In today’s Old Testament reading there is a portion left out . . . skipped over as it were . . . perhaps because it is a bit too distressing and quite frightening as David found out. The part that was skipped is in 2 Samuel 6 . . . the part where the oxen pulling the cart carrying the Ark of the covenant (that is the box containing the Ten Commandments) hits a ditch in the road and is about to fall. A man named Uzzah steps in and tries to stabilize the cart from falling and grabs hold of the Ark. When he does, he is killed instantly by the presence of God in the Ark. What this may tell us about God is that though he loves us and desires to be in communion with us . . . He is still Holy and set far apart from us in ways that are incomprehensible to us. As most of the prophets attest, God and the Law can be both awesome and dangerous if not respected.
When I was growing up, there was a song that was popular, performed by Simon and Garfunkel called the “Sounds of Silence”. One of the verses in the refrain always got to me as a kid mainly because I didn’t understand what Art Garfunkel meant by the ‘Words of the Prophets are written on the subway walls’. As I have gotten older and comparatively wiser it has dawned on me finally what he meant by those words.
For years I was looking for some prophetic message written in graffiti, some hint that some guy with a spray can knew something that everyone else didn’t. I would often drive down Bailey Avenue reading graffiti searching for something to pop out at me; but there was never anything spiritual to be found. I didn’t see anything except a lot of bad words that I already knew and lot of slang that I still have no idea what it means. But one day, as I happened to be listening to the Sounds of Silence on the radio I saw someone painting on a wall with spray paint and it came to me just how stupid I had been. It wasn’t anything in the message that I had missed, it was the very act of writing the message, the lawlessness, of damaging another’s piece of property that the prophets had predicted. The breakdown of society and the utter disregard for another is what the prophet’s had warned us about, and here was a clue that prophesy had been fulfilled. This is what the song was saying; and I couldn’t believe I had totally missed the point.
You may remember from your church school days that the prophet Amos brought to us a message from God about a plumb line. In the passage God shows Amos a wall built with a plumb line. Much like in Amos’ time, we still build walls with plumb lines. We say the wall is plumb if it is straight up and down and can be compared exactly with the straight line of a hanging plumb bob, i.e. a straight line connected by two points, in this case one being any point in space and the other being the exact center of gravity at the center of the earth. With a plumb line, a compass and a straight edge you can build anything that can be imagined… from the pyramids of Egypt to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Getting back to the story though, God shows Amos a wall built to the exact tolerance of a plumb line (proving that the wall is true) and then moves the plumb line to the center of Israel. By doing so he is comparing the trueness of the wall he built to the lives of the people, and they are apparently coming up wanting.
In constructing a building, much of what we do to produce plumb columns or level surfaces is achieved by comparing what we know to be true to what we want produce. In this way a building will stand if all its parts are true, or plumb, and balance is achieved within its members. If balance is out of whack, that is, if the walls are built eschew, the building will fall. So during construction we continuously go back to the plumb line that we know to be true and compare it what have built. If something is crooked, it must be corrected or replaced because there is no tolerance for shoddy construction. Lives depend on the balance of the framing and its relationship to gravity and all other forces that are generated within the structural members. If you have good balance, you will have a good building. No balance and the building will fall down and you will need to start over again.
In constructing a life, much of what we do to produce an upright character with moral tenacity is achieved by comparing what we know to be true to what we want to produce. In building, this may be a plumb line, but in living it is, at least for Christians, it is the Ten Commandments. By comparing our lives with the commandments, it becomes woefully clear where we have gone astray. And that is exactly what God was doing through the ministry of prophets like Amos and John the Baptist. Amos and John were comparing the truth of God’s Law against the evil and corruption of their people and they had been found wanting. God was implying that if this people were a building, it would need to be destroyed, totally, and He would have to start over. He is telling the prophet that he should take this message to the king and tell him that he will destroy his house and that he will basically start over with a new people, one that will use his guidelines and follow his commandments to rebuild their lives according his laws.
Obviously, these ‘words of the prophet’ were not well received and Amos was begged to leave the country and earn his living as a prophet somewhere else and never again to prophesy in the Kings court. To which Amos says, “You don’t understand, I am not a prophet at all, but herdsman and a lumber jack . . . God told me to warn the king and I did what I was told”. All that he said eventually came true. Israel was scattered and left desolate and the king’s House was killed by invading armies. Such is the life of a prophet.
Recently there has been controversy about the Ten Commandments appearing in state houses and courts throughout the country. Some legislators want to post the ten commandments in our court houses and schools for all to see. Others of course want to ban them from the public square. The reasoning is that if you are exposed to the ten commandments you will become a better person because you will compare what you are doing with what you ought not to be doing. This may seem on the surface a great thing to do. The Supreme Court justices saw past the surface and declared posting the Ten Commandments as unconstitutional. Why do you suppose that is? Don’t you think it would be a great idea to put the Law of God out there for all to see? Don’t you think it would make an impact on the lives of criminals about to be tried? I, for one, do not think so . . . and I’ll tell you why.
How many of us, who are Christians can recite from memory all of the Ten Commandments? Be honest now? Why so few? If the Ten Commandments were to be posted anywhere, why aren’t they posted in our church? I don’t see any commandments around here, do you? Why not? When I was growing up in the Episcopal Church, it was at one time part of the rubrics to recite the Decalogue, that is the Ten Commandments, each time there was a Fifth Sunday in the month. That fell out of use over the years for some reason. I think it was dropped in the liberated seventies when people did not want to be reminded of their infidelities. At any rate, what I am saying is that if we, as Christians cannot bear to keep the Ten Commandments, why should we impress on others something that we ourselves cannot do?
A criminal facing trial for his crime is not going to be impressed by something he obviously never came into contact with in his life. But, if his mother or father had shown him the rules early in his life; and if he had grown and been instructed in what is right and what is wrong, that criminal would not be a criminal would he? He would probably be home cutting his grass and paying his taxes. So for him, learning the rules at his trial is too little, too late.
But the real reason that we don’t dwell on the Ten Commandments is in the fact that they are the Law under which we all have been both convicted and ultimately acquitted. All of us, from the criminal in the street, to the taxpayer who keeps his grass cut, the Supreme Court Justice, and the prophet in our midst . . . all of us have fallen from grace and have been found wanting when compared to the Law. And it is for this reason that Jesus came into the world, that he might fulfill the law by living a perfect life under the law and by dying a sacrificial death under the law . . . the death that has been sentenced to each of us as criminals under the law. It is for this reason he is called ‘the Lamb of God’, for he was sacrificed under the law and took our place on the cross. For this reason we have been justified, or made right under the law, because the penalty for our crime has already been paid, and we have been acquitted.
So how is it that we have been acquitted under the law and yet others have been condemned? Are we truly destined, as Paul insists today to be the children of God? And if this is the case, are others destined not to be? These are difficult questions for us to think about but to which Paul tells us plainly . . . that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” This of course is wonderful for us who have been saved by grace . . . but does this mean that others have been predestined to be condemned? I don’t think so and I’ll tell you why. All of us . . . every single one of us has the ability to choose. If we have been exposed to the gospel and we choose to live by the law of God then this is what we are called to do as every man is called to do. But if we are exposed to the gospel and choose to deny God’s law and walk a different path, then this our choice and God will respect our choice even if it is self-determined and leads to our death. Scripture insists that Jesus came into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save those who have chosen to walk apart from God . . . and that was his purpose from the very beginning. But being God, he already knows who will ultimately choose life and who will not. So in that sense only we are predestined by God.
The wall that God showed to the prophet Amos was the Law, built to perfection by the Master Builder who continues to build and restore his creation in the lives of all those who with humble hearts receive His Word. As we go through life, traveling on the straight and narrow path that our Lord as laid before us, remember the standard to which we ought to build our lives, which is the Law of God, but bear in mind always that it is Jesus Christ who ultimately corrects our faults and in the end will make us stand justified, free from error, and free to live, in the presence of God . . . and that is why we call him Lord. Amen.