Warning Signs–Amos 3:3-8

Originally posted on Tuesday, September 7, 2004

There’s an old tale about a man in a flood, sitting on top of his house. He prays that God will rescue him. Shortly after that, a raft floats by and his neighbor offers to take him aboard. “No, I have faith that God will save me.” A few minutes later, a motorboat comes past. Again, the man refuses the offer of help. Finally as the water laps at his feet, a helicopter appears overhead. Once more he refuses to accept their assistance. “God will save me!” he cries out. A few minutes later, the man drowns. When he finds himself before God, the man, indignant, asks why God didn’t save him. God replies calmly, “I sent you a raft, a motorboat, and a helicopter. What did you expect?”

As the Labor Day weekend gives way to a new work week, most of America is heading to their jobs, but for millions of Floridians, Tuesday morning brings the first clear view of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Frances.

If you’ve had your television tuned to any of the various cable news channels over the weekend, however, you’ve already seen some of the devastation. Mostly you’ve watched foolhardy reporters standing out on a beach or alongside a roadway while all around them the rain fell sideways. Today, the insurance adjusters picked up where the reporters left off. The early estimates on the damages left in the path of the storm range from $2 billion to $10 billion. Even the low side of that estimate is an immense amount of money.

But what I find most intriguing about this hurricane is not the staggering amount of property damage but the fairly small number of storm-related deaths. At present, officials are blaming six deaths on the storm. Now six deaths is a lot if one of the dead happens to be close to you, but you have to admit that for a storm that blanketed the entire peninsula for thirty hours and destroyed a huge number of buildings and vehicles, six isn’t a bad number. We could easily see six people die in a bad auto accident during tomorrow’s rush hour. Why was the death toll so low? It’s simple. People heard the warnings, which began several days ahead of the storms, and most of them heeded those warnings. They headed inland and for more substantial structures. Unlike the man on top of his house, these folks took the warning signs seriously.

In today’s reading, Amos uses seven analogies to point out that God always gives warning signs for what he’s about to do. And then, in case you didn’t get it, he states his point very clearly: “Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” The message is simple. Listen to the prophets and live!

Today, we don’t live in a day of prophets, but God still provides warning signs for us. He provides us the means to save ourselves from a great deal of the trouble that we get ourselves into. Sometimes, however, we don’t listen. Other times we hear, but don’t like the message. It’s tempting to ignore the warning signs, but the people of Florida can offer a testimony to importance of listening to them today.

Chosen People–Amos 3:1-2

Originally posted on Monday, September 6, 2004

A couple of years ago, Alyson, my number-two daughter, enrolled in my Composition I online class. One of the nice perks of teaching at JCCC is that we get free tuition for ourselves and our dependents. I say free, but the tuition isn’t precisely free. Instead, we enroll in the classes and pay for them up front. We turn in a simple form indicating what classes are being taken. Then, when the student completes the course with a grade of C or better, the tuition is reimbursed. That’s as close to free as a person could really hope.

In order to take advantage of my free tuition for Alyson’s class, I had to not only fill out the appropriate form but ask my department head, John, to sign it. John, a retired Air Force officer who never married (or had kids) doesn’t always understand family issues.

When I took the form into his office and requested his signature, we fell into a conversation regarding teachers having their own children as students. After a couple of minutes of such talk, he observed, “It is sort of a conflict of interest, isn’t it?”

I wasn’t entirely sure of his point, since the chance for a teacher to inflate a single student’s grade-point average seemed awfully minimal. I guess my mystified look communicated my lack of understanding.

“I mean, the parent will want to get the tuition reimbursed, so there’s an incentive to ensure that the student receives at least a C.”

Knowing John for the past four years, I’m pretty certain that he meant this in the abstract and not as a suggestion that I’d do anything improper. But his lack of understanding struck me as amazing.

“John,” I objected. “Don’t you see that for me or any parent, the desire to get our kids a good education will far outweigh any desire to get a couple of hundred bucks in reimbursement?” By the time I left his office, I think he did understand.

In the end, of course, he had no call for concern. Alyson, as a Comp I student, got far more attention from her professor than any of that professor’s other students. She ultimately made an A in the course, but I am fairly certain that I put her through more to get that A than anybody else. I required revisions that I’d have never asked from others. I made notations on minor defects that I’d have let slide from other students. Alyson got the best of me as a teacher, but at times that probably seemed like she got the worst of me. It served her well when she breezed through Comp II with my colleague.

Just as Alyson was my chosen student who got not only the best of my instruction but the harshest of my correction, Israel was God’s chosen people who received the greatest of his bounty along with the most demanding of his commandments. Things that the Lord would have allowed to pass uncriticized from the Philistines or the Assyrians were not ignored when they came from the Israelites. They were his chosen people. “Therefore, I will punish you for all your sins.”

You and I are God’s chosen people. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when God asks more of us than he asks from unbelievers. He chastises those he loves. It’s hard sometimes being a chosen person. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Et Tu, Israel?–Amos 2:1-16

Originally posted on Sunday, September 5, 2004

This summer, the annual Shakespeare festival at Southmoreland Park was Julius Caesar. Although it comes at the end of act two, the murder of Caesar is one of the high points of the play (which might explain why this isn’t considered one of the bard’s greatest works). Caesar, although shocked, is not completely surprised at the daggers that plunge into his body, one after the next. From Casca and Cinna and Cassius, he expected this sort of thing. But then Marcus Brutus, a man who is practically a son to Caesar, steps up and thrusts his blade into the great man. “Et tu, Brute?” Caesar says with this final breath. “You too, Brutus?” Julius Caesar couldn’t imagine the sort of betrayal that would be necessary for Brutus to join with these assassins.

In these opening chapters of Amos’ prophecies, we see a sort of inverse Brutus action going on. As Amos brings down the curses of God upon the various nations, we can imagine Israel, the apples of God’s eye, standing back and nodding their approval to the words that this shepherd-prophet utters.

Amos attacks Damascus, and the people of Israel approve. He brings down imprecations onto Gaza, and the people shout, “Amen!” He complains about the sins of Tyre, leading the Israelites to yell, “Preach it, brother!” Then he assails Edom. The people of the land perhaps squirm, thinking that these attacks are coming rather close to home. Still, they nod nervously. Next, Amos attacks another neighbor, another relative, Moab. The people smile and nod, but they’re not at peace. “For three sins of Judah,” Amos says. Now, he’s come as close as he can come. The people of the North might have their differences with the Southern Kingdom, but blood is thicker than water. And besides, they think they know where this is leading.

And then, the final dagger plunges in. “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.” Just as Caesar never imagined that the blade of Brutus would be turned against him, Israel didn’t expect that this rant against their neighboring nations would turn against God’s chosen people.

We are foolish and short-sighted when we believe that God will punish the sins of others and not notice ours. It’s all too easy to identify certain sins as the truly bad ones. Those are always the ones that we don’t struggle against. Take gambling for example. I have absolutely no problem with gambling. I’m never tempted when I drive past the various casinos along the river. That just isn’t an issue for me. It’s easy for me to point a finger at the weakness and self-indulgence of those who gamble away their mortgage payments and spend time they might have invested profitably somewhere else. Those people are sinners. But when I sit at this very computer and play hours of Madden Football, that’s simply a pastime. It’s an innocent diversion. Sure, I could be writing or exercising or reading or playing with my kids or any of a hundred more useful things, but still, playing a video game isn’t a sin. I mean, it’s not like I’m gambling, after all.

We should worry most about our sins when we don’t notice any. That’s when, like the people of Israel, we’re likely to incur God’s chastisement and never see it coming.

For Three Sins–Amos 1:1-15

Originally posted on Saturday, September 4, 2004

Alyson is home from college for Labor Day weekend. While she’s in town, she decided to get some homework done, a decision I heartily endorse. Her mission this time is to interview someone of a different faith. She chose her grandmother, a member of the Community of Christ (aka RLDS). Although I didn’t witness this interview, I had it related to me in considerable detail by both Aly and Penny, who witnessed it but was forbidden to speak. They’d have had to stick a cork in my mouth to keep me quiet, I’m afraid. Apparently, the conversation went something like this:

Alyson: Who do you believe will go to heaven?

Grandma: I believe that everybody will go to heaven. Except murderers. I mean, if the murderers confess their murder and change their lives, then they will go to heaven, too.

Alyson: So you’re sure that you’re going to heaven.

Grandma: Well, you can’t be sure until you die. You have to do the best that you can and hope that it’s enough. [I know this sounds like the guy in the FAITH video series, but that’s what she said.]

Alyson: But I thought that you said that everybody would go to heaven.

Grandma: Yes, everybody will eventually go to heaven. First, they’ll go to a holding place where they’ll have the chance to learn about God and choose for him.

Alyson: And will they be able to choose against him?

Grandma: Yes, of course, because otherwise they wouldn’t have free will.

Alyson: So what will happen to the people who choose for God?
Grandma: They’ll go to heaven, of course.

Alyson: And the ones who choose against him?

Grandma: I don’t think they will choose against him, because everybody’s going to go to heaven.

Alyson: Why do you think that’s so?

Grandma: Because God loves us and he wouldn’t let any of us go to hell!

Wrong! If I’d have been there I’d have been yelling “wrong” at that point. Yes, God loves us, but that doesn’t mean that God will just ignore our sins. How do I know this? If we haven’t figured it out by reading Hosea and Joel, then maybe we can find it from Amos. Sandwiched in history between Joel’s day and that of Hosea, Amos brought a sharp word of warning to the nations around Israel.

“For three sins of Damascus, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.” Time after time, Amos speaks for God predicting the doom of the various nations surrounding Israel. Why were they doomed? For three sins, even for four. He doesn’t name their sins, but presumably they know about them.

Whoever taught my mother-in-law that sin doesn’t really matter did her a grave disservice. Yes, God loves us, and yes, he gives us every opportunity to escape the penalties of our sins, but God will punish sin in the end.

This lady’s theology is confused to a dangerous degree. But we have no excuse to live in that sort of confusion. Those who trivialize sin do so at their own peril and sometimes at the peril of others.

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