Prayer

There was this one time back in college I was hanging out with some friends, and we were eating some fried chicken together at this place where we used to eat fried chicken at all the time. And as we were eating, one of my buddies pointed out how uniquely diverse this restaurant was, and so we just started paying attention to it, and in the span of time that we were there, all kinds of people came in and out of this place. There was ethnic diversity, and generational diversity, and economic diversity, and even intellectual diversity, judging by the bumper stickers on the cars in the parking lot. All kinds of different people were coming to this place to eat fried chicken just like we had done. And the only reason I remember that conversation is because it kickstarted for me a new way of thinking about what it means when a group of people are in the same place.

If you stop and think about it, every time you are with or around people in the same place, and you didn’t get there together, then you don’t know where those people are coming from.

We find ourselves in places like this all the time. We end up in places, surrounded by all kinds of different people, and we have no clue what their life is really like. We don’t really know what path they’ve been on that has led them to eat fried chicken at the same time we are. All we know is that their path must be different from my path because this is the first time I’ve seen them today. And this is true whether we know the people or not. 

So even this morning, in this room, I know a lot of you, but I don’t know precisely where any of you have come from before 10 o’clock. I don’t know what your situation was like an hour and a half ago. I just know it was something because we’ve all come from somewhere

 

And if we are listening to what James says in James Chapter 5, then wherever it is you’re coming from today, or whatever it is you’re going through, you should pray. 

That’s what James tells us here at the end of this letter, chapter 5, verse 13. 

James in Summary

James says, in summary, wherever it is you’re coming from, whatever it is you’re going through, pray, and then he explains that we should pray because God works through prayer. And so if you’re the type of person who appreciates structure and outlines, those are the two points of the sermon:

  1. Whatever you’re going through, pray. 
  2. Pray because God works through prayer. 

 

Those are two things that I believe we’re going to learn today in God’s word, and so before we dig in, let’s just start with sermon application, and let’s pray.  [Pray]

1. Whatever you’re going through, pray (5:13–14)

Check out verses 13–14again.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone 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.

James raises three questions here about three different places people are coming from, and each question has the same answer. So what I want us to do is first look at the questions, and then we’ll look at the answers. But notice the questions first.

James is looking into the church community and he’s asking: 1) Is anyone among you suffering? 2) Is anyone cheerful? 3) Is anyone sick? And by those three questions James pretty much covers the whole spectrum of real-life situations we could be facing. 

 

First, when James mentions “suffering” he is connecting us back to the beginning of the letter when he talks about the “trials of various kinds.” So James knows that there are some people in the church reading this letter who are going through hardship. And here at the end of the letter he has something to say to those people. 

 

Then next James wants to know if there is anyone cheerful. Is there anyone in this church who is happy right now? And he doesn’t mean generically happy, like the kind of happy we know we’re supposed be. James is talking about Is there anyone cheerful? as in cup-filled-to-the-brim, sloshing-over-the-edges, smile-all-across-your-face cheerful. Where is that man? Where is that woman? Is there anyone like that in this church? And James, I think, knows there is, and so he has something to say to those people. 

 

And then lastly, he asks about sickness. Is there anyone here sick? Now sickness is a form of suffering, like in the first question, but it’s more detailed. James wants to know is there anyone in this church who has a physical condition, a physical weakness, that remains? (an abiding physical ailment). And again, James knows there is, and so he has something to say to those people. 

Three Circumstances, One Answer

So suffering, cheerfulness, sickness — James asks three questions and addresses these three circumstances, and just like James knows they’re all present in the church, we know that they’re all present in the church. 

Right now, every single one of us fall into one of those three categories at differing degrees, and a lot of us might even fall into more than one category. And whichever place you are, wherever it is that you’re coming from, James wants to tell you the same thing. He tells us all to pray. That what he says. Look at his answers.

  • If suffering? Let him pray.
  • If cheerful? Let him sing praise.
  • If sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him.

So three questions, one answer. Now each of these answers are different forms of prayer, but they’re still prayer. So what is what? What is prayer?

Understanding Prayer

At the broadest, most basic level, prayer is when we humans talk to God (which is not complicated). When we speak or communicate to God, we’re praying. That’s the basic definition. But what James does here is show us that we’re all coming from somewhere, and therefore we’re all praying from somewhere, which means that prayer isn’t just talking to God, but it’s talking to God from within our earthbound realities. 

So in other words, another way to describe prayer is as our Godward expressions from within our earthbound reality. Prayer is when we look to God out there from where we are in here — and there are a few different forms for how we do that. We see at least three here. So let’s look at little closer, starting first with praying as asking.

Praying As Asking

James just says after the first question, simply, Let him pray. And the word “pray” here is the most natural understanding of prayer, which implies asking. That’s the main way we use the word “pray” today. When we tell someone we are praying for them, we mean we are asking God to do something for them. That’s what we mean. When we say We’re praying for you,  we’re saying, I am going to ask God to do something for you. Prayer, in its most natural form, is asking.

And most of us, if you pray, you probably know how to do that. Most of our praying is asking God to do things — which is how it should be. Don’t feel bad about asking God to do things. The reason we pray and ask God to do things isn’t necessarily because we’re greedy. (That could be the case. James mentions that in Chapter 4.) But the real reason most of our praying is asking God to do things is because he’s God and we’re not, and we get that. 

And in the case of suffering here in verse 13, we definitely get that. We feel our humanness. We feel our inability to change things. Hardship pushes us toward God, not away from him. Because we know that we are not God, and so we go to him, and we ask him.

And part of the asking isn’t just that the suffering would go away, but that we would endure it. I think James is thinking about endurance here because, again, it connects back to the beginning of Chapter 1. Remember James lays out for us in Chapter 1 that trials and hardship serve a purpose in our lives. They’re meant to refine our faith, and make us steadfast, and comfort us more into the image of Jesus. So we shouldn’t just pray that hardship go away, but we should pray that God use the hardship for our good. We should pray to endure the suffering, to be strengthened in faith, to hold onto God as we know he’s holding on to us. We want to ask God to do that. That’s the first form of praying. It’s asking. The second is form is praise.

Praying As Praise

James says, verse 13, that the cheerful among us should sing praise. So when we’re overcome by the grace of God, when we recognize his gifts, when we have pleasant circumstances — whatever it is that would make us cheerful James says we should pray to God in the form of praise. And praise, in general, simply means giving God credit. It means we celebrate him. Rather than asking God for something, we are thanking God for something. We are adoring him.

[Side note: Praise is a really important form of prayer, but my hunch is that we don’t do this well at the personal level. We come here corporately and we sing praise to God, but I think we should grow in this at the personal level. And I’ve got more to say, but I had to cut this part of the sermon, so I’m going to write it for you and send it to you.]

But that’s the second form of prayer. It’s praise. Now the third kind of prayer is collective intercession.

Praying As Collective Intercession

And by “collective intercession” I mean more than one person is praying for someone else. James says in verse 14 that if someone is sick, let that person call for the elders of the church, “and let the pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” 

Pastor David explained what that anointing means in the exhortation, so I just want to draw attention to the prayer part. And overall, the big picture here is that Christians are praying for one another. It is the elders praying over someone in verse 14, which is a special kind of prayer in itself, but then in verse 16 James says for all us to “pray for another.” So those in the church are called to pray for others in the church. Christians ask God to do things for other Christians — which is something we do, and we’re probably used to, but I want you to know it is an amazing privilege. There is actually a doctrine for this that was recovered in the Protestant Reformation, and its part of our tradition. 

It is called the “priesthood of the believer.” It means that every believer is a priest for other believers — which means, you don’t have to go to one particular person to confess your sins and ask for prayer. This is one thing Catholicism gets wrong. In true gospel community, because of the Holy Spirit in us, you can go to any believer in confession and prayer, and you yourself can be that for others.

And we should be. It is such a gift. It means, practically, that when I have a need, when I have something in my life that I need God to do, I don’t just have one priest, but I have a whole church full of priests. We have a whole church of priests who can go to God in prayer for us, and so we should take advantage of that. We should ask others to pray for us, and we should pray for one another.

So that’s collective intercession. It’s the third kind of prayer mentioned in these verses, but again, it’s all prayer. Prayer is what James is talking about. 

So whatever the situation is — wherever you’re coming from, whatever you’re going through — James tells us to pray. Ask God, give praise, intercede for one another. Whatever you’re going through, pray.

2. Pray because God works through prayer. 

So there is a little change that happens in verse 15. James moves from telling us to pray to talking about why we should pray. He says in verse 15,

And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 

Now there are a few questions about this verse that we’re going to look at, but right away, don’t lose sight of what James is saying. Basically, James tells us that the prayer of faith works. God works through prayer. The one who is sick will be saved. God will raise him up. And God will forgive his sins. Basically, the praying works. That’s what James is saying. So get that first. 

But then, what exactly does James mean when he says the word “save” and then “raise up” and then this whole part about sin?

Physical or Spiritual?

And the real question here at first is whether James is talking about the physical or the spiritual. Does James mean that the sick will be physically saved or spiritually saved? (Because a lot times when the word “save” is used in the Bible it means spiritual salvation.) And then when he says the Lord will “raise him up,” does he mean like raise him up out of his sickbed or raise him up from the dead at the end of time? (Because a lot times when that phrase is used in the Bible it means end-time resurrection.) So what does James mean?

Well, we’re not really sure, but I lean toward thinking that James is talking about physical healing. I think he means that God will physically save people from their sickness, and that God will raise people up from their sickbed. Because that does happen. God can do that, and God does do that. It’s not always his will to do that, but sometimes it is, so we can pray for that

And at the same time, I think the ambiguity here is intentional, because ultimately God will absolutely save in the spiritual sense, and ultimately God will absolutely raise up from the dead at the resurrection. So although we don’t know exactly what James has in mind, both options are true. God does save in the physical sense, and he will absolutely save in the spiritual sense. And God does raise up people from their sickbed, and he will absolutely raise people up at the resurrection. 

What About the Connection to Sin?

So then what about the sin part? If we are talking about physical sickness and healing, why does James mention the confession and forgiveness of sin at the end of verse 15? What is the connection between physical sickness and sin? 

Well, we know from the Bible that sometimes there is connection, but not all the time. For example, in 1 Cor. 11 Paul says that there were some people who got physically sick because they sinned at the Lord’s Table. So that can happen. 

But then in John 9, Jesus and his disciples were walking and they passed by a blind man, and the disciples asked Jesus if the man was blind because of his own sin or his parents’ sin. So they assumed the physical blindness was connected to sin, but Jesus told them that it didn’t have anything to do with sin, but instead it was so that the “works of God might be displayed.” So sometimes sickness might be related to sin, and other times it’s not. 

But either way, every time there is sickness, at the very least, we should embrace it as a call to take spiritual inventory. That’s because physical sickness, in a unique way, humbles us. 

I don’t know how many of you have been sick like that recently, but I can still remember getting the flu last year, and man, the Lord brought me low. I remember just feeling so miserable. In between the vomiting I just was like, “Lord! Please! Make me clean.” I just felt so bad that as I was laying in bed, curled up in the fetal position, I was doing this deep dive in my heart trying to figure out if I had any sin to confess. The sickness turned me inside out — because sickness can do that. 

The humbling that physical sickness brings is an opportunity for us to lean into God, search our hearts, and confess our sin. And when we do that, God will forgive us. Because when we confess sin to God, he forgives us. That’s an effective prayer — and somatter of fact, James says, we should be praying that way. That’s verse 16. 

The Power of “Prayer”

James says “Therefore” — and I think he means therefore because God forgives sin when you confess it, because God works through prayer —

confess to one another your sins and pray for one another in order that you may be healed. 

And then the last sentence here in verse 16 goes another step to ground the point James is making. He says…

The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 

[Now there are a couple different ways to translate this verse. If you have an English Standard Version, it includes a little footnote with another translation option that goes “The effective prayer of a righteous person has great power.” And I think that’s the best option. The word “effective” describes prayer. They go together (same gender, number, and case) — “The effective prayer of a righteous person has great power.”]

So the point James has been making in verses 15–16 gets summed up in this last sentence. 

Prayer is effective. God works through prayer. That’s why a “righteous person” — which means a Christian here; any kind of Christian; even a suffering Christian; even a poor Christian; even a Christian who by society’s standards is a nobody — that person’s prayer has great power. 

That’s what verse 17 is all about. James uses the example of Elijah from the Old Testament because Elijah prayed some remarkable prayers and God did some remarkable things. James said that when Elijah prayed that it not rain, and it didn’t rain. And then when Elijah prayed that it would rain, and it did rain. And his point is that God answered Elijah’s prayers. 

And what that has to do with us is that Elijah was a man with a nature likes ours. That’s the most important part of the verse. Don’t miss it. James is saying that, Hey, Elijah was just a human like you are. He was just like us, and look what happened when he prayed. Look what God did when this guy who was just like us prayed.

 

When we pray — when people like us pray — God does things. That’s what James is saying.

 

And so then what more incentive do we need?

Recipients and Participants

When we pray, God does things. God works through prayer. Now the praying itself isn’t magic. It’s not like prayer itself works. You might hear people talk that way — saying that “prayer works” — but I don’t like that. We need to fill in the details. God is the one who works through prayer. And that’s because that is the way God has set up the world. God has chosen that the way he does his work in this world is through the prayers of his people. 

Which means that God’s work in the world is because God’s people somewhere are praying. And we get to be both the recipients and the participants in that. 

We’re the recipients because God’s grace in our lives has come through the means of prayer. Now that could be from Jesus praying for us (because Jesus did pray for us, and still prays for us) — or it could be from the prayers of your parents or your grandmother, or your friends, or maybe people you’ve never meet. Either way, so much of the grace in your life goes back to somebody’s prayer. That’s the way God has chosen to work. And we’re the recipients of that. 

But also we get to be participants — because our own prayers are used by God to effect grace in the lives of others. Through our praying, through our asking God to do something in the lives of others, God does things in the lives of others. And we can do this for our own church or people around the world. Some of the people we pray for we’re never going to see. I’ve made it a routine thing to pray for my grandchildren’s grandchildren. What I’ll do is I’ll pray for my children, and then their children, and then I’ll pray for their children and say “and on and on.” And I think it counts. I’m praying for my triple great grandchildren, and here’s the thing: I know I’m not going to see them, but I get to be part of God’s work in their lives because I’m praying for them and that’s how God works. We get to be participants in God’s work through our prayers. And although this can apply everywhere and for people we’re not going to see, it really matters in community. 

Prayer in Community

So this passage here in James 5 is all about prayer, as we’ve seen, but the secondary theme is community; it’s the life of the church. Because this topic of prayer is worked out in the context of the church. We pray from within our earthbound realities as people united together in Christ.  And so it’s together like this as the church that we really get to be recipients and participants in prayer — we get to be regular humans praying for one another.

And when we do that it will shape our church community in an amazing way, because praying for one another means that we become especially invested in the good of others. For example, if I’m praying for you, and God gives you a special grace, then I get to rejoice in that grace not just because it’s God’s grace to you, but because I’ve been able to be part of that grace. When we pray for one another, we become participants in the grace at work in one another’s lives.

And I think that might shed some light on verse 19. I don’t really get why James says this in verse 19. There’s not an obvious connection to what he’s been saying about prayer, but it could be something like this: when the church community prays for one another — when there’s a culture of praying together for one another and being invested in one another’s good — then when someone wanders from the truth, we don’t kick that person out, we pursue them. . . . because we’re invested in that person’s good; because we’ve learned to find our joy in their joy. We don’t shut the door on them, we want to bring them back. 

Pursuing those who have gone astray is the byproduct of a community of regular people who pray for one another because they know God works through prayer.

 

Wherever it is we’ve come from today, whatever it is we’re going through, God calls us to pray. God has given us the privilege to pray.

And we’re reminded of that at this Table. 

Jesus’s Prayer in the Garden

Because in all this talk about prayer and God working through prayer, part of this Table is a prayer that was not answered — and it was prayed by Jesus himself. 

On the night before Jesus was crucified he was with a few of his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Gospels tells us that he was “sorrowful and troubled.” He knew that he was going to be crucified, and drink the cup of God’s wrath that we deserve. And so Jesus went off a little ways, by himself, and he fell on his face and prayed, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). 

And God did not will that the cup pass. Instead God willed that Jesus drink it. God willed that the body of Jesus be broken, and that the blood of Jesus be shed, and he willed it for us. God said No to Jesus so that Jesus would be God’s Yes to you and me. 

That’s what the death of Jesus accomplished for us. In Jesus, because of his death, we are forgiven for our sins, we are given the gift of his righteousness, and we have in him the amen of all God’s promises. And we remember that together at this Table. [Pastors and deacons can come prepare the Table]

The Table

Every week at Cities we come to the Table together to remember the death of Jesus for us. And if you’re here this morning and you trust in Jesus, we invite you to eat and drink with us. By taking the bread and the cup you are remembering what Jesus did for you, and you are giving thanks to him for the grace at work in your life, and in the lives of others. ...