Bystanders and Standing By

On July 12 our congregation commissioned a team of three travelers to head to Malawi and deepen and extend our partnership with the Mbenjere CCAP in Blantyre Synod.  As we did, we talked about postcards, texts, and tweets… and considered an ancient postcard as found in Obadiah 1-14.  Our other text was Matthew 10:40-42


A friend of mine has been on a trip this past week, and one of the gifts that I have received are a couple of text messages and a photo or two. I was saying to my wife that such greetings are the 21st century expression of a postcard – a glimpse into what’s happening, but not a lot of news.

This morning we are going to look at a special postcard from The Lord to His people. I’d like for you to think of the Old Testament book of Obadiah as a postcard or a text message – a little note — there’s not a lot of room here, not a lot of detail. But it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to the church of the past to preserve this message for us — there is some truth here, some wisdom for us as we seek to be faithful in living day to day.

I’ll start off by saying that we don’t know a blessed thing about Obadiah the prophet. It was a common Israelite name, one that means “servant” or “worshiper of God”. This man was called by God to speak a word – a word directed primarily NOT to the Jews, but to a foreign nation, the country of Edom.

EdomWell, Edom was not exactly a foreign nation. You remember Abraham, of course. He and his wife Sarah had a son, Isaac, who was to bring the promise of a messiah to the world. Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob was the son from whom the Jewish nation descended, and Esau was the son from whom the Edomites descended. So Israel and Edom were separate countries, but they shared some common heritage. There was some biological and spiritual tie between them. The land of Edom was a small, rocky outpost high in the cliffs. It was a secure outpost and easily defended because of the magnitude of the rock walls. Edom was not far from Jerusalem.

And that’s where Obadiah has anger at the Edomites. In 587 b.c., the Babylonian army was laying waste to the city of Jerusalem. It was a terrible time — there was intense violence, severe poverty, and unspeakable abuse that went on. And according to Obadiah, when the attacks first started, the Edomites did nothing. They acted like this was none of their business and went on with their lives.

As the siege wore on, however, something even worse happened. Even though there was some sort of connection between Edom and Jerusalem, these so-called “relatives” began behaving like the enemy! First they watched the walls fall down, and then they joined the Babylonians in the looting of the city. They burned the Temple. They pirated the homes of the Jewish people. And to top it all off, verse 14 says that when some of the Jews went into Edom as refugees, the Edomites captured them and handed them over to the Babylonians.

The brief book of Obadiah is a condemnation of Edom because they stood by while those in Jerusalem suffered. As I’ve said, at the start, that’s all it was. They just chose to look the other way while their neighbors were getting beaten up and raped and robbed. Then, they giggled about it. Eventually, they saw the gates wide open and they joined in. They may have been ‘bystanders’, but they were certainly NOT innocent.

Now it seems to me that there is a word for us in this little postcard from the past. Because it seems to me that if being an “Innocent Bystander” was an Olympic event, we all know people who would have a legitimate shot at a gold medal.

Sometimes, it’s obvious. How many times, for instance, do we hear of some horrible shooting or other crime in a public place and then see a news story that begins with “Police are searching for witnesses…”.  Someone gets attacked on a crowded street in broad daylight, and “nobody” saw anything? Nope.  “I was just minding my own business…” “I didn’t see a thing….”

And sometimes, it’s more personal. You know what that’s like. A man is mistreating his wife or his children. His neighbors know something is going on, but do they say anything? Not usually. “It’s his house,” they say. “He’ll take care of things.”

And it’s not just you and me, it’s the whole world! We live in a world of indifference. How can I tell? There’s a flood in Malawi or an racial tension in Baltimore. It’s in the newspaper or on the radio for a day or two, and then everyone forgets all about it. Oh, maybe a few people send in some money for relief, or a few churches offer prayers, but mostly people don’t have the time or energy to get involved, do they?

English playwright and author George Bernard Shaw expressed it this way: “the worst sin is not to hate a fellow creature but to be indifferent toward him. That’s the essence of humanity.”[1]

So then what is the message that we, a world of bystanders, might take from the prophecy of Obadiah, the messenger to the bystanders? What is the word for us today?

That’s no mystery. God would have you and me care about the people who surround us. God calls us to STAND BY those who are on life’s margins, rather than being BYSTANDERS as they are plundered.


The Bystander Effect Illustration by Lizzy Thompson, 2012.  Used by Permission.   See more of Lizzy's work at

The Bystander Effect
Illustration by Lizzy Thompson, 2012. Used by Permission. See more of Lizzy’s work at

You might think that I’m just playing with words now, and you’d have good reason to think so – because I like to do that. But here’s what I mean. I’m interpreting the word “bystander” to refer to a person who is aware of what is going on, but who has no sense of immediacy, no sense that what is happening is at all connected with her or himself. This week I learned of a phenomenon called “the bystander effect”, which states that when there is a problem or an emergency, the more bystanders there are, the less likely it is that any of them will actually do anything. In one study, researchers faked epileptic seizures on the streets of New York and found that when there was only one bystander, they were helped 85% of the time, but when there were five bystanders, help was only offered 30% of the time.[2] Bystanders are those who are there, but who cannot be trusted to act.

But the command to “stand by” is a different thing altogether. When an air traffic controller tells a pilot to “stand by”, for instance, he is saying, “look – something is going to happen. Be ready for it.” When an officer gives a policeman, firefighter, or soldier the command to “stand by”, she is instructing that person to be ready and available to act as the situation warrants.

But HOW do we do that? What does that look like as we seek to live it out?


First, let me ask you to be an answer to prayer this week. How do you become an do that? First, pray about it. Ask God about the best ways to use your particular gifts and skills. Maybe you are the kind of person who needs to go and help at the after school program in order to ensure that each child has a chance to thrive. Maybe you’re the kind of person who will write an encouraging letter each week to a missionary far from home. Maybe you’re the kind of person who can spend a couple of hours each week visiting the sick. Whatever you can do, ask God how your gifts can be an answer to someone’s prayers this week.

God calls us to Be WITH people.   There are surely more needs in this world than you can address by yourself, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pick one and work on being attentive. Does someone need to speak a word of hope to a young woman whose husband just died? Is there someone who will speak for the rights and the needs of the orphans? What can the church say or do to help move the government forward and protect the democratic rights of the citizens?

Stand by.

Another way to think about it is to ask yourself, ‘What is it that breaks God’s heart? What is it that causes God sorrow?

Now. Will you give an hour of your week to work on that problem, whatever it is? What is it? Hunger? Racism? The environment? Abuse of power? The fact that this morning there are more than 50 million – that’s four Pennsylvanias – refugees, internally displaced persons, or asylum seekers in the world today?

Give an hour this week. And next week. And thereafter. Give an hour to that cause — to those people — on whose behalf God’s heart is breaking.

It’s a risk, you know. You may end up busier than ever.

You might end up lonelier than you are now. Because it may be that the people you are trying to love don’t want to see you. That hurts. Trust me, I know, it hurts. And it’s lonely.

You’ll probably end up poorer. Caring for people is usually pretty expensive.

But, at least according to Obadiah and to Jesus, it’s worth it. Will you carry the cup of refreshment to the people in your world? Will you offer yourself – to Jesus, and to the people that he loves?

Hands on a globe  Tomorrow, Sharon, and Gabe, and I are heading to Malawi. The Crafton Heights Presbyterian Church and Mbenjere CCAP have been partners for twenty years. But we are not only partners in the easy things of sending letters and gifts. We are partners in the difficult truth of proclaiming the whole gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. Our partnership exists because we believe that God is using it to help us stand with and stand for not only each other, but for all of the people that God loves. Having friends in someplace like Ntaja, Malawi, Africa makes us somehow better at “standing by” for those who are at risk.

So three of us are getting on a plane this week. That means 115 of us are not. Stand by, friends. I don’t know what will come up in your lives or in your world in the next two weeks. But when it does, may God find you, and me, standing by – ready for action, ready to proclaim his love and the hope we have found in his name. Let us join together and bring joy to the heart of God by being the kind of church he expects us to be. Maybe we can be not just a text or a postcard – but a letter – a love letter – from Jesus to the people that he loves. Amen.

[1] Quoted in The Tale of The Tardy Oxcart (Chuck Swindoll, Word 1998) p. 296.


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