Sunday, July 16, 2006

Sixth Sunday of Pentecost
Amos 7:7-15
Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

…in whom also we were made a heritage, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will…

A plum line is a string with a weight at the bottom. When held above the ground, the plumb line will show you if something is straight. The purpose is to ensure that the thing being measured is parallel to the line. We normally hear about plumb lines in terms of construction. The carpenter uses the plumb line to measure the walls, to test whether or not the pieces of wood in a project are straight.

It might be more interesting to have a wall at a slight angle. As a matter of fact, when we were in England one of my favorite villages was a place called Lavenham. The buildings in this village were built about five hundred years ago. It was a time of rapid growth due to the wool making industry. The homes were built rather quickly with no need to follow building codes; the builders did not take care to install the buildings on proper foundations. Over the years these homes settled and the walls are now at odd angles to the ground. Lavenham is called "the crookedest town in England" because of these homes.

In some cases, it seems impossible that the homes would be comfortable. It is easy to see the line of the floors, which are often at such steep angles that it would seem like the furniture could not stay in place. Walking back and forth would be like walking up and down a hill. If a building inspector were to take his plumb line to these buildings today, he might just order them destroyed. While we might think of the plumb line only in terms of building, it was also used in destruction. That's what we see in today's passage.

Amos was pretty much a nobody. He was certainly not a prophet as the other prophets in his day. They were trained, often from a very early age, to be scholars and advisors. They were paid for their trade, and as such were not willing to disturb their meal ticket. They gave good news to the king, knowing bad news could not only be the end of their job but also their life. Amos was a shepherd who tended cattle and sheep and he took care of the sycamore-fig trees. He was speaking the word of God not as a trained professional, but as someone whom God sent. He didn't have a choice of what to say, he had to speak God's word.

The Lord gave Amos a vision. He was standing beside a wall that had been built to plumb with a plumb line in his hand. He asked Amos what he saw. Amos said, "A plumb line." Then the Lord told Amos He would be setting a plumb line amongst His people. What would He find? Would He find a straight wall or crooked walls that should be destroyed?

Amos lived in the age of Jeroboam. His ideas were firmly ensconced in Israel. The high places – the altars to other gods – 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 position. No wonder he went first to the king and then to Amos. He claimed that Amos was raising a conspiracy, but when the king did not do anything 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 come for the money or for the power as the other prophets would do. He went to Beth-el, the king's sanctuary, to prophecy to God's people. The message seems empty, without grace, for it was a message of destruction. Yet, the wall that was not straight was a wall that separated God from His people. The plumb line would bring destruction, but the thing that would be destroyed would be the wall that was in His way. It would be the hard hearts of the people. It would be the chasm between God and His people.

Herod was also a man of power who'd received a word from the Lord. Now, Herod listened to John and while he did not always appreciate the words he respected the man. He did not always understand what John had to say, but he listened to him. He seemed to understand the power of John, at least the power he had over the people. He feared John and protected him. John's power was not one of human authority, but of God. The people accepted him as a prophet and were ready to follow him anywhere – even into rebellion. I suppose in a sense, the very things Amaziah accused of Amos were the same things of which John could be accused. He was speaking against the king.

It wasn't the king that was upset with John's words, however. It was his wife Herodias, who was his brother's wife. During a visit, Herod convinced Herodias to leave Philip and marry him. This was unlawful, against Mosaic Law. A man was required to marry the widow of his brother, but he could not have his wife. Herodias was happy – she was in a position of wealth and power. She ordered Herod to arrest John and then connived to have him executed.

She used her daughter Salome. When the king was drunk on wine and showing off in front of a bunch of important people, he called Salome in to dance. He opened his mouth with a vow to give her anything she wanted to half the kingdom. She did not even consider the offer. Seriously, if you had a choice of anything up to half a kingdom, would you really ask for a dead man's bleeding head? She had no power in this situation even though she had all the power in the world. Her answer could change lives, and it did. Herod did not want to kill John, but he had no choice. He showed off in front of all those important people and he had to follow through.

The plumb line reveals weakness in all these characters. Herod, though he is powerful, is very weak. He is controlled by his desire to please his guests and his wife. Herodias is weak because she is controlled by her anger and hatred. Salome is controlled by her mother. Though they were not worshipping at the altars of the false gods like those living in Amos's world, they had gods of their own. They worshipped themselves, they were their own false gods.

And while we read this story and are saddened by the horrific end to John the Baptist, we also recognize that this was an important moment in the ministry of Jesus Christ. John had such a following, but he knew from the beginning he was not the one for whom the people were waiting. With John alive and preaching, Jesus would never fully come to power. The irony in this story is that God used the weakest member of this cast to fulfill John's destiny.

We are drawn back to Amos, whom Amaziah accused of becoming a prophet for money. When we look at John's end, we have to wonder why anyone would actually want to become a prophet. After all, it was a difficult life. Their words went unheard and unheeded. It was dangerous. Most true prophets suffered persecution and even death. John had no cushy job. He had no fancy home. He had no powerful position. In the end he had no head. But he did not walk into this office by his own choice. God sent him, God empowered him, and God put the words in his mouth. He was a plumb line, the line that would announce the destruction of a wall separating God from His people.

While the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel lesson seem to lack God's grace, there is no doubt that it is found in the Psalm for today. The psalmist writes, "Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people; Thou hast covered all their sin." The psalmist cries out for God's mercy in the midst of their iniquity. The plumb line shows a crooked wall, and it might seem as though it is God's wrath that is bringing it down. However, the wall is tumbling down due to God's mercy and His grace. The wall is a wall of separation, keeping the people from their God. The wall is made up of hard hearts. The wall is made up of selfish desires. The wall is made up of weaknesses mascarading as power. The wall is made up of sin.

John came to point to the plumb line, and that plumb line was Jesus Christ. In Him, "Mercy and truth are met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other." In Him the wall is torn down and God's salvation is made evident. God's salvation is not about saving us from wicked people like Jeroboam or Herod. It isn't about saving us from hard times, persecution or even death of the flesh. It is about saving us from separation from God, about reconciling us to our Father, about bringing us the peace that passes all human understanding.

I suppose Herod, somewhere in the depths of his soul, heard that message. He was drawn to the idea of what John was teaching. He may have even seen Jesus in light of John's message. But his own crookedness made it impossible to receive Christ. To him, Jesus became little more than a joke, a conspirator that risked his life, his power and his kingdom. Of course, Herod's kingdom was nothing. It was a puppet regime. But in his mind, he was in control. That's what sin does for us. It makes us think we are strong when indeed we are weak.

The grace is in the fact that God is able to use the weak to accomplish great things. It is not about us at all. 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. We see stories like those of Amos and John and think that life in God's kingdom is hard. It is. Yet, we live in hope, knowing that God is faithful to His promises. We live in peace knowing that God can and will accomplish amazing things even in the midst of our doubt, uncertainty and pain.

We are part of something greater than ourselves. We have been chosen. As Paul writes, "…in whom also we were made a heritage, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will…" We have received the mark of Christ which is a seal of promise to guarantee the salvation He has given for us. That salvation requires walls to come down. The plumb line will make our failure obvious. Our weakness will come to light. Yet, in the end the wall will come tumbling down and we will know what it means to dwell in the kingdom of God forever. Thanks be to God.

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