Baptismal Meditation delivered by the Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 12, August 26, 2001, dedicated to Austin James Wharton on his baptismal day, to all the new members on their date of reaffirming their baptismal vows and always to the glory of God!
(Part 3 of 4 in the Sermon Series, "The Power of Prayer")
I Chronicles 4:9-10; Luke 13:10-17
"The Power of Prayer" series turns today from the power of healing prayer, and the power of redemptive prayer (or the prayer of suffering) to the power of prayer to bless. Next Sunday, I close with a closer look at the Lord's Prayer. That sermon will be entitled, "The Power of Our Savior's Prayer."
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
Most of us in this room have not taken time to read and study either I or II Chronicles. If we have, I doubt many of us have spent much if any extended time in the first nine chapters of I Chronicles. The name of these books defines their task for the scriptures - these books are the genealogical books of scriptures - the careful and painstaking chronicling of names and connections for the Hebrew people of old. Although this is interesting to genealogists, none of you have been in my office in the past eighteen months asking me to preach on the connection of Perez, Hezron, Carmi, Hur, Shobal, Ahumai, Ishma, Idbash, Hazelelponi, and Anub. If you had come, I would have been happy to talk!
Buried amid the genealogies like a pearl hidden in the oyster shell is a little known prayer from a lesser known pray-er - Jabez. After 44 names in chapter 4, Jabez is mentioned with this two verse story:
Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, "Because I bore him in pain." And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, "Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, that you would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!" So God granted him what he requested. (I Chronicles 4:9-10)
With that, Jabez and prayer come to end, the roll call for the tribe of Israel picks up as if nothing happened and this prayer was an anomaly in the roll of the righteous (which actually, it is!). What we come away with is this: This honorable man was named literally, "Born in Pain," prayed one, one sentence prayer and was extraordinarily well blessed.
Now over 3,000 years later, this one sentence prayer has launched an entire ministry led by Bruce Wilkinson. There are little books, journals, study guides, tapes, websites, and more based on the Prayer of Jabez. Now replacing the "WWJD" phenomena, Jabez has become popular and reknowned for his prayer. Scripturally, he is never mentioned after verse 10 of I Chronicles, but culturally he is a pop hero of growing reknown! Pray this prayer, Wilkinson says, and "God's favor, power, and protection can be released to you." While that breakthrough to the blessed life may or may not come true, I do believe this prayer does have the power to point us to toward God's blessing and awaken us to possibilities which we have not been open to in the past.
This powerful little blessing prayer has four essential elements:
1. Oh, that You would bless me indeed.
2. And Enlarge my territory.
3. That your hand would be with me.
4. And that you would keep me from evil.
(That I might not cause pain - something Wilkinson doesn't address . . . )
1. Oh, that you might bless me indeed. At first glance this opening of the prayer seems rather selfish. Does God want us to be selfish in our prayers? I am sure that is not the case. But, I am also sure that God wishes for us to be blessed.
As for the original author of the prayer, none of us know what pain was rendered when Jabez was conceived, carried, and born. But, we can imagine the pain must have been considerable for his mother to name him "Pain," upon his arrival on earth. Only God knows the anguish of this mother AND Jabez only, knows the pain of growing up with the name "Pain." How many of you would stand up well under the constant teasing and testing from others, "Why are you a pain to your mother?" Etc . . .
By the time of adulthood, Jabez must have seriously desired God's blessing. "O God, that you would bless me, indeed!" The "indeed" was like five exclamation points, or writing the prayer with all capital letters. Please Yahweh, bless me a lot! I mean a whole lot! More than a lot! I need a blessing! Big time! Now that would be nice!"
Have you ever been there? I know I have. I have reached the point where I have felt cursed at times. "Why me?" (And my name isn't "Pain" either!). But, many of us never ask for a blessing, we just cry out about the felt, or perceived cursing. So what is a "Blessing?" And why should we receive one (or many?).
To bless in the biblical sense means to ask for or to impart supernatural favor. When we ask for a blessing, we are not asking for more of what we could get for ourselves. We're crying out for the wonderful, unlimited goodness that only God has the power to know about or give to us. It is this kind of power that the author of Proverbs is referring to when he writes, `The Lord's blessing is our greatest wealth; all our work adds nothing to it.'" (Proverbs 10:22). (Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez, Multnomah Publications, pp. 23-24).
Please note that Jabez leaves it entirely up to God to decide what the blessings would be, and where they would be, and when they would come, and how he would receive them. This is quite powerful. Although we may believe, we know what we need, by asking God to bless our lives, we receive what we need. The power of asking God to open for you a blessing means that you become open to God's will for your life. Like Jesus's prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Not my will, but thy will be done, O Lord," the prayer for blessing opens you to God's plan, God's will and moves you out of the way. Looking out on this crowd of intelligent and often driven leaders, this prayer may be a tough sell! But, remember, God's nature is to bless! You need to change the way you think - from Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms. In-Control, to Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms. Available to the Power of God to be in charge!
Remember Moses speaking to God on Mt. Sinai says simply, "Show me your Glory" (Exodus 33:18). He was asking to see not only the presence of God, but the essence of God. God responds to Moses in describing God's own nature, that God is "the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth." (Exodus 34:6). I am asking you, if you see God as anything but merciful, gracious, longsuffering (on your account and mine), and abounding in goodness and truth - shake that thought or image right out of your brain! God is ready and willing to bless you! In fact, I believe God will bless you richly! How? See part II of the prayer . . .
2. And that you would enlarge my territory! In blessing you, God will enlarge your territory. Now for those of you who travel far each week and have regions which keep expanding as the economy shrinks, please don't shut me out at this point. I know you aren't seeking more territory to cover. For me, I believe enlarging territory is expanding horizons. It is opening new vistas of possibilities. It is opening my heart and mind to new possibilities of mission. Most of all, and most important of all - it is opening!
May I ask, what is it that you are closed off to? What territory are you afraid of expanding? In other words, what territory terrifies you? For some of us who are extraverts, the territory which remains unexplored is the territory of silence and the interior life of prayer. We cannot be still and know that God is Good! For those of us who are introverts, the territory which needs enlarging is the region beyond ourselves and our small circle of family, friends, and influence. We refuse to step outside ourselves and our little world to realize the power of God beyond our boundaries. For each of us - and all of us - living large for God is good!
Now, I would warn you about this part of the prayer of blessing. If you simply seek for God to fulfill your direction for more personal gain or professional success, I question the basis of your enlarged territory - remember the blessing is for God to determine and for us to be open to. We have to open ourselves up to God's blessings and know that the when's, where's, and how's are for God to determine. That said, I also believe you need to name your needs for blessing, all the while aware that God may be calling us to deeper waters, more difficult tasks and deeper struggles - and all of those places are rich with blessings.
In the words of my colleague at First Community, Dr. Richard Wing, "May God bless us with the ability to hear what we need from this prayer. If we need comfort, may we be blessed by it. If we need to be pushed to new heights of service and deeper caring, may we hear that word. God help us to hear what we must hear when we pray this prayer." (Quoted from Richard Wing, Our News, Soundings,June 10, 2001).
A few weeks ago, a friend shared with me that in praying this prayer in the morning, she had received a call that very day about a new ministry which would expand her territory. Now, I would say, that call might have come anyway, because of her incredible gifts, but by praying the Prayer of Jabez and opening herself to God's presence and call to expand her territory, my friend was OPEN to hear this call in a fresh, new, and mind-blowing, spirit-blowing way! I encourage each of you to pray this prayer in your daily devotions from now on and be open to what happens next! My guess is that God will expand your territory - whatever that means for you! Bruce Wilkinson uses this equation (which I like) "My abilities + experience + training + my personality + my past + the expectations of others = my assigned territory. In others words, think outside the box!
I ask you to pray this prayer for First Church as well as for yourself. I believe God seeks to expand our territory as well. I believe God seeks to bless us and expand our territory, too. Taking our collective abilities + our experience in downtown Columbus for 150 years + the multiplicities of our training and backgrounds + our personality as a church on the move and oriented toward mission + our dynamic past + the expectations of others for us to be great for God = our expanding territory! I know I expect us to take off for God in touching new ministries and being touched by new ministries! Please pray this prayer of blessing not only for yourself, but also for our mission and ministry together!
3. Oh, that your hand would be with me and 4. Keep me from all evil and that I would not cause pain... Ah yes! As God blesses us and expands our territory we also need to abide in the belief that God will guide us and protect us from all evil - and that we would not cause pain. I find this part of Jabez' prayer powerful and fascinating. The one named "Pain," wishes not to cause pain to others. The one who apparently brought pain to his mother in childbirth, wants others not to bear pain. This is touching and powerful. How often in being blessed in one part of our life, we see pain in another parts of our life. Jabez is sensitive to pain, and appeals to God that as he receives blessings, he would not cause anyone else pain. We should be so sensitive as well. Trusting that God's hand is with us will add to our blessings.
I would love to continue on, but I will close for now. Just know that in the close of this simple, four phrase prayer of blessing, Jabez was granted what he requested. His prayer is answered. My prayer for you is that God blesses and keeps you in God's embrace of grace. I pray that God will richly bless you and expand your territory. In fact, I pray that God will bless all of us at First Church and expand our collective vision and territory for mission and ministry! I pray that God's hand will be with you and keep you from all evil - and for all of us may - the Lord our God be with us and keep us from all evil!
I pray that as you receive blessings, I pray that you will not bring pain to others, - that none of us would bring pain to others - but rather, I pray that you and I and all us will bring them joy. Amen.
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