Holy (Dis)Comfort – Listening for God’s Word in the Minor Prophets
Obadiah (selected verses)
June 20, 2021
What does “going along to get along”, “what comes around goes around”,
and the Golden Rule have to do with one another?
We turn this morning to Obadiah, whose name means “servant of God”.
You may or may not know any persons named Obadiah,
but you are probably familiar with the Arab name “Abdullah”, which is closely related,
or Abdil, a Turkish name. We had an Abdil on our soccer team several years ago.
Abdil would never just “go along to get along”;
Abdil was a tenacious defender and an aggressive offender…but I digress.
Have you ever heard a sermon on Obadiah?
Obabiah is the shortest and probably one of the least read books of the entire Old Testament.
This short, prophetic work announces judgment upon a neighbor of Israel, upon Edom.
Edom was the land southeast of the Dead Sea, part of today’s country Jordan.
Edom in Hebrew means “red” because literally it is a reddish region—
the rocks and hills are a reddish color.
At one point, Edom was only seventy miles long and about fifteen miles wide,
bordered by the desert on one side, the mountains on the other, and a stream on the northern end.
According to tradition, the people of Esau, people of Edom, were prideful and self-sufficient.
They lived in the hills, a place difficult to attack by invaders,
and so they thought that their tribes could take care of themselves.
They thought they would not need anybody to help them.
For part of their history, they were under Israel’s control; at other times they were independent.
Most of the time, the nation of Edom had an ongoing love-hate relationship with Israel,
like quarreling brothers.
This was because Edom, at the time, was filled with descendents of Esau.
Do you remember Esau, the twin of Jacob, who became Israel, the father of the twelve tribes?
Do you remember how the twins struggled within Rebecca’s womb?
When poor Rebecca was giving birth, Jacob’s heel came out first,
and they tied string to it, but Esau was the first to emerge from the womb.
When they were young men, probably not more than teenagers,
the famished Esau came home from a long hunt, and agreed to “sell” his birthright
to his tent-dwelling brother Jacob for a pot of stew.
Then Jacob and his mother collaborated further to trick the aging Isaac, the twins’ father,
into speaking the blessing of the firstborn to Jacob.
As the twins Jacob and Esau matured into adulthood, the brothers and their families
continued to wrangle with each other, and so would their descendants,
Israel and Edom, continue to wrangle, for generations to come.
The timing of Obadiah’s prophecy was likely in the mid-fifth century BCE.
The empire of Babylon had arisen out of today’s Iraq and had overrun many of its neighbors.
Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem for several months, then utterly destroyed the city in 587 BCE.
The Babylonians killed men, women, and children, burned down the grand temple,
plundered Israel’s gold, and carried off the leaders into exile into today’s Baghdad.
When the siege was happening, Israel’s cousins, the Edomites, did not lift a finger to help.
When the city was overrun, instead of lamenting over what had happened to their neighbors,
some of the Edomites participated in the looting of the city!
When Israelite survivors were fleeing the city, seeking to escape the destruction,
Edomites turned them away at their borders and handed them over to the Babylonians.
The Edomites gloated and rejoiced when Jerusalem was destroyed, which, of course,
was highly offensive to the Israelites. Whether out of self-interest or self-preservation,
when the powerful Babylonians came near, the Edomites did not join forces with Israel.
They went along with Babylon in order to get along.
It was in that context that the prophet Obadiah spoke harsh judgment against Edom.
Obadiah’s prophecy stands in judgment against any who would abandon a brother
or a cousin or a neighbor in distress.
Hear the word of God from Obadiah beginning in the first chapter, verses 1-4,
and continuing with verses 10-15.
The vision of Obadiah. Thus says the Lord God concerning Edom.
We have a report from the Lord and a messenger has been sent among the nations.
Rise up. Let us rise up against it for battle. I will surely make you (referring to Edom)
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…
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 the strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gate
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.
You should not have entered the gates of my people on the day of their calamity,
you should not have joined in the gloating over Judah’s disaster in the day of his calamity,
you should not have looted his goods on the day of his calamity.
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.
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.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Obadiah told Edom that their deeds would return upon their own head,
that “as you have done, so it shall be done to you.”
In other words, “what comes around goes around”, so to speak.
Israel felt abandoned. Israel felt alone and utterly defeated with no one to help,
and so their prophet lashed out at their neighbor Edom for the part that Edom played
in the terrible defeat.
What Obadiah failed to mention was the all-important back story.
Do you remember how Jacob had tricked Esau out of his birthright?
Do you remember how Esau had felt betrayed by his brother,
and how Jacob was terrified of what his brother might do in retaliation?
Though this siege of Jerusalem was many generations later,
the memories in the Middle East are long.
Even today, families in the Middle East will trace for two thousand years
the ownership of their land and homes.
On the day of Israel’s great distress, perhaps Israel should not have been greatly surprised
that Edom did not come to their rescue.
Perhaps Israel should not have been surprised that Edom kicked them when they were down.
Perhaps the “what goes around comes around” quote applies just as much to Israel as to Edom.
Sometimes, we may forget that we read the Old Testament from the perspective of Israel.
Perhaps the people of Edom would tell this story in a far different manner.
However we may understand the relationship of Edom with Israel,
we recognize that these ancient tribal and national conflicts
have everything to do with how we treat one another as human beings today.
Whether we are talking about how an elementary school boy might stand by on the playground
while the bully picks on the smallest kid,
or how a middle school girl might go along with the criticisms of her best friend
in order to ingratiate herself with the more popular crowd,
or how a businessperson might ignore his conscience and make a questionable deal
with a new contractor that he knows will put his cousin out of business,
we are aware that many of us still “go along to get along.”
Sometimes, we will sit on our hands while a neighbor is in distress and will justify it by saying,
“what comes around goes around.”
Pride and self-interest will allow us to stand by when another is in trouble.
Self-preservation will prevent us from standing in solidarity with a neighbor in need.
The racial reckoning of the past year reminds us of how we have failed
in our love for our neighbors, failed to notice or care or stand in solidarity with those in need.
As human beings, we tend to live with anxiety – anxiety about our own popularity,
anxiety about our own physical safety, anxiety about our profit margins,
anxiety about our futures, and so, often, we will go along to get along.
Obadiah’s warning is, “Your deeds shall return upon your head.
As you have done (or not done), so it shall be done (or not done) unto you.”
Those who stand by and do nothing when their neighbors are attacked
may one day find themselves deserted by their allies.
Those who gloat over the terrible predicaments of their neighbors
may find themselves one day despised and humiliated.
Those who join in on the looting of their neighbors may one day find themselves plundered.
Those who do not give sanctuary to refugees may find no refuge when they are in need.
And those who cut off the fleeing victims of war and turn them away
may one day find themselves cut off in the time of trial. (Limburg, 133)
In other words, if you “go along to get along”, as an individual, as a family or a business,
or even as a nation, you had better be prepared to get along on your own when times get tough.
The opposite of self-concern and harmful pride is to do the right thing even when it hurts,
to do the difficult thing, even at significant cost to oneself,
to do for others even when there seems to be no reward in it for you.
The “Golden Rule” was somewhat present in the Old Testament,
but was elevated by Jesus of Nazareth to become one of the key foundations of Christian ethics.
Hear the word of God from Matthew 7:12-14:
In everything do unto others as you would have them do unto you,
for this fulfills the law and the prophets. Enter through the narrow gate
for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction and there are many who take it.
And the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life and there are few who find it.
“Do unto others as you would have them to do you.”
This is not the Silver Rule of “live and let live”.
The Golden Rule is “live and help others live as well.”
The Silver Rule may say “do no harm, don’t hurt your neighbor.”
“Don’t do anything to the other person that you wouldn’t want them to do to you.”
But the Golden Rule says “step across that line and go help your neighbor.”
And, according to Jesus, this Golden Rule applies to all people equally,
even, or especially, to enemies.
Do unto others, even unto your enemies, as you would have them do unto you.
Imagine if Edom had followed the Golden Rule…
they would not have participated in the looting of Jerusalem, or turned away the refugees,
nor would they have received such harsh judgment from Obadiah.
Imagine if Jacob had followed the Golden Rule with his twin brother,
then Esau would never have lost his birthright or his homeland.
Perhaps the brothers and their families would have lived together in harmony and strength
for all those generations, instead living with ongoing war and wrangling and abandonment.
When we find ourselves anxious about our own security,
when we find ourselves anxious about our popularity, about being part of the “in group”,
when we find ourselves scared of bullies and worried about our future,
how might we learn to live by the Golden Rule instead of getting by with the Silver Rule?
Philippians 2 says it best: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who,
though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness,
and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross…
Just before this text, Paul writes:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. (Phil 2)
Friends, today we honor one who has spent much of his life looking to the interests of others.
Whether at work or at home, Vernon Gramling has been a humble and faithful servant of God.
Vernon would be the first to tell you that he’s not perfect; he knows his own frailties.
But those of us who know Vernon are aware of how he has sacrificed over the years
for the sake of others. And we know how he has been such a good friend to many of us.
And we know how Vernon has encouraged us all to “empty ourselves” and to begin to see
in new ways – to see ourselves and others in new ways, to understand scripture in new ways,
to engage the world and its many questions in new ways.
Today, we are thankful to God for these ancient prophecies.
These ancient prophecies enlighten human behavior because they force us to hold up a mirror
and examine the habits of our own world, of our own nation.
And we are thankful today for Vernon, who has been willing to humble himself before God,
willing to struggle with these ancient texts, and who has sought to embody,
as best he can, the Golden Rule.
Vernon, we are glad that you did not just “go along to get along” over the past 50 years
of ordained ministry, and we are very glad that we can share this day with you.
To God be the Glory in the lives of all who seek to live by the Golden Rule. Amen.
Rev. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Limburg, James. Interpretation: Hosea – Micah. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988.
Pagan, Samuel. The New Interpreter’s Bible. Volume VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.
Golden Rule vs. Silver Rule attributed to George E. Drew, The Original Ideas of Jesus.