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1. A Plumb Line in Israel (Amos 7:1-15)

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[Editor’s Note: This Sermon was preached at Forge Road Bible Chapel, in Perry Hall, MD on 5/20/12. The author uses the marker *!* to indicate a slide change on the corresponding PowerPoint file.]

Good morning. Open your Bibles with me today to the Old Testament Book of Amos, and chapter 7.

The Old Testament is organized 5 – 12 – 5 – 5 – 12 – five books of Moses, 12 books of history, 5 books of poetry, 5 books of the major prophets, and 12 books of the minor prophets. Amos is one of those Minor Prophets, meaning it’s a shorter book, and it comes right after the Book of Joel and right before Obadiah.

The book of Amos is great stuff, and as the schedule here at the Chapel happens to break out, for better or for worse, you and I will be together like this 3 times in the next 6 weeks, so I thought we would use that time to do a short three week series in the Book of Amos.

If you are not familiar with the Book, Amos is a little bit hard on a first read. To be appreciated, the text needs to be understood against the history of the period; and it is not a happy, comforting, warm and fuzzy book. There is essentially no good news in it until you get to the very last part of the very last chapter.

But when the Book is seen against its historical context, it becomes very relevant, very current, and I think very profitable to us in our Christian lives.

We are going to begin here in Amos 7:1-15.

Thus the Lord God showed me: Behold, He formed locust swarms at the beginning of the late crop; indeed it was the late crop after the king’s mowings. 2 And so it was, when they had finished eating the grass of the land, that I said:
“O Lord God, forgive, I pray!
Oh, that Jacob may stand,
For he is small!”
3So the Lord relented concerning this.
“It shall not be,” said the Lord.
4 Thus the Lord God showed me: Behold, the Lord God called for conflict by fire, and it consumed the great deep and devoured the territory. 5 Then I said:
“O Lord God, cease, I pray!
Oh, that Jacob may stand,
For he is small!”
6So the Lord relented concerning this.
“This also shall not be,” said the Lord God.
7 Thus He showed me: Behold, the Lord stood on a wall made with a plumb line, with a plumb line in His hand. 8 And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?”
And I said, “A plumb line.”
Then the Lord said:
“Behold, I am setting a plumb line
In the midst of My people Israel;
I will not pass by them anymore.
9The high places of Isaac shall be desolate,
And the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste.
I will rise with the sword against the house of Jeroboam.”
10 Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said:
‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
And Israel shall surely be led away captive
From their own land.’ ”
12 Then Amaziah said to Amos:
“Go, you seer!
Flee to the land of Judah.
There eat bread,
And there prophesy.
13But never again prophesy at Bethel,
For it is the king’s sanctuary,
And it is the royal residence.”
14 Then Amos answered, and said to Amaziah:
“I was no prophet,
Nor was I a son of a prophet,
But I was a sheepbreeder
And a tender of sycamore fruit.
15 Then the Lord took me as I followed the flock,
And the Lord said to me,
‘Go, prophesy to My people Israel.’

Every book of the Prophets has a particular personality, a particular tone that conveys its message as much as do the words themselves.

The prophet Isaiah wrote about God’s salvation of His people through Messiah. The prophet Jeremiah wrote about God’s despair over lives gone wrong in sin. The prophet Hosea wrote about God’s forgiveness and restoration.

The prophet Amos wrote about God’s expectation and demand for righteousness – His expectation of righteousness in our individual lives; His expectation of righteousness among the people who know His salvation; and His demand for righteousness in our society at large.

*!* Perhaps the greatest and most famous speech of the 20th Century was given on August 28, 1963 from the Lincoln Memorial by Dr. Martin Luther King, during the March of Washington.

This is from that speech:

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.

*!* We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating "For Whites Only". We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

*!* No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

This was actually intended to be the climax of the speech – the next line in Dr. King’s prepared text for that day, which line he never delivered, is the strangely flat conclusion And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction.

That would have never made the history books. Instead, entirely extemporaneously, came the famous line I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream, and then, again extemporaneously, the famous coda that gave the speech its name.

But what was to be that climatic line, justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream, is itself among the most famous lines of the civil rights movement. *!* It is inscribed on the King Memorial in Washington DC; and it is inscribed and attributed to him in other places as well. He used the line very often, as early as his 1955 speech during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

But the line is not original to him – no more than A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand was original to Abraham Lincoln.

*!* That great call for social justice is from the Book of Amos 5:24 – a verse so powerful, words so contemporary, that they are inscribed on the newest statute in the seat of our national government. This Book of Amos has a lot to say to us today.

To understand the power of the book, we have to do some ancient history; *!* and in particular we have to talk about two kings of Israel, both of whom conveniently for us, have the same name – Jeroboam.

The Nation of Israel was united for only two generations under the family of David. David’s son Solomon died in 976 BC, and the nation split into two parts. What was still called Israel in the north, and Judah in the south.

There is much more in the Old Testament about the history of the southern nation – Judah made up of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and the Levites. That is where the descendants of David continued to rule; *!* that is where Jerusalem was; that is where the temple was; that is where most of the prophets were, like Isaiah and Jeremiah; and they survived as a distinct people. Eventually, the northern kingdom is destroyed by the Assyrian empire and disappears into history – the so-called ten lost tribes of Israel.

But Judah survived. Even to today – the word Jew means someone from Judah.

The book of Amos takes place in the northern kingdom – what was still called Israel. The ten tribes who rebelled against the Family of David, established their own king and then their own capital in the City of Samaria. Over the 250 years of its history, there were only two of the writing prophets that went to the northern kingdom, they were Hosea and Amos.

When the ten tribes set up their kingdom, their first king, as I suggested, was a man named Jeroboam – Jeroboam I, the son of Nebat. [1 Kings 12].

*!* As Jeroboam surveyed the political situation, he saw a big problem. The Law of Moses called upon his citizens to worship in Jerusalem, and Jeroboam did not think that is such a good idea. If his people all go south to Jerusalem, they will reminded of past glories, they will see the temple of Solomon, and they might start to yearn for the good old days when the Family of David ruled throughout the land – and his very young kingdom might not survive one generation.

So Jeroboam gets an idea. *!* He makes two golden calves. He sets up one up north in Dan; and he sets the other just north of Jerusalem in Bethel; he builds shrines and appropriate supporting structures around them. He holds a ceremony, and then he says something that, in my opinion if I can be so bold, changed the history of the world. The slightest suggestion of an earth shattering change. He said It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt.

Notice the way Jeroboam sells this – he sells this as a matter of your personal convenience – it is too much trouble to go to Jerusalem. God is asking too much of you. This faith in Jehovah stuff is too much work, it requires a devotion and a lifestyle that doesn’t fit with your schedule or with your intentions.

For the first time in the recorded history of the world, religion becomes a matter of convenience. It was no longer about seeking what is true, it was no longer about God’s righteousness, but rather its about what works best for you. Bethel is a shorter journey, so we’ll worship there – it was shorter journey physically; and it was a shorter journey spiritually -- it is a religion more accommodating to your lifestyle. And as an added bonus, its now also politically correct.

And as the goal of religion becomes convenience, then for the first time, religion also becomes non-judgmental. Jerusalem is fine – so is Bethel, so is Dan – what’s really the difference? It all started to sort of look the same.

*!* The Feast of Unleavened Bread was to be in Jerusalem on the 15th day of the first month of the year. The Feast of Tabernacles was to be in Jerusalem on the 15th day of the seventh month of the year.

Jeroboam ordained a feast in Bethel, for the 15th day of the eighth month of the year. It was like the feast that was in Judah. First month, seventh month, eighth month – Bethel, Jerusalem, Dan does it really matter?

Yeah, God thought it really mattered – let me tell you why. Jesus Christ would be crucified in Jerusalem on the 15th day of the first month – the very day of the Feast. The Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth, who knows the end from the beginning, established a feast day in Israel commemorating the death of His Son  1,600 years before it happened. And the Lord felt very strongly about it – He wanted everyone there. There was a sacrifice consumed by fire, and Moses said of it Remember This Day! If you forget everything else, Remember This Day! This is the day that brings your salvation, this is the day that Jesus Christ died for you – and now Jeroboam thinks that is just inconvenient?

Don’t ever say to God, concerning the death of His Son, this over here is just as good, and it fits my lifestyle better so I’ll do that instead. That Feast in Jerusalem was about God’s Only Begotten Son, about Christ’s obedience unto the death of the cross, about how He bore the fire of God’s judgment for our sins, about how He wrought the salvation of the world.

And Jeroboam comes up with something, devised in his own heart, fashioned for public expediency, and says what’s the difference, this is just as good?

The God of Israel did not think so – and the emotions ran very deep. *!* This is from Amos, the words of the Lord:

21 “I hate, I despise your feast days,
And I do not savor your sacred assemblies.
22 Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them,
Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings.

Don’t ever say to God that I think that this religion over here or those good deeds over there are just as good as Jesus Christ and His death on Calvary’s cross.

People today say that to God a lot. It really doesn’t matter what religion you are, they are all about the same, somebody once said that all religions are just guilt with different holidays, and --- you’ve heard the argument -- all the roads go to same place.

I’ve said before -- that doesn’t even make sense if you are trying to go to the grocery store, so how can anybody think it makes sense if you are trying to go to heaven? How do I get to the Forge Road Bible Chapel, what road should I take? Well, it really doesn’t matter, take any road you want they all go to the same place. Just obey the rules, drive the speed limit and you will get there, no matter what road you drive.

If people know that isn’t true on the earth, then what possible logic compels the conclusion that its true if you are trying to get to heaven?

So, with that start, this northern kingdom is going in the wrong direction. Now, we are going to fast forward the story 200 years to our second king Jeroboam – Jeroboam II who was reigning when the Book of Amos was written, and who we got a glimpse of in Amos Chapter 7.

*!* By all earthly accounts, Jeroboam II was a fantastic king. He reigned for 41 years, and was the most prosperous king the northern tribes had ever had. We know of him not only through the Book of Second Kings and here in Amos, but by archeological records found in Samaria.

Under him, the economy boomed. The trade in olive oil, wine, and horses brought great prosperity to the nation. The Book of Amos is filled with references to the nation’s wealth.

Militarily, the nation was strong and victorious. Jeroboam fought and won wars with Moab and with Syria, expanding territory and reaching to the city of Damascus. You can read in Amos Chapter 6 (AMOS 6) about Israel doing the ancient equivalent of trash talking about how they won this battle or took that city.

Jeroboam II’s job approval ratings were through the ceiling. Amos is writing when things all seem to be going very well.

But there can be a lot of spiritual danger when things are going well. We don’t talk about that so much. We talk a lot about what to do in times of sufferings, how to get closer to God in times of trouble and trial, and that is a good right for us to do – even as Jesus prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail in the time of trial.

Bad times can test your faith – but good times can test your faith as well. *!* Moses counseled Israel [Deuteronomy 6:10-12]

10 “So it shall be, when the Lord your God brings you into the land of which He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give you large and beautiful cities which you did not build, 11 houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, hewn-out wells which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant— when you have eaten and are full— 12 then beware, lest you forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.

Moses says that when everything is going right – that is the time to be on guard, for it’s a time when you are spiritually vulnerable, and all the more because you don’t know it.

*!* Jesus told a parable about a man whose lands brought forth abundantly, so much so that his barns could not hold the produce.

And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ 18 So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.” ’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’

21 “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

This guy seems like a very good businessman, building, expanding, profiting – but spiritually, he is a mess. His ultimate goal is to be at ease – that is what he thinks life is all about – lay up many goods for many years so I can take it easy.

He has more wealth than he can possibly use – his barns cannot hold it all. His problem is – what I am going to do with all this money?

He has a lot, and his goal is to keep all of it – he says there I will keep ALL my crops and my goods.

He thinks that if he can keep all of it, then his soul will be happy, I guess thinking that your soul feeds on grain like it was a cow.

God says that your soul is required of you tonight – somebody else will have the barns and the grain; and somebody else will eat, drink and be merry.

Christians are not immune from this; churches are not immune from this – this collection of wealth. Israel under Jeroboam II, was not immune to this.

For as the nation grew stronger in their military, they grew weaker in faith. As they richer in material things, they grew poorer in spiritual things. *!* We read in Amos 8 I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. [people will starve for something real, something that is not just spiritual junk food] … They shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, But shall not find it. [Amos 8:11, 12]

And that spiritual poverty manifested itself in sin that brought forth condemnation and outrage in the words of the Lord through Amos.

It manifested itself in a rampant sexual immorality throughout society, which God hates. [Amos 2:7]

It manifested itself in pride and self-indulgence. [Amos 6:8].

It manifested itself in religion that was a lot of big show and no substance – Take away from Me the noise of your songs, For I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. [Amos 5:23]

Most of all, the social ill that gets the most attention in this book, by far, by a mile, Israel’s spiritual poverty manifested itself in a tidal wave of materialism, and a massive gulf of inequality between rich and poor.

One of the reasons this book was so popular with the leaders of the civil rights movement, is because it is full and overflowing with the Lord’s condemnation and outrage of the amassing of wealth in the few, and the poverty of the many, and the seemingly insatiable appetite of the rich for more. *!* [Amos 2:6-7]

2: 6, 7 For three transgressions of Israel, and for four,
I will not turn away its punishment,
Because they sell the righteous for silver,
And the poor for a pair of sandals.
7 They pant after the dust of the earth which is on the head of the poor,
All the poor have left is dirt and they want that too.

*!* Amos looked at the rich women – you know today they would be stars of Real Housewives of Samaria – and Amos called them fatted cows [Amos 4:1]

4: 1 Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria,
Who oppress the poor,
Who crush the needy,
Who say to your husbands, “Bring wine, let us drink!”

Through Amos, the Lord condemned what we call the 24/7 economy, and condemned the manipulation of the markets by the wealthy for their own gain – this Wall Street stuff you see on the news is not a 21st Century phenomenon: *!* [Amos 8:4-6]

8:4 Hear this, you who swallow up the needy,
And make the poor of the land fail,
5 Saying:
“When will the New Moon be past,
That we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
That we may trade wheat?
Making the ephah small and the shekel large,
Falsifying the scales by deceit,
6 That we may buy the poor for silver,
And the needy for a pair of sandals—
Even sell the bad wheat?”

Amos spoke to a people of unrivaled economic success, the wealthiest nation of its time – and it should have made them thankful; and instead it made them materialistic.

Amos spoke to a people with the strongest military, nobody could stand against their army – and it should have made them responsible, and instead it made them arrogant.

Amos spoke to a people proud of their religious heritage, a people who understood that they were something special – but who had somehow lost their historic connection the Lord and with His Word and could not figure out how to it back, and really didn’t seem to care very much.

Amos spoke to a people where religion had become easy, and convenient, and politically correct – but found that it left them far from God and starving for something real.

This is a book written three thousand years ago – and its words are inscribed in the newest statute dedicated in our nation’s capital; an Old Testament prophet of God’s righteousness, whose words have been channeled by our nation’s greatest heroes of social justice, and who speaks to issues as current of tomorrow’s newspaper. This book is great stuff.

The epicenter of the book, I think is here in Chapter 7.

*!* The events of Amos Chapter 7 happen in Bethel. Actually, most of the book happens in Bethel, that is where Amos is preaching and prophesying – right there at the center of things. And he is causing quite a stir – the land is not able to hear his words.

The powers that be thought that the righteousness of God was politically incorrect – the righteousness of God always is. It was for the Apostles who preached in the days of Rome; it was for the Pilgrims who left England. It was politically incorrect for the Abolitionists who stood against slavery in the 19th century; and for the civil rights leaders in the 20th century; and it is today.

And all of a sudden this nonjudgmental religion that the nation had created for itself -- becomes very judgmental.

Amaziah – he is a priest there in Bethel where they worship this statute, tells Amos to leave. What he says is actually rather insulting. In verse 12, he calls Amos a seer – Go you seer, flee to the land of Judah. There eat bread and there prophesy.

A seer is someone who does this for money. Amaziah, having no real religious faith of his own, can’t understand that Amos really does believe God, and assumes that Amos is doing this for the money.

Amaziah tells Amos that he would do better in the southern kingdom of Judah. You are not going to get much of a following up here taking on Jeroboam. They have prophets down there in Judah. They will be more receptive to your message down there. You will make a better living down there. It apparently does not occur to Amaziah that Amos might not in doing this for the money.

Amos replies – I was no prophet, nor was I a son of a prophet. Now, the Sons of the Prophets were men who studied the ways of God – we read about Elijah and Elisha and they trained young men who were called the Sons of the Prophets.

Amos says that was not me. I didn’t attend divinity school, I don’t have a degree. I was a sheepbreeder. I followed the flock.

Amos sort of comes out of nowhere. He shows up in history and we know nothing about him except what in the text itself. His public career is very brief.

We started here in Chapter 7 reading three visions of Amos. The first was a vision of locusts – one great pillar of Jeroboam’s success was the economic wealth of the nation, and now that would be destroyed. Swarms of locusts would descend on the crops and eat all the grass of the land – and in an agricultural society, the wealth of the nation would be gone.

And Amos cries to God for His mercy – O Lord God forgive I pray! Oh that Jacob may stand for he is small!! Jacob in the Old Testament is renamed Israel by God, and that is how the nation gets its name. Calling it Jacob is a word of intimacy, of personal connection to the Lord. Oh that Jacob may stand for he is small.

The Lord heard, the Lord relented – it shall not be.

The second vision was the vision of conflict by fire. The first pillar of Jeroboam’s success was economic wealth, the second was victory in battle.

Now, there would come conflict by fire – a wildfire that would spread out and consume the great deep and devour the territory – suggestive of the wars that could sweep over the land.

Again, Amos cries out – Oh Lord God, cease I pray! Oh that Jacob may stand, for he is small. Again the Lord hears, again the Lord relents.

I think that it might have surprised Amaziah – who thought that Amos was such a contrary influence in Israel – to learn that while Amos had such harsh words for the nation, he was also diligently praying to the Lord for it.

*!* Then the Lord shows Amos a plumb line. A plumb line is a weight, usually with a pointed tip at the bottom for marking a point. The weight is suspended from a string; gravity pulls the weight down and pulls the string tight. It is used by builders as a vertical reference point – to make sure what they are building is straight.

It is also used by builders for testing walls that are already built – to see if they are still straight, to see if they are bowing, or bulging, or sagging, or crooked, and if so they need to be torn down.

Now the Lord is using that image as one of righteousness and justice in Israel. He says that He will not pass by them any more.

A plumb line does not deviate, it does not provide excuses, it does not just tell you what you want to hear, it does not change. It is unerringly straight and right. The Lord is going measure Israel like that – the Lord measures us like that.

This is not the only time in the Bible that the image of a plumb line is used. The Bible often pictures the Lord God as a builder. *!* In the Book of Isaiah, chapter 28, we read this [Isaiah 28:16-17]:

16 Therefore thus says the Lord God:
“Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation,
A tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation;
Whoever believes will never be dismayed.
17 Also I will make justice the measuring line,
And righteousness the plummet;

You probably recognize that verse – because that was the verse that Apostle Peter used when he wrote about Jesus Christ *!*. [1 Peter 2:4-6]

4 Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture,
“Behold, I lay in Zion
A chief cornerstone, elect, precious,
And he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame.”

I’m not a carpenter or a mason. Long ago, I figured out that with so many outstanding carpenters and tradesmen here at the Chapel, I didn’t need to own a toolbox – I just needed to know your telephone number.

But I know that the best carpenters and the best masons are constantly checking their work, to be sure it is straight, and be sure it is plumb.

And I know that a structure that is not straight will eventually collapse. Israel did, just as Amos said.

*!* In the midst of unprecedented prosperity, Amos has said … Israel shall surely be led away captive from their own land.

And so it was – before that generation had passed, the nation had gone from being a super-power, to being the ten lost tribes of Israel.

22 For the children of Israel walked in all the sins of Jeroboam which he did; they did not depart from them, 23 until the Lord removed Israel out of His sight, as He had said by all His servants the prophets. So Israel was carried away from their own land to Assyria, as it is to this day. [2 Kings 17:22 – 23]

*!* This book was written a long time ago – this is all very ancient history. But the Lord God is still builder, and what He is building He intends to stand. So He uses a plumb line. His tape measure is justice; His plummet is righteousness; and His cornerstone, on which everything is based, is Jesus Christ – whoever believes on Him will never be dismayed, will never be ashamed, and will never fall.

Everything built by God is built on Him. Everything built by God is built up around Him – you and I are like living stones build as a spiritual house unto God’s Glory. And the plumb line of God’s Word the Bible keeps us straight and true.

I’ll tell you honestly – if you think that being a Christian is about you rather than being about Jesus Christ; or if you think the goal of all this on Sunday is getting in and getting done to satisfy some obligation; or if you think that God says things in the Bible but doesn’t really mean it; or if you think that you can leave all the nice talk about a righteous life here when you go home; or if you think that God is the least bit interested in being politically correct – if you think any of those things – then you are missing the point of it all; and you are missing the best thing, and the greatest adventure in the whole world.

*!* Next time we are together like this, which is in two weeks, we will come back to this book, part two of our discussion – The Lord is His Name.

Israel had gotten so far away from the God of their Fathers, the Lord almost has to introduce Himself to them – and we get a remarkable picture with how active the Lord really is in our lives.

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