – to our own senses of pride and power, right and wrong.

That’s what happens when self-interest becomes primary and God’s interests secondary.

That’s what happens: Crisis and ruin. Self-interest leads to death and destruction, but God’s interests lead to light and life, hope, security, and peace.

Those harsh words fall hard on the ears – not just for God’s people then but also for you and me as God’s people of today.

Yet, that fatal judgement actually holds good news, if you are one of the poor in the land victimized by the powerful.

It is good news if you are an honest believer like Amos who bemoans what’s happening to faith and its practice. It is good news if you count yourself among God’s people of integrity who see crookedness around every corner, wonder if and when God will ever do anything about it, and finally realize that God is calling you to do something about it.

If you completely buy into the corruption of a nation that has turned away from the true God and somehow or other are profiting from that betrayal of God, then this prophecy is unabashed bad news. But if you long for the reign of God to make your nation pure and right again, it is good news to hear that the Lord will act to redeem his people from their sins and repair them of their brokenness.

In the end, this message of judgment proclaims the Good News to all those with ears to hear that there is a God who provides expectations for human for behavior – a God whose standards of behavior will make life right and true, fair and just, equitable and impartial. That same God holds humans accountable for their crookedness, and that same God enters into our warped human condition with warnings and promises that will come true. 

Among other things, like so much of the Old Testament, Amos reminds God’s people that God is very much present with and to them.

That presence brings mercy, forgiveness, and grace. However, that presence also bring divine demands for appropriate, faithful response to God’s amazing grace. God still holds a “plumb line” to the walls of our lives and pays very close attention to what you and I say, do, and even think.

Deep down, we are longing for a plumb line. In a world of lies, fake news, alternate facts, competing truths, brutal war, and bloody death, we are, I believe, longing for fresh loyalties that line us up with God’s real and intended purposes – that which is true, right, just, and good. This is what real and true faith calls us to be about – not identity politics, or pious judgment, or unchecked prosperity. Real and true faith calls us into loving community that extends the compassion of heaven and holds fast to the Lord’s convictions.

As individuals and together as the Church, we are called to stand together for justice in a brutalizing world, to stand together for hospitality in an exclusive culture, to stand together for generosity in a stingy society, to stand together for faith among faltering nations.

As individuals and as the Church, we are called to evaluate continuously our loyalties and to change our loyalties whenever or wherever those affiliations lead us to think and do anything other than loving and serving God, and loving and serving friend, neighbor, and stranger.

Amos is asking the tough and blunt question we must ask ourselves: Can the soul of a nation be considered sound if it mistreats its most vulnerable members to line its own pockets? The answer might be unbearable.

But even if it most often feels like our integrity and righteousness are so compromised that we’re way beyond repair, thanks be to God that heaven relents of its anger and hangs all of its fury upon an old, rugged cross that allows us to die to who were were and are, and be raised up in glory to new life.

And in that new life, here’s where God hangs the plumb line – where the Lord demands that our loyalties and priorities lie:

In heaven’s love for all people, and in justice for all, especially for the most hurting and vulnerable.

In heaven’s compassion and kindness, even if and especially when those acts seem silly and foolish to the rest of the world.

In the Holy Spirit’s encouragement of neighborly acts that show real care and concern, particularly if and especially when those gestures of generosity and hospitality uplift the people we consider strangers, outsiders, and foreigners.

God bless those of you who are already there – those of you whose loyalties and priorities are already in plumb, and may the Spirit nudge the rest of us into straightening up and flying right.

Ancient words, ever true. Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, March 13, 2022, the second Sunday of Lent. The 10th sermon in his series “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God and Us,” it is adapted from scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Doug Bratt, Alex Evans, Richard Floyd, Stan Mast, and Taylor Mertins.

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