St Barnabas All-Age Worship 11th July 2010
How many people here have ever used a plumb line? How many people know what a plumb line does? Plumb lines have been around since the time of the Egyptians, although nowadays they have largely been replaced by spirit levels. What you do with a plumb line is get a heavy weight and attach it to a piece of string. And the idea is that as the weight hangs down in a completely straight line you can use that line to see if the wall you have built is straight or not. Because of course when you are doing any kind of building project the most important thing is that the walls are straight. You can’t put a roof on, or put a door in, for example, if the walls are at a funny angle. It just won’t work.
Now we come across the picture of a wall built true to plumb in our reading from Amos this morning. Amos the prophet sees the Lord standing by a wall with a plumb-line in his hand, and the Lord tells him He is getting to set a plumb-line among God’s people. What does the Lord mean by this? Well, just as in the same way a just as a builder uses a plumb line to see whether a wall is true or not, so the Lord will one day come among us and see whether our lives measure up to His standards.
When we come to our time of confession we often hear these words, especially in a communion service: Our Lord Jesus Christ said: The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these. And I think because they are so familiar to us, we tend to let them wash over us and say, “Well, I haven’t too badly this week” “I haven’t really done anything too serious” “I’m sure God understands my little weakness”.
Well, imagine what would happen if a builder said, “The wall’s only out by a few centimetres” or “OK, it slopes a bit, but it’s only a little slope”. He’d soon be out of a job wouldn’t he? Yet for some reason we seem to think it’s OK to get away with a few minor misdemeanours, that God our Heavenly Father doesn’t actually mind when we break some of His rules.
Our reading from Amos this morning reminds us that God is not only our Heavenly Father but also our Judge. And that, you see, is why our time of confession week by week is so important. Not so that we end up feeling bad about all the things we have done wrong. Or that we promise to try really. really hard to do better. But that we come before the cross of Christ and realise despite the fact we don’t live upright lives, lives are true to God’s standards, God has nonetheless has given us a Saviour, a wonderful Saviour called Jesus. For in the end none of us can perfectly measure before God. There is a sense in which we all deserve God’s punishment. But at the cross God showed us undeserved love and mercy, and promises forgiveness to all who truly turn to Him. And our confession now is a time to do just that.
So let’s think about this image of the plumb-line. Let’s recognise that God knows all the secrets of our hearts. And let’s come before the cross of Christ rejoicing in the incredible fact that, as the apostle Paul says, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8)
Having the Compassion of Christ
I am sure I don’t need to remind anyone here that over the past couple of months it has been the exam season. How many people here have been involved in exams – as a student or a parent or a teacher? Or if you haven’t taken an exam, what about a course at work, or a sporting competition or something to do with a hobby? Recently I’ve been sorting through a load of family papers, and it struck me just how many awards and certificates and grades we pick up during our lifetime, for all sorts of things – right from the earliest days of school. Nearly all of us have tucked away somewhere a cycling proficiency badge or confirmation we can swim 10m metres (not me, I sink) or even that we once belonged to the Tufty Club. (And if you don’t know what the Tufty Club was, ask your parents later).
Now I guess there are times when all of us wish we didn’t have to face exams or work to get our certificates. But they are important, because they tell us if the person has the right skills to do their job. Certainly I wouldn’t want a lifeguard at a swimming pool who hadn’t done the training to rescue people, or a doctor who hadn’t passed all his medical exams, or a teacher who didn’t know how to teach. And whether we like them or loathe them, qualifications are important. They provide the evidence that this person is trained to carry out their work in a safe and competent manner, and hopefully you can trust them to act in your best interests.
So what’s all this got to do with our reading from Amos? Well, as I read this passage – and I’m sure you realise it’s not an easy to passage to deal with – I began to wonder what qualifications you might need to be a prophet in Old Testament times. After all, there weren’t any formal exams in those days. You couldn’t sit your GSCE in prophecy, and then go on to do a practical diploma. Nor could you win a special award for being best prophet of the month, or go on a course to improve the satisfaction of your customers.
And actually working out who was qualified to be a prophet was a serious business. Because as our reading shows there were plenty of people who claimed to be real prophets. Just as in the same way there are plenty of people today who stand up and claim to have a word from the Lord. For example, the Jehovah’s witness who come knocking on our doors, or churches who promise healing and revival, or the preachers who stand on street corners. And no matter how old we are, and it’s especially important when we’re young, we need to know who is the genuine article and who’s not.
What then marked Amos out as a true prophet? Well, as I begin to think this, I drafted out a sermon and lined up all my points beginning with the same letter. But then I realised it was an All-Age Worship today, and not only that, but really there was just one qualification above all that marked Amos out from all the others. Not the qualification of an exam room, or an award to show he had completed his training, but simply a quality that showed He was a true prophet called and commissioned by God.
And that quality was quite simply care, and compassion for God’s people.
Our reading begins with the Lord showing two awful disasters that He might possibly bring upon the land of Israel. The first, a plague of locusts stripping the land clean of food and causing starvation. The second, a terrible fire laying waste to the whole countryside. And how does Amos react? Does he simply shrug his shoulders and say, “Well, these things happen?” Or does he say, “Go on, Lord. Make’ em suffer”? No, he cries out in fervent prayer, verse 2, Sovereign LORD, forgive! How can Jacob survive? He is so small! And again, in verse 5, Sovereign LORD, I beg you, stop! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!
Sovereign Lord, forgive. Sovereign Lord, stop. Amos was someone who deeply, deeply cared for the people around him. Even though they had turned away from the Lord, even though they did all kinds of horrible and wrong things. He knew that the Lord had every right to punish them, but all he wanted was for the Lord to show grace and mercy and forgiveness.
What about us? Do we also have a deep concern for the people who live and work around us? In our gospel reading today Jesus is on His final earthly journey to Jerusalem. He knows that there He will be arrested and beaten and crucified, and that God’s people will thereby reject God’s offer of salvation. And how does Jesus react? O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!
Both the examples of Amos and Jesus, it seems to me, challenge us how much we really care for our families, our friends, our neighbours. People who, it seems, try and live without God in their lives and look as if ultimately they are heading in the wrong direction. Do we simply shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, there is not much I can do about that”? Or do we get down on our knees and plead with God to have mercy, to forgive and in the end to save them?
We have been talking a lot recently about serving our community, and yes, it’s right that we lay on social events, and build up our welcome, and get involved in local initiatives. But we mustn’t sight of the fact that our greatest act of service is to pray constantly and compassionately for the Lord to open hearts and ears and minds to the good news of Jesus Christ crucified. After all, the reason why we have good news of salvation is because people need to be saved. They may not be in danger from a swarm of locusts, or a great fire, but they are in spiritual danger, because they neither know or want the offer of eternal life Jesus gives them.
And I believe with all my heart the way we help them turn their lives around is neither to preach fire and brimstone, and tell them they’re heading for hell, or, as folk so often believe do nowadays, pretend that it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you sincere. But, often without them even knowing, pray before the Lord of heaven and earth to reveal Himself in mercy and forgiveness. Care and prayer, you see, go together. Care without prayer is just about doing good like any other voluntary organisation. Prayer without care is just about serving the Lord without any cost to yourself. And neither ultimately are what we as a church should be about. To be the body of Christ we need the compassion of Christ, and that compassion should fill all that we do as a church here at St Barnabas.
Earlier on in Luke’s gospel, at the beginning of chapter 10, we have the account of Jesus sending out the 72 ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. And what are Jesus’ words to them? The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. And I guess when we read these well-known words we are tempted to breathe a sigh of relief, that somehow if we pray the Lord will send other people to do the work, and we don’t have to get quite so involved with the action. But Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook quite so easily. He goes on: Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.
You see, when we pray for God to reveal Himself to those who do not yet know Him, we have sometimes to be ready to be the answer to our own prayers. That’s the lesson Amos discovered in our reading today. He didn’t plan to be a prophet. He wasn’t looking to pick a fight with the false prophets up north in the neighbouring country of Israel. But the Lord took hold of him, and said, Go, prophesy to my people Israel. And because the Lord said go, Amos went. He didn’t really have a choice after that.
Where, I wonder, might the Lord lead us as a church as we start to pray carefully, compassionately for those around us? Now if the idea of being few among such a large harvest, or being sent out as lamb among wolves scares you, then I think the Lord’s message to you is not to be afraid. The Lord sends us out in weakness, and few in number, not so that we become terrified or defensive, but that we learn to rely on Him and His mighty power. Amos whose only qualifications were looking after sheep and sycamore-fig trees touched a whole nation with his message. What might we do just to impact upon this parish, our homes, our places of work and show others that Jesus cares for them?
Let us pray…