Don’t Forget Him–Amos 4:12-13

Unfortunately, I finished writing my Monday entry before the end of the Chiefs game and watched the remainder of it, not in the reflection on my antique map of Italy, but face-to-screen from a comfy perch on my bed. As you’re probably aware if you’re a fan or have been within earshot of our whining, the Chiefs lost that game, another disappointment in Denver.

But at least this loss wasn’t like the old days. In the old days, when John Elway roamed the earth, no lead over a Broncos team was safe. If you were ahead 900 to nothing at halftime, that didn’t matter. Somehow, John Elway would manage to eke out the victory, 901 to 900, with three seconds left. The guy worked magic. He could run better than most quarterbacks. Just when you thought your super pass rusher had the guy in his jaws of death, Elway would take a step forward, evade the tackle, and then scamper downfield for an easy twenty yards. If your defense chased him all the way to the right side of the field and had him wedged between a three hundred pound lineman and the Gatorade cooler, he’d manage to fling the ball all the way across the field to hit a wide open receiver standing on the left sideline. They should have put a red cape and a big “S” on John Elway.

On Sunday night, the Chiefs simply played a solid Denver Broncos team on their home turf, but in the old days, you didn’t just play the Broncos. You played John Elway and the Broncos. Anybody who forgot that they were playing against John Elway did so at their own peril. It would be like forgetting that your business rival was Al Capone. That sort of forgetfulness is bound to come back to hurt you.

It’s important to remember who you’re dealing with in a lot of situations. In today’s reading, Amos reminds his audience, the people of Israel, who they’re dealing with: God. It’s really easy to say “God.” In fact, it’s so easy that the word has become a staple of casual swearing. Beyond that, we frequently say “God bless you” or “God bless America” or “God willing,” but do we typically remember just who is meant when we utter that little, one-syllable word?

“He who forms the mountains, creates the wind, and reveals his thoughts to man, he who turns dawn to darkness, and treads the high places of the earth—the Lord God Almighty is his name.”

God is not “the man upstairs” or “a higher power.” He’s not “the big guy” or “the goodness within us.” No, God made all things, whether they be as solid as a mountain or as transitory as a thought. He controls all things, from the smallest to the largest. Only a fool forgets who God is. I think that’s why the Proverbs tell us that the “fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Go ahead and forget that you’re dealing with John Elway, but never forget who our God is!

Half-Time Adjustments–Amos 4:9-12

I’m an unabashed Kansas City Chiefs fans.  Cut me and I bleed red.  Okay, that’s not the most impressive example I could use, but you get the idea.  As I write these words, I’m watching the third quarter of the Chief’s opener against the Broncos—the dreaded Broncos—in the reflection on a picture above my computer.  At present, the Chiefs are trailing by a touchdown after a fairly dreadful first half.

If you listen to the TV announcers during a football game, which isn’t always a pleasant experience, then you know that one of the things that they like to talk about is “adjustments.”  When the teams go into the locker room at half-time, the coaches, who the announcers love to proclaim as “geniuses,” are supposed to make adjustments.  Having never been in a professional football locker room, I can only imagine what the conversations sound like, but I think I’ve listened to John Madden for long enough to have a good idea.  Today, the Chief’s coaches probably said something like this:

“Okay, you guys on defense, that little running back is eating you up.  He’s running past you and you’re just watching him.  Stop it!  Tackle him.”  Then the offensive coach tells his guys.  “You’ve been dropping those passes.  Instead of that, catch them!”  That’s almost certainly what they say.

Or, in the reflection on the wall, I just saw a better example.  The right-handed Denver quarterback, about to be sacked, decided to throw a pass with his left hand.  It was intercepted by the Chiefs, who then tied the game.  When that quarterback trotted to the sideline, I’m pretty sure that the Broncos coach calmly took him aside and said, “Jake, that wasn’t the smartest thing you’ve ever done.  Don’t do that again.”

Learning from bad things that happen is a key for success in just about any field of endeavor, but in football, the adjustments, the learning from mistakes, takes center stage.  All through a game, coaches and players work together to make sure that they learn from their mistakes, so that when bad things happen once, they don’t happen again.  For example, after the Chiefs gave up a long run for a touchdown to this midget runner from the Broncos, they made adjustments to make sure that wouldn’t happen again.  Except that the guy just ran through the Chief’s line for a forty-seven-yard touchdown and a new Broncos lead.  It looked like an impressive run in the reflection.  You see, you just have to learn from your mistakes, but the Chiefs didn’t, I guess.

Amos points out a much higher stakes situation where people didn’t learn from bad mistakes.  Read the awful things that happened in these verses and then see the Lord’s head shake when he says “yet you have not returned to me, declares the Lord,” three times.  (And he said it twice in yesterday’s readings.)

Silly people, these Israelites, yet they’re not alone.  How must God feel about my continued failures, about my repeated trips into the same areas of sin?  I’m no better than those Israelites.  My only claim to righteousness lies in Christ, who covers over my mistakes.  I have not returned to God, so he sent Christ to bring me home.  That’s what I call a home-field advantage.

Irony Hour–Amos 4:4-8

This summer, as I graded papers for my online course, and during the opening weeks of this fall semester, I’ve noticed a difference in my comments.  Sarcasm seems to come much more easily than it used to.  Let me give you an example.  In the past, when a student turned in a “research” paper that demonstrated no evidence of research, I might have said something like, “Where did you get this information?”  Today, however, I might be more inclined to write, “Did you know that 42.3% of statistics are made up on the spot?”  When a student presents a 500-word essay in which the issue of capital punishment or abortion is summarily “solved,” I now skip my normal, serious comment about the complexity of the issue and the varying facts and viewpoints that must be considered.  No, today I’ll write something like, “Highly educated people have been arguing constantly over this topic for more than fifty years, but you put it to bed in a page and a half.  Why don’t you fix world hunger next?”

Irony, and its sub-category sarcasm, can be useful tools.  Irony is, essentially, the art of saying the exact opposite of what you mean, assuming that your audience will understand why you’re saying these words.  In a famous example, Jonathan Swift, a seventeenth-century British writer penned “A Modest Proposal.”  In this essay, Swift suggested that the best way to deal with the crushing poverty in Ireland was to sell Irish babies in the meat-markets of London.  Nobody with any sense believed that Swift truly wanted to make cannibals of the English.  They understood that he truly meant to demonstrate that his people were treating the Irish no better than livestock.

In verse four of today’s reading, when Amos tells the people of Israel to go and sin, he is using irony.  When I read this entire passage, I can just hear the biting tone of voice that he must have used.  Then, after verses four and five, he returns to a non-ironic speech.  In essence, he says, “I have tried everything to get you to turn back to me.”  He has tried playing with the weather and interrupting their food supply.  He’s tried sending a string of prophets.  He’s tried speaking literally and speaking ironically.  In fact, he’s tried or will try using just about every figure of speech or object lesson that you can imagine.  And still the people don’t return to their God.

I’ve recently begun to understand just how magnificently God arranges the experiences of my life in order to communicate his message to me.  He’ll use a finicky car or a crashed hard drive, a song in choir rehearsal or a comment from a friend.  He’ll use, most frequently, words like these from Amos.  Unlike these Israelites, nearly three thousand years ago, I have the indwelling Holy Spirit.  You’d think that I’d get the message loud and clear, obeying every time.  But that’s not how it turns out at all.  Might God, in an effort to get his point across, resort to a sarcastic tone with me or with you?  No, he’d never do that!

Cows of Bashan–Amos 4:1-3

In what has to rank as one of my favorite epithets in the entire Bible, Amos takes a shot not at the men of Israel but their women.  “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan.”  Have you ever noticed that when men are described using the names of animals, it’s a generally positive description, while when women are given the same treatment, it’s always a negative association.  When Rocky Balboa was called “The Italian Stallion,” that was perfectly okay, but “the old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.”  I could give other examples, but most of the others aren’t really appropriate for polite society.  Hopefully you can employ your imagination to get my drift.

Let’s explore that metaphor for a moment.  When Amos tags these women as “cows of Bashan,” what is he suggesting?  Think about the cows you’ve known.  First of all, cows are not particularly intelligent creatures.  If there were an animal IQ scale, they’d score well above sheep, but all in all they’re pretty feeble-minded.  Have you ever seen a cowboy movie featuring a trained cow?  I don’t think so.  Roy Rogers could train Trigger to do everything from playing dead to fixing biscuits in a Dutch oven, but he apparently didn’t have similar success with Elsie the Cow.

Besides their lack of intelligence, cows tend to do only about three things.  First, they eat.  They’re not terribly discriminating when they eat, but what they lack in discretion they make up for in quantity.  Second, they stand around chewing their cud.  Is there anything in this world that looks more stupid than a cow chewing its cud?  Finally, they—how shall we say?—complete the digestive process.

Cows aren’t useful as transportation.  They’re not bright enough to become a companion.  No, a cow is only tolerated because it is meat on the hoof.  It’ll also tend to produce calves and milk along the path to the butcher’s shop.  But it’s really kind of pitiful to think of a cow as a creature whose highest ambition can be to turn into a nice prime rib someday.

Of course a cow is simply being a cow, right?  There’s nothing wrong with a cow embracing its cow-ness and being the best cow it can be.  What is a problem is when a person—certain women in this case—behave like cows.  Cows we can excuse, but when people are simply eating and eliminating, oblivious to the fate in store for them, that’s a sad state of affairs.

This passage puts an accent on the dumbness of dumb animals.  In verse three, Amos changes his metaphor from cows to fish, apparently, as he prophecies that these women will be taken out of the city with fish hooks.  A trout with a hook in its mouth is one thing, but a person?  That’s rather sad.

As I read these words, I don’t assume that Amos is a sexist.  He has plenty of criticism for men as well.  Instead, he’s lashing out at those who are oblivious to the harm they inflict on others and content living for themselves.  I’m afraid that’s a role I inhabit now and again.  You and I aren’t cows of Bashan, but we must be sure not to carelessly graze in that pasture.  God still has a good supply of fish-hooks, I’m sure.

A Piece of an Ear–Amos 3:11-15

Several years ago, the JCCC basketball team generated a fair amount of interest and attention on campus when they went through their season with a stellar record.  When they reached the regional tourney, they breezed through, hardly breaking a sweat.  This qualified them for a trip to the national tournament.  The campus email gave us breakdowns of games as they were played.  The team won their first couple of games and found themselves in the big one, the championship contest, which they won.

Although I didn’t really follow this team—opting instead for the exploits of my beloved Jayhawks—I did have a couple of students who were playing.  I therefore gained some vicarious pleasure watching as they advanced through their various stages of success.  But something struck me odd in the week before the guys went to the national tournament.  I talked with, Joel, one of those students, about the excitement of getting to go to the national tournament.

“Yeah,” Joel replied.  “That’s pretty great.”  He said this with all the enthusiasm of a grade school kid told that he’d be served liver at lunchtime.  I couldn’t figure it out.  Eventually, however, I did.  In doing so, I learned a bit about junior college athletics.

Like their four-year counterparts, two-year schools are grouped by size and athletic intensity into groups.  The NCAA has various levels for colleges, including Division I, II, and III, and some letter designations that break at least some of those divisions down further.  That keeps Southwest Baptist University from having to play football against Mizzou every year as if they had a chance.  It doesn’t do anything for poor KU, when they have to play Nebraska, but that’s a whole different matter.  Essentially, though, when a team is in Division I or Division II, they stay in that division unless something very significant changes.

In the NJCAA (the J standing for Junior), they opt for a system that resembles the English soccer leagues.  At the end of a season, one or more really great teams are moved up to the higher division.  At the same time, one or more really miserable teams are moved down into the lower division.  JCCC, it seems, had just been moved down into the lower division that year.  And then they won the championship.  Rather a hollow victory, eh?  It’d be like winning the math contest in second grade after getting held back from third grade.

As Amos continues his words of warning, he explains that while there will be a remnant of Israel, it’ll be like the parts of an animal taken from the mouth of a lion.  That’s hardly something for the shepherd to take pride in.  But even more ridiculous is for the piece of an ear to think itself a fine specimen of livestock.

As I write these things, I can look at the wall above my desk and see an array of diplomas and awards, all suggesting my accomplishment.  But I’m just a piece of an ear that Jesus rescued from the mouth of a ravening lion.  Every point of pride I could boast could have and should have been better, less tainted by sin.

It’s rare when I find a college athlete demonstrating true wisdom, but Joel did that.  He realized that, even winning the tournament, they were just the pieces left over.  All he could do was play his best and try not to think about the lion.

…and my lungs and limbs and all the rest of me.