Thursday, August 03, 2006

Obade, Obada, Obadiah! Lalalala, Obadiah

Texts: Obadiah 1-15; Luke 6:27-31

Have you ever had a day where you just know you shouldn’t get out of bed? Not because you’re too tired or your bed is too comfortable, but because something is telling you, don’t do it, because somehow you know, you just know that this day isn’t going to be any good.

I don’t know if Edom got the message or not, but this nation should have definitely just stayed in bed. Because as soon as Edom got up, even before he had poured his first eye-opening cup of coffee, somebody is knocking on his door. Knocks like a prophet. Knocks like Obadiah. Obadiah doesn’t just gently tap, he pounds his heart into that door. Because Obadiah has been brought to Edom’s door by a vision searing his eyes, the word of God burning his tongue.

“Edom, Edom, the day has come. It is time to hear your ruin pronounced.”

Edom might just shake his head and go ahead and pour that cup of coffee. Ruin? Who in the world would bring ruin upon his head? Who could? Edom had good reason to feel so confident, to say in his heart “who will bring me down to the ground?” Edom was better off than many nations. More than enough food and water, easily defendable. On this country’s land, there were highlands which rose southeast of the Dead Sea in 3 great steps of sandstone cliffs to a height of more than 5, 000 feet; there was a maze of mountains, cliffs, chasms. It would take a lot to bring Edom low. Someone, some nation, would surely think twice – if not more – about attacking Edom.

Many would not blame Edom ignoring Obadiah at his door. Edom is a great nation and Obadiah, who does he represent? Israel? Well, as Edom has seen first hand, Israel was just overtaken by another country called Babylon. The people were taken into exile or sold into slavery – only the stragglers remained behind, stragglers like this prophet Obadiah. Would he be the one to bring Edom down? He and what army? Israel was scattered, nothing was left of this once great nation.

Obadiah won’t be ignored, however. He keeps pounding away because he does not come representing Israel – he has come representing the God of Israel, Adonai. He has come as his name suggests, as a servant of the Lord, a Lord who has some words for Edom.

“Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, from there I will bring you down.” Maybe those words got Edom’s attention, made him put his cup of coffee down and actually listen to the words from the intent man knocking at his door. But if those words didn’t catch his attention, surely the next will. Obadiah paints an ugly picture for Edom. Everything Edom has will be lost – the wisdom traditions Edom is known for, all treasures, the holy sites, all understanding – everything will be lost, not to strangers but to those once called friends. Not even a remnant will be left behind.

Why does Edom receive such a proclamation? Because Edom three times wronged the Lord and the Lord’s people. As Obadiah reminds Edom, it is for the slaughter and violence done to Israel that shame will cover him. For Edom has taken treasures of Israel, captured the Israelites and sold them into slavery. This is the first wrong. But Edom did not attack Israel, make war against the nation for want of land or goods. Edom watched while the armies of Babylon moved in, watched as Babylon destroyed the temple, scattered the people, and then and only then, did he swoop down from his lofty perch, not like an eagle, but like a vulture. For Edom is a scavenger, picking Israel clean of any goods Babylon left behind, cutting off the fleeing Israelite’s path of escape, capturing them and handing them over to the highest bidder. Nothing but the bones of Israel remained after Edom came through. This is the second wrong.

The third wrong is perhaps the greatest wrong of all. Edom wasn’t just some well-to-do nation, a bully that kicked Israel when he was done. Edom was, is, Israel’s brother. For just as Israel was once called Jacob, Edom was once called Esau. Jacob and Esau, brothers, twins.

Instead of helping his brother, coming to his aid, Edom gloated, rejoiced even, in the day of Judah’s distress. And so Obadiah is here to tell him, that the day of the Lord is near. The day when the nations, Edom’s allies and confederates who have sat down at table and broken bread with him, the day when these nations turn on Edom and driving HIM from HIS home. That day is near.

For as Edom has done, so shall it be done to him. You reap what you sow, this is a familiar concept to us, familiar to people all around the world, people of all different faiths. “Your deeds shall return on your head,” Obadiah tells us. The Hindu tradition of karma tells us that “you do good things, good things will happen to you - if you do bad things, bad things will happen to you;” Wiccan tradition holds to the law of three – whatever you put out into the universe, good or bad, you will receive them three times as much.

I know I have been caught when I stubbed my toe right after I had perhaps not such a nice thought, saying “okay, God, you’re right, I’m sorry,” as though my negative energy was brought back down upon me in the form on an injured tow. Even though intellectually I believe God has better things to do than make me stub my toe, I have inherited trace elements of a belief in a cosmic reward and punishment system, as Proverbs says – “the righteousness of the blameless keeps their way straight but the wicked fall by their own wickedness.[1]

But I dismiss my injured appendage as God’s punishment, dismiss this worldview being so encompassing, because it is a worldview that does not always seem to hold true. This is the same observation made by the writer of Ecclesiastes. “There is a vanity,” Qoheleth says, “that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous[2].” Or in other, more popularized words, bad things happen to good people.

Having just witnessed a horrible thing, the destruction of Jerusalem, the utter desolation of his people, having just experienced immense loss himself, Obadiah, this servant of the Lord, perhaps can appreciate Qoheleth’s viewpoint better than most. Divine retribution cannot be the only statement Obadiah is making in his proclamation. When he says “as you have done, it shall be done to you,” he is pronouncing the reality of the world which God created. There is another Hebrew tradition, found in other prophets like Hosea, that says the punishment is in the thing itself. Edom’s punishment is found in, is a result of, Edom’s actions. In God’s created world, when you break covenant with your brother, those you consider friends will see no problem in turning on you. The truth is, once friends start turning on friends, family on family, then it’s all down hill. The cycle of destruction will continue, one country attacking another, one brother attacking the other. It will continue until somebody stops it, until someone breaks the circle of hatred.

This cycle of violence, of hatred and animosity, this is what Jesus is addressing when he says “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Jesus tells his followers, tells us to love our enemies, not just love them with some sort of passive love – but an active love. One that has us pray for our those who have hurt us, bless them, do good for them. For it is only when we offer our other cheek when someone strikes us instead of striking back that we can break the cycle.

Someone has to be the first one to step back and offer the olive branch, offer their cheek, otherwise generation after generation will practice evil, will curse, will wish ill on those they consider enemies.

As followers of Christ, we have been given the daunting charge to be those someones. We are called to end the cycles of bitterness and animosity in our own lives, in all parts of our lives. When someone makes a snide comment to us at school, we are called to not offer one back, as witty as it may be. When someone at work takes advantage of us, we are called to not do the same if given the opportunity, no matter how far ahead we may get. When someone we love, we trust, causes us pain, we are called to not intentionally hurt them back, no matter how much it may make us feel better in the moment. We are called to forgive as we long to be forgiven.

We all know when we offer our other cheek, we risk getting slapped again. But if we do not risk it, we will find ourselves trapped in an endless cycle of ugliness that I can’t imagine anyone would want to be a part of.

We also know that when Christ calls for us to love our enemies, he isn’t calling us to love just for ourselves or even for OUR enemies. Christ calls for us to forgive, to love, to do good, for all. We are called to be an example, that those around us might see how we offer love in the face of hate, blessings in the midst of curses, good in the face of evil, that they might see the power of Christ’s love lived out through us and find themselves changed, moved toward this way of living. Instead of perpetuating a cycle of hatred and bitterness, we are called to strengthen and spread a cycle of love and grace.

For some of us, loving our enemies may seem particularly daunting. Many of us have been hurt by people in ways that seem unforgivable. Over the years I have heard more than one person comment on turning the other check, saying “but Jesus really didn’t mean in this situation.” I don’t know what Jesus really meant, but knowing his ministry and message, I would imagine that whatever situations we think Jesus wouldn’t want us to turn our other cheek, that those are the ones in which we need to the most. That those situations are where we might be surprised and moved by the power of love has.

Love can overcome hate, goodness can overcome evil and the players in Obadiah’s prophecy are proof of that. While the relationship between Edom and Israel in Obadiah’s time remind us of how hatred and violence can be cyclical, the relationship between their forebears remind us that even what seems unforgivable can be forgiven, that love not hate leads to prosperity.

For in Jacob and Esau, we have a relationship torn apart by animosity and bitterness AND a relationship renewed by forgiveness and love. When Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright and their father’s blessing, Esau wanted to kill him – this is why Jacob left his family’s land and went to his uncle Laban – where he would grow in wealth and wives. When turmoil at Laban’s brought Jacob back to his homeland, Esau brought four hundred men with him – men who certainly weren’t there as welcoming party – to meet is brother. Upon hearing this, Jacob does not raise up his own troops, arm his men, he sends gifts. When the brothers finally do met, Jacob brings only his family, he leaves himself vulnerable to Esau’s wrath, and bows before him seven times. And Esau, Esau who lost everything to his younger brother who was always mom’s favorite, Esau runs up to meet him, embraces him, kisses him, and the two brothers, reconciled, weep together. Their reconciliation strengthened their families – when they did go their separate ways again, it wasn’t because of hostility but because together the two families were so prosperous that the land could not sustain both.

While later in generations Edom forgets the covenant with Israel, here Esau and Jacob remember what it is to be brothers, what it is to be children of Abraham, the light to the nations. They both offered love to the one who caused them much pain, they both broke the cycle of bitterness and promoted one of forgiveness. Esau and Jacob remind us that rancor truly can turn to respect, animosity to affection, loathing to love. May we remember their story, may their story be our story as we are like Esau and not Edom, may we trust in the power of God’s grace and do unto others as we would have them do to us. Amen.

[1] Proverbs 11:5
[2] Ecclesiastes 8:14

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