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; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.'” And Amaziah said to 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.” Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’—Amos 7:7-15
We have a prophet in both our readings this morning: Amos, the 7thcentury prophet, and John the Baptist, who is considered in Christian tradition to be the last of the prophets, the one who pointed beyond himself to Jesus the Messiah.
So what is a prophet? In the popular imagination a prophet is one who predicts the future, but in the Bible a prophet is one who speaks for God. The prophecies are often in the actual words of God. They often begin “Thus says the Lord.” The prophecy may make a prediction, but more often than not they utter a warning. Like a parent to a child saying, “If you keep doing that, the inevitable outcome will be this.”
Prophets have been described as being like the proverbial “canaries in the coal mine,” who reveal the danger of a gas leak before the others do. And sometime, like those poor canaries, prophets die, as we see in today’s reading about John the Baptist losing his head.
I am going to focus mostly on Amos this morning.
The Book of Amos is comprised of a series of short sayings called oracles, which would have addressed a particular situation. In some cases we can figure out what the situation was by what we know of the history of the time from other books of the Bible. Sometimes we can’t.
So, what do we know about the prophet Amos? Not a lot, and mostly what he tells us himself. So we do that know he prophesied in the middle of the eight century BCE. And he was a shepherd from the small town of Tekoa, which was a few miles south of Jerusalem.
You need to know that by the time of Amos the nation of Israel had been divided into two kingdoms, Judah, in the South with Jerusalem as its capitol, and Ephraim to the North, with Samaria as its capitol. Just to confuse us Ephraim is sometimes called Israel. When Amos prophesies against “Israel” in today’s reading he is referring to the Northern kingdom and not the whole nation.
Ironically, Amos was from the southern kingdom of Judah, but God sent him to prophesy in the Northern Kingdom. We know that he prophesied during the reigns of King Jeroboam II in Ephraim/Israel and King Uzziah of Judah.
You also need to know that in Amos’ time the northern kingdom of Ephraim had grown very rich during the reign of Jeroboam II, as it was nicely placed near the mercantile powerhouse of Phoenicia on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The Phoenicians were great seafarers, and traded all across the Mediterranean Sea, bringing goods of all kinds into the region. Ephraim was just to the East of Phoenicia and many trade routes from the coast had to cross it. So it became very wealthy! But the wealth was not evenly distributed, the rich growing increasingly wealthy and the poor struggling to survive, what today we would call “income inequality.”
So Amos prophesied against the wealthy for their greed and lack of concern for the poor. He also prophesied against corrupt government practices, like courts that protected the rich against the poor for bribes. He describes in chapter 8 how economic tyrants “bought the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” (Amos 8:6).
Amos saw this injustice and corruption threatening the very existence of Israel, both north and south, because the nation was not living up to the conditions of its covenant with God.
Now there were two schools of thought about Israel’s special covenant with God. First, there were those who believed that God’s choosing of Israel was unconditional and could never be revoked.
The other opinion, which Amos shared, was that Israel’s election came with responsibilities. There is a very important concept in the Old Testament around the Hebrew word sedekah, which is most often translated as “righteousness,” but can also mean integrity, justice, prosperity and salvation.
“Righteousness” is an attribute of God. But it is also the order of things that God has put into place for the well being of Israel. Amos believed the corruption and tyranny of the wealthy merchants and corrupt royal courtiers threatened the righteousness of the nation, and he spoke out against it in God’s name.
And by what measure can one judge whether a nation is righteous? The test for national righteousness is how it treats the most vulnerable of its citizens. In Patriarchal ancient Israel the most vulnerable were widows and orphans who had no male to give them status or protect them. Other vulnerable people were sojourners, that is, foreign migrants, who had no claim to the land. And finally, as in every society, the poor were vulnerable. This collection of “the last, the least and the lost” were being abused, and Amos saw that as a threat to the integrity of the nation.
In some of Amos’s oracles God calls for national repentance, a turning away from injustice and corruption. Repentance means changing direction. But in the passage we have for today it seems God has had enough and brings judgment against his people.
Let’s take a look at our passage. It describes a quite dramatic showdown between Amos and the royal chaplain, Amaziah, the priest of Bethel. Imagine it as a professional wrestling match; one that is very much a mismatch on the face of it.
You need to know that after Israel had been split in two, Jeroboam I had set up cultic shrines in Bethel and Dan to consolidate political power through religious means by competing with the cultic center of Judah in Jerusalem. This first Jeroboam also put the old Canaanite symbol of fertility, the bull, a literal golden calf, in the cultic centers. The “high places” God refers to were where the old Canaanite deities were worshipped. The old Canaanite religion had never gone away. It was an agricultural religion of fertility and fecundity and remained popular. You may recall an earlier prophetic showdown around this issue when Elijah went up against the priests of Baal.
So Amaziah is the royal priest in the cultic center of Bethel, where they worship an image of a golden calf. And he works for, and is a spokesman for the King, Jeroboam II.
You can see there is a bit of a power imbalance for this showdown. Amaziah represents the king and the national official religion, the dominant power of the day. Amos is just a shepherd from “away,” as we used to say when I lived in Maine.
Nonetheless, God calls and sends Amos up to Ephraim/Israel to deliver an oracle of judgment. It takes the form of a vision.
In an act of prophetic imagination Amos sees God standing next to a building and holding a plumb line in his hand. Do you all know what a plumb line is? Do builders still use them? (Several people nod their heads.)
The builder’s plumb line was a weighted string used to make sure the vertical lines are straight and the building is made correctly. Amos’s vision implies that Israel was built correctly but was now out of line, off kilter, crooked. Its righteousness or integrity was so compromised that it was beyond repair.
So God says he will destroy the idolatrous high places and the corrupt sanctuaries, and he will rise against the House of Jeroboam with the sword.
These are unbearable words to Amaziah, and he reports them to King Jeroboam. He says of Amos, “the land cannot bear all his words.”
Then he tells Amos to leave Ephraim and go back to Judah.
He says to 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.”
Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
What does Amos mean when he says he is not a prophet since clearly he is? The most likely meaning is that he is distinguishing himself from Amaziah, who was a professional court chaplain. He is saying, I am just a layman, a shepherd that God called to speak on God’s behalf.
It is quite a dramatic episode, but what is the takeaway for us.
It is always tricky to make strict analogies between Ancient Israel and modern America, but I do have two big ideas that arise from this text that I think are relevant for our time.
The first is the danger of religious nationalism. The rulers of Israel in Amos’s time had used religion to consolidate political power. Jeroboam I wanted the same kind of prestige that Jerusalem had as a cultic center, so he built shrines at Bethel and Dan that were idolatrous. Amaziah was his court prophet, speaking on behalf of the regime. But Amaziah was a false prophet, so God enlists Amos to speak on his behalf.
Today, there is a strong movement among some evangelicals who seek to turn America into a so-called “Christian Nation.” They often claim, against all the facts, that the founders and framers were Christian and intended us to be a Christian nation. It is true that many of the founders were Christians of one sort or another, but many of them were Deists and intentionally put in our founding document protections against government interference in religion and religious interference in government, the separation of church and state.
So today’s “Christian Nationalism” is a very bad idea. For one thing when they say “Christian” they don’t mean Christians like me or you, but Christians like them, with very rigid doctrines and a very narrow way of interpreting the Bible.
Furthermore, there is more than a touch of racism in “Christian nationalism” which has a long history of white supremacy. By “Christian nation” many of them mean “White Christian Nation.”
Furthermore, there is also more than a touch of misogyny in “Christian nationalism” in doctrines such as men being the head over women.
I have a daughter who is a UCC pastor. She’d be out in their idea of “Christian America.” In their “Christian nation” there would be no women deacons, no woman preachers, and wives would be required to submit to their husbands. You wouldn’t want to be in my shoes when I tell my wife that I am the head of the household and she must submit to my will.
And you can bet there would be no right for gay marriage in this “Christian nation.” And if they could harness the power of the state to enforce their social policies they could make it illegal to have an abortion, and they could deport non-Christian minority groups. If this sounds far-fetched I can assure you it is not. There are thousands of pulpits all over America that are pushing these very ideas this morning, and you can be sure that they are not hearing about God’s plum line from the Book of Amos.
The founders were rightly suspicious of giving any religion a privileged place in American life. You know I recently learned something interesting about Billy Graham. Did you know he was friendly with American presidents from Harry Truman right through Barrack Obama, and served as an informal advisor to them? But did you know the one president who never invited Graham to the White House? Can you guess?
It was Jimmy Carter. And that may seem strange and counterintuitive since both Graham and Carter were Evangelical Christians. But the thing is, Jimmy Carter is a Baptist, and Baptists historically have been very wary of religious entanglement with government. Roger Williams left our theocratic Massachusetts Bay Colony for Rhode Island so that he could have separation of church and state and freedom from governmental interference in religious matters.
Interesting, isn’t it? Now I don’t want to pick on poor Billy Graham, but it seems to me he was more like a court chaplain like Amaziah than a prophet like Amos. Did he ever criticize any of his President friends for some of their unjust and indefensible polices? Not that I can recall.
Anyway, whatever happened to Amaziah? Our text today ends with verse 15, but if you keep reading Amos says to Amaziah:
“Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.
You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’
Therefore thus says the Lord:
‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”
Harsh! The implication is that by refusing to hear God’s word of judgment, Amaziah himself, the false prophet of the golden calf, will meet a harrowing fate.
So did Amos’ prophesy come true?
Not right away! Things often unfold slowly in God’s time. But yes, Amaziah suffered the same fate as all if Israel when it fell to its enemies. His wife was disgraced, his heirs were slain, his property was confiscated by the victors, and he was taken in exile, the home of unclean deities, and there he died. His priesthood came to an ignominious end.
So my point, and I did have one, is that religious nationalism is a bad idea.
The second takeaway from this episode is about righteousness. God is righteous and demands righteousness. So while being a Christian nation is a bad idea being a righteous nation is a good one.
This idea of societal righteousness was important to our Puritan ancestors, and, though it has never been fully realized, it remains in the DNA of American identity, although I fear it is fading fast. For example Dr. King powerfully employed this Biblical notion in his plea to our national conscience during the struggle for civil rights.
And the litmus test that the prophet’s used is still the right one. This is the question: How does a nation treat its most vulnerable members. And who are the most vulnerable today? Children for one and migrants for another, and if you are unlucky to be both you might be separated from your family and end up in a cage in a warehouse somewhere. I never dreamed I would see that in America.
So who else is vulnerable in our society? Religious minorities are vulnerable. The FBI has reported a dramatic rise in hate crimes two years in a row. Anti-Semitism and attacks on Muslims have increased. And we are in the midst of a national rethinking about the way our law enforcement officials treat racial minorities. And our income inequality is reminiscent of Amos condemnation of the greedy rich of his day, who could bribe courts in their favor. In our time the super-rich can, and do, buy politicians and elections.
So I would say we are failing the litmus test for national righteousness. It is true our building was never entirely straight from the beginning. When the Constitution was written we had enslaved human beings who were consider three fifths of a person. Only men could vote.
But we have come along way since then, and it looked for a while like the plumb line might eventually find that our house was no longer crooked. But today we are on many fronts moving backwards in justice and righteousness. And the idea of a righteous nation is not limited to one faith. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and secular people of good will can all work toward a society that cares for and protects its most vulnerable members.
But I do think there is a special role for the church, in that this notion of social righteousness is part of our story, as we see in Amos and in the teachings and actions of Jesus. And when we were baptized we all promised to “resist the powers of evil and injustice.” So it is my fervent hope and prayer that the church of Jesus Christ can be a community that seeks righteousness, and that we can hold up the plumb line of God’s righteousness to challenge and confront injustice and evil wherever we find it.
Because a pressing question for our time is this: can the soul of a nation be considered sound if it mistreats its most vulnerable members? The answer might be unbearable.
(I preached this sermon at the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington, Massachusetts on July 15, 2018.)