The book of Amos is one of the minor prophets in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. They are called the minor prophets because the books by these prophets are very short, unlike Isaiah or Jeremiah. There are 12 minor prophets, written between the 8th and 4th centuries BCE; and they were often found in the same scroll. Amos was the first one chronologically, even if not first in scripture. He was the first prophet to prophecy the word of God to a nation, and not just a king or a group of people within a kingdom. He brought this word of the Lord to the northern kingdom. The Lectionary has Amos this week and next week and Hosea the following two weeks.
Amos and the other minor prophets were during the time of two kingdoms. After Solomon, there was a power struggle that resulted in the separation between the Northern and Southern kingdoms. The capital of the northern kingdom was Samaria and the capital of the southern kingdom was Jerusalem. Amos was an 8th Century BCE prophet who tended sheep and a sycamore tree, which was a type of fig-mulberry tree that was a source of food for the poorest.
The book of Amos is a series of oracles from God for Amos to share. It begins with God telling Amos how the enemies of Israel will be punished for how they treated those peoples they conquered. Then God says what will happen to some of Israel’s trade partners and their crimes of war. God’s words to Amos demonstrate that how nations treat each other—even enemies—matters. Then Amos speaks out for God against his own people, Judah, the southern kingdom, saying they have rejected the Law of the Lord and not kept his statutes.
Finally, Amos gets to the prophecy that he was sent by God to share with Israel. Amos 2 condemns them for selling
“the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—7 they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way;
Amos 4 accuses them of cheating the weak and crushing the needy.
Amos 5 continues with the charge that they crush the weak and tax the grain of the poor while at the same time building elaborate and expensive second homes for themselves with expensive and elaborate ivory furnishings. They take bribes and turn away the poor who are seeking help.
Continuing in Amos 5, Israel-the northern kingdom-is told to
14Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. 15 Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Amos 7:1-9. Hear the word of the Lord.
This is what the Lord GOD showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings). When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said, “O Lord GOD, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” The LORD relented concerning this; “It shall not be,” said the LORD.
This is what the Lord GOD showed me: the Lord GOD was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land. Then I said, “O Lord GOD, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” The LORD relented concerning this; “This also shall not be,” said the Lord GOD.
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.”
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Our passage this morning uses the image of God’s plumbline to judge the actions and behaviors of the northern kingdom. A plumbline is used to determine whether a wall is vertical or not. It is a string with a brass weight at the bottom and uses gravity to determine if a wall is plumb.
Amos warns the northern kingdom to seek good and not evil, and to actually hate evil and love good. For us to do that we need a way to discern evil and good. We need God’s plumbline. Right and wrong determined by God, not by our own hearts. Not what seems right or feels right, but what is actually right. Scripture is how we learn the heart of God to determine good and evil. The book of Amos is specifically focused on how the northern kingdom treats the poor. We can see from the fullness of scripture over and over that the poor, needy, and marginalized matter to God. As Rev. Kevin Germer, David’s brother, said at our installation, the low, the least, the last, and the lost matter to God. They need to matter to all of us because they matter to God. The low, the least, the last, and the lost are God’s beloved and Amos is clear that Israel has gained their wealth at the expense of the poor.
The northern kingdom was next to Phoenicia which had a booming seafaring economy that benefitted the northern kingdom. People and goods traveled through the Northern Kingdom, and the brisk trade benefited those involved in trade and supporting trade. Unfortunately, according to Amos, the bribes, low wages, and greed kept this boom in the hands of a few, and there was a large disparity between the rich and the poor. God uses a plumbline to show the exploitation of the poor. This is God’s plumbline. Over and over again scripture makes it clear that the low, the least, the last, and the lost need to be on our radar and we need to be generous and not greedy.
The other passage for this morning, Luke 10:25-27, the parable of the Good Samaritan, gives a hint of what is required. When this man who is testing Jesus asks what he must do to have eternal life and then when Jesus responds to love God and love neighbor, the man asks: “Who is our neighbor?” The answer is not at all what is expected.
If a good Jewish person were asked who loved God better, the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan, the Jews around Jesus would have answered with a resounding “priest and Levite”…never the Samaritan. They don’t worship the right way in the right place. Many sermons have been preached lifting up the idea that the priest or the Levite didn’t stop to help because that would have impacted their ability to worship in the temple. Martin Luther King spoke the night before he was murdered on the good Samaritan parable. He stated that the Levite and the Priest asked the question of what might happen to me if I help. Dr. King said that the Samaritan asked the question, “What will happen to me if I don’t help this man?”
What happens to us when we don’t look out for the low, the least, the last, or the lost? What happens to us if we keep ignoring the pain in the world and instead focus on what is causing discomfort or pain in our lives?
In the parable, Jesus is highlighting that our lives are measured with a plumbline more than a scale. We don’t “pay” for our bad actions with our good actions. All of our actions are measured by God’s plumbline. The act of going to church doesn’t negate our poor choices—it is the grace that God gives. However, Amos has strong words to Israel about how they are worshipping God but not loving God’s people:
21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
God has told Amos that God does not care about their worship or offerings—but they are to let justice roll down.
Keeping this in mind, we have to ask: “How are we doing?” As individuals, as a church, as a community, as a nation. How are we doing when compared to God’s plumbline of caring for the low, the least, the last, and the lost?
God holds the plumbline so that the low, the least, the last, and the lost are cared for.
What is your plumbline? What is our plumbline?
How does our world measure people? How is their value determined? Some might use skin color, size of bank account, the car you drive, your neighborhood, your education, your summer vacation location to determine value. Some might compare themselves to others around their morality, their giving, their greed, their generosity and be lulled into thinking that we are doing OK because we are doing better than the other person is doing. Or we can think it is OK because others are saying it is OK.
We need to be careful to not be pulled into the world’s plumbline. The story The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson came to mind as I thought about this sermon. You may remember this story from your childhood. The emperor loved new clothes and spent much money to have the best and newest and most stylish clothes. He had a coat for every hour of the day. He was known for his love of clothes far and wide. The story goes on to say that two swindlers came to town and shared that they made the most beautiful fabric in the world. They said that it was magical and if you were unfit for your position or stupid you couldn’t see it. The emperor sent his most trusted advisors who were unable to see the imaginary fabric, but lied about it so that they wouldn’t appear unfit for their positions or stupid. The story continues that the swindlers worked long hours and were paid great amounts of money to make these imaginary clothes. Everyone who came in couldn’t see the fabric, but not wanting to be thought of as unfit for their positions or stupid, they lied about its beauty and patterns and colors. Finally the emperor was dressed in these imaginary clothes and he went out on parade. No one could see anything but everyone oohed and ahhed over the fabric. Finally, a little boy called out that the emperor hadn’t any clothes on. People tried to shush him, but it was enough for the rumblings to start. People finally admitted they didn’t see anything. The king however, wondering if it were true, thought to himself that the parade must go on. So he continued along, with his noblemen carrying a train that wasn’t even there.
How are we letting the world’s measurements determine our actions? Amos is calling out a nation that is taking from the low, the least, the lost, and the last to be dressed like this emperor. We are called to be that little boy and speak the truth according to God’s plumbline. We are called to speak the truth about how the low, the least, the last, and the lost are being treated. And it is God’s plumbline that will expose us. When we let ourselves be deceived by a way of measurement other than God’s plumbline—we are like this emperor. When we allow our greed, or selfishness, or desire to keep up with the Joneses, to the detriment of others, we are like this emperor. How are you, how am I, how are we doing when compared to God’s plumbline?