This sermon was originally preached at an online service of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square on Sunday, August 30th as part of a series called, “Stories You Don’t Hear in Church.” Relevant readings can be found here.
Those of us with strained family dynamics or broken relationships know that the hurt that results from these severed ties cuts deep. With a shared history and shared experiences, we are vulnerable to the potential of betrayal. And in the midst of trauma or stress, we often lash out and hurt those who are closest to us. That is what happened between the descendents of Jacob or Israel and the descendants of Esau, known as Edom.
The tension between Jacob and Esau was legendary. Even before these brothers were born they were at war with one another in their mother, Rebecca’s womb. Through cunning and trickery, Jacob stole the elder twin’s birthright and inheritance. And while the two brothers would later reunite, trust is forever broken between them. They both prepare for their meet up like warriors preparing for battle. And even though they have what looks like a moment of reconciliation, it’s superficial. It doesn’t take away the years of hurt. Their relationship is fragile and tenuous. After that day, they don’t see each other again until their father Isaac’s funeral.
From that time forward, the descendents of Israel and the Edomites, descendents of Esau, have an ongoing feud that rivals that of the Montegues and Capulets. The strain on their relationship and the animosity between them continued for generations. When Moses and the Israelites wanted to pass through Edom on the way to the Promised Land, Edom denied them. King David later conquered Edom and appointed Israelite governors to rule over them. This power struggle back and forth continued until the part of the story we read today.
Both Israel and Edom were smaller kingdoms when compared to mighty Empires of the time like Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon. And these nations, like communities all throughout time and across space, had to make difficult decisions. They could choose to align themselves with Empire, to prop up Empire in exchange for perceived safety or access to resources. Or they could resist Empire but remain vulnerable to outside attacks and annihilation. Empires in that time and in our own time know that in order to be successful, in order to subdue the masses for colonization, Empires must rely on strategic division. Instead of uniting against a force like Babylon, we often fight over the scraps, seeing other oppressed communities as our competition and ignoring the real enemy.
This is what happened in the time of Obadiah. Obadiah was a prophet after the time of the Babylonian invasion, where King Nebuchadnezzar led a siege against Jerusalem and decimated the Temple, the House of God and the center of life for the community. This time was brutal. Leaders were executed. People were starving. They were deported from their homelands. They were led into captivity. The description of this time in other parts of scripture includes traumatized accounts of a people who had been utterly obliterated.
To add insult to injury, in the midst of all this suffering, perhaps the lowest time in the history of Israel, Edom assisted the Babylonians in their plunder of Jerusalem. The first half of Obadiah tells this story. The prophet says to Edom,
“On the day that you stood aside,
on the day that strangers carried off your sibling’s wealth,
And invaders entered the gates
and cast lots for Jerusalem,
you too were like one of them.”
In the midst of this calamity, Edom joined in and ransacked Jerusalem. Edom pillaged the land and desecrated the holy places of their family member, their neighbor. When small groups of Israelites tried to run away as refugees, Edom cut them off and didn’t allow them to escape. They shut down their borders and left people to die. Those Israelites who did survive were handed over by Edom to their Babylonian overlords. Edom chose to cozy up to Empire for a chance to exploit their sibling and pilfer their wealth in their most vulnerable moment. Instead of solidarity, Edom chose profiteering, back-stabbing, and mockery.
The book of Obediah is short, it’s the shortest of all the books in the Hebrew Bible at only 21 verses. But it’s verses are full of pain. The rest of this short book describes God’s coming judgement against Edom for this betrayal, and a hopeful promise of the restoration of Israel.
If you are Edom hearing these verses, this judgement does not sound like Good News at all. Obadiah threatens Edom, “What you have done will be done to you,” and, “The House of Jacob will take possession of those who dispossessed them.” Israel will be avenged. One day, Obadiah promises, Israel will be gathered together again and rule over Mount Edom and have power over everyone who disempowered them.
For Edomites, this oracle is one of judgement and revenge.
But for the devastated Israelites, this proclamation from Obadiah is Good News. It is a promise that God sees the depth of their suffering. It is a promise that God has not forgotten them. It is a promise of justice, of wrongs being made right, of broken people being gathered together. Of the humiliated regaining what had been lost. Like in the Magnificat and in other parts of scripture, it is a vision of a future where the Mighty are cast out and the Lowly are lifted up. And we are all asked, “Which side are you on?”
If you are Mighty you might wonder why a God who is good would act this way. Doesn’t God love everyone equally? Isn’t there room for forgiveness?
If you are Lowly, though, you are thinking, “FINALLY. It is our time.” Sometimes, depending on our particular social location, the things that sound like Law or Judgement to one group of people sound like Good News or Gospel to another.
When I hear the promise of God through Obadiah,
“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,”
I am reminded of the past few months across our city and in our nation where corporations controlled by the elite were smashed or burned. Some of us saw this and thought, “This is violent, this isn’t right,” while ignoring the everyday violence that has happened in our city for decades, where communities of color are regularly and intentionally looted from in the form of divestments, redlining, and other forms of political repression in order to benefit a fraction a tiny minority of aristocrats. Most of us are not those aristocrats. But like Edom we stood by and watched the pillaging and murder of our siblings happen. In some cases, we aligned ourselves with the ruling class in hopes of achieving protection, perceived safety, or access to resources, and participated in the decimation of our siblings’ lives and communities.
We hear angry chants in the streets and we feel the same discomfort we might feel when reading this judgement against Edom. Doesn’t God love everyone? Isn’t all destruction bad? Why is there all this talk of lifting up the Lowly and casting down the Mighty, can’t we all just be equal?
And then there are some of us who watch the pillaging on the news of corporations who have stolen from us for years, who watch the burning of the police stations who have terrorized us for generations, and we think, “FINALLY. It is our time.”
There is this saying, “When you are used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” When we are used to being centered or uplifted, the times where we are not feel destabilizing and even violent. I experienced this during the Ferguson Uprising where my identity as a white person was not centered and my experience was not normative and in fact, my voice was often ignored because it really wasn’t needed. Now, I look back and see those moments with gratitude. They were painful and disorienting. But they were also liberating.
The times when we are Edom in this story, we are confronted with stark truth about who we are and the consequences of our actions.
The times when we are the bruised remnant of Israel in this story, we are comforted with the assurance that FINALLY, it is our time. And God is on our side.
When God sends Her fiery judgement to burn away oppression, the oppressed go free and oppressors are freed too. This liberation is not experienced the same way by all people. For some it is disorienting. For others it is vindicating. For all of us, it is ultimately both terrifying and exhilarating. But even when this Good News doesn’t sound all that Good, there is a promise.
Empire will no longer divide us. Broken relationships will no longer control us. Sin will no longer bind us. Other kingdoms and tyrants rise and fall in what feels like an endless cycle. But God’s reign is the one that lasts.
The New Jerusalem is breaking in during this moment and it is still coming. It is on Earth, now, and it is Eternity. As we stand at the edge and peer into the abyss, with rage about what has been done to us and guilt about what we have done, God offers to us wholeness again and again. It is a spiritual recovery with real implications for our flesh and blood material selves. It is the salvation of all pieces of us, rescuing our broken bodies and revitalizing our damaged souls.
It is forever that begins today.
And at the end of it all, “The Kingdom shall be the Lord’s.”