Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. One of the most used tools is my trusty level. The cool thing about this level is that I can use it to determine if something is level (that is, straight horizontally) or I can use it to determine if something is plumb (that is, straight vertically). I used it just yesterday when Matthew and I were fixing one of our back steps that had busted. I can’t tell you how many times I have used it simply as a straight edge. But in the last year, I have probably used my level most for hanging pictures. And I have to admit, I’ve never liked hanging pictures. Several months ago I had an experience hanging a picture that exemplifies why I don’t like hanging pictures. It was a large white board calendar with nail brackets in each corner that I was hanging. So, naturally, I needed to put two nails in the wall. As I was eyeballing things before starting, I held the thing up to the wall with the level on top to see how it looked. I got it perfectly level, and lo and behold, it looked horrible! Why? Well, I discovered that day just how crooked our house is! I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by that—our house is an older house. But I discovered that day just how un-level and not-plumb our house is. So, in that moment, I had to make a decision. What constitutes level? What is the standard I will use to guide me in determining what is straight and right and true? Will I use the level, which will show me what is truly level? If I do so, my pictures will probably look crooked and off from the rest of the house. Or, will I use the surroundings to determine what is level? If I do so, my picture will look level, but it will really be as distorted and crooked as the surroundings. This is the same sort of decision that we all must make when living our lives. What is our standard which guides how we live? What guides us to determine what is straight and right and true? It is the true level of God’s Word? If so, our lives will look crooked and distorted to the rest of the world. If I use the world around me to determine what is straight and right and true, then my life might look normal, but it really is just as distorted and crooked as the world around me.
2. This is the same issue that the Lord raises in our Old Testament reading from Amos chapter 7. Now, the prophet Amos was just an ordinary shepherd not long ago. But the Lord called him to leave his home and to be his prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel. So, Amos obeyed. And in our reading for today, we get a glimpse of this vision which the Lord gave him. The Lord was standing next to a wall with a plumb line in his hand. Now, a plumb line has nothing to do with fruit. It also has nothing to do with a toilet. It has everything to do with determining what is straight and right and true. The plumb line was the precursor to the modern-day level. It was simply a string with a weight on the bottom which could be held and the weight would hang the string straight vertically so that someone could check to see if a wall or other object was plumb. With this in mind, listen again to verses 8 and 9 of our reading. The Lord said, “Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass by them; 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.” In these verses, the Lord is proclaiming that he is about to hold up a metaphorical plumb line to check and see if Israel is living in conformity with his word—with the covenant standard laid out for them. But then he goes on to say that he already knows the answer—they’re not. And because they are not living according to God’s standards, there’s going to be punishment. So, the basic message of the plumb line is this: Israel’s life has become too crooked and distorted to warrant either pardon or relief. And there are two major problems that are specifically mentioned: Israel’s worship and Israel’s leaders—they have become crooked and distorted. Both have turned away from the true level or plumb line of God’s word. There are two problems with Israel’s worship. First, are what is referred to in the Scriptures as the “High Places.” These were cultic sites setup to worship idols—in blatant opposition to the Lord’s command to worship him only. And so, the Lord says that these high places will be destroyed. But there’s also a problem with Israel’s sanctuaries. Even when Israel is worshipping the Lord, they’re not doing it in the way that he has commanded. And so, even their sanctuaries will be destroyed. Then there are Israel’s leaders. They have abandoned the Lord’s ways and distorted justice and righteousness. They were leading Israel down a crooked and distorted path. And so, as a response to all of this, Amos’ message is this: Punishment is coming! Punishment is coming for all those who fail to live up to God’s standards. For Israel, that meant exile and death. But you and I deserve that same punishment. We fail to live up to God’s standards. And so, thanks be to God that even though this message of punishment was the end for Amos’ Israel, it is not the end for us. We know that the story continues in Jesus who suffered the ultimate exile and death that we deserve on our behalf.
3. And now, because of Jesus, we have been freed from this punishment. And so, the question is, now what? Does Jesus’ death on our behalf make God’s word and standards irrelevant for us? Of course not! So, what do we do? It’s time to take up the metaphorical plumb line and check ourselves against God’s standards. This might seem like a daunting task (and, admittedly, it is—the Bible is a big book!), but let’s start simply. There is no better place to begin considering God’s will and standards than the Ten Commandments. In the Ten Commandments, God has given us his law to guide our lives. And so, as you consider your own life in light of God’ standards, take Luther’s Small Catechism, pick a commandment, and read it along with Luther’s explanation. For example, let’s look at the Fifth Commandment. You shall not murder. What does this mean? Answer: We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need. There is much to be considered here, but don’t be overwhelmed. Just pick one aspect, say that command to “help and support” our neighbors. Now, ask yourself, as a forgiven, renewed follower of Jesus, how can I be better at this? I know it’s tempting, but don’t dwell on your past failures and sins—they’re forgiven in Jesus. Ask yourself, how can I move forward? How can I be better at, for example, helping to meet my next-door neighbors needs? What about my own family members? What about my co-workers? But don’t stop there—end by praying, “Lord Jesus, by the power of your Spirit within me, help me to consider the needs of (my neighbors, my family members, my co-workers) and meet them with your love so that I might better live my life according to your will and standards.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen.