A Prayer For Excellence
Rev. Christopher Lanham from Cascades Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Michigan once talked about a lesson he learned about excellence. When he was 16 years old, he and his father were chopping wood and he was very determined to have a higher pile of wood by the time they were done. He was chopping away, but soon he became tired – so tired that he couldn't lift his arms. But his father next to him, had a good rhythm. He wasn't even taking breaks in between...and yes he had more wood chopped. And then it came to Lanham – with everything in life there is a more excellent way. If only we all would seek the excellent way, how much better our lives will turn out. If there was someone who sought the excellent way, it was Jabez. He prayed to God for the excellent way to become a reality in his life. His name in the bible is so easy to miss – it’s like it was tucked in between all the genealogies we find in 1 Chronicles 1 to 9. But when Ezra, the author of Chronicles came to Jabez, it's like he wanted to pause for a moment. Jabez lived in a time of hardships for God’s people. They returned from exile and they saw the destruction. How would they rebuild God’s temple and their land? Jabez wanted to break through the cycle of destruction and bitterness. He turned to God in prayer to bring him to personal excellence. But then, his life would be a testimony to others.
Jabez asked in the first place: 1 “Oh, that You would bless me.” There's one word from the Hebrew missing in this phrase – the word, “barek” which means indeed! By adding 'indeed' to this request, it's like putting it in capital letters. "To bless in the biblical sense means to ask for or to impart supernatural favour." Many Christians are reluctant to ask for a blessing for themselves. They feel okay about asking it for others, but not themselves. Jabez' prayer focuses on "our wanting for ourselves nothing more and nothing less than what God wants for us." There are some scholars who commented on this request of Jabez as self-centred. But you see, he knew that God had excellence for him in store and God wanted him to pray that from Him. There's something I want to share with you. A pastor had a funeral and as people left the cemetery he walked through the rows of graves reading names on the tombstones and then a thought came to him. Perhaps it was the Holy Spirit Who brought this thought to him. He thought that in that cemetery many people were buried without experiencing God's richest blessings. And the reason for that was clear in the pastor's mind – they didn't ask God often enough to bless them. My friends, God wants to take our lives to the next level; He wants to bless us more. What are the blessings we as a people can ask God for? In my life I would simply ask, “Lord bless me, so that those around me may be blessed as well – my family, the people I minister to in every place You bring me.” Can we all just pray, “Oh, that You would bless me.”
Jabez asked of God, 2 “Enlarge my territory.” Now this isn't just about real estate. This is about increasing our opportunities to serve God. Jabez wanted "more influence, more responsibility, and more opportunity" to show others the wonderful love and compassion of God. A prayer of today along this line might be, "Expand my opportunities and my impact in such a way that I touch more lives in service to You.” Whatever our gifts, education or vocation might be, our calling is to do God's work on earth. If you want, you can call it living out your faith for others. Or you can simply call it ministry. Let's put ourselves in Jabez' shoes. What did he see as he went around? He saw people who murmured about everything God took away from them or what He hadn't granted to them. They saw only the limitations they had – limited land to make a living on, limited resources and limited to contribute to their community. But Jabez dreamt big; he saw how God was going to change that; how God was going to take obstacles out of the way. In our context today, we see more the obstacles in a secular world. Prayers in the name of God have been removed from schools and all other institutions. We can't even promote our Christian beliefs as before. But you know my friends, when we pray like Jabez, “Enlarge my territory”, we will see ministry opportunities like never before. A Christian doctor was sent to Columbia to work in a small village, but after a few months it became evident that God had him sent for another purpose and that was to do services on Sundays and visit people. Can you just imagine what will happen if we look beyond our limited resources and pray, “Lord, enlarge our territory”? When we pray, “Lord, use me, give me more ministry for You, the blessings and opportunities will start pouring in.”
Jabez continued his prayer – 3 “Let your hand be with me.” When we read this part of the prayer he prayed, we think, “Well, it's obvious, Jabez asked God's protection.” Nothing can ever be more true in life, my friends – we always need God's protection. There isn't a single moment we can go without God's protection. But in this context Jabez meant something different. He knew he asked of God something he couldn't handle himself – only God could do that through him. Just like Jabez the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham came to the realization that only with God's hand upon him would he have successes in his ministry. He asked of God to let his small church grow, but God gave him far more than what he could imagine in his wildest dreams. It turned into a worldwide Evangelism network. Graham spent each day knowing, “God's hand upon me, makes this possible.” We start to feel that what God has called us to do is beyond us. But that's just how we are supposed to feel. We need to feel dependent. We can't do this on our own. We need to rely on God's strength and power. We need to trust in God's guidance and wisdom. As God's people we are expected to attempt something large enough that failure is guaranteed…unless God steps in. We have to cry out to God, "Let Your hand be with me."
There was a fourth request from Jabez – 4 “Keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” In the Hebrew text it reads differently – “...that I will cause no pain.” Jabez' name meant pain. His mother gave him the name, because of the pain he caused her at his birth. So, he was always associated with pain. But, Jabez wanted to break free from that. He wanted to be a blessing and not cause any pain. Harm in this verse is translated as evil in some versions of the bible. So, Jabez asked God to keep him from evil and sin, because he knew that it causes pain. It brings pain into the life of the one who commits it and it brings pain into the lives of those who are affected by it. But most of all, sin causes God pain. Therefore, we have to read deeper into what we pray in the Lord's prayer. It's not only to deliver us from evil for our own sake, but also that what we do will not ruin the excellence God wants to use through us.
My friends, can we identify ourselves with Jabez as he came before God? That, it's in this time that we bring the same requests before God – Lord, bless me; Lord, enlarge my territory, Lord, Let Your hand be with me and Lord, keep me from harm.
Amen. Rev. Willem H. van de Wall