Obadiah 1-2, 10-14
Imagine with me a scenario.
It is a beautiful evening, and your children have been playing with friends in the neighborhood. It is starting to get dark, so you decide that you will take a walk and find them to call them home. But as you turn the corner, you are shocked by the scene playing out in front of you. The neighborhood bully, a big kid who has been known to physically and emotionally victimize those who are younger, is attacking a child in the front yard of one of your neighbors. You panic and run toward the scene. The bully sees you and runs away, but not before he gets in one last sharp kick. You run to the side of your child on the ground. No broken bones, but quite a few bruises already beginning. As soon as a wave a relief passes, then the anger begins to rise within you. You realize that this could have been your child. You cannot imagine being any angrier.
Until you see him.
Sitting on his front porch, watching all of this unfold in his own yard, is your neighbor. He didn’t lift a finger to stop it. He didn’t even pause enough to set down his bottle of beer. In fact, if you look close enough, it looks like he might even have a slight smile on his face.
Imagine the anger you would feel in that moment.
That’s what the book of Obadiah is. You have just caught a glimpse of the anger from which the prophet speaks.
Scholars are unclear about a lot of the details of Obadiah. It is the shortest book in the Old Testament, and short on specific details. But one thing that all scholars agree on is this: Obadiah is really, really angry at the nation of Edom. Edom was a nation that bordered the Southern Kingdom of Judah to the southeast. It was fairly well protected, with mountains on one side, and desert on the other. From the beginning, the relationship of Edom with Israel was a tumultuous one. Perhaps you remember your history from Genesis, that two twin brothers Jacob and Esau, fought with each other in the womb, and never really stopped fighting. Jacob cheated Esau. Esau threatened Jacob and pursued him to kill him. They reconciled, but it was always a little tense at holiday get-togethers. Fast forward several centuries…the descendants of Jacob are in Israel, now the Southern Kingdom of Judah. And the descendants of Esau are…the nation of Edom. The battle that began in the womb never really stopped! Through the years, the two sides fought each other, allied against each other when other superpowers became involved, and even when they were on the same side things tended to be a little tense.
Then, 587 years before Jesus was born, the biggest and baddest superpower of all – Babylonia – overtook the nation of Judah and reduced it to rubble. The capitol of Jerusalem fell, and most of its leaders were exiled to Babylon. Meanwhile, many of the survivors fled for their lives, refugees of the horrendous war. When they got to the mountains of Edom to the southeast, their neighbors, their brothers turned their backs on them. Some of them smirked and told them it serves them right. Others gloated at their misfortune. And still others turned the refugees into the Babylonians, happy to do it.
They were, in the parable with which I began, the guy sitting on the front porch drinking his beer, uncaring and maybe even a little amused at the violence and victimization taking place on his front lawn.
And here is when Obadiah starts to preach. We can see why he is angry at Edom. Why he wishes them harm. Why he ravages them and hopes that God does horrible things to them. If we put ourselves in the same place, we probably get it. For Obadiah, this was not simply a matter of politics. Of military strategy. It was a matter of faith. Edom shared a history and a faith with the people of Israel. They had been through some things together. They had fought against each other, but they had reunited and partnered and reconciled and worshipped and believed in the same God. But now, when little brother Judah needed it most, Edom sat this one out. And Obadiah was angry beyond words. In the book named after him, he blasts the kingdom of Edom in no uncertain terms: God will judge you for your inaction in the face of need.
Each week of the series, we want to ask why these least-read books still matter, and today’s passage yields an uncomfortable answer. For here is Obadiah, taking aim at a nation for failing to care for refugees of war, failing to act when their neighbors are in need. A nation, by the way, in Edom who is geographically protected, and sees as its national symbol the proud eagle flying above the mountains in its proud land. Anyone else feeling uncomfortable yet?
The parallels between our nation and the nation of Edom hit a little too close to home. If Obadiah came into our pulpit today, would he ask us how we are caring for the needs of your global neighbors? Perhaps he would he ask us:
- What are you doing about the victims of the civil war in South Sudan, who have suffered brutal war for several years?
- What are you doing for those in South Korea, terrified today of the political posturing by world leaders? Or for that matter, how are we caring for the North Korean people, suffering for generations in a situation that was not of their own making?
- What are we doing about those in our own country, targeted by hate groups like those we saw in Charlottesville over the weekend?
- Or what we are doing about the refugees fleeing the current war in Syria, who like the people of Jerusalem, come to our borders empty-handed, weary and worn?
- Would he take us to task for standing by while other countries have suffered, of failing to use our power and influence and resources to care for the global community, of choosing our needs and our country alone?
- Of course, these are complicated situations and complication solutions are needed. But Obadiah just needed 21 verses to make it clear: take care of those in need in the world or you will be judged.
Now, let me make it clear that I am I am proud to be an American (where at least I know I’m free….) I am proud of (most of) our history and our freedoms and our leadership on the world stage, but my pride comes from the ways and times that we have fought to make everyone free, fought against tyranny, enacted the words on Statue of Liberty, that we are a place for the “huddled masses, yearning to be free.” Not when we’ve been like the people of Edom, too afraid or arrogant to help.
I understand that as Americans, we want what is best for our country. Our citizens. Our people. Our borders. But where do we draw the line? When are we being thoughtful about our own needs, and when are we guilty of sitting on the porch and drinking a beer while those in need on our own front lawn are suffering and in need?
Sorry to get political, but Obadiah started it.
Because for Obadiah, this isn’t just a matter of politics, but it is a matter of faith. It comes down to the question: “do you trust God? To you trust that God will take care of you?” Because to live in fear of outsiders, to live in fear of people who are different means that you don’t trust that God will actually take care of you. Deep down you believe that taking a risk to care for the deepest needs of another will leave you vulnerable to the point that God will not protect you. This is an issue of faith, and deep down, I wonder if one of the reasons we don’t read the book of Obadiah is that we don’t like the mirror it holds up to us?
Again, sorry to start out with so much bad news, but Obadiah does. In fact, it is brunt of his message.
But it is not his whole message. If the first two-thirds of his book is about his anger at Edom for standing by when there are those in need, the last third is directed to those in need.
It is a word of hope.
It is hope for the exiles. For the refugees. For the outcasts and victims of war. For the Israelites who stumbled into the mountains of Edom, hoping for a hand up but instead getting shooed away, there is a hope.
For Obadiah, it seems like the hope comes at the end, when he promises that God will take care of Israel.
From the last words of Obadiah, we see that hope:
But on Mount Zion there shall be those that escape,
and it shall be holy;
and the house of Jacob shall take possession of those who dispossessed them….
Those who have been saved[i] shall go up to Mount Zion
to rule Mount Esau;
and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.
God will take care of the little guy, of the victim. Whether or not the big guy on the porch with his beer does what he is supposed to do, God will. God will care for the least of these. God will care for the widows and orphans. God is faithful, even when we are not.
God stands for the oppressed!
And, again and again, this is the hope of Scripture. The Old Testament prophets proclaim that God cares for the needs of the stranger and the refugee. In the New Testament, James says that true religion is caring for the widows and orphans. And Jesus proclaims that God is on the side of the poor, the broken, the hurting. Blessed are the poor. The peacemakers. And “seek first the Kingdom of God.” Not me first, or my family first, or America first. The Kingdom of God first. “…and all these things will be added to you.”
This is the good news for Obadiah! Dr. King preached that “the arc of moral history is long, but it bends toward justice.” While it may take a while, God will care for those in need. If we want to see God at work, this is how we do it. There is hope. There will be a day of hope, says Obadiah. It looks bleak now, but God is with us. God stands for the oppressed.
I grew up watching Mr. Rogers. In my early days, I loved watching this person who seemed to care for me and consider my thoughts and ideas and feelings and fears. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that Mr. Rogers was the Rev. Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister. He did his show for children because he wanted them to know that they were loved. That their feelings and concerns were validated. He didn’t need to talk about Jesus overtly to share his faith with children.
Mr. Rogers dealt with some difficult subjects on his show. He knew how difficult it is for adults to make sense of the pain and difficulty present in our world: war, murder, abuse, violence, natural disasters. One of his earliest shows dealt with the assassination of Robert Kennedy. How much more, he considered, was it for children, who were less able to make sense of such pain, and were doubly afraid to see their parents scared. He sought to validate their concerns and assuage their fears that they would be hurt or left alone.
Perhaps you have seen a quotation by Mr. Rogers that speaks to this concern.
“My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
That’s the good news. We live in a world of bystanders sitting on their porch. But we also live in a world of helpers. Of those who see God at work in the world and who want to join that work. Who know that every child is a child of God. Who trust God enough to help instead of insisting on their needs.
I was struck by many of the images that I saw coming out of Charlottesville over the weekend. Beyond the images of horror that I saw, I also saw images of hope. Clergy, standing arm and arm against the militant protesters. Those who came to help and support instead of hate. But perhaps the image that struck me the most deeply was that of a policeman, standing alone while surrounded by those offering the Nazi salute, protecting their free speech, as he was charged to do. But the most impactful part of that scene is that the policeman was black. Protecting those who hated him because of who he was.
“Look for the helpers.” For there, you will see the face of God.