God’s Plumbline – A sermon on Amos 7

When I say the word “gospel,” you might think of the reading that I just read to you from Mark—today about the beheading of John the Baptist. That’s one meaning of the word, but a broader meaning is “good news.” The gospel is, simply put, good news. Today’s gospel account might at first glance seem like it’s not terribly good news, but for first-century Jews, living under Roman occupation, the fact that John was willing to risk his life for the sake of the kingdom of God was good news. There was, or rather there is something that is more valuable than our lives when it comes to living in relationship with God.

Death is not the great terror that we think when we look at it through the lens of God’s promise to us. For us Christians, that message can sometimes be easily overlooked, but it’s the fundamental message of the gospel—the good news. Death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to us; rather, separation from full, abundant life in relationship with God is. Jesus came proclaiming that God’s reign was imminent, that everything that stands in the way of the fullness of life God first designed for us and for all creation was about to be turned upside down. The story in today’s gospel shows us just how cataclysmic this message was for those who heard it from Jesus. They were willing to give up their lives for it. And so, as we go into the sermon today, consider that. Consider how God’s promise changes you. How does God’s promise that death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you or our loved ones—how does that promise shape how you live your life. Does it change how you go about your day-to-day? What difference does it make for you?

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

I have here in my hand a tool, or an instrument if you want to be really technical. Let’s drop it for a minute. Who here knows what it is? Paul—you keep quiet for a minute. Not something we use a lot anymore, but could be pretty useful in some circumstances. Who knows what it is? Okay, Paul. What it is it?

A plumb bob. Yes. A plumb bob is a bob, or weight, made of some sort of heavy material, historically from lead. This bob is attached to the end of a string, called a plumbline. A plumbline is a line, or a string or rope, that has one of these bobs attached to the end of it. You use a plumbline to find the depth, or “plumb” the depth of water. In construction, a plumbline is also used to determine the vertical on an upright surface—which basically means to make sure that an upright surface is aligned with gravity even if the ground surface isn’t level. A plumb bob will tell you the point that is directly under another point higher up because gravity will cause the bob to drop straight down.

Plumblines are ancient tools and have been used since at least the time of ancient Egypt. Until the modern age, plumblines were used when constructing tall buildings in order to ensure that the buildings were being built a true vertical. Typically, a section of scaffolding would have a plumbline affixed, which centered over a brass marker on the floor. As the building went higher and higher, the plumbline would also be taken higher and higher, but the architects would be sure to keep the plumb bob centered on the marker. Many cathedral spires, domes, and towers still have brass markers inlaid into their floors, which signify the center of the structure above. The plumbline was the measure against which the integrity of the building was judged. The plumbline, with its plumb bob, ensured that the structure was upright and true.

Today we hear from the prophet Amos. Now—Amos is the first prophet who set his messages from God to paper, and he tells us that God shows him, much like I did for you a moment ago, an instrument, and God asks him what it is. Amos responds, “A plumbline.” Then God tells Amos, who tells us, that God says, “See, I am setting a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel.” What’s going on here? What does God mean by all this? A bit of background might help us understand better…

We remember that the Israel was divided after the reign of Solomon into the Kingdom of Judah in the south and the Kingdom of Israel to the north. We all know the northern kingdom by a different name—Samaria. It wasn’t called Samaria at first; only later after the capital was moved from Shechem to Samaria in 880 BC do we call the whole region “Samaria” and the folks who live there “Samaritans.” In short, though, those who lived in “Israel,” as such, after the dissolution of the united monarchy under Solomon, where considered unfaithful renegades by their Jewish brethren to the south in Judah.

The first king of Israel, the northern kingdom, was Jeroboam. Throughout the historical books of the Old Testament, Jeroboam is remembered as an evil ruler who aroused the ire of the Lord. His sin? Idolatry. Breaking the first commandment from Sinai—“I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.” Likely influenced by the other cultures to the north, west, and northeast, Jeroboam adopted and worshiped gods other than the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Historical records, even outside the Bible, seem to indicate that worshiping other gods in addition to the God of the Hebrews began early in Jeroboam’s reign. In addition to introducing more gods, other gods to be worshiped, Jeroboam also forebade pilgrimages to Jerusalem—situated in the southern kingdom of Judah. No longer would the faithful of Israel go to Mount Zion to worship, but instead had to worship at shrines in the cities of Bethel and Dan. The Israelite kings who followed Jeroboam, both of his own dynasty and those after him, continued in his unfaithfulness, with many of the kings down to King Ahab—the one whose prophets contend with Elijah at Mount Carmel—being remembered in the historical books of the kings as having done “what was evil in the sight of the Lord, walking in the way of Jeroboam and in the sin that he caused Israel to commit.”

Hardly a stellar rap sheet. It’s this king, King Jeroboam, who rules while Amos is prophet in Israel. And it’s Jeroboam’s kingdom, the kingdom of Israel, whom God says he’s going to set a plumbline down in the midst of. “See,” says the Lord, “I am setting a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel…The sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.” God means business. But a plumbline? What’s that all about?

I have to be straight with you. Sometimes there are things that happen here at Emanuel that annoy me. There are issues that arise that rub me the wrong way. They get under my skin. I find myself grumbling about them. They strike me as petty little things that hardly rise to the occasion of true church business. Hardly the concerns of the kingdom of God—which, if Jesus is to be taken seriously, is breaking in around us all the time. “Repent,” he says, “for the kingdom of God has come near!” So when we get caught up in petty little squabbles, I get annoyed.

Is what we’re spending so much time on going to really matter when Jesus comes back to reign? Are these disputes that can snowball into backchanneling and even backbiting—are they really going to help us spread the love of God to those who desperately need to hear about it? Or when people see folks who call themselves Christians getting caught up in things that distract from the main thing—namely, loving and serving God by loving and serving whoever is in need, whoever they are—when people see folks like us who call ourselves Christians get bogged down and mired in things that aren’t about that main thing, do we ourselves get in the way of God’s message of love? Do we become an impediment? Do we make idols of things—our own agendas, our own wants, our own concerns, our own earthly issues—and forget what it’s really all about?

Yes—we do. Like it or not, we do. I’m guilty of it too. I get caught up in it, but when I catch myself doing it, I get annoyed—with the situation and with myself. I get annoyed because we’re missing the whole point…

When things like that happen, or someone tells me that so-and-so will be unhappy about something, or that so-and-so won’t like whatever has been decided—when those sorts of things happen, as inevitably they do because, let’s face it, it’s impossible to please everyone all the time—“You can please some of the people all of the time,” the adage goes, and “you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” When these situations arise, I will often, admittedly snarkily, remark: “Well, Jesus isn’t going to fall out of heaven over that.”

And while that might be true, it’s perhaps not the best, most faithful response to how we should judge how we live as faithful Christians, in community, as a church, the family of God. A better way for us to judge whether our behavior lines up with a faithful Christian response is to judge it according to God’s plumbline—the plumbline of the cross.

The cross stands tall and straight for us as a guide against which to judge each and every response in our Christian walk of discipleship. The cross, the instrument on which Jesus died, drops down from heaven to earth, showing us the true depth of God’s love for us. The cross, God’s plumbline set down in the midst of our own unfaithfulness, is a reminder of what is expected of us as faithful disciples. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus says, “if you would be my disciple.”

The cross determines for us what is the upright measure of a Christian life—a life of sacrifice, of impartiality, of generosity, of humility, of love. The cross of Christ is the plumbline against which we judge what is important and what misses the mark, what is crooked and what needs aligning with God’s way. It’s the cross that determines for us the norm of our discipleship. The cross is the instrument we use to judge our Christian life for its faithfulness. Instead of saying, “Jesus isn’t going to fall out of heaven over that,” as if we’ve already determined ourselves something’s rightness, we more rightly ask ourselves, “Did Jesus die for this?” The cross will assuredly determine for us if the answer to that question is upright or is askew.

The plumbline of our lives as Christians is the cross of Jesus. All manner of our lives as children of God, from the most private moments shared with God alone to our lives lived together in this family at Emanuel—the cross determines what is upright and true for our lives of discipleship. When competing idols threaten to overtake us, as they inevitably will, we remember the one who died for us, who nailed to a cross bore the weight of our weakness, our anxiety, our selfishness, our pride, our unfaithfulness. And we remember his obedience to God in loving us to the end—a love so faithful that nothing can bend or break us away from it. That love has been set with God’s plumbline—the plumbline of the cross. It’s God’s plumbline—it’s the cross—that shows us the depth of God’s love for us, and it’s the cross that determines for us how upright and true our response to God’s love for us in Christ Jesus is.

“Did Jesus die for this?” ask yourself. Against that plumbline, against that simple, simple question—all the course of history gathers. When the woes of life overtake us, when hopes deceive or irksome irritations annoy—the cross remains the upright and true measure of God’s love for us and a reliable guide for our faithful response in light of that love. Every matter under heaven, bane and blessing, pain and pleasure—every matter in our lives, as Jesus’ disciples can—no, must be judged against the plumbline of the cross. For by it, we know the God’s love for us no knows bound and against, we have a true, upright way to judge our own faithfulness to that promise.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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