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. –Amos 7:8
Even though the little book of Amos takes place in the 8th century before Christ, its message is so relevant to our lives. The book is set at a time when Israel was divided into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah. Israel was known to be more liberal and cosmopolitan than Judah, which was more traditional and conservative. The king of Israel, Jeroboam II, went to great efforts to build magnificent edifices to compensate for the fact that the southern kingdom of Judah held the city of the temple- Jerusalem. The priests of Israel compensated for this fact, too, by making their main job to be supporting King Jeroboam’s rule, thus making the political establishment and the religious leaders interconnected and in sync with the preservation of the other.
Amos was a herdsman in the southern kingdom of Judah with no religious training. He spent his time tending sycamore trees, picking figs, and being a farmer. He was an unlikely person for God to call to bring a message to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel. That’s one of the first lessons that this book of Amos teaches us, that God can call anyone to be a messenger of grace and peace. You may feel as if God cannot use you, that you lack the required training or experience to be really used by God. If you ever feel this way, remember Amos. He stood among the trained priests of Israel and spoke God’s message. In the same way, God wants to use each of us to help others. That is the first lesson of Amos.
After Amos travels from his fields to the northern kingdom of Israel, he stands amidst the people and priests and begins to call out some of the injustices of the world. He names other nations and how they have been unjust. He mentions the country of Syria and the Philistine cities and accuses them of human rights violations, and calls out the countries of Tyre and Edom for their treatment of the Israelites, including slavery and anti-Semitism. Amos denounced the country of Ammon for its terrorism against women and children in war, and the called out the country of Moab for disrespecting the dead.
The Israeli priests hearing this message were incensed because they saw where Amos was inevitably moving toward in his message- the injustices of their own political and religious establishment. When we look back at history we find other examples of this dysfunction. It is difficult to imagine how the German Christians accepted the theology of Nazi Germany, but they did. And the Dutch Reformed Church supported apartheid in South Africa, and many American churches were against the civil rights movement. Those are only a few examples. God calls out for someone to speak out against the injustices of the world; people like Amos; like Martin Luther King, Jr., who spoke out for civil rights; like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor who attempted to assassinate Hitler; like Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, who was killed for speaking out against the government; people like you, who aren’t afraid to speak out when you see injustice in the world. Our model for the way to speak out against injustice is Jesus, who God called to be a living message of love on behalf of all of the people who are discriminated against, who are poor, who have experience loss in life, who are caught in a spiral of confusion, or who are lost in sin.
Right now we are flying at 30,000 feet over the book of Amos so that we can get the main point of the book because the book needs to be seen as a whole. When Amos inevitably switches his message to Israel, we gain insight into God’s judgment. First, God calls for a swarm of locusts, but Amos asks God to reconsider, and God does. Then God calls for fire to consume the land in judgment, and again, Amos asks God to reconsider, and he does. Then God asks Amos what he sees, and Amos answers, “A plumb line?” And God tells him, yes, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people.
A plumb line is much different than the locusts or the fire, isn’t it? A plumb line was used to make a wall straight. It was a weight on the end of a string. The message Amos was giving the religious and political leadership of the northern kingdom was that in all of their magnificent building, there was something that needed to be made straight. In the wonderful palaces and temples, there was something that needed to be fixed and corrected. It is amazing that the plumb line has been used to level huge cathedrals and administrative buildings, monuments, colleges and universities, and homes. Whenever someone builds a structure of beauty, style, and magnitude, it brings a great deal of pride. Sometimes after something is built, the last thing that the builder wants to hear is someone reporting that it needs to be re-set, re-measured, made level and straight.
Maybe in our own lives we have the tendency to deny that anything is wrong and needs to be fixed. Maybe we have built a career, or an image, or a business, or a persona, that we are very proud of, and we are reluctant, probably subconsciously but maybe even consciously, to admit that something is off center, leaning, or out of kilter. The people of the northern kingdom of Israel were in a kind of denial. They were prosperous and powerful. In their minds, their affluence was a sign of God’s blessing. But Amos began to call out that they, like the other countries he mentioned, were guilty of neglecting what matters most- helping others. They had neglected the poor in their midst.
Do we neglect the poor? This is the time in the life of the church that so many of you remember the poor by dedicating your time and energy into the rummage sale. I am so impressed by the way you give, give, give. There are so many of you that give your financial resources to the poor, and who serve as ambassadors of the church with your work with our many agencies that we support. We need to be careful to always keep our service to the poor strong, and I believe that we can do even more. But it would be easy for us to forget and focus upon ourselves, wouldn’t it? People define success in different ways, and we could relax into a feeling that our affluence was somehow a reward from God, and that could develop into a pride that eventually would neglect the poor. All it would take to begin this downward spiral would be to define success by who we are and what we have, and not by how we are helping others.
How do you define success? Right now picture in your mind your favorite President. Three men were trying to define success, and one said that it would be to meet with that President in the Oval Office. Another defined success by saying that if the red hotline rang, the President would ignore it and keep speaking to him. The third man defined success by saying that meeting with the President in the Oval Office and having the hotline ring would work, but the President would answer it, and hang the phone to him, saying, “It’s for you.”
Amos gave the people of Israel a symbolic lesson to define success in a new way. Instead of a quest for personal construction and power, of ego and pride, to re-focus oneself outward, could be a new way to live. Amos wanted the people to hear God’s message that when we focus ourselves upon others, we actually begin to fill ourselves with God’s love. But we have to make that shift from self to others, and that involves re-defining life, maybe even re-defining how we view success. A man went to a minister and asked why he felt so down. He told the doctor that he was a success in life, with a good business, a good family, a solid marriage, but he felt terrible about himself. The minister explained that the man had made these things his meaning in life, and although they were all good things, they were, in the way the man described them, self-centered idols of the man’s identity, used only to build himself up rather than others. “Try dedicating yourself to others, God will never let you run out of ways to serve others,” the minister told him. The man began to reach out in love, and all of the things in his life took new meaning. Every relationship that he thought was so good became enriched even more when it was tempered by God’s love for others instead of his own love of himself.
Amos sees a plumb line. What is your plumb line? Have you ever thought about what stands against the way you live your life, about what moderates your behavior? Is it the Ten Commandments? Or maybe what your mother and father taught you, or didn’t teach you? Maybe it is an unwritten code that you have taught yourself over time that you don’t even realize, like being an American citizen, or the traditions of the community in which you were raised, or being a citizen of the North Shore of Chicago…
I believe that the plumb line that Amos was referring to was Jesus Christ. His lessons, the way that he lived his life, the way he spoke out against injustice, should be our plumb line. He constantly fought for the oppressed and the discriminated. He taught to help our neighbors in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus said that many times we are preoccupied with the speck in our neighbor’s eye when we have a log in our own eye. Jesus is our plumb line because if we are made in the image of God, he is our perfect image to emulate.
We have heard this phrase “made in the image of God” before. It is a familiar phrase from the Bible like love your enemies, but this phrase, image of God, is very much misunderstood. Many people thing that when we are made in God’s image, that we are little copies of God, that we are made somehow to look like God. The dictionary tells us that a model is a miniature copy of the real thing, but we are not copies of the real thing. God is God, the creator. We are dependent upon God for every breath we draw, for every moment of life. So what does being made in the image of God mean?
A good place to start is to realize that the Biblical writers use the phrase more like a verb than as a noun. We are not made to be little images of God, we are made to image God, to reflect in our lives the life of God. This is an important distinction because it is about how our lives are positioned rather than what we look like. It is not how we are formed, not what we look like, or who we look like, it is rather, whether we have positioned ourselves before God in such a way as to reflect God’s love.
God gave Amos a vision of construction building—a wall and a plumb line. Just as builders use a plumb line to and level to get a building straight, let us apply this to our lives. Let us not see bricks in a wall but God’s plumb line of justice and compassion for our neighbors – the ones we know– and the ones we do not know. When we see the plumb line as the life of Christ, we realize that we have a lot of things that we need to adjust and straighten out. The good news is that Amos ends with a promise of renewal and hope. We know that we don’t measure up to God’s plumb line, and may feel that we don’t even know where to begin our rebuilding. But God ends the book of Amos by stating some great news- God is going to help us. Here is a portion of the end of the book of Amos: “In that day I will restore David’s fallen shelter—I will repair its broken walls and restore its ruins—and will rebuild it as it used to be, so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name, declares the LORD, who will do these things. The days are coming, declares the LORD, when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes. New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills, and I will bring my people Israel back from exile. They will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them. They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them, says the Lord your God.”
Today God still has a plumb line. His plumb line for us is Jesus, the only unfailingly true and perfect One who ever lived. Jesus builds character within us, and knows what is necessary to straighten us out when we are out of sync with God. We all require straightening, maybe even a tearing down and re-laying of the foundation. We all are in the middle of being re-built into who God wants us to be. If life is leaning in the wrong direction, let us come to the great plumb line, Jesus, and put our life in his hands. Let us give him our struggles and find new strength to live on the straight and narrow path that leads to eternal life in God’s presence forevermore.