Praying in Faith
Scripture - James 5:13-20
There are many things in life which look extremely odd to someone who does not know what is going on. Imagine watching someone making a violin if you had never heard music in your life. What, you might think, can such an object possibly be for? Why waste your time & effort on it? Or imagine a child, who has no idea about babies & where they come from, or the fact that his mother is expecting one soon & watching her get the room ready for the new arrival. It makes no sense. Why this little crib? Why these new decorations?
Of course, when the moment arrives all is explained. But sometimes you have to wait; to be patient (a favorite theme of James); to trust that things will become clear. James has used other examples too, the farmer & the harvest being the obvious one. This theme of patience, which runs through his entire letter, separates his thinking from the ordinary moralism of his day. James is constantly aware of living within a story – living, in fact, within God’s story; & of the fact that this story has already reached its climax in his brother Jesus & will one day complete what he had so solidly begun.
This is the setting in which prayer, the most incomprehensible of activities, makes sense. To someone with no idea of God, of there being a world other than what we can touch & see, prayer looks at best like an odd superstition & at worst like serious self-deception. Imagine just talking to yourself & thinking it will make a difference to anything or anyone! But almost all human traditions, right through history & culture, have been aware of other dimensions which seem mysteriously to intersect with our own. The ancient Jewish tradition, which comes to fresh & vital expression in Jesus himself & in his early followers & family, sharpens this general vague awareness of Something Else into not only Someone Else but a named Someone: The God we know in, through & as Jesus himself. Then, suddenly, prayer, & the patience which it involves, make all the sense in the world.
For James to finish his letter, then, with a call to prayer, though perhaps unexpected, is quite appropriate. Prayer must surround everything else that we do, whether sad or happy, suffering or cheerful. The Psalms are there, to this day, as the natural prayer book of Jesus’ followers (see v. 13), even though many Christians today seem to ignore them altogether. Anointing with oil is there, to this day, as a remarkably simple yet profound & effective sign of God’s longing to heal people. Like prayer itself, such an act is mysterious; yet, for those who take what James says seriously, it is full of meaning & power. And forgiveness is there, to this day, as the great open door, the fresh possibility, the chance for a fresh start, for all who will confess the sin which is dragging them down, & will join in prayer for healing.
James seems, like Jesus himself, to have seen a connection between sin & ill-health. Jesus warned, in John 9, against making too close a link, but at other times, for instance in Mark 2:1-12, it seems that forgiveness & healing went hand in hand. You may remember the scene: Jesus went back to Capernaum, & people heard that he was home. So many gathered that there was no longer space, not even near the door. Jesus was speaking the word to them. Some people arrived, & 4 of them were bringing to him a man who was paralyzed. They couldn’t carry him through the crowd, so they tore off part of the roof above where Jesus was. When they had made an opening, the lowered the mat on which the paralyzed man was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven!”
Some legal experts were sitting there, muttering among themselves, “Why does he speak this way? He’s insulting God. Only the one God can forgive sins.”
Jesus immediately recognized what they were discussing, & he said to them, “Why do you fill your minds with these questions? Which is easier – to say to a paralyzed person, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your bed, & walk’? but so you will know that the Son of Man has authority on the earth to forgive sins” – he said to the man who was paralyzed, “Get up, take your mat, & go home.”
Jesus raised him up, & right away he picked up his mat & walked out in front of everybody. They were all amazed & praised God.
Maybe these are the 2 things – forgiveness & healing – which push to the fore when we take our stand in the place where prayer makes sense, at the place where heaven & earth overlap, & at the place where our own present time & God’s future time overlap.
That is, after all, what Christian prayer, & for that matter the Christian sacraments, are all about. Prayer is not just me calling out in the dark to a distant or unknown God. It means what it means & does what it does because God is, as James promised, extremely near to those who draw near to him. Heaven & earth meet when, in the spirit, someone calls on the name of the Lord. And it means what it means & does what it does because God’s new time has broken into the continuing time of this sad old world, so that the person praying stands with one foot in the place of trouble, sickness & sin & with the other foot standing in the place of healing, forgiveness & hope. Prayer then brings the latter to bear on the former.
Now, to understand all this may require some effort of the imagination. But once you have grasped it, prayer, like that puzzling musical instrument, can begin to play the tune it was designed to play. Suddenly it all makes sense.
That is why James alerts us to the notable example of prayer, the model prophet Elijah. There are many lessons one may draw from the story in 1 Kings 17-18, but we might not have grasped the point that James is making: that the drought which came as judgment on the people of Israel, & the rain which came when they returned to the Lord & abandoned their idols, all happened in the context of Elijah’s prayer life. And prayer, of course, is not only a task for the “professionals,” the clergy & Christian leaders. Every Christian has not only the right but the vocation to engage in prayer like that, prayer for one another, prayer for the sick, prayer for sinners, prayer for the nation & the world. If everyone who hears these words were to determine to devote half an hour every day to prayer, the effect could be immeasurable.
As ever, James brings things right down to the practical level as he finishes. Once this lesson has been learned, that in prayer the Christian stands at the overlap-point of heaven & earth, of the present & the future, there is pastoral work to be done. To see someone wandering off in a dangerous direction & do nothing about it is a tragic dereliction of duty. It may be hard to turn them back – they may insist that they are right & we are wrong! – but the effort must be made, precisely in the humility & patience which James has been urging all through his letter. When that is done, a bit of heaven arrives on earth; a bit of God’s future becomes real in the present. New life & forgiveness are there in person.
We should not be surprised at this. James knew that his older brother, Jesus himself, had embodied new life & forgiveness. He had grown up at the place where new life & forgiveness came bursting through from God’s world to ours. Everything James has been saying flows from that astonishing fact. To learn, with James, to understand & obey the royal law of love is to get to know Jesus himself. And as that happens, so too the patience & humility, the love & the prayer, the wisdom & the true speech on which he has been insisting will become part of our lives. These are the works which will demonstrate our faith.
Jesus calls us to have salt in ourselves & to be at peace with one another. One way that we show ourselves to be the flavorful, peaceful community of Jesus is by rejoicing together & bearing our burdens together. Today I invite you to come forward for anointing & prayer, so that we may walk with you, whatever your journey this week. If you long for healing, let us share your burden. If you want to share a joy, let us rejoice with you.