Monday, February 6, 2017

Obadiah: Turning Back Those In Need

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Obadiah 1:1-4, 10-17:

There is a Depeche Mode song from the 80’s that says “I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumors, but I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor and when I die I expect to find him laughing.” That’s how I feel sometimes about God when it comes to Sunday’s messages. I began planning this series on the 12 minor prophets last summer, long before we knew the results of the election and certainly long before I knew what that president would or would not be doing when we got to each of the individual prophets, but sometimes the scriptures just seem to match up with world events, especially when it comes to controversial events. Just once I would like the scripture to match up positively with something that’s happened in the world, but that doesn’t seem to happen nearly as much, if ever, as scripture calling us out as individuals and as a nation for some action we have undertaken, which, I think, is where we find ourselves today.

Now just by a show of hands, who here had ever heard of Obadiah either before today, or before you saw that Obadiah would be covered today? That’s about what I thought. The first time I heard about Obadiah, or at least could remember it was while I was in seminary, but it was not in class, instead it was through my wife Linda who came home and told me right at the beginning of the school year that she had a student named Obadiah, a girl by the way, and I was like “okay.” And so, she had to tell me why she thought this was important information for me to know because she was named after one of the prophets, and so then I had to go look it up. Obadiah is one of the few books that is not covered at all in the lectionary, and according to what, based on what verses and books people look up and read on their site, Obadiah is the least read book in the bible, and six of the top 10 least read books are all minor prophets. So, if you have never heard of Obadiah you’re in good company.

Like with most of the 12 minor prophets, we know very little else about Obadiah. The name Obadiah means “servant of God” so some have even argued that it’s not a proper name but instead is a title that was held, especially as it relates to the prophets, because the prophets were said to be servants of God. There is no personal information given about him and there is also nothing specifically in the book, like a list of kings who were ruling during his prophetic career, to date the work. Like with the prophet Joel, the dates range from the 9th century to the early 3rd century, but most scholars place it sometime in the 6th century after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians and the beginning of the exile. That is the date typically given because Obadiah’s prophesies deal with the destruction of Jerusalem, and the consequences of what comes next. And what comes next, according to Obadiah, is that the nation of Edom will be destroyed because of what it is said that Edom did and did not do during that event.

Edom was a fairly small kingdom to the south of Juda off the southern tip of the Dead sea and then running to the gulf of Aqaba, which put them right in the heart of one of the major trade routes for the red sea. But the history of the Edomites, and their relationship with the Israelites goes nearly all the way back to the beginning, so let’s see who was paying any attention to the notes and questions for this week’s sermon from the bulletin and the newsletter, didn’t think that was going to be on the test now did you? Just like in school, everything can show up on the test. So, who is the father of the Edomites? It’s Esau, the brother of Jacob, who is eventually renamed by God, and what is his name? Israel. Now for those who may not remember the story. Rachel is pregnant with twins, who fight and tussle in her womb and she is told that there are two nations in her womb, and the people shall be divided and the elder shall serve the younger. Jacob then goes on to take Esau’s birthright and steal’s their father’s blessing, both due to Esau as the firstborn son. So, Esau and Jacob, even though they are brothers, don’t get along, and this animosity continues in their respective nations, Edom and Judah and Israel. When the Israelites were fleeing Egypt and going to the promised land, they asked for permission to cross through Edom, and they were told, basically, “No, go around,” and things didn’t really improve from there. While there were probably hard feelings all around, the Israelites clearly didn’t like Edom, and calls for their destruction are common not only throughout the prophetic writings, but we also have anti-Edomite writings in other biblical and non-biblical texts. They’re like the Red Sox, no one really likes them.

So, Judah was probably pretty happy to hear about Obadiah’s prophetic claim that Edom would be destroyed, and even happier for the reason, and that is because of their response to the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians. “For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall come upon you,” Obadiah says. “On the day that strangers carried off [Judah’s] wealth, and foreigners enter his gates… you were like one of them. But you should not have gloated over your brother on the day of his misfortune… you should not have looted his goods on the day of his calamity.” That is Edom stood by and did nothing while the Babylonians attacked, and then gloated about it and perhaps even participated in the looting. This same accusation is made in Psalm 137. There is even a claim, although there is nothing whatsoever in the record to support it, that the Edomites set the Temple on fire. They are guilty for not helping our “their brother.”  But then Obadiah’s accusation goes on, “You should not have stood at the crossing to cut off his fugitives; you should not have handed over his survivors on the day of distress.” And we should hear this one very specifically, people were fleeing from their country, that is they were refugees, and when they were going to Edom, they were stopped and turned around and given back to the people who were going to kill them. Edom turned their backs on their brothers, they turned their backs on their kin, not caring what happened to them and in fact being glad in their actions.  And so God says, let those with ears listen, “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.”

Edom is going to be destroyed because they did not come to the aid of their brother. Now archeological and other evidence from this time suggests that Edom was militarily and politically weak and therefore stood no chance if they were to have to have tried to stand up to the Babylonian invasion. They too would have been destroyed. But, while it’s not said, it’s certainly implied, that it doesn’t matter, that it would have been better for them to be destroyed for doing the right thing than to still be destroyed because they did the wrong thing. They had an obligation, God is saying, to come to the aid of their brother, their kin, regardless of what it might have involved, or the outcome. That is what is due to assist family in need, that blood is thicker than water, and it is most certainly thicker than mere politics. Of course, what we are also told is that they thought they were safe, that their capital city was impregnable, or as Obadiah says “your proud heart has deceived you, you that live in the clefts of the rock, whose dwelling is in the heights. You say in your heart, ‘who will bring me down to the ground?’… I will bring you down, says the Lord.” Don’t count on the things you take for granted, like living high in the rocks, or having a strong military or a strong economy or having other countries like and respect you to make a difference, because they won’t make a difference unless you do the right thing unless we do the right thing. Edom did not stand by and support their brother Judah in their time of need, and not only does God notice, not only does God care about these relationships, but God is going to do something about it. “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.”

Now while Obadiah is only about judgment on Edom for their behavior, and there is a message of hope for the people of Judah, I don’t think that the message for Judah is that they then get to gloat, or feel that there is nothing God will do to them, because I think exactly the opposite message can be had. They too are responsible for Edom, for their brothers, that, as we have been hearing over the past few weeks, the judgment of the day of the Lord applies to other nations, because God is God of all, but that Israel and Judah, because they are God’s people and have the law given to them, and because they have received God’s blessings, that they too will be judged, and in some ways, will be held to a higher standard because they know God and they know better, especially when it comes to kin relationships.  All the way back in the beginning of Genesis, after Cain kills Abel and God comes looking for him, God asks Cain where his brother is, and Cain’s response is “Am I my brother’s keeper?” While the answer to that is never given explicitly in that story, but merely implied, in Obadiah it is given explicitly. You are your brother’s keeper. One other group of brothers that we need to be reminded of is that of Isaac, the father of Esau and Jacob, and his brother Ishmael. Both become children of the promise and both, God says, will become the fathers of great peoples, Isaac of Judaism and Ishmael of Islam. So remembering that Esau marries a daughter of Ishmael, bringing an even deeper connection to the family of faith. Why did you not come to the aid of your brother God asks Edom? And I believe God asks us that same question? Why did you not come to the aid of your brothers and sisters? In your backyard? In your city? In your country? In your world?

Protecting the border is one of the things that governments do, as is protecting its citizens, but where does our obligation to help those in need override that duty? Where does the love we are supposed to have for everyone, most especially our enemies, because it’s really easy to love those who love you Jesus says, where does that love trump our fears? Because the truth is, even including the Bowling Green massacre, there has not been a single fatal terrorist attack on American soil committed by anyone from any of these seven countries. Now, to show my cynicism, the worst terrorist attack on US soil was conducted by people from Saudi Arabia, a country we continue to have close ties with and whom we will never ban because too many important people, including Trump and the Clintons and the Bushes and lots and lots of others, have financial ties they are not willing to break. And of those other countries, Somalia has not had a government in place since it collapsed in 1991. For 26 years they have not had a government, too bad they don’t have any natural resources that we want or we might have been more resolute in our response to that tragedy. And then of course there is the tragedy happening in Syria, and the refugee crisis in which more than half of the population has been displaced and ¼ of the population has fled the country entirely.  And while others are trying to help, we have just closed our borders. How is that any difference then the Edomites cutting off the fugitives, the refugees, and saying “You can’t come in here.” And of course, one of the great ironies is the president tweeting about this on his iPhone, a device invented by the son of Syrian immigrants. “You should not have gloated over your brother on the day of his misfortune… for the slaughter and violence done to your brother [and sister], shame shall cover you.” God says “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return to your own head.”

When Judah was in need, their kin, their brother did not respond, did not provide help, and in fact did not just not provide assistance, but they gloated about it and assisted the Babylonians, and for that they are going to be destroyed by God, or so says Obadiah. And so, Cain’s question resounds again, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  The answer is yes, because God says “For the day of the Lord is near against all the nations. As you have done it, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return to your own head.” How does Jesus say we will we be known to the world? By the love we show. We are called to love and to answer those in need. It is the love exhibited by this table, when Jesus gathered with his disciples, tax collectors and zealots, people who hated each other, with fishermen and tradesmen, and Jesus gave all of them the bread, even Judas who had betrayed him, he gave all of them the bread and the cup, and he forgave all of them and those who would kill him, because forgiveness cannot be conditional, nor can our love for the world. We have to love all and we have to come to the need of those who are in need, as hard and difficult as that might be, and even as disgusting and stomach churning as that might be, because I keep coming back to verse 15 “For the day of the Lord is near against all the nations. As you have done it, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return to your own head.” Or as Jesus, a former refugee, says, “Just as you did it to the least of these, so you did it to me.” We are called to love and we are called to respond, and the test of this is not when things are going well, the true test is in times of crises when we have to decide who we will be and what we will do. So the question is, how will we respond?

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