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A WORD FOR TODAY, July 7, 2021
Scriptures for July 11, 2021, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:(1-7) 8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
“Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.” Psalm 85:9, WEB
I recently remodeled my office space. This required a rearrangement of my cross wall. Most of my crosses have hooks on the top or the back that just need a nail or hanger of some sort, but a couple hang better with contact strips. One cross in particular had no other way of hanging. I worked diligently to ensure that I was placing this cross perfectly straight. I did it by eye, and as an artist I’m usually pretty good at getting it right. I did not do so with this one cross. It is askew just enough to bother me, and it is in my eyesight when I’m on my chair. It drives me a little crazy, but I don’t want to remove it and try again because it might ruin the paint job.
They make all sorts of wonderful products to help people properly hang pictures on the all like laser sites. These guarantee that you place the nail in exactly the right place. New fangled gadgets aren’t really necessary, though, because there are simpler ways to ensure things will line up properly. Take, for instance, a plumb line.
A plumb line is a very simple tool, used for millennia, to find the vertical line. It is especially helpful for building walls because it helps to keep the walls straight. A plumb line is simply a weight tied to the end of a string. The string is held at the top of the vertical and the weight is allowed to swing free until it stops. At that point, the line points directly to the center of the earth. All lines established from the plumb line will be parallel and the wall will be straight.
No matter how good a person thinks they are at lining things properly, we are all likely to be off by a little. If a builder tries to line up a stack of bricks using only his own eyes, it is probable that some of the levels will be slightly askew, making the whole wall lean. It only takes a tiny fraction of an inch on each level of brick for the wall to eventually topple. Every wall is dependent on every other wall. Everything inside is dependent on the walls being straight. The windows and doors will not fit properly if the walls are not straight. A leaning wall will not stand very long. Isn’t it amazing that a cheap, simple tool can be so important?
God’s Word acts as a plumb line for our lives, although most of us would rather just use our best judgment to make things straight. Unfortunately, we are no better at walking that straight line than we are at building a brick wall. We will veer own way because we always think we know best. We don’t want to hear what God has to say, especially if it is different than our point of view.
Imagine you are John the Baptist teaching the king things he really does not want to hear. The king respects you because you are righteous and holy and he is protecting you. However, the king’s wife hates you because the things you are teaching make her to be sinful. The king may even doubt his relationship with the queen. Do you feel peace?
John the Baptist did what God sent him to do. He preached to the people and called them to repentance. He told them they were sinners. He baptized the people for forgiveness of their sin. He lived a most unusual life, not concerned about the normal cares of the world. He ate odd food, wore strange clothing, and lived in the desert. I can imagine that John was like the odd transient who wanders the streets of the city mumbling to himself, but engaging people who catch his eye with frightening images of doom. I don’t think he was the charismatic type, drawing people to himself because of the words he spoke or the impression he made. As I read the descriptions of John’s appearance and ministry I see a frightening image that would make me very uncomfortable.
People flocked to him, though. And they listened. And they were baptized, but many were not being baptized because they believed what they heard. When John called the gathering crowds a brood of vipers, he knew that they were just following today’s trend. They were doing it because it was the in thing to do. After all, if the king is listening to John, he must have something to say. If a little water will make everything alright, why not get wet?
Herodias, the villainess in this story, knows that John is far more dangerous than he appears. She knows that the word he is speaking is true, and she simply does not want him to be heard. She knows that her husband is listening, but the reality has not really had an impact yet. His heart wasn’t changed, but her life would change when the Word took root. Changes in his heart could mean changes for all of Israel; after all, he was the king. Would John’s preaching bring the wrath of Rome on their heads? Would she be set aside because their marriage came from sin? It is no wonder that she hated John. She knew the truth of what he was saying.
John’s story is ugly. He was not what we would describe as a superstar. He was rough, wild and probably not beautiful. He preached wrath. He talked about sin. In his story, the truth is ugly. The truth is also ugly in Amos’s story. Amos had no desire to be a prophet. He was a shepherd and just wanted to shepherd his flock. But God spoke and Amos responded. The message he took to that king was not beautiful, either. It was ugly. He warned the people that their sacred places would be destroyed and that the king would die by the sword. He also warned that the people would be sent into exile.
I don’t think I would want to be either John or Amos. The messages they took to the people for God were harsh and ugly. They were sent to be plumb lines for the people in their day and time. That simple tool could make a huge difference in the lives of the people and the nation.
Amos’s king was surrounded by teachers and prophets that were well educated and highly respected in their positions, particularly by the king. Amos, however, was a nobody. Amos had words for the king that the king and the people did not want to hear. Their time was short. They’d disobeyed the Lord and He was about to take matters into His own hands. They were not in line with His Word. The Lord promised to send a plumb line to measure His people, to see how well they stood. The Lord could have chosen a powerful man, an educated man, a gifted man. Instead, He chose Amos, who tells us that he takes care of sheep and sycamore trees. What did he know about politics? What did he know about religion? What did he know about the future?
How did Amos have the authority to say these things? He was just a simple shepherd. But that’s exactly why he was chosen to take a message he really didn’t want to take. As a matter of fact, Amos argued with God about this calling, convincing God to relent from two previous visions. Finally, the Lord showed Amos a plumb line; it symbolized how Israel was out of whack. A leaning wall must be destroyed and rebuilt. Amos was that plumb line, the one being sent to the people to warn them of what was to come.
Amos lived in the age of Jeroboam. His ideas were firmly ensconced in Israel. The high places were the altars to other gods and were a part of the daily life of the people in Beth-el. The king supported the other gods and the priest served them. Amaziah was not a prophet after God’s own heart but after his own power and position. He claimed that Amos was raising a conspiracy. He accused Amos of being a charlatan. Amos’s words were not easy to hear. His words threatened the end of their cozy regime.
Amos answered the exaggeration, the accusation and the condemnation with the truth. He did not go for the money or for the power as the other prophets would do. He went to Beth-el, the king’s sanctuary, to tell God’s people the truth. The message seems graceless; it was a message of destruction. Yet, the skewed wall had to go; it was separating God from His people. The plumb line would bring destruction, but the wall that would be destroyed was the hard hearts of the people that stood in the way of their relationship with God. God was about to destroy the chasm between He and His people.
The response to Amos’s prophecy is typical. “Don’t rock our boat, don’t say such horrible things about the king’s haven.” Amaziah told the king about the things Amos was saying and warned him that it wouldn’t be helpful for the people to hear their king is going to die and that they will be sent into exile. Then he told Amos to go prophesy somewhere else. You can almost hear Amos laughing at the words of Amaziah. He answered, “I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was a herdsman, and a farmer of sycamore figs; and Yahweh took me from following the flock, and Yahweh said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” Amos didn’t have a choice about his audience or his message; God sent him to say these things to these people. He couldn’t run off or say whatever sounded good. Unfortunately, many of the false prophets gave the king warm fuzzies so that he’d feel good and the people would feel secure. Amos had to tell them all that they were wrong. Amos was the plumb line showing God’s people that they were not lining up to God’s Word.
It is so easy to get confused when there are so many conflicting ideas. Who should the king listen to: Amaziah or Amos? Amaziah made the king feel good and Amos threatened his life. We would rather hear the warm fuzzies any day, but we all need to hear the truth.
Amos’s message has no promise of forgiveness or salvation. They don’t listen to him and try to send him away. John is imprisoned and beheaded for speaking God’s Word. It really is not a pleasant thing to be a prophet for God. The only mention of Jesus in the Gospel is an assumption by Herod that He is someone else. Jesus began his ministry after John was put in prison. As His name became renowned, Herod wondered who He might be. Some claimed he was a resurrected John the Baptist. Others thought He Elijah. Still others thought He was a prophet. Herod was a silly superstitious man and was worried that it was John. He really didn't want to kill John, but the women in his life convinced him to do so. Now there was another prophet out there causing trouble. He was frightened by the prospect that it might be John back from the dead.
Despite the ugliness of those words from John and Amos, there is peace in them. How much better is our life when we live within the grace of God? John and Amos called God’s people back into a relationship. Exile might seem harsh, but during that time God’s people remembered and returned to Him. John’s words might have seemed harsh, but he was preparing the people for God’s grace in the One who would truly change the world. There is peace on the other side of repentance, because there we stand once again in the presence of God.
The Psalmist has an answer to the question, “Where is God’s grace?” He writes, “Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.” Israel had no fear of God. Jeroboam had more concern about his false gods and his special city. Amaziah had more fear of Jeroboam and the people who had no interest in hearing that things weren’t going to go very well for them. Herod had more fear of his wife, her daughter, the opinion of his guests and his superstitions. They did not care what the prophets had to say. The feared the things and people of the world and did not fear the God who held their lives in His hands.
But there is always a word of hope even in these harsh words from the prophets. God’s grace is there for those who will listen. The psalmist wrote, “I will hear what God, Yahweh, will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, his saints; but let them not turn again to folly.” Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and wisdom is the way God’s people will experience God’s peace.
The psalmist also wrote, “Mercy and truth meet together. Righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth springs out of the earth. Righteousness has looked down from heaven.” I love the image in these two verses and how they describe our Lord Jesus. The fullness of all the good things in heaven and earth - mercy, truth, righteousness and peace - come together in Him. Some translations use the phrase “love and faithfulness meet together.” This is what Paul means in Ephesians 1:10 when he says, “...to an administration of the fullness of the times, to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens and the things on the earth, in him.” Jesus is where heaven and earth meet; in Him they come together for the sake of those who listen to what He has to say about God. Jesus is God’s glory come to earth, to minister to the people, to save them from themselves, and to give them peace.
Paul tells us that through Jesus we are adopted as sons in that kingdom He preached, so that we are seen as holy and blameless in the eyes of God. Through Jesus we are given every spiritual blessing so that our lives will glorify God. We are saved, forgiven by the blood of Christ when we hear the words of those who speak the Word of God. Paul writes, “In him you also, having heard the word of the truth, the Good News of your salvation - in whom, having also believed, you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is a pledge of our inheritance, to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory.”
We need to hear the words of John and Amos because we are no different than the people in their days. If God held a plumb line to our lives, He would find us crooked. Unfortunately, the bricks of our life our not always placed along the plumb line of God’s Word. We make decisions based on our own agenda or opinion. We follow our hearts rather than the reality of God’s Word. We ignore the ugly truth and seek after the warm fuzzies that make us feel good. Sometimes we simply do what we think we have to do for our own selfish reasons. There are times when we do whatever we can to get our way, even if we have to sacrifice something or someone along the way. We throw tantrums, tell little white lies, manipulate the circumstances, and flaunt emotion. We make people feel guilty or try to convince them that our way is the only way and that if they disagree then there must be something wrong. We even hang salvation on our own human desires.
But God is able to use the weak to accomplish great things. He is able to use even us. We might be crooked, but in His kingdom it doesn’t matter. Christian faith is not about us. It isn’t about our desires. It isn’t even about our needs. It is about God’s faithfulness. He has made promises that He will keep. The stories of John and Amos remind us that life in God’s kingdom is hard. Yet, there is peace in that harshness, in the ugliness we experience. We live in hope anyway, knowing that God is faithful. We live in peace knowing that God can and will accomplish amazing things even when it does not seem possible to us.
If we are honest with ourselves we know that we are willing to do whatever is necessary to get what we want from the world. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we should not sacrifice others for our own sake. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we are afraid of all the wrong things. Instead of acting like Herod, so afraid of the world that we will give in to a promise that we know is not right, we are called to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others.
We have been adopted as sons and daughters of the King, given everything we need to do His work in the world. It won’t be easy; the plumb line demands perfection that none of us can meet. But we can trust in Him, doing all things for His glory as best we can because we know that God is faithful. And when we fail, we can trust His promises of forgiveness.
So, let us always live in line with God’s Word, plumbed by the truth, repenting when we fail and standing with God even when it seems we must stand against the rest of the world. We can trust that He is faithful to His promises, He will save those who fear Him and His glory will shine through His people.
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