Of Shepherds and Showdowns July 15, 2012 Amos 7:7-15
August 15, 2012 §
Amos 7:7-15 Of Shepherds and Showdowns July 15, 2012
My dad used to paint houses and farm buildings for people in the summers. He was a social worker within the school system, so he’d use his summer vacation as a way to supplement his income a little bit by painting.
His painting business was also a natural way for us kids to stay busy over the summer months. My first job was learning how to paint with my dad and my brothers in the hot summer sun.
I won’t lie…it was miserable work at times.
But I picked up a valuable skill in how to put paint on a wall, and more importantly I learned a good work ethic…probably not a great work ethic…but at least a good work ethic. 🙂
As you can imagine, with three brothers working together, we got creative with how we spent our breaks. We would take a 15 minute break around 10:00 in the morning, a half hour at lunch time, and another 15 minute break around 2:30 in the afternoon.
One game we brothers came up with was seeing who could climb the highest on a ladder that was standing straight up in the air.
Anybody can climb a ladder that’s leaned up against a wall…but we were desperately trying to prove our masculinity or something. So we came up with this game.
It’s easiest to climb such a ladder at the bottom, when your center of gravity is closest to the ground.
But the higher you go, the easier it is to get off-balance. It’s fairly easy for me even now, to stay on the bottom rung of a ladder to nowhere without too much effort.
But if you climb high enough, your center of gravity gets harder to manage.
We each had our own approach; my brother would try to climb as quickly as he could, just trying to make distance before he got off-balance.
I tried that, and I also tried taking more time, trying to maintain steady balance with each step up.
I don’t remember which approach worked the best…I just remember the key was the ability to stay within your center of gravity.
We’ve all got a center of gravity.
Any science teacher here could talk about this a lot better than I can…but the way I understand it, gravity is the force that works upon us to keep us in proper relation to the Earth beneath our feet.
And we can think of our sense of balance in relation to that center of gravity.
If we get out of line…that is, if we get off balance, we might fall down, or stumble, or otherwise relate to the earth in a way that was never intended.
Have you ever thought of sitting, or standing, or walking as relating to the earth?
Every movement we make…is in relation to this invisible force called gravity.
And any construction worker here could talk about this a lot better than I can…but the way I understand it, what a plumb line does, is it makes the force of gravity visible.
A plumb line is basically a string with a weight attached to one end.
I’ve created my own version of a plumb line this morning by attaching a key to a string we had at home. In ancient times they might have used a rock or something similar.
Once you fasten one end of the string to an object and let the weight come to rest, the force of gravity pulls the weight straight down.
The resulting line is an accurate, or true, or “plumb” line.
That is, it’s perfectly vertical (or at least close enough to perfect for construction purposes).
Now, before the level was invented, plumb lines were a pretty common way for builders to make sure they were making straight walls.
It’s like it gives a visual cue to guide the work that’s being done.
Now, it doesn’t matter how heavy or light the weight at the end is. As long as you have something like a weight attached to a string, you can create a line that points to the center of planet Earth!
It’s a measuring device, for sure…but it’s also a reminder that there is always a dependable force working in the world; a force keeping it all together, a force that allows us to find balance…and lose balance…as we relate to it.
It’s important to stay centered in order to maintain our balance.
Amos prophesied to a people who had lost their balance.
Their center of gravity was way off from where it should have been.
It was like they had been climbing a ladder to nowhere…and had somehow reached the top. The people at the top were enjoying a brief and precarious balance…but there was literally nowhere to go but down.
Whether you’re at the top of the ladder or at the bottom; you’re still subject to gravity.
And whether the ladder in question is social, economic, or religious… you’re still subject to the Righteousness of God.
Many commentators have run a little wild with this imagery of God using the plumb line as a tool of judgment against Israel.
They’re right to do so, don’t hear me wrong.
Verse 9 alone gives more than enough justification for that interpretation, and elsewhere in the Old Testament, plumb lines are used as a kind of measuring stick; a way of finding fault in a people and a justification to punish them for their sins.
But what’s frustrating to me is when people simply stop there, as if that’s all we need to know.
I’m a firm believer that we’re too easily pacified when a text wants to be wrestled with.
We rob ourselves when we read about something like this plumb line that God uses to judge his people and just let it stop there…as if that’s all there is to it.
There are two main uses that a plumb line can be useful for.
One is establishing a level. I’m not exactly sure how, but skilled builders for centuries could use a plumb line to make sure what they were building was level (horizontally) from one point to another.
When the level was invented, that particular use of the plumb line became obsolete.
But the other use of the plumb line, the biggest use we still have for them today, is when we need to transfer points from one level to another and it needs to be perfectly perpendicular.
One example of a job like this is when we build elevator shafts in skyscrapers and need to ensure that the center is the center from the first to the hundred-and-first floor.
At least according to Wikipedia, they use modern (and enormous) plumb lines in such situations (they put the weight in a barrel of oil to dampen the movements and stretch the line as far up as they need it to go!).
It’s this use that I think is most helpful when reading Amos chapter 7.
See, if God is holding the plumb line in Amos’s vision, we can assume he’s holding it where it needs to be.
The rest is just gravity doing what gravity does.
That is, showing the people how far they’ve strayed from the center of God’s will.
It’s only A few hundred years after this vision, when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…thy kingdom come, thy will be done On Earth As It Is In Heaven.” !!
May the center of our attention here on earth be the same as the center of what has your attention in heaven.
May there be a plumb line between the kingdom of Heaven and your people on earth!
May the center transfer…may we see it represented and measure our own progress.
May our ladder go somewhere instead of nowhere.
Isn’t that still our prayer? That the ladder we’re on goes somewhere?
There’s a mixed message in this passage.
Amos the shepherd confronts not just the priest of Bethel…he’s really confronting the whole northern kingdom.
And I think it’s easy to cast ourselves in the role of Amos.
It’s easy to watch the news and just get plain mad at some of the stuff you see.
It’s easy to grow indignant at how people are treated today and feel the fire of God burn in our bellies as we long for justice.
In some ways, it’s even easy for us to speak words like Amos spoke. It’s easy to speak Judgment against the system and call for divine punishment upon the evildoers.
But in reality we are the evildoers. We are the system.
And we have to know that when the ladder goes down, we’ll be sitting pretty close to the top.
These words that Amos spoke were meant for a people who were climbing a ladder to nowhere. They were trodding on the poor and the needy. They were treating the migrants, the widows and the orphans as rungs on a ladder to higher ground.
People are not rungs on a ladder.
People are part of a beloved creation; images cast in the likeness of God.
The One True God defines the center of his people; stretches his plumb line from heaven to earth and calls his people towards that center will not be mocked in doing so.
Amos brings a call to repentance; a re-centering of our attention and our lives, for just as then, we have been far too off balance for far too long.
Where is your ladder going?
Where is your center of gravity?
How is your sense of balance?
You can only fight the unseen forces for so long before the consequences catch up to you.
It’s clear what was important to Amos the prophet.
It’s also clear what was important to Amaziah the priest of Bethel.
Amos was driven by the Spirit of God at his center.
Amaziah doesn’t even mention God in this passage, did you notice that?
He’s concerned about his king, Jeroboam, and the ongoing security and prosperity that the kingdom had been enjoying.
What’s needed is repentance, but none comes.
Maybe it’s because Amos is a simple shepherd without religious credentials…or maybe it’s because Amaziah was in the system so deep that it was impossible to see the need for correction.
Regardless of the reason, Amos was not heard. And he wasn’t invited back.
Israel fell. The northern kingdom fell.
Be careful who you disregard.
God speaks through shepherds!
Will you pray with me as I close:
Our Father, Who Art in Heaven…