Even During Bad Times, God is in Control
I can still hear the words coming out of my grandma’s mouth: “You’ll be on my list Jeffrey.” Being on grandma’s list was never a good thing. Winding up on grandma’s list meant you had done something wrong, or more likely, stupid, and she was going to be mad at you for a while. Grandpa spent most of his married life on Grandma’s list. He’s still living. She died a few years ago. He’s probably still on her list. She didn’t mean anything by it. It was just her fun way of saying, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” She was an incredibly kind and very giving woman. I only ever heard her cuss once. At grandpa, when he decided, in spite of her wishes to the contrary, to give my brother and I the BB gun he had bought for us. Grandpa was always on Grandma’s naughty list. I spent quite a bit of time there myself, but it was usually something I did with grandpa that put me there.
Anyone out there have a list? People you don’t like very much. People you avoid like the plague. Maybe not an enemies list per se, but people you actively think, “Yeah, don’t be like them” about. We all have lists, people we don’t want to emulate, businesses we won’t patronize, people we won’t enter into business agreements with, people we don’t trust.
The Old Testament prophet Obadiah, gives us a list too … an enemies list. But instead of giving us a list of people or places to avoid, he gives us a list of attitudes and orientations toward life to avoid. And he uses Judah’s real-life archenemy, the Edomites, to do it. Now, I have to confess, when I went into my office last Sunday after worship and went to flip my Bible to this week’s passage, the book of Obadiah, I had a hard time finding it. In fact, I had to use the table of contents in the front of my Bible to find it. Obadiah is the smallest book in the Old Testament, and although 3 John has fewer words than Obadiah, Obadiah has the smallest number of verses in the entire Bible. It is probably the most overlooked book in the Bible too, and not just because it’s so small it’s hard to find, even if you know where the minor prophets are in the Bible. One page off and you’ll miss it completely. I can’t say that I’ve ever heard a sermon preached from Obadiah, or even a verse in Obadiah referenced in a sermon. One pastor went so far as to say, “I can’t imagine preaching anything positive or creative out of that angry tirade. Obadiah is ‘minor’ not only in length, but also in any inspiration for discipleship today.” I couldn’t disagree more. When St. Paul told his young protégé Timothy that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work,” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), he meant it. All Scripture means all Scripture. All Scripture is breathed out by God and useful. So is Obadiah.
The words of Obadiah are the words of God’s judgment on the Edomites, Judah’s neighbor immediately to the south of Judah. The Edomites were actually brothers to the Israelites, although by this time united Israel had been divided into the northern Kingdom, Israel, and the southern Kingdom, called Judah, and the people of Israel had already been carried off into exile and intermarried with other peoples. In that sense, Israel ceased to exist. The land of Judah, whose capital was Jerusalem, had just been sacked by the Babylonians too, and her people, the people of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, had been sent into exile too. In the summer of 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar and the mighty Babylonian army ransacked Jerusalem and carried most of her inhabitants into exile. Israel was gone. Judah, the remnant, was a ruin. Jerusalem, and her mighty temple to Yahweh, was destroyed. The Edomites didn’t destroy Judah. Babylon did. But Edom played a role, and like I said, they were brothers to the Judeans, or Jews, as we call them today.
The Edomites were children of Abraham, AND of Isaac, but not of Jacob. The brothers Jacob and Esau were the children of Isaac and grandchildren of Abraham. And Jacob, whose name was eventually changed to Israel, went on to father sons whose lines would become the tribes of Israel. And Esau became the father of the Edomites. Jacob and Esau were twins, and from before they were born, they were at odds with one another. Esau was born first, and Jacob came immediately after, gasping the heels of his older brother. Esau was a hunter, an outdoorsman, a man’s man, and was favored by his father Isaac. Jacob was more of a mama’s boy. He liked to stay at home and cook, and his mother, Rebekah, doted on him. Jacob manipulated Esau into giving up his family birthright to become patriarch when Isaac died, because he was the firstborn, and then later, with Rebekah’s help (in fact, it was her idea), he tricked Isaac into passing the family blessing on to him rather than his older brother. Esau was enraged and Jacob had to flee for his life. Twenty years later Isaac returned with wives and children in tow and Esau met him on the road with an army of 400, but tears, not blood, were shed that day and the two came to a surface, shallow peace with one another. Over time, as both families prospered, the land of Canaan couldn’t support both, and the Edomites, the family of Esau, moved into the harsh, rough hill country of Seir, to the south, which was later known as Edom.
But the animosity between the two kept flaring up. Generations later, when Israel was freed from slavery in Egypt, Moses asked permission to pass through Edom on their way to the Promised Land, but the Edomite king wouldn’t allow it and even set up a military barricade. Later David would conquer Edom, and through the end of Solomon’s reign the Edomites were subject to Israel. As things began to fall apart in Israel and the nation divided, Edom was again free, a nation unto herself, and when Babylon set her sights on Jerusalem and Judah, instead of coming to the aid of their brothers to the north, the Edomites sat back and watched, making fun of Israel, joining in the plunder of Jerusalem (entering AFTER the Babylonian army did the heavy lifting, of course), and any Jews who tried to flee to the east they captured and returned to the Babylonians. Turn with me to the tiny Old Testament book of Obadiah. Read Obadiah.
To understand Obadiah and how it speaks to us in our context, we have to put ourselves in the position not only of Judah and Jerusalem, but of Edom. Judah was in a position of weakness and insignificance. Edom secure in a position of power, not unlike us here in the United States today. To us, today, the words of Obadiah come as both comfort and warning – comfort for us as the people of God in a culture increasingly hostile to the good news of Jesus Christ, to the truth of who he is, what he has done, and what he asks of us. But also of warning – warning for us as a powerful and seemingly secure people in the world.
The first thing we know about Edom is that they lived as if there was no God. There is absolutely no record of any religion or religious belief at all among the Edomites in historical or archaeological records. Whether they were radical atheists or simply practical atheists, believing in a deity of sorts but living AS IF that God didn’t exist we don’t know. But it certainly wasn’t a significant part of their lives if it was there, because there’s no record of it. In America, today, we have a religiosity, a spirituality of sorts, but in many ways we as the people of God live as if there is no God – no one to whom we will answer, as the people of God, or as a nation. The first inner enemy Obadiah points out is living AS IF God, and therefore any real standard of justice, and any eternal being seeking justice, isn’t real.
Look at Vv. 10-14. One of the reasons I think we ignore the prophets is their insistence on seeing our treatment of others as a litmus test for the authenticity of our faith in Christ. Not a means of grace, a way to be saved, but evidence of it. The Edomites treated Judah not as fellow human beings, much less brothers, but as animals. They did violence to them. No respect for basic human rights. No compassion on the downtrodden. No empathy. And they had a history of doing this. “No, we don’t want you on our land. Go around.” “You made your bed with the Babylonians. Lie in it.” “And while we’re at it, after Babylon has subdued you, we’ll benefit ourselves. We’ll plunder your land too. We’ll pile it on, add insult to injury.” If there is no God of justice, why treat people with any dignity or respect? Use them as objects, stepping stones on your path to success, supremacy, and power. The people of God always have an eye on the vulnerable and the downtrodden, because in our history, grafted into the vine that is Israel through Jesus Christ, we have been downtrodden and vulnerable too. We keep an eye on and care for the spiritually and the physically and economically downtrodden. We act. We don’t stand aloof, as the Edomites did to Judah. We serve meals. We provide food. We offer shelter. We offer care. We offer assistance. And we offer protection, speaking out against those who would use their position of power to use and abuse others in any way, regardless of what the abused think about us. We know what it is to be downtrodden, to be vulnerable, and because of that, when we have power, the ability to change things for those who still are, we act.
The second inner enemy Obadiah points out is pride. Arrogance. Look at Vv. 2-4. And then down at vv. 8-9. The mountainous land in which the tough and hardy Edomites had carved out their homeland was nearly impregnable to an invading army. In fact, the plateau high in the mountains upon which their capital city rested was accessible from only one direction, and an attack by a massive army could be defended by just a few people. The people of Edom thought they were untouchable, that they couldn’t be defeated, even by the armies of Babylon. On an open battlefield, they wouldn’t stand a chance, but in their mountains, with sheer cliffs often soaring thousands of feet into the sky, Babylon’s might couldn’t reach them. And Judah was certainly no longer a threat.
As tough as it would be to reach them with the full force of a military attack, Edom rested at the crossroads of major east-west and north-south trade routes. That meant people from all over the known world traveled there to meet and trade goods. This brought incredible prosperity to the Edomites.
And along with that prosperity, the travelers and trade brought philosophies and knowledge from all over the world, a worldly wisdom the Edomites learned from until their wise ones were renowned for their wisdom. They knew the best of philosophy, of military strategy, of the lessons of history and lore from cultures all over the world. Wise and educated, prosperous and wealthy, impossible to defeat with a military attack. Sound familiar?
Their wisdom and knowledge, their prosperity, and their security led to pride and arrogance, a sense that they were better than everyone else. A sense that their nation, their culture, would be around forever. Edom worshipped the god of self, of nation, of might. And she was about to be humbled.
The people of God, wherever they are found, both in the relative comfort and security of the United States and the dangerous and poverty-stricken places of the world live with hearts filled with humility, not with pride. No arrogance. No “We’re better than you.” Those words are completely foreign to a follower of Christ. We know that God is the God of history, that he acts in human history, and that he acts to humble the proud and restore the exile.
Have we, as the people of God, fallen into the trap of pride, of false security? Do we place our faith and trust humbly in God, or proudly in our own strategies, our own finances, our own ability to make things happen. Are we living out of God’s abundance or our own effort and resources? Living AS IF there is no God, AS IF God will not or cannot act, always leads to injustice and pride. But God WILL act.
Look at Vv. 1-2. And then 5-7. And then down at Vv. 15-18. God is a God of justice, and he will act. The problem we have today is that we can’t, in our minds, reconcile a God of love and a God of justice. We don’t understand how love and justice go hand in hand, that justice is actually the ultimate expression of love, and therefore the justice of God is actually an expression of the love of God. If God doesn’t act to right wrong, to overcome and punish evil, where is his love? Where is the love of a God who doesn’t act to punish wrongdoing, the actions of those who hurt others? God makes it very clear to Edom that her might and security would amount to nothing, that her prosperity would be carried away by other nations, and that her wise ones would prove to be fools. And that is exactly what happened. God is the God of history, not us. The mighty Edomites would be brought low. In fact, they would be wiped out. Every nation that has ever been on this earth has had its day of reckoning before God. Every culture, every society. None have been exempt. The proud will be brought low. The unjust will be brought to justice.
Obadiah’s words are words of comfort to Judah, the defeated, the downtrodden, the vulnerable – God will act on your behalf. Your oppressor will be treated in the way he has treated you. And to Edom, they are a warning. Edom had persisted in this behavior for millennia, and her time was up. God had used Edom and Babylon to discipline his people, to remind them that he is the one who is in control of and active in human history. But they too would have their reckoning. And Edom’s judgment points us forward in history toward the cross of Christ, where God dealt with sin and injustice once and for all. And we can either place our trust in Christ and allow our sins and injustices and pride to be crucified with him and receive his life, or we can persist in our pride, our arrogance, our injustice – sin, and come to the day of judgment bearing the burden and facing justice alone. Without the day of judgment, there can be no grace, for grace is God’s willingness to allow Christ to carry our judgment for us. But there will be judgment. Sin, evil, and injustice will be both punished and set right. God does not, will not, in fact cannot relent forever. He does for now to allow us time to turn from our pride and arrogance and place our trust in him.
There has never been, there is not now, and there never will be a nation, a people, a culture, that lasts forever. God brings them into existence, the serve his purposes, and they fade into history. But God remains. We are but a whisper in the wind. Here for a moment and then gone, no matter how secure we are.
Are we living lives marked by the grace of Christ, serving and protecting the vulnerable and weak, or are we in pride and arrogance and a false sense of security assuming that God either could not or would not act to humble us. God can only be loving if he is also just. May we in humility and love live as his children, trusting Christ and following his example. Let us pray.