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09.30.12 Practical Prayer, James 5.13-20 Sermon Summary

by on October 2, 2012

The book of James is preoccupied with proper, wise, and faithful speech. No wonder, then, that it ends with an appeal for prayer and the healing of community.

Summary Points

  • James on the Misuse of Speech
  • The Relationship Between Sickness and “Sin”
  • What it Means to be “Righteous” in Prayer
  • Applications for Today
  • Questions for Discussion and Reflection

Throughout this short book, James uses the act of speaking to measure our religious faithfulness. Here’s the list:

  1. We blame God for our temptation (1:13)
  2. We favor the wealthy (2:3)
  3. Our economic life cause the exploited to cry out (4:4)
  4. We profess faith, but don’t act like faithfully (2:14)
  5. We pray from selfish motives (4:2-3)
  6. We judge one another (4:11-12)
  7. We grumble against one another (4:9)
  8. We have to take oaths because our word alone isn’t good enouth (4:12)
  9. We boast about tomorrow (4:13)
  10. We presume to teach others (3:1)
  11. We underestimate the destructive power of the tongue (3:6)
  12. We fail to bridle the tongue (1:26)

Nonetheless, there is some hope to be found in James. He recognizes that everyone fails in this regard (3:2). Thus he cautions everyone to be slow to speak (1:19) and to ask for wisdom (1:5). And in the lectionary passage for today, he closes the book with some instruction on how to use speech most faithfully, namely, in prayer.

For such a short and seemingly straight forward passage, there remains much to contemplate and interpret. I want to limit these comments to two. (For a longer discussion of confession of sin, see the sermon scraps.)

First, how are we to understand the relationship between sickness and sin? In the ancient world, the two were assumed to be related as cause and effect. Consider Job’s friends, who came to “comfort” him in his tribulations by helping identify the sin that lead to his suffering. Or remember the questions Jesus often got about whether a person’s afflictions were the result of his sins or his parents’ sins.

Today, we don’t attribute sickness to sin—not in such terms, anyway. We do often associate sickness with shame, which is related to sin. How many times have we heard said, or said to ourselves, “This suffering is happening to me because of something I did?” Sometimes this thinking is quite explicit. We have sicknesses that, when we hear about them, we assume are “lifestyle related.” Think about lung cancer, or HIV/AIDS, or diabetes. Some people, when they hear about someone suffering from these sicknesses, think, “Well, they’re reaping what they sowed.”

But I know people with lung cancer who never smoked, or people who got HIV/AIDS through a blood transfusion, or for whom diabetes isn’t the result of poor diet and exercise choices that they made. I offer these as examples of the thinking that James, in his day, was trying to address, and that is still present in subtle ways in our day—that sickness and sin are related. How?

Today we recognize that “sin” isn’t limited to moral behavior or the transgression of a moral code. We realize that sin is a pervasive state of being. It is the acknowledgement that something is not right, not according to God’s intention. God doesn’t intend for anyone to suffer through lung cancer, or HIV/AIDS, or diabetes, or the common cold. The fact that we do is simply a manifestation of the fact that things are not as God intended; our sickness is a manifestation of sin.

And this is how we can understand and apply James’ words about the sick seeking prayer and receiving forgiveness when they confess their sin. Speaking forgiveness into a situation of sin promotes healing, because speaking forgiveness is an act of grace, and grace heals us.

When I was in 7th grade I got sick during class and puked all over the floor. The teacher gently led me to the nurse’s room with the words, “It’s not your fault.” These words addressed my misguided thinking that my sickness was a result of something I did, of my “sin.” It wasn’t, and Mr. Watson’s words of grace introduced healing. Earlier this week I came down with a cold, and a deacon from the church brought me chicken noodle soup. Some people shun the sick, she brought me food. Her act of grace invited healing into my life and maintained our community.

The point we can take today from James’ invitation to prayer and confession in regards to sickness is this: authentic care—characterized by confession of “sin” in James, the fact that things are not how God intends them to be—and what the Bible calls love, introduces healing into the sin-sick soul and into the community. So James invites us to be bold to pray for others, to enter into their suffering, to confess that things aren’t as they should be, but to suffer together through them.

And likewise, James invites us to be bold to ask for prayer. We shouldn’t let our “sickness” or our “sin” isolate and alienate us with shame. We can ask the mature members of the church (“elders” in James’ words) to come and pray with and for us. This will bring healing.

Second, what does it mean to be “righteous” and thereby to be “powerful and effective” in prayer? James promises this, and lifts up Elijah as the example. We know that “righteousness” doesn’t mean being sin-free, for the exhortation comes immediately after James instructs us to “mutual confession” of our sins. So if being righteous doesn’t mean being sin-free, what does it mean?

According to James, being righteous means not judging others (see above). A person who doesn’t judge others is able to hear confession, offer forgiveness, and to pray without an agenda. Such prayers are powerful and effective because the righteous person refuses to do what only God can do, to judge others.

By extension, this righteous person who doesn’t judge also trusts God to do what only God can do, which is to heal us. James says, “The Lord will raise up the sick one prayed for.” It isn’t the prayers of the righteous that effect the healing—it is God. The reason the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective is because they trust God for the results.

The interesting thing about Elijah in this passage is that, in fact, he didn’t pray for what James said he prayed for. With regards to the cessation and resumption of rain, 1 Kings 17 says simply that, “The word of the LORD came to Elijah.” Elijah’s prayers were not to stop and start the rain. What we have is a person who is open to God’s word leading him, and then following what he hears. Our prayers would be much more powerful and effective if they started with listening to God before speaking to God.

Here are some suggestions for applying James to our lives today.

  • Get a copy of the church directory and pray through the names on a daily or weekly basis. At Faith Church, we’ve produced a prayer list that does this already.
  • Pray for people’s well-being, their spiritual growth, for comfort and strength, for whatever anxieties and fears they may have.
  • As you wait for others to be served the Lord’s Supper, pray for them. Everyone you see is someone who needs prayer in some way.
  • As you wait for worship to begin, ask the person next to you how you can pray for them during the time of prayer.
  • If you don’t know what to pray for exactly, take the posture of Elijah and wait for a “Word of the Lord.” Trust the Spirit to guide you in your prayers for others.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • Have you ever avoided someone who was sick? Do people who are suffering make you uncomfortable? How do James’ words, and the interpretation in this message, challenge you to be a catalyst for healing in these situations?
  • When you are sick, do you avoid people not because you don’t want to infect them but because you are ashamed or feel guilty? When you are suffering, do you ask for help, for prayer, or for the company of friends? How do James’ words challenge you to reach out in these times of needs? Make a list of people you can call upon in such times.
  • In your prayers, do you leave everything to God, or do you pray with an agenda that, if it isn’t satisfied, leads you to doubt God? How can you become more “righteous,” that is, more trusting of God for the results whatever they may be, and thus be more powerful and effective in your prayers?


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