The prophets of Israel addressed a nation that God had chosen for a purpose unlike that of any other nation – they were to let the whole world know that the Lord is God. America is not God’s chosen nation the way Israel was. America is not the new Israel. The new Israel is the church of Jesus Christ that crosses every national border. The church is the body God has chosen to carry on ancient Israel’s mission of proclaiming that God is Lord of the universe. But America is blessed, and blessings bring responsibilities.
And there are certain things the prophets told Israel that apply to every nation. Those are basic realities that are essential to a nation’s survival. You don’t have to be a Christian to know that, but those of us who serve Christ and who love our country have an obligation to keep reminding our fellow citizens of that reality.
The prophets of the Old Testament remind us of those basic principles that give strength to any nation, and they warn us of the consequences when we ignore those truths. At the heart of what sustains a nation is its concern for the poor, the outcast and the dispossessed. Throughout the Old Testament there is a pervading concern for those who do not share in the prosperity of the nation. When farmers harvested their crops, they were not to pick every last piece of food but leave some of the harvest in the fields for the poor to glean. Every seven years the debts of all the poor were to be forgiven. Jesus affirmed that truth – by healing those for whom everyone else had given up hope, by feeding the hungry, by spending time with those whom others avoided. Jesus showed the power that sustains the universe, the power of self-giving love, when he gave his life for the world on the cross.
God has a special concern for those in need. The nature of God’s love is to reach out and to serve, to give freely and to care for others. Since human beings are made in the image of God, we find our deepest satisfaction when we serve others as Christ serves. Anyone who gives of his or her resources knows how much fuller and richer life is when you’re generous than when you keep everything you have to yourself. Vibrant, healthy churches are those that understand they exist not for their own success but for the sake of the world. Churches don’t get their own houses in order before we reach out to the world. The reason we exist is to reach out, and we find our internal strength by getting outside of ourselves. Someone once said that mission is to the church as flame is to fire. It can’t exist without it. And just as there is something basic about the created order that causes individuals and churches to find their greatest joy in serving others, there is something basic about the way creation is ordered that compels a nation to care for the poor and the dispossessed.
In his book The Dignity of Difference, Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britaain, asks why the great religions of the world – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism – have survived for millennia while the great empires have passed away. He says it’s because the great religions have at their heart a concern for the poor, the needy and the outcast. It’s that concern for the dispossessed and the powerless that aligns them with the center of gravity of the universe.
Amos showed Israel that it was ignoring that basic truth. We often think of prophets as people who predict the future. But the prophets of the Old Testament were more concerned about the present. They told the truth about what they saw going on around them and pointed out the logical consequences of what they observed.
In order to make his point about what he observed, Amos used the image of a plumb line. If you’ve ever been to a construction site, you’ve seen construction workers standing behind little boxes on tripods, squinting behind them and lining them up to make sure the lines of the new building are straight. Workers who are putting up new walls measure angles, meticulously squaring up the new walls to make sure they’re plumb. You don’t have to be an engineer to understand how important it is that every wall is straight and at the proper angle. If the walls are just a few degrees off plumb, if they’re not perfectly perpendicular to the ground, the structural integrity of the building is compromised. Usually it’s something that you can’t see with the naked eye. Do you remember the earthquake that shook the east coast nine years ago? The Washington Monument was closed for almost three years while it was made secure after the quake. From the outside it looked as straight as ever, but the engineers knew that unless it was repaired, it wouldn’t stand.
It’s not just buildings that need to be plumb to keep standing. God used the image of a plumb line to show Israel how it measured up to God’s expectations. A plumb line is what builders used in ancient times to square up walls. It was simply a string with a pointed weight on the end of it. When the builder held the string against the wall that was being built, the weight caused the string to make a straight line perpendicular to the earth’s center of gravity. Whether the wall was built on an incline or on level ground, the plumb line told the builder whether or not it was square. If the wall was not square to the ground, the builder would have to tear it down and start over.
The image God showed Amos was an image of the Lord holding a plumb line against a wall. God was measuring the nation to see if they were plumb to God’s expectations of them. The message Amos conveyed to them was that they were not. Unless they straightened up, God would tear them down and start over, like a builder tearing down a defective wall.
Amos’ message was not one that the people of Israel wanted to hear. In fact, they thought he sounded like a nut. Everything looked just fine. Some were calling that time Israel’s golden years. The time was 760 BCE. Israel had been separated from its southern neighbor Judah for almost 200 years. The nation was at peace. All the economic indicators were strong. Commerce was brisk. Wealth was increasing. Businesses prospered. Art and culture flourished. King Jeroboam II and his court lived in palaces renowned for their ivory walls and furnishings.
But a wall can be out of alignment and the naked eye won’t notice it. That’s why builders use plumb lines and measuring instruments to detect flaws in a structure. And Israel was not as strong and secure as it looked. The king, his advisors, all those who enjoyed the benefits of Israel’s strong economy did not see what else was going on in their land. Children were going hungry. The elderly were ignored and left to fend for themselves. Israel was out of plumb.
Amaziah, one of the religious leaders of Israel who was a personal advisor to the king, told Amos to go away and be critical some place else. He was talking to the chosen people, Israel. Everything was going fine. They didn’t need his words of gloom and doom.
It turned out that Amos was right. Within 50 years the northern kingdom of Israel was gone. The Assyrian Empire conquered them, and they disappeared from the face of the earth. The fact that they were God’s chosen people didn’t save them. They were off plumb, and as surely as an unstable wall will crumble, Israel fell.
What makes our nation great has been the attention we’ve paid to those who are in need. Our industrial might has given us resources to share. Our armed forces have protected our freedom and come to the aid of others. But what makes a nation truly great is its willingness to help those who are struggling, to make sure people are treated as equal in the eyes of God, to ensure that justice is available to everyone, regardless of income. Our greatest leaders are the ones who have reminded us who we are and what true greatness is. Abraham Lincoln inspired us to greatness by appealing to what he called our better angels and reminding us of the basic tenet of the Declaration of Independence, that all are created equal. Martin Luther King Jr. was basically a conservative leader, calling our nation back to the principles on which we were founded, the biblical vision of justice for all. His message was grounded not in some radical notion, but in the word of the prophets and the principles of the Constitution.
It’s a continual struggle. Amos pointed out the discrepancy of the rich of Israel living in ivory palaces while the poor languished in the streets. We don’t have those kinds of discrepecensies in our country, but economists tell us that the gap between the haves and the have nots keeps getting bigger. The populist revolt that we’ve seen in both of our major political parties is a sign that something isn’t plumb, things aren’t aligned as they should be.
The greatest contribution we as Christians can make to this country we love is to keep reminding it what truly makes a nation strong. What makes us strong is not how loudly we profess our faith. It’s not how fervently our leaders stumble over themselves to show they are religious.
What makes a nation strong is how it lives out the belief its people profess in their places of worship, how that translates into the way we care for each other, stand up for each other, give generously to each other. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, all have something to offer. True patriots are those who love their country enough to keep reminding it what makes for true greatness.
On this Independence Day weekend, we remember what God has given us. Our goal isn’t to make America a so-called Christian country, where we have some kind of privilege because of the faith we profess. History shows that every time the church has tried to be in control of the civil authorities, things have gone badly. But what we are is salt and light, a reminder of what makes a people strong, a sign of God’s love and compassion as we live and work among people of every faith and people of none. Jesus said it over and over – our strength isn’t in what we get but in what we give. That’s what makes a great nation, a holy nation.