September 26, 2021
We’ve made it to the final chapter of James, and the final message in this series called Faith Works. James has urged us to avoid showing favoritism to the rich, he’s admonished us to be slow to speak, but quick to listen, and he’s given us further instruction on taming our tongues. Last week, James compared heavenly wisdom to earthly wisdom, encouraging us to lean into wisdom that comes from God. We can recognize that kind of wisdom as “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruit, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3:17), and the result of cultivating this kind of wisdom is “a harvest of righteousness.” (3:18)
When James compares heavenly wisdom to earthly wisdom, something else becomes clear, and it’s the underlying lesson James has been trying to teach us throughout this letter: wisdom from God focuses our attention on the needs of others, while earthly wisdom focuses our attention on ourselves. This whole letter is about how to behave toward one another, so our lives will reflect faith at work in us. Because when we work our faith, we develop a faith that really works. One place we can really see our faith growing is in the practice of prayer. You might think James is going to focus on how prayer connects us to God, but James knows the way prayer really helps our faith grow is in our prayers for each other.
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.
Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. – James 5:13-20
So how does prayer work, exactly? We know prayer – even the kind of intercessory prayer James writes about here, when we are praying for the needs of others – isn’t just a way to get God to do what we want. God isn’t a fast food cook or an Amazon.com fulfillment clerk waiting for us to place an order so he can do his job. So what does prayer actually do, and how can it be “powerful and effective?” (5:16)
Let’s take a closer look at the types of prayer James encourages us to pray. First, James includes prayers of the suffering right alongside prayers of praise from the cheerful. Many of the psalms are prayers of lament, and lament almost always includes both complaint and a request for God to act, along with an opening statement about who God is, and a closing statement of praise and thanksgiving. So in this lesson on prayer, James begins by outlining the process of lament.
What do you need to lament right now? Let’s take a moment to name our suffering and our joy to God. I invite you to pray silently your own prayer of lament…
What suffering have you experienced, what need has gone unmet in your life? …
What part of God’s identity do you see responding to your need? Is it his lovingkindness, his judgment, his protection, his patience, his steadfast trustworthiness, or something else? …
How can God act on your behalf, what do you need God to do? …
What words of praise come to your mind, as you acknowledge God’s work in your life? …
INTERCESSION FOR THE SICK
Next, James gives some detailed instructions about praying for the sick. This is an active prayer of the whole church. James writes, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up” (5:14-15a)
Just as Jesus lifted up those he had healed and brought them to new life, Jesus offers healing and new life to all who are sick. James points out the importance of praying as a community for those who are ill. Call for the elders – that’s not only plural, it reminds us of our connection to one another as members of the Body of Christ.
Oil is understood to have healing properties of its own (remember how the Good Samaritan applied oil and wine to the wounds of the man who had been attacked by robbers?) but “in the name of the Lord” makes something tangible (oil) into something spiritual (prayer). Who among you is sick? It is our sacred privilege to pray for God’s healing and anointing upon you. Know that you can offer even your sickness as a gift of worship to God. But we also pray that by God’s power you may be healed in body, mind, and spirit.
Good and gracious God, we give you thanks and praise for the healing power offered through your son, Jesus Christ. With humble hearts, we have anointed these who offer to you their fears and doubts, suffering and pain, life sometime fragile and broken. Send your Holy Spirit upon each of us, and give us the grace of your healing presence. Keep our eyes firmly fixed upon you in the eager hope and expectation that with you and you alone our lives will be transformed. All glory be to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever, Amen.
Healing and forgiveness of sins are inextricably linked throughout the New Testament. This does not mean someone’s illness is the result of sin. Illness is evidence of our broken world’s need for grace. And we all need grace. James writes, “anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” (5:15b-16a)
CONFESSION & PARDON
It’s probably worth noting that “pray for one another” occurs ONLY HERE in the entire New Testament. Confession is necessary for forgiveness to happen. We often think of confession as something that’s just between us and God. No one else needs to know the dirty details of our sinfulness.
Yet, James tells us to confess our sins to each other and to pray for each other all in the same breath. And the reason is clear: so you may be healed of your spiritual sickness, just as praying for the sick brings physical healing. So, what sin do you need to confess, and to whom do you need to confess it, to receive forgiveness and healing of your soul?
Perhaps that person isn’t in the room right now, or you don’t want to draw attention to yourself. I invite you to write down what you need to confess, and the person you need to ask for forgiveness. Make a plan to reach out to that person as soon as possible, and tell them what you need to confess. As you think about the person or persons to whom you need to confess, I invite you to pray for them, asking God to bless them, and asking God’s forgiveness.
Scripture teaches us that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness. Friends, believe this good news, in the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. Glory to God, Amen.
THE POWER OF PRAYER
James goes on to explain how the active prayer of a righteous person can have great power. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. (5:16b) He uses the example of Elijah calling down both drought and rain to end the drought, to show God’s power. (5:17-18) Then James describes how a life of prayer can be a form of evangelism, giving witness to Christ.
THE PURPOSE OF PRAYER
My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. This is why we pray for others: to save souls from death, and to cover over a multitude of sins. To bring back those who have wandered from the truth.
Who do you know who has wandered from the truth?
Could that be you?
How is God calling you back?
How is God speaking welcome and forgiveness to you?
Last week, James encouraged us to “draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Drawing near to God in prayer is the best way to resist the devil. Drawing near to God in prayer with others in the body of Christ increases the effectiveness of our prayers exponentially.
This week, I encourage you to let prayer start your day, and end your day. Begin each morning with a prayer of surrender to God. Ask God to speak to you throughout the day, showing you who is suffering so you can lament with them, who is sick, so you can offer prayers of healing. Ask God to continue opening your eyes and your heart.
Then end your day with a prayer of confession, asking God to show you the times you did or said something you shouldn’t have, or missed an opportunity to share Christ’s love in a way you should have. Pray for those you encountered throughout the day, especially those who come to your mind who’ve wandered from the truth. Because the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. As you work your faith by improving the quality of your conversation with God, may you find your faith at work in richer and more meaningful ways.