Title: Divine Deal-making and A Painful Patience
Texts: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Date: August 28, 2011
Author: Ben D.
“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.”
If you’ve been paying any sort of attention to this evening’s service, then you know that this passage does not come from this week’s lectionary readings. In fact, it’s a prayer from the book of 1 Chronicles. The prayer is popularly—and somewhat infamously—known as the “Prayer of Jabez.” As you might be aware, Pastor Bruce Wilkinson of Atlanta, Georgia has sold over 13 million copies of a book based on this prayer. The book is called “The Prayer of Jabez,” and subtitled “Breaking Through to a Blessed Life.”
The basic idea of Wilkinson’s book—and I confess that I’ve not read the whole thing—is not that of your typical “prosperity gospel” manifesto, namely that God will reward you financially for living faithfully, or that what you give to the church serves as a kind of “seed money” that, once in God’s coffers, will gain wild interest, bringing you a small fortune and, Lord willing, an early retirement. Rather, Pastor Wilkinson argues that God simply wants faithful people to be blessed. God wants you to be rich in spiritual blessings, of course, but also in material blessings.
The key here is to have complete faith in God, and then to be intentional in asking God for increased blessings. “You have not because you ask not,” Wilkinson emphasizes. If God’s children would simply ask their heavenly father for more blessings, they would receive them. And so if a faithful Christian seems to lack in divine blessings, she ought simply to ask for more.
In fact, Wilkinson’s website, www.the-jabez-prayer.com, contains links to the following opportunities:
“Enlarge the bounds of your business.”
“Master your money.”
“Download the principles for obtaining God’s blessings.”
Millions of Christians—not only in North America, but across the world—have tried practicing this “Jabez Spirituality” of boldly asking God to bless them. Wilkinson, in fact, promises visible results within thirty days to those who will commit to praying this thirty-two-word prayer each day.
In this evening’s reading from Jeremiah, the prophet isn’t trying to enlarge the bounds of his business, or to master his money. He’s not asking God for more land, or a better house. But he is demanding a payday of sorts. He is asking God to pay attention to his plight, and to bless him on account of his faithfulness. Jeremiah feels that he has fulfilled his own side of a deal with God, and expects God to respond in kind. He wants God to fulfill the promises that God made when calling Jeremiah to be a prophet. The blessing Jeremiah expects from God is not necessarily that of material comfort. What he demands is, at the very least, that his calling be vindicated. And this vindication, Jeremiah insists, should come precisely in the form of divine retribution against his persecutors. He’s worked hard, has suffered much, and wants God to act on his behalf. In short, Jeremiah wants to be respected.
“ O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me,
and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors. “
Jeremiah realizes that the reason he is in this plight is that God is being too patient with Jeremiah’s enemies. And this patience interferes with the vindication of Jeremiah’s ministry. This is not how a good, faithful God should treat a servant, particular one who’s been called to so difficult a task as Jeremiah’s. So he rebukes God for being so patient. “In your forbearance, do not take me away,” he pleads of God. Do not forget me.
Of course, Jeremiah and Jabez aren’t unusual in asking God to reward their faithfulness. Throughout the scriptures, we see an expectation among God’s people that they will be blessed for their loyalty to God. And indeed, when God gives the law to Moses, it is accompanied by the promise of reward. Jeremiah would have been intimately familiar not only with the notion of a covenant between God and God’s people, but also with the tradition in the psalms—like the 26th Psalm which we heard this evening—of a righteous son or daughter of Israel calling upon God to pay attention to them and their plight. The psalm for today is one of many that expresses the idea that, just as the speaker has been faithful to her side of the covenant, so God is expected to fulfill the other side of the deal.
“Vindicate me,” the psalmist pleads. Why? “Because I’ve walked in integrity. I’ve trusted unwaveringly in the Lord.” If you look closely, Lord, “You will find that your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you.”
And the psalmist provides practical implications of this commitment, this unwavering love: I don’t sit with worthless people. I don’t consort with hypocrites. I hate the company of those who do evil. I won’t sit with the wicked. I wash my hands in innocence, and I go around your altar singing thanksgiving, and telling of your deeds.
Now, I don’t think we can dismiss this as pharisaical self-righteousness. We shouldn’t think of this psalmist as foreshadowing the Pharisee in the temple who points to his own goodness, and thanks God that he is not a sinner. Rather, this psalm contains a genuine plea for God to remember, and to act. This psalm is a call for God to be true to God’s own promises, to be faithful to God’s own covenant. And Jeremiah’s plea echoes this sentiment: I have been faithful, I have done everything you’ve told me to. Now it’s your turn to act, Lord!
Given this tradition of psalms that express the same sentiment, that appeal to God’s faithfulness and point out the speaker’s own faithfulness to God, the response God gives to Jeremiah’s own appeal may come as a surprise. For, when God does speak, the message is that of a divine rebuke, not an apology, but a call to repentance, something rather unusual in the divine/prophet relationship.
Why the harsh rebuke? This is because God interprets Jeremiah’s lament as an act of resistance to Jeremiah’s prophetic task, a failure on Jeremiah’s part to take his calling seriously. Instead of uttering what is “precious,” Jeremiah has uttered “worthless words.” But this is not the end of God’s dealings with Jeremiah. This is not the rejection of Jeremiah as a prophet. Indeed—as Jeremiah knows all too well, since he’s just complained about it—the God of Israel is an utterly patient God, and responds by renewing the covenant with Jeremiah. If Jeremiah returns, God says, he then may continue to be the Lord’s mouthpiece.
But God places a disclaimer on the promise of deliverance. What follows is not exactly an encouraging message. The road is tough, and it gets even tougher, but Jeremiah must stick to his task, whatever may happen. God gives no timeline, but simply tells him to wait. Jeremiah is promised no reward, except that of existing in faithful covenant with God—a blessing that may not immediately seem very desirable. God’s message to Jeremiah—which reflects God’s message to the entire nation of Israel—is to wait faithfully in an exilic existence. To wait patiently. To endure the hard work of waiting, with no promised timeline, on God to act according to God’s own time. To maintain a stubborn faith in God despite the absence of any visible results.
And indeed, things don’t get easier for Jeremiah, at least not for a while. In the chapters that follow, we see Jeremiah beaten by his own brothers. We see him kidnapped, verbally abused, and then put in stocks by a false prophet. He’s threatened with death many times, and at one point, is thrown into a pit, and left to die.
And yet the story suggests that Jeremiah does learn to practice a painful patience, for we’re told that he maintains his faithfulness to God until the very end, as he follows his people into exile. And in fact, what Jeremiah has learned in his prophetic vocation, the people come to know in its exile. Jeremiah’s prayer and his uneasy experience in God’s service become paradigmatic for the destiny of Israel, a people of troubled faith, those who wrestle with God.
Jeremiah’s encounter with God’s wildly unpredictable blessings is echoed in this evening’s Gospel reading. Just before our passage begins, we see Jesus calling his disciples together in order to ask them—his closest friends—two questions. First, “who do the people say I am?” They respond honestly: some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, or some other prophet. But then he asks them, “Who do you say I am?” The impetuous Peter answers, in his famous confession, “You’re the Christ of God, the Messiah.” And this exchange marks a crucial moment in the gospel narrative. As soon as Jesus’ disciples have confessed that he is indeed the Messiah—the unique one sent by God to redeem Israel and to vindicate the covenant—only then does Jesus begin to explain in more explicit detail what his Messiah-ship consists in.
He responds to Peter’s confession with two shocking statements. First he says: “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” It’s not enough to recognize that I am the Messiah, he insists. You must also realize that my messianic mission involves being tortured and killed. And here Peter loses all patience with Jesus. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” Now, in retrospect, it’s easy for us to point a finger at Peter here. But I think his position is entirely understandable. Put yourself in Peter’s sandals, and it makes perfect sense. Imagine what he must be thinking: He’s put his faith in Jesus. He’s left his job, his family, and given up his life to follow the eccentric rabbi he believes to be Israel’s Messiah. And now, just as things start to get sticky, just as you’d expect Jesus to show his divine power, he instead says the unthinkable! Jesus—this supposed Messiah—is going to lay down, give up, and let his enemies kill him!
Yet as much as Peter’s response should make sense to us, Jesus’ reply is surprising in its harshness: when Jesus rebukes him, he identifies Peter with Satan! A strong statement, for sure. But what does this even mean? Why—of all things—would Jesus address one of his closest disciples as ‘Satan’? I think it’s because the particular character of the Satanic temptation—which Jesus encountered in the desert at the beginning of his ministry—is to lose patience, to demand immediate action, and to take action into one’s own hands, rather than waiting on God. Satan is the one who expects immediate results. The one who would turn the stones into bread; who would call down angels to kill his persecutors.
But Jesus’ message is quite the opposite. Not only does he practice a radical patience—but demands it of his disciples. Indeed, the entire story of God’s presence in Christ is marked by divine patience. This patience is demonstrated in God’s very willingness to dwell among us as an ordinary human, patiently learning, just like the rest of us, what it means to live an embodied human person. It took patience for Jesus to learn how to eat food and to walk, to learn how to talk, to read the scriptures. It took patience for Jesus to learn how to pray and how to love. This patience is finally demonstrated in Christ’s passion itself, his willingness to endure rejection, abandonment, torture, and death on a cross, his willingness to overcome evil through patient suffering, rather than wrenching control of history right then and there.
Just as God told Jeremiah, and Jeremiah then told Israel, to wait patiently in exile, so Jesus tells Peter, and Peter learns to tell the church, that we must wait patiently through suffering. This point appears in our epistle reading as well. In the final verse, when Paul says, “Do not be overcome by evil; but overcome evil with good,” he encapsulates in one sentence the entire theology of the cross. The way God responded—and continues to respond—to human evil is not to repay it with more evil, but rather to take the force of evil away, by giving back goodness instead. Following Jesus’ example, we are to meet hostility with prayer. We are to meet Violence with a blessing. In practicing patience, we not only imitate Jesus’ example as a perfectly obedient human being, but also God’s attitude towards a sinful and fallen world.
Thus, the reason we, as God’s people, can remain hopeful about the end of history, all the while renouncing the means that might seem most effective for bringing peace to our world, is that Christ is not only the head of the church, but is also the lord of history, reigning at the right hand of God over the principalities and powers. The Lamb that has conquered his enemies through his death and resurrection.
Yet Christ’s current reign, in this time between the times, is characterized not by the immediate blotting out of evil, but rather by a strange patience. Indeed, a patience that often makes us wonder whether Christ is lord of history at all. A patience that makes us wonder whether God might have abandoned the world entirely. This patience is not, of course the complete answer or the final answer to evil. Jesus brings evil into check through his reign; but the consummation of this reign is the defeat of every enemy by the exclusion of evil, at the end of history, which we’ve heard in tonight’s gospel as well: “the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.”
Yet we must not forget that it is God’s intervention—not human progress—that vindicates human obedience. The Christian’s responsibility for defeating evil is to resist the temptation to meet evil on its own terms. To seek to crush the evil adversary is to be vanquished by evil, for it means accepting the very terms set by evil. What we are called to do, then, is not to try to take control of the reins of history, but rather to wait on God to vindicate our often painful faithfulness.
I’m fully aware that this sounds like an easy, formulaic answer: “Be patient, and all will work out.” Yet it’s not easy. It’s not as simple as reciting the Prayer of Jabez and getting results within six weeks. Rather, the practice of patience itself undermines the logic of immediacy. It subverts our tendency to judge actions by their apparent results. The practice of patience is, then, a trust that entails the hard, slow work of discipleship in the meantime, in this time of between-ness.
So, as followers of Jesus, let’s follow Pastor Wilkinson’s advice that we ask God to bless us. Yet we must not expect that all of God’s blessings will seem good to us at the time we receive them. After all, if Jesus taught anything, it was that as the kingdom of God comes, it overturns all of our expectations, reverses our sense of what is fair and just. It makes the last first, and the first last.
But beware of asking God for blessings! For you may find that the more you pray for God’s blessing, the more that blessedness will look like Jeremiah, wasting away in a pit. Or like Peter—who was called to imprisonment and beheading. Or Brian Haw—whose path of discipleship led him to spend a decade in central London, preaching a message that no one seemed to heed, right up to the day he died. And yet as Christians, we may—indeed must—be bold in our asking. This is because, when we boldly approach the throne of God, our boldness is rooted not in the assumption that we will like the blessings God gives us. Rather, our boldness comes from the fact that the one who blesses us is the Father revealed to us in Jesus Christ, whose patience was proven when he raised Jesus from the dead.
 1 Chronicles 4:10
 Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life. (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2005).
 See Jeremiah 1:4-10.
 See, for instance, the renewal of the covenant in Deuteronomy 30.
 See Jeremiah 29 for the call to “seek the peace of the city” during exile.
 See Matthew 4:1-11.
 Hebrews 4:16