July 10, 2016

With a Plumb-line in his Hand

Passage: Amos 7:7-17, Psalm 82, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37
Service Type:

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.

The Barna Group is a company widely considered to be a leading research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture. In their August 2015 poll Barna highlighted what is being called America’s new moral code. As a tenant of that code, 89 percent of adults agreed with this statement, “people should not criticize someone else’s lifestyle choices.” Barna authors conclude that “The morality of self-fulfilment is everywhere, like the air we breathe. Much of the time we don’t even notice we’re constantly bombarded with messages that reinforce self-fulfillment—in music, movies, video games, apps, commercials, TV shows, and every other kind of media.”

I have no parallel statistics for Canadians; anecdotally it seems that the idea that “people should not criticize someone else’s lifestyle choices” is so deeply entrenched in many places it is one of those givens, things that seem to go without saying. Self-determining choice has become the consideration that trumps all other considerations when it comes to moral choice. The fact that our supreme court found a right to assisted suicide in the Canadian Charter is an instance of how the person’s right to choose is considered the highest good. The autonomy of the individual is the idol of cultural worship.

1. I wonder what the prophet Amos would have thought of the axiom that “people should not criticize someone else’s lifestyle choices?” In a manner of speaking this is what Amaziah, the priest of Bethel said to Amos. “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.” Your message isn’t welcome here! It’s upsetting to the status quo. You must not be critical of our life style choices!

Isn’t this what makes reading the older testament prophets difficult? They are always speaking about judgement. And who are they to judge? It is a commonly held opinion among Christians that the God revealed in the Old Testament is harsh and judgemental; we much prefer Jesus and his “love one another as I have loved you.” Today we read from Amos of God’s judgement of Israel and that judgement would not be averted—“the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste “ And then we read about the parable of the Good Samaritan illustrating how we are to exhibit God’s love for the hurting of this world. All the while thinking that these two texts illustrate the point of the “two-God” theory of old and new testaments.

Let us reflect on that for a moment—is this stark contrast we hear as pronounced as we think? Could it be it has a lot to do with how we hear and with what lens we are reading these texts?

To get a sense of Amos it would be a helpful exercise to read the entire book at one sitting; relatively short and from a literary standpoint a good read. David Hubbard in his commentary gives this summary. “Abuse of power in the social realm and compromise with paganism in the religious were the two besetting sins Amos denounced. At particular fault were the powerful, the landed, the wealthy and the influential, in short, the leadership, who had not only seduced the underprivileged from obedient worship of Yahweh, but had conscripted their lands, confiscated their goods, violated their women and cheated them in business along the way.”

Amos’ book begins this way, “The Lord roars from Zion.” The lion-like roar was a divine No, shouted through the prophet at every basic component of Israel’s political, social, economic and religious life. God was saying “No” to this path they were on—they were far from the covenant relationship with God. God’s great “yes” in calling this people his own was a “yes” that blesses life. His No is always against all that destroys life and dehumanizes.

If we listen carefully to Jesus a great “no” was shouted in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus said “yes” to the actions of the Samaritan as he cared for the man who fell among thieves. But what is Jesus word about the priest and the Levite who each saw the wounded man and “passed by on the other side? Isn’t Jesus saying “yes” to the actions of the Samaritan and also an emphatic “no” to the actions (or lack thereof) of the priest and Levite? Amos’ pronouncement that Israel “crushed the needy” and Jesus picture of the priest and Levite make the same point.

Every “yes” implies a “no.” Our cultural “yes” that “people should not criticize someone else’s lifestyle choices” isn’t as magnanimous as it sounds; it shouts a resounding “no” to anyone who might offer a question or two with regard to lifestyle choice. One only has to consider how the Law Societies of various Canadian provinces ruled that graduates of the law programme from Trinity Western University would not be permitted a licence to practise law to hear this cultural “no”. Graduates were to be denied law licence not because there was some academic deficiency in their programme, but because the University requires students to sign a code of conduct which includes a point with regard to sexual conduct.

The question isn’t between “yes” and “no”; the question is whose “yes” and “no” to trust.

2. We read today of one of the visions God shows Amos. In this vision he sees “the Lord standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line. The word translated “plumb-line” here denotes an object made of tin or lead. The mention of the wall and the hand holding the metal object has pointed most interpreters to a device used in measurement or construction, therefore, a plumb-line.

A plumb-line working with the force of gravity is used to determine that a wall is perpendicular—an important and necessary structural feature for construction. Are you being judgemental if you measure a contractor’s work with a plumb-line? Amos’ vision moves our attention from the necessity of judgement to God as the master-builder; the plumb-line is the covenant standard of obedience to his call for justice and righteousness; the wall is “my people Israel” whose lives are being tested for conformity to that standard. The wall is so defective it needs to come down. The high placed and sanctuaries and king’s house will be laid waste; the religious and political life of Israel were corrupt and about to collapse.

A brief historical interlude to set the context of Amos’ pronouncements. Amos lives in the time of the divided Kingdom. Israel’s twelve tribes began united under one king; first Saul, then David and then Solomon. Following Solomon the kingdom split—the ten northern tribes formed a union with Samaria as capital and Bethel the principle high place of worship. These ten tribes are called Israel. The two southern tribes remain loyal to David’s throne in Jerusalem and are known as Judah.

Amos comes from a town near Bethlehem which is in Judah. He is called to preach in Israel the northern alliance. That helps us understand when the priest in Bethel tells Amos to “flee away to the land of Judah and earn your bread there. The era in which Amos preaches (765-755 BCE) was one of relative prosperity in both kingdoms. But prosperity is not a measure of covenant faithfulness—they could not see their own corruption and told Amos to get lost for saying otherwise. About forty years after Amos preaches his message Israel is destroyed by the Assyrians, Samaria is reduced to rubble, the people deported, and the places of worship destroyed.

Now all of this sounds very harsh. Please underline with me this phrase in God’s word through Amos, “my people Israel.” God’s judgement of his people is never God throwing his people away. They are still his people.

Consider this question. Would you trust a God who never says “no?” If we are resistant to the idea of the wrath of God seen in judgement, we might pause the next time we are outraged about something—about the waste by governments of tax dollars, or our children’s or grandchildren’s educational opportunities being limited, or the system that limits access to timely health care treatments. All of us are capable of anger about something. God’s anger, however, is pure. It does not have the maintenance of privilege as its object, but goes out on behalf of those who have no privileges. The wrath of God is not an emotion that flares up from time to time, as through God had temper tantrums; it is a way of describing his absolute enmity against all wrong and his coming to set matters right.

Theologian Miroslav Volf writes, “A non-indignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception, and violence. Volf, a theologian with personal experience of tragic conflict, is uncompromising in his rejection of “a God without wrath” who brings “men without sin into a kingdom without judgement.”

God’s “no” to his people is to his people. God is not rejecting his people—God is ever faithful to his covenant to make this people his own. God is saying that these people are betraying his covenant; the trajectory of their justice (king) and worship (high places) were in a direction counter to the covenant of life. God’s “no” is a no to anything that destroys life—the life he gives as a free gift!

3. We began thinking about how God’s “yes” and “no” belong together. Next we saw that God’s “no” to his people was not an act of cutting off relationship. Finally we note that in God’s judgement there is hope. Amos’ prophetic work ends with a proclamation of the restoration of his people—“I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel.”

Why is God’s judgement a word of hope? First it says he cares about his people. He can see the ruin they are headed for and calls them to turn from it. The opposite of love is not hatred but indifference. God’s love has never changed. The divine hostility to sin has always been an aspect of his love.

The word of hope comes in Jesus, as Father and Son would bear this judgement in themselves for our sin. Theologian Karl Barth defines the primal human sin as making ourselves judges in order to exculpate ourselves and condemn others. Adam and Eve’s instantaneous response is to blame others in order to hang on to the illusion of innocence. We have usurped God’s place as judge. The just judgement that brought us peace was laid on someone else.

God’s word of judgement is a word of hope because the announcement of judgement comes as part of the declaration of “free to go.” The diagnosis of the disease of sin is heard as part of the cure. As we take communion today we hear again that on the cross he gave his body for us; there his blood is shed for us; it is there he bore the judgement justly my own.

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.