This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on April 21, 2013. To listen to the audio, just click on this link – James 5C.
Over the next two weeks we are going to finish up the letter from James – looking at his final instructions to this early church. James wrote to Jewish followers of Jesus in the early church, who had been dispersed by persecution. These Jewish believers had faced persecution which broke out after the martyrdom of Steven. They had lost homes, friends, and were now living in new communities and trying to establish new communities of faith and be faithful witnesses to Christ.
As James closes out his letter to these early Jewish believers, he ends with the call to prayer. Prayer is, of course, something that we are all supposed to believe in, but which is often the last resort that we turn to after we have exhausted all other efforts. But James wants these believers to see that prayer is powerful – something that transforms our lives and the church.
Believe that Prayer is Powerful and Effective.
The Prayer of a Righteous Man: “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed and the heavens gave rain and the earth produced it’s crops.”
At first glance, James seems to be saying something that I think many of us believe – that is, if you can find a person who is a real saint – a very spiritual person – then get them to pray for you. This tends to be the mindset of much of the church – that getting Mother Theresa or Billy Graham to pray for you (or whoever is the prominent spiritual person), would be more effective than asking someone in your church to pray for you. In fact, James is saying just the opposite.
James says something here that would have been shocking to his readers: “Elijah was a man like us”. Of course, they didn’t believe that. Elijah was a revered prophet – who called fire down from heaven, who was taken up in a fiery chariot to heaven, who appeared with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. They would have thought of Elijah as a person much closer to God than they were. James, however, corrects this notion. Elijah did not cause the miracles – God did. Elijah was merely a man who prayed.
Now look back at vs.17-18 and see the point that James is making. He is not saying that we have to go find a “righteous man” to pray effectively for us. James is saying that these believers, with all of their faults – their bickering, their pride at wanting to all be teachers, their distrust of God in times of trial, are nevertheless righteous people – because they are in Christ. It is their prayers that are “powerful and effective”.
This is where we need to start as we look at this passage. Your prayers, if you belong to Jesus Christ – and are forgiven in him – and have standing before the Father in him – are powerful and effective. This morning, we want to begin with this premise, and talk about how we are called to pray, powerfully and effectively.
Believe in Prayer More Than Your Own Solutions.
Do Not Swear: If prayer is so powerful and effective, then why isn’t it emphasized more in the church? After all, well attended prayer meetings are rare. Jesus called his Father’s house a house of prayer – but, if we’re honest, the modern church tends to be more of a “house of instruction”. The sermon, not prayer, tends to be the center of our worship. We aren’t that impressed with prayer.
James was writing to people who believed that taking oaths before God was what God required to bless their church. Although we cannot say for sure, it seems that they were swearing and taking oaths to God so that God would bless them and the church. James tells them, “12 Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No. Otherwise you will be condemned.” That seems like very strong language, but what James is saying is that by taking oaths and making promises to God, they are putting their faith on a Non-Gospel footing. They are making their relationship with God, and the blessing of the church, dependent on whether they are able to keep their oaths. Even if they are able to keep their oaths, they will have turned the church upside down – they will be the ones blessing God, and God will be depending on them to be faithful enough to bless themselves and the church.
The fact is, that we also tend to believe that our efforts, rather than prayer, are what really bless the church – and our own lives. We are committed to our own abilities and resources to be spiritual people. We would rather depend on our own promises to God, commitments, faithfulness.
Believe in Prayer and Pray: “13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.”
It’s kind of funny, and kind of sad how the one part of this passage we are most familiar with – about coming to the elders if we are sick – being anointed with oil – has become for us a way to perform a ritual, more than a call to pray. That’s because we are more impressed with rituals than prayer. Anointing with oil was a medical treatment (such as it was) in the ancient world. James is not so much prescribing a ritual as he is telling these people – GO, ask the Elders to pray for you – because prayer is powerful. In the same way, he isn’t suggesting that the elders have some special power – that they are the real saints, the spiritual people, who alone can pray for the sick. And yet this is the way we tend to look at this passage because we tend to think of some people as better Christians who are more likely to be heard by God. But James tells them to call the Elders because they represent the church.
We pay less attention to the verses that precede the healing verse – but they are telling us the same thing. When you are in trouble, pray. There is something powerful that happens as we pray in times of trouble – not an instant magical result, but by prayer we are able to walk through our troubles in the counsel and presence of God. That is powerful. Jesus is our wonderful counselor, the Prince who brings us peace, the one on whom we can cast our anxieties. Prayer is the way we do this – but we are often more likely to fret on our own or to complain to others than to pray. Prayer seems too slow – not immediate enough. We can complain right now – we can make promises to God right now. But prayer is walking through our troubles and our joys with Jesus – and it isn’t something you can just get out of the way and be done with – it involves us with Christ in a constant way.
Pray for One Another.
Confess Your Sins and Pray with Others in the Church: Prayer is powerful and effective to create life within the church. The church has tried to become living and powerful by hiring gifted people and through the use of programs, etc. but what really creates life and energy in the church is gracious, gospel interactions between people.
Rather than telling this church to decide on a leader – or coming down one way or another on who that leader should be, James suggests the following… “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” This is James’ pastoral advice for these believers who have been at each other’s throats – that they leave the question of leadership, and that they begin to confess their own sins and needs (rather than their qualifications) to one another.
James holds this command in tension with what he has said about our being able to pray effectively as the “righteous man”. We are sinners, who need to confess our sin to one another – who need healing – and – we are, at the same time righteous because of the work of Jesus – his death and resurrection. This tension of being redeemed sinners is what makes us light to the world.
This, says James, is the way to heal the church. Confession and prayer brings a reality into the church that pushes relationships beyond surface, shallow, interactions. Confession requires and builds mutual trust. Praying for one another builds a concern and a love for one another – it creates the atmosphere of the church in which, “… the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” (Eph.2:21).