I recently preached through the book of James (podcasts can be found here), but stopped one passage short of doing the entire book.
That’s because I had planned to preach on the final few verses on November 13th, the first Sunday after the presidential election. I actually had the sermon almost entirely written mid-week (itself a rarity), but then got to observe what was happening in our urban university context, spent some time praying and reflecting, and decided to preach something entirely differently that day. (I preached on Psalm 46, which you can also find at the podcast link above.)
In any case, that morning I told the congregation that I would eventually post some brief outline thoughts of what I would have preached that morning just in case anyone was curious to see how the James series would have concluded. Although this post appears to be a stand-alone post on my blog, it’s really the conclusion of a preaching series, and, in some ways, presumes a basic familiarity with the ideas found throughout the letter.
In any case, here goes: the sermon notes I would have used on James 5:13-20 (ESV), the text of which is this:
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. 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. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, 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 heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
We’ve all hit “send” on an email before actually finishing it or attaching the file that we meant to attach. When that happens, all you do is fire off another quick one with an apology and the missing elements, because communication in the modern world is swift and easy.
In James’ day, it was different. When you wrote a letter, it was deliberate, intentional, and a much more time consuming process. It could be hard to gather the necessary writing implements and hard to secure a messenger to carry the letter across great distances. If you wrote to someone in the ancient world then you make sure to say everything that you needed to say, exactly as you needed to say it.
At the end of James’ letter, we see him tie together many of the ideas that he has been discussing throughout, sharing with the congregation exactly what it is that holds together everything he has shared to far. His letter is all about prompting believers to faithful action, and here is indicates that prayer is the thing that holds all of this together. Believers ought to be praying at all times, in all circumstances–especially for one another.
His simple encouragement is to remember that prayer animates the Christian life. Let’s walk through that idea.
I. Nominal Christianity (e.g. Smith’s “Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism”) views prayer as simply a ‘tool’ or ‘obligation’. It is arbitrary and individual.
- An obligation: I have to do this in order to accrue points (‘frequent pray-er miles’) so that I can ‘redeem’ them for things later. You feel guilty if you don’t pray.
- A tool: there are things that I want, and in order to get them, I will resort to prayer. It is simply a means to an end.
- The focus is on the self (or perhaps immediate others), and God is seen as a “divine butler” (sent to fetch things for me), a “cosmic therapist” (who helps me feel better about myself), or “heavenly vending machine” (who provides a snack, but no real lasting sustenance).
- These are the motivations with which we frequently approach prayer. They are easy, natural, and convenient. But they miss what prayer is supposed to be.
II. James’ depiction of prayer: it is necessary and communal.
- We are pray in good and bad times (v. 13). Trials are a time to seek God’s grace; joys a time to praise him for his provision.
- We are to pray for others who are in need–especially in times of illness.
- Leadership that prays (v. 14) is a vital part of the Church.
- ‘Anointing’ is a symbolic act of consecration. Nothing magical about the oil itself. To anoint in the OT was to mark something as set apart for a particular use. Thus, the idea is to mark the person as set aside for prayer.
- Pray for physical and spiritual healing. The language of v. 15 is comprehensive: sick/save/raise up/forgive.
- We are to pray for those who have fallen into sin. v. 16 points to communal accountability. The purpose of mutual confession (“to one another”, not necessarily a priest or clergy) is not to spread gossip, but to hold each other accountable and also to know how to specifically pray for someone who is struggling. You should have someone in your life that you trust well enough to be able to confess to one another and to pray for one another.
- vv. 19-20 point to communal responsibility. If you see someone who has “wandered from the truth”, you are to lovingly bring them back through prayer, counsel, and support–not condemnation or chastisement.
- Without mutual confession, we can begin to think that we are spotless–able to rescue others while remaining pure and unstained ourselves. With mutual confession, we are reminded of our need for the Gospel and of the good news of the Gospel.
- Braulio of Saragossa (7th century bishop): “Since it would be a long and unpleasant task to reveal my sinful ways to you and to tell you everything in detail, it must suffice for me to reveal to your most holy mind that I am not what you believe, though I beg you to pray to God that he might make me what you believe.”
III. Prayer in proper perspective is seen as necessary and communal, not arbitrary and individual.
- Prayer is a fundamental part of Christian DNA.
- Jesus prayed daily, why shouldn’t we? If the one through whom, for whom, and by whom all things exist took time to commune daily with the Father, what kind of arrogance does it show when we claim to be too busy to do the same?
- “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17)
- Prayer is “the atmosphere in which we move” (Piper), not just something ‘we do’. It is an attitude as much as an action.
- Something that everyone can do.
- Elijah: “a man with a nature like ours”. A favorite example of OT piety and power, he was still a sinner who relied upon God’s grace. The power of prayer comes from the Holy Spirit, not the credentials or resume of the one praying.
- In Christ, and by his Spirit, all prayers are brought to the Throne of God.
- v. 16b: the “righteous person” is righteous because of who he or she is in Christ, not because of anything inherent in them. You are ‘the righteous one’ if you are in Christ. Prayers offered in Christ and by his Spirit are ‘powerful and effective’ because “the Spirit himself intercedes for us” (Romans 8:26), and because Jesus Christ himself “is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34).
- Prayer brings us into fellowship with God and aligns us with his will.
- If some are not healed, then why? Not for ‘lack of faith’, but because it is, for some reason we must not try to quickly explain away, not in the Lord’s will at this time (cf. 4:15).
- We are to seek God’s will in prayer, and to submit to God’s will in prayer (see sermon on 4:13-17).
- Prayer is not a tool or obligation. It brings us into communion with the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit. It animates the Christian life.
- The Christian faith is a living, active, vibrant faith. It is a faith that demonstrates its character through action. It is a faith that seeks the Lord in the midst of suffering, knowing that the struggles which produce perseverance ultimately generate hope. It is a faith that manifests itself through what we say and what we do. It is, James finally says, a faith that prays.