Last week I emailed the Episcopal church where I became a Christian, and asked if they had a picture of their window of the prophet Amos. It was the first window on the lectern side, opposite the font where I was eventually baptized, and the thing that stood out about it was the plumb line. I remember – and it can only have been on this very Sunday in our church year – one of the priests using the Amos window and its depiction of the plumb line we just heard about as an example in his sermon.
Well, they were kind enough to send me a picture, and it matches my memories pretty well. Amos is in the middle, a couple of shook-up looking listeners are to the right and left, and the plumb line God is setting up runs, like a silver shaft of light, right down the center panel of the window, with what looks like a sharp blade at the end. It is absolutely straight, with utter clarity, and it cuts through the image like a knife.
In today’s first reading, Amos passes on God’s words about the plumb line to his people. (They are divided at this point into the northern kingdom called Israel, and the southern kingdom called Judah, and Amos is speaking to the North.) So what does God have for us in this text today? As always, I invite you to follow along in the text as we try and listen to him together. So in verse 7, God shows Amos a wall that is perfectly aligned, perfectly plumb, and God is standing next to it, holding the plumb line that makes it so.
Many of us need coaching to get used to how God seems to like to communicate, and Amos is no exception. God has to give him a little nudge: “Amos? What do you see?” (v. 8) And Amos gives the right answer: a plumb line. This image of a measuring line with a lead plummet at the end to keep it perfectly true comes up more than once in the Old Testament: in Isaiah, for example, God says: See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone…“One who trusts will not panic.”And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet. (Is 28:16-17)
In other words, when God builds, the measurement is perfectly objective, and perfectly true, and perfectly fair. Something you can actually trust completely and stop panicking. And this is what God proclaims to Amos here: I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people. (v. 8) No more out of whack systems.
Now if you have benefited from a system being internally out of whack, the idea of its being tested against something objective from the outside is not going to be good news to you. And God is speaking here into that kind of situation. That’s why those two listeners in the window looked so shook up. It’s a culture that is fairly prosperous, fairly pleased with itself, but whose movers and shakers have set it up to benefit themselves, thanks to the absence of a plumb line, the lack of objectivity and of external tests. And so God has Amos warn them, in verses 8-9, that as comfortable as they are, the systems they’ve set up - the identity and meaning and money and power they’re getting from the things they’re treating as if they were God – those are all going to fall apart. Eventually, perfect justice and clean truth will have their way.
Now the religious establishment here, what the text calls “the high places and the sanctuaries” (v. 9), is in the pocket of the political establishment, what the text calls “the House of Jeroboam.” (v. 9) And they are pretty entrenched. They cannot conceive of what the text tells us is actually happening – that God is speaking his will and his word – his agenda, his perspective – into their concrete situation, from outside. They can’t imagine that God is wanting to build something true and reliable and just with them, by his definition, for his agenda, with his tools. They can’t conceive of that.
What can the political establishment and the religious establishment conceive of? It’s down there in verses 10-11 –Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, takes what Amos is doing at God’s behest as nothing more than partisan politics, motivated by money and power. “You say you’re speaking for God, Amos, but all you’re really doing is conspiring against the King. The God stuff is just a mask.” You’ll remember this is the same charge that was leveled against Jesus: “you say you’re speaking for God, but all you’re really doing is conspiring against the Emperor. The God stuff is just a mask.” See, to the world’s systems, even the incarnate plumb line, Jesus, looks crooked.
Based on the notion, then, that this is just more politics, more of the same, more stuff from inside the system, Amaziah gives orders to Amos: “Flee away to the land of Judah.” (v. 12-13) “Go line your pockets as a prophet in the South. Your politics doesn’t fit in the system we’ve built for ourselves.” And at the very end, how does Amos respond? (v. 14-15) He simply says: “You don’t get it, Amaziah. I’m not a professional prophet, and the God I’m talking about isn’t a pious euphemism for something inside your system; the God I’m talking about is actually God.” Look at the subject of Amos’ sentences in verse 15: “The Lord took me…. The Lord said to me.” Amos wants it understood that he’s not the one behind this. This is a word from outside the system.
I’m sure many of you have experienced, in all kinds of ways, how valuable a word from outside the system can be. Maybe you lived in a family where alcohol was the center of every social occasion, and you got so used to that kind of chaos that the first time you went to a 12-step meeting you were thunderstruck to hear person after person who had been trapped in a system like that testify to how they’d found another way. Maybe at work, your board of directors finally got in a consultant who summed up in about three sentences the elephant in the room, and suddenly you all saw what had to happen to fix the problem behind the problem, the thing nobody had dared name before a word from outside named it for you. And you all breathed a giant sigh of relief. Maybe a good friend, over coffee, just spoke a word like that into your life one day, and you saw yourself, you saw your life with new eyes when she simply said: “You seem sad.”
A word from outside is a valuable thing. It’s like a window being thrown open, like a plumb line, like a reality check, that suddenly opens up possibilities you never imagined. The claim Christianity makes – and you may not have decided yet if you agree with this claim or not, and that’s fine; one of the great things about the Episcopal Church is we give you plenty of room to feel your way at your own pace – the claim Christianity makes is that there is a real word from outside, a word so ultimate that it can be the plumb line and the reality check everywhere – in every stage of life, across every culture, in every economic circumstance, at every time in history. We all try to domesticate that Word, to shove it inside our own self-absorbed, self-serving little cultural and religious systems, and just like Amaziah and the Northern Kingdom, we often succeed at keeping it there for a while; we push down justice and truth for a while, but the Word always returns, powerful and life-giving and telling.
This Word from outside will find a way to be spoken. It comes to us over and over again, and supremely it does that in Scripture. We were talking about this central truth on Thursday when about 30 of us got together to discuss People of the Way. The word comes to us in Scripture – not our ideas about Scripture, not what some scholar or preacher tells you about Scripture, not theories about who wrote which books or when, not principles or rules or slogans that claim to be drawn from Scripture, but the text itself, with its mysterious power and life unleashed among us as we hash over it – as we bring our deepest needs and our hardest questions to it in the presence of God.
This Word from outside is, of course, totally free. It can come to us any way it wants. God can find his entry points any way he wants. He can, and he will. But the experience of all kinds of Christians in all kinds of situations over decades and centuries is that being addressed by God’s Word in a way that makes an actual difference happens reliably as we delve into our core narratives in the Bible.
If you have not yet seen this happen as you read and discuss some specific text of Scripture, I can’t think of too many things I would wish more deeply for you. It is one of the chief joys of living as a Christian and it is available to everybody. It floods into your world like a silver shaft of light, perfectly true, beautifully plumb, disturbing things you assumed and making possible things you never assumed. Nothing we invent for ourselves can do that. As we see in Amos this morning, it has to come from outside. And by God’s grace, it does.
The window photograph is from Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville Tennessee. Find their Flickr page here.