October 7, 2012
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
We don’t know much about James. We have reason to believe he was the brother of Jesus, but we don’t know that for sure. We only have a few references to him in the Bible. We do have an ancient reference to James from outside the Bible. This comes from an historian named Eusebius who chronicled the events of the early Christian Church.
He used to enter alone into the temple and be found kneeling and praying for forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel’s because of his constant worship of God, kneeling and asking forgiveness for the people. So often did he pray that he was referred to as “Old Camel Knees,” because he developed knots on his knees from his long seasons of prayer. (What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do, David Jeremiah, page 199.)
Some of us may have ugly knees, but the reason is probably not excessive prayer. We ended last week with the verse, “Get down on your knees before the Master” (4:10, Eugene Peterson). And that’s where we begin today. On our knees. Talking about prayer. Doing more than just talking about it, let’s hope.
This is the last one in our series on James. We’ve accumulated eight “how to’s” so far, as James has taught us how to live a Christian life. Rather that put them all on the screen for you, we’ve provided a bulletin insert with all ten, including the two we have for today.
The first one for today is one word. 9.) Pray.
James begins our passage by saying, “Pray, pray, pray.” He gives us three circumstances that pretty much encompass every circumstance we might be facing. Suffering, cheerful, or sick. The NIV says: In trouble, happy, or sick. What do you do if you’re in trouble? You pray. What do you do if you’re happy? Well, if you’re happy and you know it, you clap your hands. But no, it says here if you’re happy, you sing praise! Which is another way of saying, you pray. Our choir has a poster in their music room that says, “God gave us music that we might pray without words.” To sing praise is to pray. That’s what you do when you’re happy. And when you’re sick? You pray. Actually, James gets a little more specific on this one. You invite elders to anoint you with oil and pray over you. We’ll say more about that in a minute.
Pray, pray, pray. Whatever your circumstance. Paul says the same thing: “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (I Thes 5:16-18).
Here’s why prayer is so important. God created us with a need to be connected with our Creator. When that connection is disrupted, it causes us all kinds of problems. But when that connection is solid, it is so wonderfully liberating! We’re plugged in to our life source. We’re free to be who we were meant to be.
We called a repairman the other day to come fix our washing machine. It had just suddenly stopped working. The repairman was coming in the morning. That night I woke up from a dead sleep with a brilliant thought. I should check and see if there’s power at the outlet. There wasn’t. I pushed the ground fault interrupter button to restore the power connection, and suddenly our washing machine was able to function the way it was designed to function. And I could call the repairman the next morning and avoid paying him $100 to push that same button for me.
It helps to be connected to your power source! And prayer is how we stay connected. We receive from God what God has for us. And we release to God all that we are, all that we’re grateful for, all that we’re struggling with, everything.
But what if the thing we are struggling with is something wrong with our bodies? We’re sick. And it’s not the kind of sickness that goes away with rest and chicken soup. This passage opens up some of the most difficult questions about prayer. Does prayer heal us? If it does in some cases, why not in every case? And where does sin fit in? Are we sick because we have sinned? Does forgiveness of sins have anything to do with healing? And what about those churches that do faith healings? Is it Biblical? Is it believable? Is it something we should do?
Most of James is clear-cut and easy to understand. We don’t need to do a lot of interpreting and explaining to know what James is telling us. We may not like what he’s telling us to do, but we know what he’s telling us to do. But this little section about prayer and healing is confusing. Let’s see if we can bring a little clarity to what James is and is not saying.
The first thing I want you to notice is this curious detail that James says to bring in others to pray for us when we’re sick. “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” Not that it’s wrong to pray for our own healing. But James seems to be telling us there is special power in our prayers when we pray for one another. And that’s why we have a church, after all. So we’re not each on our own with our own personal, private relationship with God, but we’re all in this together. We are bound together in Christian community. And so we don’t just care about ourselves and our own needs. We care about each other. As it says in the hymn, “We share each other’s woes, our mutual burdens bear; and often for each other flows the sympathizing tear.”
If we were each on our own, praying exclusively for ourselves, then someone might say. “You weren’t healed because you didn’t have enough faith. It’s your fault. God wanted to heal you, and God would have healed you if only you really believed in the power of prayer.” I hope you wouldn’t say that, but that has been said. It’s very cruel. It’s very hurtful. But notice James is ingeniously making it impossible to blame the sick person for being sick. Because others are doing the praying. Blame them if you must, but don’t blame the one we’re all praying for. It’s hard enough being sick without also being beaten up for not trusting God enough.
An old man had developed cataracts and was having difficulty reading his Bible. A faith healer came to his church. This faith healer removed this man’s glasses, dropped them to the floor, and stepped on them. He said, “You won’t be needing these any longer.” Then he handed the man an extra large print Bible. In the bright light on stage he was able to read John 3:16. Everyone applauded. The man went back to his dimly lit home and without the help of his glasses he couldn’t even find his Bible. He could barely find his home. He went back to the healer and here’s what he was told: “You didn’t have enough faith or the healing would have stuck”.
You can’t say something so cruel and so hurtful if you take James seriously. Because James clearly tells us it’s others who are to do the praying for the healing. If you must blame anyone, blame them.
Then we come to this matter of the role sin plays in sickness. It’s a very old idea that when bad things happen to you, God is punishing you for some sin. We find this in the book of Job. Job has all these horrible things happen – his children die, his wealth is taken away, he is suffering from a painful disease. And what do his friends say? They say, “You must have sinned a terrible sin to deserve all this. Fess up.” I’m sure that was comforting. Once again, we blame the sufferer for his sufferings.
Jesus helped us see this in a new light. Remember that man who had been blind from birth? His disciples share with Job’s comforters that tired old assumption that sin must somehow be involved. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus set them straight. “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God may be made manifest in him” (Jn 9:1-3).
So we come to James and this old discredited notion that sin is the cause of sickness is back. “The prayer of faith will save the sick man . . . and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (5:15). But notice please a very important two-letter word in this verse. “If” “If he was committed sins.” In other words, if sin is the source of his sickness. In other words, sin is not necessarily the reason we get sick.
We all get sick. God doesn’t play favorites. God sends his rain to fall on the just and the unjust. There’s that poem: “God sends his rain on the just and also on the unjust fella, but mainly on the just, because the unjust just stole the just’s umbrella.” We all get rained on. We all get wet eventually. Sin and sickness aren’t necessarily tied to each other.
But they can be. James says “if”, meaning sometimes they are. If you’re living a life of sin, if you’re living contrary to God’s rules, if you’re carrying around a load of guilt, and even if you feel no guilt because your conscience is so underdeveloped – chances are you are going to show some physical manifestations of living that way. Our bodies, our minds, and our spirits are all connected. If something is wrong with one, it’s likely to affect the others. That old hymn tells us, “There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” There is such a thing as a sin-sick soul. Or a sin-sick body. If you’re sick, sin isn’t necessarily the reason, but it can be.
So I’d suggest a little preventive maintenance in our spiritual lives. Kind of like regular oil changes can prevent big problems with your car down the road, so too regular praying, regular confessing of sins, regular giving and receiving of forgiveness just might prevent something down the road that’s preventable. As James says, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (5:16).
There’s one more thing that causes probably more confusion than anything else when it comes to prayer. Unanswered prayer. For every inspiring story we can tell of miraculous healings, there are multiple stories of faithful people praying just as hard and the healing never came. How do we explain this?
I must say that James is not real consistent on this one. Remember, early in his book he told us to “count it all joy” when trials come into our lives. Because trials can be God’s way of making us better people. You follow that logic, and you might say sickness is something to be accepted. Our prayer should be, “Lord, teach me the lesson I’m supposed to learn from this.” That’s in the first chapter. Now we get to the fifth chapter and James is telling us to bring in the elders to pray over us and anoint us with oil. We’re not told to “count it all joy” when we’re sick. We’re told that God can and will heal us. We’re given the example of Elijah who got exactly what he prayed for, whether it’s for rain or no rain.
So there’s this inner contradiction in James on this matter of answered prayer. It corresponds I suppose to the inner contradiction most of us feel on this subject. We know God answers prayer. We’ve seen and we’ve experienced miraculous healings. But we also know it doesn’t happen every time. Sometimes the healing is in the strength and courage to keep on going. “The patience of unanswered prayer,” as the hymn says. Sometimes the healing is in releasing us from a worn out body that can’t get better and giving us a brand new body that won’t get old in heaven. On this matter of unanswered prayer, I would simply say, God knows best.
There’s the story of the girl who sat under an oak tree pondering God’s creation. She looked up at the massive tree and she thought to herself, “How strange that God put tiny acorns on those huge branches and that God put pumpkins on tiny vines. I think God got that backwards! God should have put small acorns on small vines and big pumpkins on big branches.”
All these deep thoughts made her sleepy and she soon was fast asleep under the shade of that oak tree. She woke up when a tiny acorn bounced off her nose.
God knows best. That’s probably all we really need to know about prayer. And even though some things about prayer remain confusing, one thing about prayer is crystal clear. God wants us to pray. Whether we’re in trouble or happy or sick or whatever our circumstance might be. God wants us to pray in all circumstances. God wants us to stay plugged in to the source of our life.
We come now to the last two verses in James. “My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:19-20). We come to our final “how-to”. 10.) Be a friend.
Friends don’t let friends throw their lives away. So if you know someone who’s gone astray, someone who’s following a path that leads to no place good, someone who’s made such a mess of life that everyone else is staying away, you be a friend. You do all in your power to bring that person back.
Jesus talked about this in his parable of the lost sheep. Remember there were 99 sheep who were where they belonged. They were doing what sheep are supposed to do. And there was one sheep who rebelled. Some shepherds would just let him go. The Good Shepherd could not do that. He risked losing the 99 to go seek and save the one that was lost.
Fanny Crosby wrote a hymn about this. “Rescue the Perishing, care for the dying, snatch them in pity from sin and the grave; weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen, tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save.
I was curious if there might be a story behind this hymn, and sure enough, there is. Fanny Crosby was speaking to the men at a rescue mission in New York City. God had placed in her mind a thought that wouldn’t go away. She was convinced some mother’s boy in the audience to whom she was speaking who would either be rescued that night or not at all. So she said that to the men. She said if there was someone present that night who had wandered from his mother’s home and teaching, come see her at the close of the service. An 18-year old young man came forward and said, “Did you mean me?” He told her his story. His mother was dead. He had promised he would meet her in heaven, but the way he was living he figured he wasn’t going to heaven.
They prayed together and this young man rose with a new light in his eyes. He said, “Now I can meet my mother in heaven, for I have found God.” And Fanny Crosby hurried home and this hymn wrote itself. “Rescue the perishing.”
James is concerned that we live a Christian life. He gave us simple, practical steps to help us do so. But James ends by telling us the point of living a Christian life is not living a Christian life. The point is to do something with your Christian life. The point is to help someone else. The point of being a Christian, of having been brought back from our errant wanderings, is that now we have the honor and the privilege of bringing someone else back. So be a Christian, but most of all, be a friend.
Lord God, we have been so blessed by this little book of James. We’ve learned a lot in this series. Help us now to live what we’ve learned. And God, if we’re going to do that we’re going to need to stay plugged in to our power source. Help us to stay connected with you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.