Monday, July 13, 2009

Sermon - Obadiah

Continuing with our summer series on the Minor Prophets we have come to the most minor of all minor prophets, Obadiah. His tiny book is only twenty-one verses long. So we are going to read an ENTIRE book of the Bible today! And really that is the only difference between minor prophets and Major prophets. Back when books were made of collections of scrolls, all twelve of the minor prophets could fit one scroll together, but each of the major prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, from whom we heard in the first reading had his own scroll. In our teenage years, Cassie and I were in a youth group performance of “the Bible in fifteen minutes” and we illustrated the difference between minor prophets and major prophets. Since I was the older sister I got to be a major prophet, with a long speech to give, and she was the minor prophet, who came up and said – three words – do you remember your line? – Repent or die. Minor prophets get to the point.
Now as you may have been able to guess from the theme presented so far in the service, Obadiah wrote from exile in Babylon. The people of Israel were not in exile for very long – fifty to sixty years – so only one or two generations of Israelites experienced it – BUT it remained one of the most important historical events in the formation of their religious identity. Most of the Old Testament books of the Bible were written, or at least compiled, or re-copied during these few years while they were in exile.
Why was it such an important time? If they hadn’t taken their religion as seriously when they were in Israel, why were they suddenly so religious when they got to Babylon? Well, there’s probably a few reasons.
For one, they had suffered some serious hurts which needed healing. They’d been betrayed by their neighbors, and especially by Edom. Edom was a nation to the south-east of Israel who was supposedly friendly to Israel, but when the Babylonians came to plunder them, they stood by and allegedly even joined with the Babylonians. And why did Edom do this to Israel? The Bible traces it all back to the brotherly relationship between Jacob and Esau. If you remember the story, Jacob and Esau were brothers who fought bitterly, and cheated one another, and ran from each other, and eventually made up. There is the same kind of fierce love-hate relationship (and sometimes a hate-hate relationship) between Israel (the nation – descended from Jacob) and Edom (the neighboring nation – descended from Esau). And the Israelite nation was badly hurt by their brother nation. So when they were in exile, in the wake of this betrayal and pain, many people turned to God for an explanation - “how could this happen?” or at least for some comfort.
And two – they had been betrayed by God. Back in those days, when there was no separation of church and state, gods were supposed to be protectors. If one nation beat another nation in battle, it was proof that the winner’s god was bigger and stronger than the losers’ god. The people of Israel believed that they served the One High God. So how then could they explain the fact that this god had not defended them against their attackers? When they were in exile, they turned to God demanding an answer for this.
Then – three - their self-identity was under question. They weren’t the only exiles in Babylon – those Babylonians traipsed all around the Middle East conquering and capturing. So the Israelites were stuck in a place where they were a minority and they had to say who they were. So they spent some time writing and copying the history and the law of their ancestors, as a kind of constitution that explained who they were as a people.
And there’s one last point – one more reason why exile was an important time for the Israelites – they were suffering from a plain and simple case of homesickness. It hurts to be far from home, from the place your ancestors lived in, and from the land that used to be yours. In the midst of their sorrow they called out to God for consolation.
We might not know what it’s like to be exiled to a foreign land. But we know what it is like to turn to God and call out saying “hey! this situation is all wrong! God, I want you to make it right again!”
With that frame of mind let’s read the book of Obadiah, with a few notes as we go. If you have your Bible with you you might like to read along… verse one.

The vision of Obadiah.
Thus says the Lord GOD concerning Edom:
We have heard a report from the LORD,
and a messenger has been sent among the nations:
“Rise up! Let us rise against it for battle!”
I will surely make you least among the nations;
you shall be utterly despised.
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?”
Though you soar aloft like the eagle,
though your nest is set among the stars,
from there I will bring you down,
says the LORD.

Obadiah has preached against the pride of Edom, the neighbor who betrayed them. Now he goes on to describe the payback – the robber is going to be robbed. Verse five.

If thieves came to you,
if plunderers by night
--how you have been destroyed!--
would they not steal only what they wanted?
If grape-gatherers came to you,
would they not leave gleanings?
How Esau has been pillaged,
his treasures searched out!
All your allies have deceived you,
they have driven you to the border;
your confederates have prevailed against you;
those who ate your bread have set a trap for you--
there is no understanding of it.
On that day, says the LORD,
I will destroy the wise out of Edom,
and understanding out of Mount Esau.
Your warriors shall be shattered, O Teman,
so that everyone from Mount Esau will be cut off.

So we have retribution here. It sounds a lot like an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or perhaps even stricter than that. Obadiah goes on to list all the crimes of Edom. Verse ten:

For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob,
shame shall cover you,
and you shall be cut off forever.
On the day that you stood aside,
on the day that strangers carried off his wealth,
and foreigners entered his gates
and cast lots for Jerusalem,
you too were like one of them.
But you should not have gloated over your brother
on the day of his misfortune;
you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah
on the day of their ruin;
you should not have boasted
on the day of distress.
13 You should not have entered the gate of my people
on the day of their calamity;
you should not have joined in the gloating over Judah’s disaster
on the day of his calamity;
you should not have looted his goods
on the day of his calamity.
14 You should not have stood at the crossings
to cut off his fugitives;
you should not have handed over his survivors
on the day of distress.

Now Obadiah has listed the whole case against Edom. So now he expands into a more general scheme – now addressing the whole world and Israel’s special status before God.
Verse fifteen.

15 For the day of the LORD is near against all the nations.
As you have done, it shall be done to you;
your deeds shall return on your own head.
16 For as you have drunk on my holy mountain,
all the nations around you shall drink;
they shall drink and gulp down,
and shall be as though they had never been.
17 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.
18 The house of Jacob shall be a fire,
the house of Joseph a flame,
and the house of Esau stubble;
they shall burn them and consume them,
and there shall be no survivor of the house of Esau;
for the LORD has spoken.

Finally Obadiah speaks of the restoration of Israel, in a long list of place names. These are the territories that have been taken away in the fight against Babylon, which will be given BACK to Israel, plus a little extra- because incidentally they’re going to rule Edom as well. The final words begin in verse nineteen:

19 Those of the Negeb shall possess Mount Esau,
and those of the Shephelah the land of the Philistines;
they shall possess the land of Ephraim and the land of Samaria,
and Benjamin shall possess Gilead.
20 The exiles of the Israelites who are in Halah
shall possess Phoenicia as far as Zarephath;
and the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad
shall possess the towns of the Negeb.
21 Those who have been saved shall go up to Mount Zion
to rule Mount Esau;
and the kingdom shall be the LORD’s.

the end – that is the prophet Obadiah for you.

You know what? I don’t like it.
Now I KNOW what it says in 2 Timothy – All scripture is inspired by God, and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17)

And I KNOW that Jesus said nothing will be taken out of Scripture until all things have been fulfilled. That makes me think – okay – this is in the Bible for a reason.

But seriously? I understand, Obadiah, that you’re in exile, and you’re miserable. Feelings are hurt, betrayed, homesick, questioning, angry, bitter. Why couldn’t Obadiah get a vision from God with some prophetic consolation like “the lion will lie down with the lamb” or “every valley will be exalted” or “there will be no more sickness or pain or warfare or suffering in God’s holy city”?

Why, Obadiah, did you give us a whole book about an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth? About how Edom hurt you and now God is going to hurt Edom?

Just to zero in a little bit on the problem, think back to the beautiful psalm we began the service with – by the waters of babylon we sat down and wept – it’s psalm 137, does anyone want to find it in their Bible please? It’s such a beautiful, aching song about the sorrow of being in exile. And then God gives them consolation. Does someone have psalm 137 open? Can you read the last verses – 7 to 9?

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

take your little ones
and dash them against the rock! Yeah… it’s pretty unpleasant, huh? Yet all scripture is inspired by God, and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

I don’t know about that. I could agree that all scripture is inspired, but it seems pretty plain that some scripture is more useful than others. I think that “comfort, comfort my people – tell her that her warfare is ended” IS a little more useful than dashing children on a rock. I think some of these exiled Israelites were a little obsessed with vengeance. How are we supposed to read these passages in Scripture where it seems the people cannot get over their obsession with paying people back?
Now I know there is a lot of diversity among folks here at the church, so I’m not going to try to tell all of you exactly how you should read scripture. But I want to give some general principles that everyone SHOULD hold on to. One is that Jesus tells us how to read the Bible. Jesus tells us how to interpret all the laws and prophecies with a few general teachings. He shows us how to go beyond the letter of the law. “You have heard it said, do not murder.” Jesus says, all right, that’s good. Not murdering is good. But you know what’s better? Not to be angry. Not to even think about murder. Not to even let the tiniest bit of desire to kill someone into your soul. Here’s another one: ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ All right, that’s fair. But do you know what’s better than fair? “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Jesus shows us how seriously he takes Scripture, and he gives us a key to understanding it. His key is the double commandment to love – one, to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and the other, to love your neighbor as yourself. When we are faced with a difficult passage we should try to use this commandment to unlock it.
Another principle is to try to find the deeper meaning. All scripture is inspired by God, but it is spoken to humans, in the language that they can understand. The deep truths that God is trying to convey to us are more profound than we can adequately put into words. But there was a big question there, that Obadiah was asking God, and we know that God answered it. If I had to guess at the deeper meaning God was imparting to Obadiah, there are a few themes that I’d consider. One is the question - “what should we do?” and the answer “let God do the payback.” The Israelites themselves are NOT told to punish their neighbor, but to wait and to leave it in God’s hands. This still leaves some violence in the picture, but it takes it out of our hands. Which I think is a great idea because we humans tend to mis-use violence when we think God told us to do it. But here the Israelites are told to wait for “the Day of the LORD” to come.
Another deeper meaning is “God sees what happened.” When someone – or a whole nation – has been deeply, deeply hurt, they need someone to tell them “I saw that.” “that wasn’t right.” “You didn’t deserve it.” They need to hear that someone is looking out for justice. The Israelites in this case really needed to know that God hadn’t left the scene and abandoned them. This was a hard lesson at that point, because they had assumed like everyone else around that a war was proof of whose god was stronger, and it seemed from the outcome of THIS war that they didn’t even have a god helping them at all. And this is still a hard question to ask – “Where was God when these horrible things happened to me?” Why didn’t God give me the help I wanted?
I think this whole story about exile is a kind of difficult one for us. When we have sinned, we know what to do. There’s a nice transaction sequence we’re used to: If you do something wrong, you feel sorry, you repent, you apologize, you ask forgiveness, you receive grace from God. We’ve known that since we were children. But what do you do when you have been sinned AGAINST? When your brother has turned against you and driven you from home, and now you’re stuck in Babylon thinking about how good life used to be before everyone (including God) turned on you and made your life miserable. What do you do when you’re stuck in Babylon and you can’t get home?
We’ve been to Babylon. Some of us have lived in foreign countries, where everything looks different, and all the food tastes different, you might not even speak the language, and everything all around you just keeps reminding you that you don’t belong there. While we might be traveling for fun, there are always those who are forced to travel to find work, or because their family has rejected them, or because they’ve lost their home. Imagine what it feels like to be homesick in a strange place, trying to live there, and knowing that the home you used to have is in ruins behind you – that even if you go back, it will not be the home you remembered.
Or some of us know what it’s like to feel homesick without even leaving our home. This can happen when you grieve for someone who has died, or you miss the family that has moved away. There is PLENTY of that kind of Babylon in our congregation these days. There is more than enough grief and sorrow here. We know about Babylon.
And there’s another kind of exile – that we all share, in our common humanity – the sense that we don’t belong to this world at all. From our imperfect bodies to our limited minds – we know, deep down inside, that we are spiritual beings having this temporary, painful physical experience we call life. Life is all we know but we know there is more.
So what do you do when you are in exile, when you’re stuck in Babylon and you can’t get back home? What do you do?
First thing you can do is set the vengeance aside. If you’ve been sinned against – if you’ve been horribly hurt – TELL that to God and know that God is just and will not leave it unaddressed. But leave the leveling to God. You might be able to use Jesus’ advanced peacemaking technique of “turn the other cheek,” but if you can’t bring yourself to do that, you can at least do what Obadiah did, and say “wait for the Day of the LORD.”
But then the next thing you do, while you’re waiting, is you cry out to God. Whether you are angry, or sad, or just plain confused, you cry out to God. So much of our Bible was written by exiles, and they testify that you CAN talk to God in all these ways. You can yell at God in the privacy of your own home, or you could even write it down on a piece of paper and slip that paper in your Bible, right next to all the other angry and sad and upset writers. And God gave them consolation, in their time, something we can still hold on to today.
We can hold onto the fact that God is always present, even when we can’t see where or how. Even when it doesn’t make sense, God is with us, and is always just and loving and good.
We can hold on to the fact that God promises to make everything right in the future; that the kingdom of heaven will COME to us, bringing righteousness to this earth, and indeed that it already has begun to come within and among us. (children – church is our family)
We can also hold on to heaven, knowing that beyond this life we have a home, a place where we will be forever with Christ and with our loved ones. The Israelites called it Zion. John called it the New Jerusalem. You might think of the old image of golden streets, or you might have a spiritual image of being with Christ. We are going to close by singing a journey song. Know that we have a destination and a goal. We may be in a foreign land but we are traveling home.

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