(James 5: 13-20)
One of the things I enjoyed the most about being the Drug Court prosecutor was watching God at work in the lives of our participants. I learned that Drug Court was the answer to the prayers of many, and while it may not have been the prayers of the person who was in Drug Court, it was most often the prayers of a loved one praying for the one who was lost. I saw it many times but the one that stuck with me the most was a young man who came to us with no prior criminal record. Most of our participants, by the time they got admitted into drug court, had amassed a pretty impressive criminal resume. But this young man was different. He came from a real good family, did very well in high school, and had dreams of going to college and getting a degree. But then along came methamphetamine. He had never done drugs but got talked into giving it a try and it took ahold of him and wouldn’t let go. The downward spiral began, and he and a couple of other guys got caught committing a felony theft. After being in Drug Court awhile he asked for permission to go out of state to a family reunion. We granted it after having him sign a Waiver of Extradition should he decide not to come back on his own. The Thursday after he got back, we asked him how the reunion went. He told us that before he could barely get out of the car his tiny grandmother grabbed him in a bear hug and exclaimed: “I’ve been praying for this day for a very long time!” Getting arrested and put into Drug Court was the answer to her prayers, not his.
And the power of prayer is what the Apostle James is talking about as he closes out his letter. Remember, his letter was to the twelve tribes of Israel that had been scattered into foreign lands and were having a tough go of it, needing guidance and reassurance. Some of the churches were experiencing a real turmoil in their congregations and had lost their focus. His letter was designed to help them regain that focus on Christ. He starts out by stating: If any of you are suffering, they should pray. If any of you are happy, they should sing. If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. James is saying that in all things, God is central and constant and to be acknowledged and included. By praying to God in all matters you are acknowledging the truth about God and that he is first and foremost in your life. Those who are suffering should speak openly to God about it, knowing that God doesn’t send suffering, or lead us into temptation, or to punish us. I recently had a conversation with a woman who visited our church seeking assistance. After meeting her physical needs, she asked if we could talk about her spirituality. Of course, I said as I sat back and listened as she unburdened herself. She had experienced unimaginable abuse at the hands of another, had been seriously ill and was now again afflicted with a life-threatening illness. She said she wasn’t asking for much, only to be healthy and to live a normal life. How could a loving God heap so much upon one person, she asked? She said she knew God wouldn’t give her more than she could bear but this was an awful lot. What can you say that would bring any comfort or provide any reasonable answers? I told her that we live in an imperfect world full of imperfect people. People inexplicably get sick, and the doctors can’t always cure them. Someone exercises their free will, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and an innocent person suffers. And we ask why? God knows that and He sent His son into the world to experience pain and suffering on our behalf so that we would have one who could intercede on our behalf and walk with us through our dark valleys. Jesus, I told her, was walking right along side of her and felt her pain. I don’t know how helpful or comforting my words were, but she is in my prayers. James also tells us that those who feel happy, blessed, should likewise express this to God by singing songs of praise. By praising God, we are acknowledging God as the generous giver of every good and perfect gift. By praising God we are telling others of the good that is being done in our lives through our relationship with Jesus Christ. We are not taking the credit.
James continues by saying: Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. It’s not only the prayers of the afflicted that count. When we are suffering, we do turn to God in prayer, but God also listens to the prayers of those who are praying for us. It’s the prayers of the faithful that God listens to as His will be done. God heals, faith doesn’t, and all prayers are subject to God’s will, but the prayers of the faithful and righteous are important to God. I tell people that when we pray to God there are three responses: yes, no, and not yet. I am sure that the prayers of the drug court participant’s grandmother were for more immediate relief, and that, regardless, she really did pray that God’s will be done. You see, our prayers are part of God’s healing process. That’s why God often waits for our prayers of faith before intervening to heal a person, right a wrong, or put them back on the right path. God wants us to use prayer to focus on the problem and to sometimes use others to be the answers to our prayers. James says that, for this reason, we should confess our sins to each other and pray for one another so that we may be healed and that the prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve.
Since God gives high status to the poor who are rich in faith, those who are sick, (and the Greek translation includes those who are ill, or weak, or in need), should feel empowered to summon the elders of the church to receive prayer and anointing, knowing that God desires to restore their health and forgive their sins. Maybe that’s why the woman wanted to talk to me about her tough life and explain why God was making it so rough. Maybe she figured that, as a “Man of God” I had some pull or sway with God. Well, as an “elder” or leader in the church, I can offer up a prayer and ask others within the church, our prayer team, to petition God on her behalf. And, as a church, we should be praying constantly for the ill, the weak, or those in need. Our communal prayer that we engage in each week helps us to focus on the issues and serves as a call to action, to be the somebodies who do something, the ones who sound the alarm and seek guidance from the Spirit.
For James, faith is not a private matter, but an inherently communal, performative way of walking through life. He’s reminding us that people in church are not alone and should feel comfortable in sharing their concerns and asking for prayers as going through difficult times is made easier if you know someone is praying for you too. Members of the church body should be able to count on one another for support and prayer, especially during those times when they are distressed and worried. The Christian’s most powerful resource is communion with God through prayer and the results are often greater than we ever thought were possible. We see the prayers answered in ways we didn’t expect and stand in awe of God’s healing power. Now some people see prayer as a last resort to be tried when all else fails. That’s a natural reaction as we often think we can fix things ourselves and it’s only when things spiral out of control that we turn to God to fix things or get us out of a jam. This approach is obviously backwards as we should first turn to prayer at the first sign of trouble. Head it off at the pass, so to speak. As difficult as it may seem, because God’s power is infinitely greater than ours, it only makes sense to rely on it, especially because God encourages us to do so. I mean, we have so many tools in our toolbox we can use to fix things. Tools such as prayer, God’s Word, other Christians, the Holy Spirit for guidance, Jesus as our Intercessor, and direct conversations with the Father.
In closing, the body of believers ought to be an example of heaven on earth, drawing people to Christ through love for God and each other. If we truly believe God’s Word, we will live it day by day. God’s Word is not merely something we read or think about, but something we do, something we put into practice. Through the power of prayer our beliefs, our faith, and trust have hands and feet. Our hands and feet as we do the will of God and become the answer to the prayers of others.
Let us pray.
What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs he’ll bear. And what a privilege it is to carry everything to our God in prayer. In our daily lives, filled with anxiety and turmoil, we forfeit the peace that comes from a relationship with Christ and bear a pain that is needless, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer. Our lives are beset on all sides by trials and temptations, and it seems as if trouble is everywhere. But help is just a prayer away if we allow Jesus who knows our every weakness to share in our sorrows. All we have to do is seek refuge in our precious Savior in whose arms we’ll find a solace, if only we take it all to God in prayer. Amen.