In his book Being Human, Steve Chalke tells a story about a child who was abandoned at one of his Oasis Trust projects in Zimbabwe.
It is part of the culture of some of the people groups living there that the father of a new-born baby will name the child according to the dominant thought that comes into his head when he first sees the child. So names like Beautiful, Mercy, Grace, Lovely and Pretty are very popular.
But the name given to the child abandoned at the Oasis Project was ‘No Matter.’
She arrived at their centre without any official documentation. So it fell to the staff at the project to register her with the authorities. When two gap year students went to the appropriate offices, where they found a great line of people waiting to be seen by registrars. They didn’t want this little girl going through life carrying that name. So the students had an idea.
Eventually they reached the front of the queue where the official behind the desk asked them for the child’s first name. Together they said ‘Precious.’ They wanted her name to tell a very different story about her.
We encounter a man in a similar situation to No Matter in the reading from Chronicles this morning. Only in his case no-one changed his name. He did carry it through life.
When I told Rosalie in the office what I was talking about this week she told me that one of her relatives is called Jabez. That alone might be evidence for the truth of what I want to share with you this morning.
But it’s not a name you’d have wanted to have been given in the Old Testament period. For the name Jabez means ‘he causes pain’ or ‘he will cause pain.’ Imagine calling your child ‘migraine’, ‘nausea’ or ‘cramps’ and you get a sense of what’s going on here.
The story of Jabez crops up in one the least read sections of one of the least read books of the Bible. If we were a church that followed lectionaries we’d never turn to Chronicles at all, and you may be forgiven for thinking that no bad thing.
The story of Jabez only lasts a couple of verses, but that’s more than we know about most of the other characters mentioned around him on the page. The opening chapters of Chronicles offer an ‘official family tree’ of the various Hebrew tribes. Jabez’s story crops up in the midst of Judah’s ancestors. More than 40 other names have already been mentioned in I Chronicles 4 by the time we reach Jabez at verse 9. Another huge list of name starts in verse 11. But in the midst of a great big list of names we get this little story.
There are a few things we pick up from the two verses. One is that things started badly for Jabez. He was given a terrible name. Many of you will know only too well from personal experience that childbirth is a painful experience in normal circumstances. There must have been something pretty terrible that caused Jabez’s mother to name him as she does. And it can’t have been particularly healthy for his to have been constantly reminded of it.
But things end well. Jabez turns out more honourable than his brothers.
The other thing we read is that he prayed a prayer. He prayed…
Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory
Let your hand be with me and keep me from harm
So that I will be free from pain.
We’ve been spending time in the different phases or seasons of the spiritual life. Each word of season has been assigned a word. And the word we started considering last week was Help!
We talked last week about the difference between prayers of intercession and prayers of petition. Intercession is when we are praying for someone else or for a situation, say that we hear of in the news. So when we pray for someone who is sick, or for mission organisations on the news sheets, or for Christians around the world facing persecution, that’s intercession.
Petition is prayer by me, for me. That’s what we’re thinking about in this word Help!
Help! is about recognising that all of us, at some point, come up short. To use the language of Paul in II Corinthians, we are all like plain, old cracked pots. Fragile and vulnerable. We’d love to have all the answers. But it seems life is engineered so that all of us, at some point, will have reason to cry out for help, from others and/or God.
The prayer of Jabez is a Help! prayer.
A number of years ago the Prayer of Jabez was the subject of a book which sold millions of copies. It was a little book, but it opened with a very big statement about petition. It said…
Dear Reader, I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers… [which] contains the key to a life of extraordinary favour with God.
It may have sold lots but it was far from universally popular. As you might guess from that opening description, some claimed it was proclaiming a ‘prosperity Gospel’ type message, where God always wants you to make you healthy and wealthy and the only thing keeping you from health and wealth is your own lack of faith. It treats God like a kind of genie, fulfilling our desires, and reduces prayer to a magic formula.
I can see why the book and the prayer were viewed and used in that kind of way. But in fairness to the author Bruce Wilkinson, that’s not what he says. In fact he explicitly states that’s not what it’s about. And most of you will know me well enough to know I’m unlikely to use it in that kind of way this morning.
But before I go on, it needs to be noted that Jabez does seem to pray for material blessing. He does say enlarge my territory. Some other translations have him asking God to enlarge my borders. It’s likely, probable even, that he was talking about land.
The King James Bible says ‘enlarge my coasts’ which is slightly different. And it’s possible he was using a similar kind of term we might use, when we talk about broadening our horizons. Getting a bigger picture. Helping us to see things differently.
And it is certainly not wrong to ask God for help with material things. I do believe God is interested in our happiness and caring for us. Jesus told us to pray give us this day our daily bread.
In fact there’s a good moral reason to ask God for help in material matters. If we decide we cannot trust God to look after us, we will become anxious. If you start to believe your happiness and safety all depends on you, you will become self-absorbed. Trusting that God will care for you frees you up to be more generous. It empowers you to look outwards and how you might be a blessing to others.
But what is going on in this little story and in the prayer?
Some of the language, particularly towards the end of the prayer is a little ambiguous which means it is translated differently in different versions of the Bible.
The church Bibles put it
Bless me, God, and give me much land
Be with me and keep me from anything evil
That might cause me pain
Another version has it, as I showed you earlier
Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory
Let your hand be with me and keep me from harm
So that I will be free from pain.
Looked at that way the whole prayer seems to be a ‘look after me’ type prayer. Which is not unreasonable.
But it’s hard to see why it would make him honourable.
But other translations have a better, or certainly more interesting translation
Oh, that you would bless me indeed and enlarge my territory
That your hand would be with me
And that you would keep me from evil
That I may not cause pain.
Can I suggest why I think that’s a better translation? It’s not just that it feels less selfish and more like the way I would have liked him to pray. It just makes sense of the story.
Jabez’s mother gave him a name which says he will cause pain. Just as in the Zimbabwean culture where a father would name a child according to his thoughts on first seeing the child, in the Hebrew culture the name of a child often contained a prophecy or vision of how life would unfold for this child.
Just as the gap year students did not want a child called ‘No matter’ living up to her name, so Jabez wanted to avoid fulfilling the ‘promise’ of his name.
He’s asking to be better than the labels that have been placed on him. Help me to live in a healthier, better life than is expected of me, than they seem to think I am capable of.
Jabez seems to be saying ‘I caused my mother pain at birth and she named me pain as a result. That name has hurt me. But I don’t want to keep the chain reaction of pain going. Bless me, enlarge my borders, be with me, help me stop the cycle of pain. Bless me, so that I can be a source of blessing to others rather than a source of pain.’
Jabez recognises that is not an easy thing to do. He knows he can’t manage it on his own. That’s why he prays ‘Let your hand be with me.’ God help me. Strengthen me to do this. I’m feeling the hurt of wrong done to me, I’ve carried it around for so long. It’s been the story I’ve been told my whole life. If I rely on my own strength, my own wisdom, I will be tempted to react badly and cause pain, just as they expect. Free me from the need to pass that on.
Bless me that I might bless others.
It echoes the promise to Abram which itself echoes through the whole Bible. ‘Abram, I will make you a great nation. I will bless you and make you a great nation. And you will be a blessing. All the people’s on earth will be blessed through you.’
When you see the prayer in that way, you can see why the person who compiled the Chronicles thought he stood out. You can see why Jabez was described as honourable.
And you can see why such a prayer would resonate with people today. Because, although we might not recognise it as such, each of us is telling a story which affects how we live. It affects how we view ourselves. It gives us a sense of worth, purpose and direction.
Some parts of that story will be good.
But others won’t be.
Some parts are harmful.
People carry around all sorts of messages and they affects their lives.
I’m not wanted.
I’m too slow.
I’m no use to anyone.
I’ll never amount to anything.
What would anyone see in me?
How could anyone love me?
I’ve wasted my life.
Some of them have been passed on to us by others. Careless words spoken years ago which have stuck to us like Velcro. Some of them we’ve been telling ourselves. We’d love them to be different, but we get stuck in a rut.
All of us, in our own ways, are jars of clay. Some of us might be prettier on the surface to look at. But at the end of the day we’re all fragile, we’re all vulnerable. Each of us in our own ways can become cracked and damaged.
The lesson from Jabez is that your story doesn’t have to get stuck and end there. It can be rewritten.
And it begins with a single word Help!
Jabez carried around painful story. He had lived with the hurt of what what had been done to him, quite literally his whole life. But he sensed that he was more than that. Better than that. More precious than that.
Which is part of what Paul is saying in II Corinthians. Archaeological finds from the era help us to better understand the image Paul used. They have uncovered clay jars containing hoards of coins. Some of you may have hidden cash in an ordinary jar that might just as easily have contained coffee or something like that.
Well, in the ancient world they would hide precious or valuable items in plain ordinary jars, which would not attract attention. On the surface it wasn’t much to look at, but inside the contents were precious. Or in times of war and disturbance they would bury them in the ground and the clay jar was to keep the coins safe and together.
But in either case, it wasn’t the clay jar that was the valuable thing. It was fragile. It could crack and break easily. What mattered was the contents.
Your life is precious and your real value is bound up in how God sees you, how God values you, how God views you. You are created in God’s image. You are precious enough that God sent Jesus into the world and Jesus went to the cross for you.
But we carry that message in jars of clay. We are fragile, vulnerable, easily cracked and broken. Easily damaged.
Paul knew he was like that. Given how much of the New Testament is given over to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, it might surprise you to know that his relationship with them was not great. When people say to me that we need to get back to the New Testament church, I always answer ‘Not if we turn out like Corinth.’
II Corinthians is really quite a troubled letter. Paul had founded their church on his missionary journeys, but since those days others have come along and they have proved more impressive. On the surface, at least, they have been more successful. But this hasn’t always been to do with the truth or quality of their message.
But we see something of what they said about Paul in the passage we shared together. Reading a letter is really like only catching one side of a conversation, so it’s hard to be precise on the accusations. Some it seemed claimed he used underhand tactics to get his way. His motives were misinterpreted, his actions misconstrued and his words twisted against him. If you read the rest of the letter you’ll see they thought he was not an impressive figure. It seems he was an odd-looking man. It might surprise you to know he wasn’t much of a preacher. One of the things they said about him was that he sounded impressive in his letters, but when you met him he was a bit of a disappointment. He was in and out of trouble all the time. Some believed if God was really with him, surely his own life would be working out better. He wouldn’t have as much trouble as he was having.
Paul doesn’t hide from any of it. He doesn’t claim that following Jesus makes his life easy. And he is a clay jar. He is fragile and vulnerable. He can be hurt. He can be battered by troubles, unsure of what to do, spiritually terrorised, put down, depressed.
He is prone to all of that.
He’s a jar of clay.
But his story doesn’t have to get stuck there. He didn’t have to keep the cycle of pain going. He was made for than that. He was more precious than that. Hid value was bound up in what God had done for him in Christ and the calling Jesus had placed on his life.
His story can be told differently and that starts with a single word. Help!
In verses 8 and 9 we see 4 difficulties in which we see Paul as the jar of clay. But because of the power of the God to whom he cries for help, each difficulty is followed by a ‘but not’
Yes, he is hard pressed. But he is not crushed.
Yes, he is perplexed. But he does not despair.
Yes, he is persecuted. But he is not abandoned.
Yes, he is struck down. But he is not destroyed.
Paul can acknowledge all that he faces, all the hurt he feels, and he turns for help to deal with it. And in the midst of his difficult, fragile life, the divine power can still be known. It can still make the difference. It can give him the strength to keep going. It can keep him rewriting the story and stop him from passing on the hurt. Accusations might be hurled at him. But Paul just wants to pass on life and blessing.
A few weeks ago we looked at Sorry. We spoke of self-examination. Of recognising, acknowledging, naming our own sin, our own unique mix of the HPTMTU. And confession is part of a healthy spirituality. It’s part of what brings our healing.
And in traditions like ours, which emphasise personal relationships with Jesus, personal discipleship and piety, we can focus hard on Sorry.
But a key part of the healing we need is not from sin we’ve done, but from what has been doe to us. We need help with the hurt we carry around. For yes, we are precious. We are bearers of the divine image. Each and every last one of us.
But we carry it around in jars of clay. We are fragile. We can be hurt. We can be cracked. We can be broken. We can carry around stories we’ve been told or we’ve been telling ourselves which are harmful. It affects how we see ourselves and how we live.
And the danger is, as Franciscan monk Richard Rohr says, that ‘pain that isn’t processed is passed on. Pain that isn’t transformed is transmitted.’
What we can learn from Jabez is not that God wants to make us super healthy and wealthy, but that we don’t need to get stuck in the story. But before we can live a new story we need to stop rereading the old one.
It might start with saying yes, I’ve been hurt. And it mattered. But I don’t want to simply pass that on. I don’t want to keep that chain reaction going. God, you consider me so precious that you sent Jesus for me. Jesus tells me I am better than the labels that have been placed on me, and that I place on myself. I’m feel the hurt of wrong done to me, I’ve carried it around for so long. It’s been the story I’ve been told my whole life.
So help me. Bless me, enlarge my borders, be with me, help me stop the cycle of pain. Bless me, so that I can be a source of blessing to others rather than a source of pain.’ If I rely on my own strength, my own wisdom, I will be tempted to react badly and cause pain, just as they expect. Free me from the need to pass that on. I can’t manage it on his own. So ‘Let your hand be with me.’
God help me.
Strengthen me to do this.
Take this jar of clay, fragile and cracked as it is and let your light shone in it and from it.
Help me to rewrite the story of who I am.
And may it be the story of who I am in Christ.