When you google search ‘church ruins’ it’s amazing how many images come up: Churches that have for some reason or another simply stopped being centres of vibrant worship and faith communities.
In the forward to Donald Posterski’s book “Friendship: A Window To Ministry with Youth” there is a disturbing but also encouraging summary of Church history. It says, “There are times when Christianity has become little more than a gerontological Curiosity” … by the way gerontological means the study of the aged. Times when the flames of the faith have seemed to flicker and almost become extinguished… But these are often followed by vibrant times of renewal and revitalisation: Fresh direction, fresh vision fresh generations, as the Spirit once again fans the church into a bright light on a hill… the Spirit rekindles a passion for Jesus and a desire to live out the gospel.
There is a wonderful book, with a tile that sounds like an Irish joke called “The day the Irish saved civilization” which documents the way in which Irish monks and Celtic Christianity, preserved literacy and through their communities of faith, re Christianised the whole of Europe in the so called dark ages. At a time when the church in western Europe was waning, becoming simply the state religion, Francis of Assisi started a movement that was based on a radical adherence to the sermon on the mount, which it was said he read twice daily…The reformation at the start of the enlightenment…The rise of Methodism and the Salvation Army in response to the new urban environments of the industrial revolution…The welsh revival… The growth of new denominations in our own age…new centres of Christian vibrancy in the developing world…The call on the church now not for a reformation but a reformission… to take up the challenge of being and bringing the gospel to our post Christian world.
Well how does this connect with our reading this morning from Obadiah? You will remember that we mentioned last week that while it is an oracle against Edom, who had been involved in the suffering of Judah as Jerusalem had been destroyed and the people taken into exile by the Babylonians, which David Baker sums up by saying they “Acted like the cowardly bully who is antagonistic only when there is overwhelming power displayed against the weaker victim.” But at its heart the book of Obadiah is encouragement for the exiles that God will restore them; that they will return to Jerusalem. Despite the fact they seem defeated and scattered and their enemies gloat over them, this is not the way it will remain. God is with them and for them. It is encouragement for us as well that God’s love and God’s mercy is what we can depend on in times of trouble, suffering, change and seasons of decline and struggle both individually and as the Church. AS I read Obadiah I couldn’t help but have Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians ringing in my ear. “My Grace is sufficient for you”. Struggling with a thorn in his side, that tormented him, and hearing a no from God about healing, he is encouraged and given hope in the fact that God’s answer is “My Grace is Sufficient for you”. God’s people in exile, shocked and discouraged are to have the same hope, “My Grace is sufficient for you.” It is the same hope and trust that we can have as well in all the ebbs and flows and ups and downs that we face… “My Grace is sufficient for you.”
This encouragement for God’s people then and now is based on the very nature of God.
In most of the English translations of the bible the name YHWH is written as LORD in capitals and we can easily miss the importance of the name being used. YHWH is the name for God used in Obabdiah, YHWH was the name God chose to reveal himself by to Moses at the burning bush… It is the “I am who I am”. It is the God who sees and hears the plight of his people, who cares and who acts for their redemption. It is the God of relationship, the God who promised land and blessings and descendants to Abraham, who chose Jacob to be the son of blessing, not the stronger Esau, very relevant to the book of Obadiah, who was with and kept Joseph and prospered him even in the face of jealousy and wrong imprisonment, and through that was able to provide for Jacob and his family. The name Joseph is used to signify in Obadiah that God will bring all his people back from exile. It is YWHW who bought the people of Israel out of Egypt and made a covenant with them, that they would be his people and he would be their God. Who kept his covenant even when Israel did not keep hers, so much of the books we call history in the Hebrew Scriptures are there to show that YWHW was justified to send his people out of the land he had promised them. In Obadiah they are encouragement that YHWH can be trusted to restore them again. Just as YWHW was their deliverer back then he will keep his promise again… “On Mt Zion will be deliverance, it will be Holy”.
It is encouragement based on the sovereignty of God. Not only is the one speaking to them YWHW but YWHW is the Sovereign Lord. In the opening verse of Obadiah we see that it is the sovereign Lord YWHW who calls the nations together to hear and carry out the judgment on Edom. With Jerusalem in ruins and the Babylonian empire in ascendancy you would think it was Nebuchadnezzar who could call nations together, or at least the Babylonian god’s but here in this small oracle, hope comes from the fact that God is sovereign over the nations. God is in control; nations come and go at his command. God is able to work out his plans and purposes for the good of his people.
There is also the sense that God is the God of the ages. History and time are in his hands. Israel and all humans are very temporal beings, we are very much caught up in time and place, situations and circumstances. Researchers wrestling with ecological issues have identified this as a factor in why there is resistance to change in the face of issues such as climate change and pollution. It is hard for us to think beyond our needs now to modify our behaviour for the sake of our children and grandchildren, and the children and grandchildren of other nations?
But God is the God of the ages, not limited to the here and now but looks from an eternal perspective. It’s interesting that when YWHW disciplined his people, the foreign policy of the Assyrians and Babylonians, was exile. You stopped national identity rising and revolts by removing people from their lands. But then when it was time for Israel to return the Medes and Persians came to power, whose foreign policy was to return people to their homelands and help them prosper as the empire needed tribute and peace and wealth came from prospering settled and happy people.
But also YHWH being the God of the ages means Obadiah looks forward to a greater fulfilment. That not only would Jerusalem and Israel be restored but that it would be a place where God’s deliverance and presence was manifest. It would be where God’s Kingdom would be established, and we look back from beyond the cross and the resurrection to see that deliverance ultimately comes in Christ. That promise of relationship and being a blessing to all nations that God made with Abraham coming true in Christ. it will have its ultimate consummation in the return of Christ.
So what does this mean for us today?
On a personal level, we need to hear like Paul did… “my grace is sufficient for you” that the sovereign God who through Christ’s life death and resurrection is in relationship with us, who has called us to be his people, is able to keep us and work out his plans for our good not for our harm. Even in times when the evidence is all to the contrary, Even when the answer is no, or the heavens feel closed against us. Last year when we looked at some of the laments in the Old Testament we saw the process of faith growing through times of orientation, when it is all as it should be, of prosperity and answers to prayer and stability, and times of disorientation when it seems as if we’ve gone out to the beach and ended up being dumped again and again by waves, then times of re-orientation with a deepening trust in God and a deeper and more intimate awareness of his presence and sufficiency. Paul comes to that point of reorientation and realises that because of his limitations he is dependent on God’s grace and God grace is sufficient”. In Paul’s weakness God’s strength is made manifest. In our weaknesses God’s strength is made manifest.
On a Church level. The hope for Judah was the same, that God’s grace was sufficient for them. God could be trusted to keep his promises even when their nearest neighbours partied on their holy mountain celebrating their defeat and demise. In fact there is a play on words in this second half of Obadiah, where the idea of drinking the cup in celebration also coincides with drinking the cup of judgement as well for Edom, and the end it is Judah and Israel who celebrates on Mt Zion. For the people in exile it meant that they should listen to the words of Jeremiah 29:7 and while they were in exile seek the peace and prosperity of the city where God had placed them. Get on with being God’s people in the place where they now found themselves, in the sure knowledge that God’s grace was sufficient for them”: Trusting that God would bring renewal and restoration and return.
We find ourselves as a church in the same situation, in a new reality called to serve and love the city around us and in that trust God for new growth and new life. Trusting that God is with us and for us “That God’s grace is sufficient for us”,
I love the image behind me because it is a sign of hope of new life coming out of the old. “That God’s grace is sufficient for us.” I started today by saying that there are many church ruins, and I want to finish with a story that is very much like this image behind me. In Europe there has been a growth of new monastic movements, people rediscovering old ways of living together, sharing a common rhythm of prayer, community, service and evangelism. One such movement is the 24/7 prayer movement. They started to form urban communities called boiler rooms a group of people in a particular place that form a Christ-centred community that practices a daily rhythm of prayer, study and celebration whilst caring actively for the poor and the lost. You can read about them on line or in the book ‘punk monk’. The first boiler room they opened was in an old pub, but as they researched the background of the place they found it was in the grounds of the old cathedral and monastery in that city. When they opened one in London, they were given a basement of a building owned by an insurance company, and it was only after they had been running for a while that someone noticed a brass plaque that said that this was the site of John Wesley’s foundry his base in London where not only did he preach the gospel but set up a community to care for the poor, and do social justice. Now I now one of these boiler rooms has closed since I read about them, but I think this gives us encouragement that like in the oracle of Obadiah, God is able to bring new life and new growth and his kingdom even in the ruins.