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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
As a pastor I have always loved teaching. This was especially true of my time as a missionary 25 years ago, in the newly independent Latvia, a former Soviet republic. Every Wednesday night a dozen or so men and women gathered around little round tables in the basement of the church, sipping tea from cracked and misshapen cups, snacking on dried, hard cookies, to listen to me teach. When I arrived the room was filled with the anxious buzz of Russian and Latvian conversation, but when I sat down at one of the tables to teach, the room became silent. The intent of the evening was merely to introduce the scripture in English which would be read the following Sunday in Church. For me it was one of the most cherished hours of a hectic week. The men and women in that Bible Study were eager to have the words of the once forbidden book unfolded before them.
One evening, when Bible study had ended, a quiet older woman, with a worn, tired face stopped me on the steps of the church. She had always been rather silent, and she didn’t fully grasp the English language, so I was quite surprised when she raised a question. “Pastor, what does Lord require me to be Christian?” I stared at her for a moment. In our purest evangelical, Lutheran tradition, we boldly confess “to be Christian” is to do nothing at all. We do not believe in works of righteousness. It is to confess Jesus as Lord, and to trust in his mercy. But I knew that that wasn’t the word she needed. All around her she had witnessed men and women in the post- Soviet world, who had given lip service to the Christian faith, and had in turn returned to their corrupt, former ways. She knew men and women who were recently baptized because it was the politically correct thing to do in a wave of national romanticism. She had seen political parties once vehemently and ideologically opposed to religion change their names to accommodate the title Christian. And so she raised the question, “What does the Lord require of me to be Christian?” It was truly a profound question and I wish that I could have been a better pastor and provided her with firm guidance.
My friends, let us consider that question and reflect on the teaching of the Prophets Amos. For what does God require of those who follow him faithfully?
There is an old saying: “Don’t kill the messenger for bringing bad news.” It isn’t fair, of course, but it still happens. Amos was that unfortunate bearer of bad news. A century earlier the nation which King David had united, had been divided into two. The northern kingdom was known as Israel and the southern was known as Judah. Though a native of the southern kingdom of Judah, Amos had been called by God to preach in the northern kingdom of Israel.
Surprisingly, it was one of the most peaceful and prosperous periods in the northern kingdom’s history. During the first half of the eighth century before Christ, King Jeroboam was in the midst of a long, untroubled reign. All the land that had once been lost to warring neighbors had been reclaimed. Trade had rapidly developed during a generation of peace with kingdom’s neighbors, especially the Phoenicians who sailed the Mediterranean Sea. There was an emerging rich and powerful merchant class who were open to accommodating and adapting foreign ideas and practices. Together with the property owners and the royal court, they made up an exclusive elite – a small group of wealthy, proud, and self-indulgent people. And then, there were all the little people, the poor, the deprived classes. While these marginalized folk were being mistreated, the rich were amusing themselves. It was the best of times, and the worst of times.
Many of the privileged in ancient Israel interpreted their fine times as evidence of God’s special favor. The prophet Amos acknowledged that the people of Israel were intensely and sincerely religious, but he saw things differently. Theirs was a private faith that ignored the poor, the widow, the alien and the orphan. It was a type of religion that was limited to a cultural ritual.
When Amos spoke, his voice sounded pessimistic and unpatriotic. He was not a gifted orator, or the son of a prophet. Amos was a shepherd, a farmer, and a tender of fig trees, who grew up in a small village. The social elites and political authorities in in Israel despised Amos. He was an unwelcome outsider whose warnings were fanciful and fanatical. How dare this prophet speak against the king and the nation? Amaziah the priest warned Amos of his words, and tried to run the prophet out of town. “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there.”
There was, however, just cause for the prophet’s message. Disaster was shortly to strike. Israel had only a generation or so before the Assyrians would sweep down to destroy the nation and scatter its people to the four winds. Such a prospect seemed utterly impossible- especially when Amos first began to preach. But don’t blame the messenger for bad news. Amos’ audience not only didn’t like the news the prophet brought; they didn’t much care for the foreigner from the south, warning them of God’s judgement.
In the Book of Amos, the prophet describes a set of visions that he had. Our lesson today begins with one of the visions, the vision of a plumb line. Ancient architects faced a rather serious difficulty. How did one know if a building, a wall, or other structure was truly vertical—truly “plumb”? Certainly, one could eyeball it, but there are distinct limitations to sight. On unlevel ground or juxtaposed to a less-than-straight surface, it can be genuinely difficult to determine a true vertical. The ingenious solution employed by these ancient architects, already by the fourth Egyptian dynasty was the “plumb line” or “plumb-bob.” The plumb line is a remarkably simple tool—one merely attaches a heavy weight to the end of a cord, attaching the other end at an appropriate height. Due to the force of gravity, this line will be pulled tight, establishing a vertical or plumb point of reference for construction.
When the prophet Amos looked over the northern kingdom of Israel, he saw a pampered, callous upper class, living off the misery of the poor, sleeping on their comfortable beds, and only thinking of the latest fashion of how to indulge their expensive tastes. All the while crowding into the temple at Bethel week after week to praise God loudly in the belief that their prosperity must be an indication that God was pleased with them. But Amos knew that God was not pleased, nor did he care for their hypocritical worship. God’s plumb line marked that it was leaning and that there was no solid foundation.
And so we turn to the core message of Amos’ preaching. So what do we learn about ourselves and God from listening to Amos? For one thing, we learn that God holds each one of us responsible for how we treat other people. God is concerned about the violation of basic human rights, so the he first thing God expects of his followers is compassion, honesty and fair treatment of others. Second, we learn from Amos that God is concerned about all sin. It is easy to focus on the personal sins and failings, but God seems to be most concerned about other sins, and so should God’s faithful followers. The prophet reminds us that God is concerned about racism and greed, excess consumption, environmental pollution, denial of basic rights and mistreating people on the basis of class, cultural background and religion.
Finally, Amos teaches us that the Lord expects more from people who know him than he does from those who don’t. And that means you and me. With the knowledge of God’s holy purpose revealed in Scripture comes the corresponding need to do more and live more righteously than people who don’t worship or know the Lord. Since the kingdom of Israel belonged to God, they should have known better; they should have done better. As the prophet Amos said, “Seek the Lord and live. Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord will be with you. . . . Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
Taking responsibility and making the world a better place often begins in small ways. President Abraham Lincoln, once captured the essence of our call as faithful followers in the words. “Die when I may, I would like it to be said of me, that I always pulled up a weed and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.”
And so the question of the old Latvian woman at Bible study haunts me 25 years later. “Pastor, what does the Lord require of me to be a Christian?” Nothing, to be sure. But God invites you and me to serve in a divine fellowship of men and women, and children striving for change and transformation for the good of others in this world, yes, striving to make a straight and upright society, marked by his own plumb line, where all may freely grow to see and know his love. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.