THE PLUMB LINE
We don’t often read from the prophet Amos. It’s a little book, one of the twelve Minor Prophets that appear right at the end of the Old Testament. While the prophet Amos was originally from the southern kingdom of Judea, he moved north where he prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel. He was not always a prophet but began his working life as a shepherd and farmer before God called him to speak the word to Israel.
Some people refer to Amos as a prophet for our time and I think those people might be on to something. He lived in a time of relative peace and prosperity. But not everyone shared in that prosperity. There was a growing gap between the very rich and the very poor. There was also a severe neglect of matters of religion and faith. Sound familiar? We live in a time of relative peace and prosperity. Despite some myths to the contrary, the middle class is as strong as ever. But there is a growing gap between the very rich and the very poor. And we, in North America anyway, certainly live in an era of spiritual and religious neglect.
Because Amos lived in a time very similar to our own, he has a lot to say to us today. Let’s begin with Amos 7:7-8 (NIV) which says this:
This is what [God] showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord asked me, “What do you see, Amos?”
“A plumb line,” I replied.
Then the Lord said, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel…
Who knows what a plumb line is? It’s a very simple device with a very important purpose. It’s basically a weight attached to the end of a piece of string. When you hold up end of the string, gravity pulls the weight straight down and now you have a reference that is perfectly perpendicular. That’s what it means to say that something is plumb.
In Amos 7, the plumb line is used to see if a wall is straight. The builder places the top of the string at the top of the wall that’s being built and lets the weight fall. If the wall lines up with the plumb line, then it is straight. If it doesn’t line up it is crooked. If it’s a bit off of plumb the builder can adjusts the wall in order to bring it back to plumb. Note that it’s important to make sure the wall is being built plumb because if the wall is out even a small degree at the bottom, that small error will be multiplied as the wall goes up. So it’s important to catch it early in the building process. In this way, the builder creates a straight wall that is strong and will not topple over.
ISRAEL OUT OF PLUMB
Amos uses that same principle on the people of Israel. God wants to know how they lined up. He wants to know if they are plumb. “I am setting a plumb line among my people,” says the Lord. He is going to measure them to see if they are straight. He wants to know if their lives line up with the way they are called to live. Apparently, God discovers some rather serious discrepancies and he is not the least bit pleased as we shall see in a minute.
Something is clearly amiss. Like everything else in creation, God made Israel with a purpose. They are his Chosen People. They are a holy nation. They are the ones through whom God chose to reveal himself to the rest of the world. Because of that, they are called to reflect God’s character. They are called to be faithful, compassionate, generous, merciful, forgiving and just. But as the plumb line demonstrates, they were none of these things. Yes, they are wealthy. Yes, they live in peace. But despite all of the blessings they had received from God, they have still wandered away from the lives they were called to live and subsequently are out of plumb.
But why is this happening? What did they do wrong? Where is the evidence that Israel is out of plumb? We discover that back in Amos 5:10-12 (NIV):
There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
and detest the one who tells the truth.
You levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their grain…
… For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
To summarize, the courts have been perverted by those who are able to bribe the judges and there is no justice for the poor. The government has taxed the straw and the grain of the poor people; these are the things that poor people need but now they are suffering. This is why God is not pleased. Israel is not living up to God’s standards. This is what God means when he says that Israel is out of plumb. Everything is out of whack.
This is not so say that Israel is totally off the rails. They still do all of the religious stuff. The required sacrifices are still being made and the annual feasts are still being observed but even then there is a problem because these have ceased to be meaningful events. The people are just going through the motions. A modern day equivalency would be like Christmas where Jesus takes a back seat to Santa Claus and Easter where the cross is overshadowed by the Easter Bunny. Keep in mind that there is nothing wrong with Santa Claus and there is nothing wrong with Easter Bunny. I suspect that God approves of both but not at the expense of missing the true meaning of these celebrations.
The same thing is happening in Israel. They are going through the motions of religion while missing the real meaning of what they are doing. The result is they have lost track and lost their way. Their lives are out of plumb and God is ticked. Listen to God’s response to their neglect in the words spoken by the prophet in Amos 5:21-24 (NIV):
I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Israel is out of plumb and God is out of patience. “Look,” God says, “I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.” The verdict is in and the Chosen People are way out of line. God is about to bring them back in line but to do that, God will have to act. Amos 7:9 (NIV) tells us his judgment:
The high places of Isaac will be destroyed
and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined;
with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.
Jeroboam, by the way, is the reigning king of Israel in the time of Amos. As the king he has allowed Israel to stray from God’s way; in fact, he has encouraged it. Through prophets like Amos, God has called King Jeroboam and the nation back to faithfulness but they will not listen. They have not come back to God and so God’s judgment will be harsh. It will take a few years to happen, well after the death of Jeroboam, but it does happen and his descendants will be slain and the people of Israel carted off to Babylon to endure the slavery of the Exile where they will rediscover God and, in humility, return to him. Their lives will be brought back into plumb and God’s blessings will once again shower upon them when they bring their lives back into plumb.
WHAT ABOUT GOD’S MERCY?
A question, however, arises from all of this. What happened to God’s mercy? It sure sounds like God is punishing the people. Isn’t God supposed to be all merciful, loving, compassionate and forgiveness? And aren’t those the qualities that God wants us to exemplify in life? If it’s okay for God to abandon these characteristics, then why can’t the people of Israel? Good question!
But here’s the second question. Is it unmerciful to God to call the people to task? Is it unmerciful for God to make Israel accountable for its actions? Is it unmerciful for God to send the prophet Amos to tell the people what will happen if they continue to remain out of plumb?
Isn’t that, after all, the role of the prophet? People get that mixed up. They think that the job of the prophet is to tell the future, to be God’s soothsayer so to speak. And there are rare occasions where that is true. There are times when the prophets just tell the people what is going to happen. For example, there are dozens of prophecies in the Bible tell of the coming of Jesus. There also are prophecies that talk about the end times. But these prophecies are the exceptions rather than the rule. In the vast majority of prophecies, the prophets are calling the people to smarten up and return to faithful living.
From this standpoint, prophecy is conditional. God says, if you return to me and live according to my precepts and purpose for your life, then I will be with you. But if you insist on going your own way, I will let you do that but don’t be surprised if things don’t work out quite as well as you thought they would. So, do we want to be plumb or not? The answer to that question has some bearing on what happens in the future.
So back to the original question: What happened to God’s mercy? The answer is that it’s still there. God’s mercy is unending. It is eternal. God is all merciful. God is not withdrawing his mercy because he’s a mean, nasty ogre. What God is doing is holding the people of Israel accountable. If they want to tax the poor and withhold justice they can do that but that is not God’s will and that is not God’s way.
By making the people accountable for their ungodly lifestyles, God’s primary purpose is not to punish them – although that may be a secondary reality. God’s main purpose is to bring them back to him again. God is calling them back to faithfulness. A wall that is not plumb will fall down. The same is true of their lives. If they don’t live up with God’s purpose, they will never live as fully and abundantly as they can.
ARE YOU PLUMB TO GOD’S PURPOSE?
This same thought is echoed in the New Testament. In Ephesians 4:1 (NIV) we read these words, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” Live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Or in the imagery of Amos, “Make sure your lives are plumb and in line with the way God called you to be.”
Each of us has a calling. Each of us has a purpose. But what is it? I want to give you a two-part answer to that question. The first part has to do with the general purpose which is common to all of us. The second part is the specific calling that each of us has individually.
The general purpose that we all share is the easier of the two so let’s deal with that first. It’s strongly hinted at in Ephesians. It is simply to give God praise and glory. That is our general purpose, to praise and worship God. We see it in Ephesians 1:3 (NIV): “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Praise. We were created by God to give him praise. That’s the general purpose that we all share.
What about your life? Is your life plumb with this purpose? Do you live to praise God? Do you live to give God glory? Is that your ultimate goal? It should be. Everything you do, everything you say, every place you go should be working to praise God. Is that the way you live your life; are you praising and glorifying God in everything that you do? You should be and if you are doing or saying something that you’d rather God not hear or see, then maybe you should reconsider that activity in your own life because, guess what, God’s already knows about it.
But what about your personal life? Yes, we all have the same general purposes in life but what about the callings and the purposes that relate specifically and uniquely to you and your life? My specific calling will not be the same is your and yours won’t be the same as mine. I think mine was to be the best husband, dad, papa and pastor that I can be. But that’s just me. Not everyone is called to the same thing and that’s good because there are all sorts of different roles that Christians have to take in life.
What’s yours? What were you created by God to do? What were you created by God to be? What mission did he create you to fulfill? I don’t know what it is for you. Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t. Maybe it hasn’t become clear to you yet. But here’s a hint when it comes to figuring out if you’re following God’s specific purpose for you. Does your life make sense? Do you live life with a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment? If you do, then you’ve probably found your calling and you are living plumb with God’s purpose for you. But if your life doesn’t seem to make any sense, then you probably need to keep looking. To follow God’s will is to live life to the fullest, to live with fulfillment. That’s how you know you are plumb.
And I’m not necessarily talking about your job. People get that mixed up all the time. Your job may or may not be your calling. It might just what you do to pay your bills. Maybe your real purpose is to organize recreational baseball or soccer in your community. Or maybe your purpose is to visit the lonely neighbours who look forward to hearing your voice. Or maybe your purpose is to be a mom and raise the child who will find the cure for cancer or win the Nobel Peace Prize. When you are looking for your purpose, don’t confuse it with your job. The two might be the same thing but they could also be very different.
Here’s something else to think about. God wants us to keep plumb with his will for us. That’s important because even small variations away from plumb will lead to big deviations over time? It’s true. In navigation, there is something called the 1 in 60 rule. What that means is that for every degree off course you are, you will miss your mark by a factor of 1/60th of the distance you travel. Over the course of a mile, you will be out by about ninety feet which doesn’t sound too bad but as you increase distance, you will miss the mark by a greater margin. After sixty miles, you will be one mile off. To put that into sharper focus, think about flying around the world from Cottam, if you fly due south over the South Pole and then the North Pole, after 40,000 km- that’s the circumference of the earth you’d end up back in Cottam. That’s if you were completely on course. But if you were only one degree off, after 40,000 km you’d be visiting Montreal. Over time, little variances make big differences so try to avoid those variances. Just keep praising and glorifying God with everything that you do. Stay plumb with the general purposes that we all share.
Whatever your calling, until you begin to fulfill it, life just won’t make sense. But when you figure it out, life has an amazing way of coming together. The challenge is always to live plumb to that purpose.
Paul wrote to the Ephesians 1:11-12 (NIV): “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” Live the purpose that God put you on this earth to fulfill and do it in a plumb manner. When you deviate from it as we all do from time to time, get back on the right course. Be the person God created you to be.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
God of All Creation, we offer thanks and praise for your never ended love and compassion. Despite our most grievous shortcomings, you continue to stand with us. We can never thank you enough for your faithfulness towards us.
We praise you and give thanks for all you have done for us. In every situation and circumstance we will acknowledge that you are good and your mercy is forever, new every morning. Help us today, in all that we do and say, to bring joy to your heart.
We give thanks for the summer, for sunshine and warmth, gentle breezes and cools swims in clean water. We thank you for vacations and summer holidays, for visits from family and friends and for travelling mercies on the roads.
We also pray for those who have been sick or in hospital this past week. We remember, especially, Richard, Angela, Rachel, Carol and Mark. All of us need your healing touch, O God. There is not one of us who is completely whole. We pray your Healing Spirit upon all of your children.
Holy God, enable us to trust in your unfailing love. Even in those times when we begin to feel worry or panic, help us to rest confidently in your word and promises. It is a great comfort to know that you are with us. Thank you for your unfailing love and faithfulness. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
July 11, 2021 / Pentecost 7 / Proper 10
Psalm 24; Amos 7:7-15; Mark 6:14-29; Ephesians 1:3-14
CALL TO WORSHIP
ONE: Rejoice in the Lord always and come into God’s presence with singing.
ALL: God joins us in worship and honours our praise.
ONE: Let us give thanks to the One who sets our feet on higher ground.
ALL: Let us rejoice in Christ our Saviour.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
Speak to us, O God, in the joy of our celebration. We come to you with open hearts and ready lives. We know that you will not disappoint us but will meet our every need and satisfy our righteous desires. You have promised to prosper those who turn to you. Fill us with your Spirit and the knowledge of your everlasting presence. We honour you. We praise you. We worship you. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
Like the prophets of old, your Word reminds us of our sin. Forgive us when we fail to turn to you in all things and try to fix our lives in our own narrow way. Forgive us for pleading ignorance when we hurt others. Forgive us for thinking better our ourselves than we ought and for comparing ourselves favourably to our brothers and sisters. Remind us that, apart from Jesus Christ, we are all condemned but that, in him, we can come before your throne with the confidence of your gracious mercy. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
The joy of faith is the assurance of God’s love and mercy. When we confess our sins, God is faithful to forgive us and adopt us as sons and daughters of the Kingdom. We rejoice in our God, who provides abundant blessings and grace.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
Out of our wealth and plenty, we offer back to you a portion of our resources, O God. But this is not all that we give. Enable us to be so faithful that all of what we have will be used for your glory. Every moment, every morsel, everything that we have is yours. We offer our thanks along with our gifts, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
COMMISSIONING As we go from our worship, let us always remember that there is nothing in all of Creation that is greater than God who made all things and sustains all life. There is a world hungering for the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is our gift to share. May we be bold in God’s message even as we are compassionate towards others