What time is it?

This is what the Lord GOD showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings).  When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said, “O Lord GOD, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” The LORD relented concerning this; “It shall not be,” said the LORD. 

This is what the Lord GOD showed me: the Lord GOD was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land. Then I said, “O Lord GOD, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” The LORD relented concerning this; “This also shall not be,” said the Lord GOD. 

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; 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.” 

Amos 7:1-9; portion of lectionary text for Sunday July 14, 2019

We’ve had crazy rains this week.  Monday’s morning rush hour storm led to flash floods.  Photos of DC commuters atop their cars surrounded by swirling water made the national news.  The good news is that new collection systems prevented 170 million gallons of sewage and runoff from reaching the Anacostia River; the bad news is that 50 million gallons still did. 

Trouble about immigration continues.  Reports describe conditions in border detention centers as squalid and worse.  Meanwhile, ICE raids are publicized as imminent.  Our bishop has called congregations to ‘prayer and action for migrants.’  

And Amos sees visions of the land being eaten and pleads for Jacob ‘so small!’

I love the pathos in that plea.  The nation’s sin has already been proclaimed — the luxuries enjoyed by the few, the oppression suffered by the many (e.g. Amos 2:6-8; 5:10-13; 6:4-7).  Yet Amos sees it as too small to stand in the face of judgment.  Amos is affected by the vision the LORD shows him, and his plea moves the LORD’s own affection for this people chosen and known (3:2), and the LORD relents from punishment.  I love that too.  The LORD relents.

The pattern shifts in the third vision.  ‘This is what he showed me,’ the prophet writes, ‘The Lord standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.’   ‘Amos, what do you see?’ the LORD asks, and Amos answers as he can, and the Lord pronounces the meaning of the vision.

Commentaries point out that the meaning of the Hebrew translated ‘plumb line’ is obscure, that the vision Amos saw had to be explained by God.  The disaster of locusts and of fire devouring is immediately obvious.  A wall with some sort of weight held beside it may not be.  Commentaries note that the LORD relents twice, but that the nation’s sin is so great, there is no third relenting.  As if the shift is in some decision to firmness on the part of God.

But the shift is not only in God’s words.  It is begins already at the start of the vision.  Amos had seen nature great and terrible and the vulnerable land.  Now Amos sees the Lord and a wall, a built thing laid upon the land.  Amos’s prior pleas seem born of his own sense of vulnerability, of primary identification with the thing (people) upon which punishment is laid.  ‘Jacob is so small!’  This third vision, Amos is shown the wall and the plumb, and Amos is invited to name aloud what he sees.  The prophet still speaks, and the LORD still responds, but the dialog has shifted to a different plane.  It seems to me as if Amos had been a witness protesting punishment of something else or other, as if Amos is standing just outside the relationship between the LORD and the land and protesting on the latter’s behalf.  Now Amos is invited by God to recognize God’s own point of view (the Lord is standing there; the Lord is holding a plumb line), to acknowledge the terrible crookedness of the structure so-small Jacob has built. 

Perhaps it is not that the LORD refuses to relent a third time, as if God rushes to voice judgment before the prophet can plead yet again.  Perhaps it is the prophet himself whose view has shifted, perhaps there is a pause … and the prophet does not even open his mouth to plead.  Because what can the prophet say?  Yes, we built this.  Yes, however soundly the first course of bricks was laid (or not), each successive course has been that bit further out of true, out of straight, out of plumb.  Such a wall cannot stand.  Perhaps it is the prophet — invited to see not just what God shows him but as the LORD God-self sees — perhaps it is the prophet who stays silent.    Seeing that the land bears the burden that the people themselves laid upon it:  that crooked wall.  The intercession needed is not a plea directed to the LORD but a proclamation pronounced against the people.  (Amos 7:10-15).

And the prophet’s silence becomes part of the dialog between prophet and God.

The movement of water and the movement of people are not two separate things.  The land, the rivers, are burdened by our living, by our bad building. The weight of it is borne well beyond the acre we stand upon.  When do we plead with the LORD on the land’s behalf?  When pronounce the LORD’s judgment against the people?  See what the LORD is showing us.  Tell the time.  Speak the vision.

“The Lord GOD has spoken; who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8b).

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