18th Sunday after Pentecost – 9/26/2021
Today, via our Epistle reading, James speaks to us about prayer. Prayer is undoubtedly one of the most neglected disciplines in our lives as Christians. Accordingly, many of us are missing out on a great blessing. After all, prayer is not only commanded by God; He promises excellent benefits to those who exercise it. Jesus has said, "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you." "For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, it will be opened" (Matt. 7:7, 8).
What sort of role prayer plays in your life? Would you characterize prayer as your constant companion or an occasional extra? Are your prayers confined to mealtime and church, or do you maintain an ongoing dialogue with God?
After all, prayer is, in its most basic essence, nothing more than a conversation with God. That makes it, as we just sang (LSB #772), "a holy conversation." However, it is also only half of the conversation. In prayer, God is not speaking to us. He does that in His holy, inscribed word. Prayer is us talking to God, requesting His favor, assistance, guidance, and deliverance, or merely thanking and praising Him for what He has already done for us.
By the way, contrary to a popular notion, this also means prayer is not a sacrament. By that, I mean that God did not institute prayer, like He did Holy Baptism, to bring us individually the fruits of His grace and Christ's sacrifice, such as the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
Unfortunately, I would have to say that the vast majority of us lack conversation with God. Our prayer life is at two extremes.
On the one hand, for many, it is seen as a last resort. I can't tell you how often I have asked people if I might pray with them, and they have responded, "Oh, I guess it wouldn't hurt!" "I have tried everything else." Try that with your spouse sometime: "Well, honey, I've asked everyone else I know about what to do, so I guess I might as well ask you!" Your spouse may tell you what you should do!
Then there is the other extreme, where people attach an almost magical quality to prayer, as though prayer has an inherent power to make things happen all on its own. The effectiveness of worship is independent of who prays and even to whom one prays. It is believed that the words of the prayer or the very action of praying will accomplish something. It is like that bumper sticker that reads, "Try prayer." "It works!" If prayer works in this way, why bother talking to God? Just say the words. It is nothing more than an incantation!
James helps us navigate this fog of false and fuzzy ideas about prayer. He encourages us to see that prayer is not some hocus-pocus, nor are empty words an exercise in futility, nor is it even simply an occasional extra in the life of a Christian. Instead, James teaches us that prayer is a practice of faith.
James begins by helping us all see how central prayer is to the life of the Christian. He says, "Is anyone among you suffering?" Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? "Let him sing praise."
Here, James focuses on the two central divisions of our lives: times of suffering with accompanying sadness and times of literally feeling good; in other words, times of cheerfulness. Rarely are we somewhere in between, having no feelings at all. We all live bipolar lives. We are either up with joy or down with sadness. Our lives are a big roller coaster ride.
However, as Christians, we understand that these highs and lows are experienced not only in our relationships with other people but also in our relationships with God. Just because we are baptized children of God does not mean there are no times of suffering, sadness, or lowness. We do not always have joy and highs in God. Wise old king Solomon wrote that there is "a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance" (Eccles. 3:4).
But what James wants us to focus on is what we do in these times of lows and highs. We usually talk with people about our woes and share happiness with them. But do we speak with God concerning our suffering and our joy?
Prayer and singing are juxtaposed in James. Both are occasions to speak with God, who created one and the other. Faith in God is not something we rely on only during difficult times in our lives. But faith is integral to the whole life of a Christian. So, likewise, the exercise of faith through prayer is also necessary for the entire life of the Christian.
When things are going well, it is time to strike up the band and praise God, who has blessed us with such happiness. After all, by our sinfulness, we are not worthy of anything good from God, only His punishing wrath. But God, in His forgiving grace for Jesus' sake, grants us many joys and times of happiness in this life. God is glorified when we thank and praise Him for these added moments of extra grace.
At the same time, however, times of suffering, or "suffering of evil," are also great times to speak to God. God wants to hear our needs and our petitions for help. That, too, glorifies Him. In Psalm 50, the LORD God says, "Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me."
When we pray to Him in times of trouble, we acknowledge that we look to God alone to heal, rescue, or save us. That dramatically pleases him. With God, codependency is a good thing! Praying to God for His help in all those times when evil has us by the tail is just as crucial to our relationship with Him as singing praise to Him in our happy times.
That also makes prayer central to our care for one another. Prayer is not meant to be a self-centered activity. Others can significantly benefit from our praying for them and their needs. We could do no better to help our neighbors than to place them in God's gracious and powerful hands. The apostle Paul urges that "entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made for all men. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved come to know the truth" (I Tim. 2:1,3,4).
James acknowledges the importance of Christians praying for others by saying, "Is anyone among you sick?" Let him call for the church's elders, 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. "And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven."
Why does James encourage those in need to call the church elders, the pastor, or other spiritual leaders?
So they can pray for them, not over them. In other words, no one has to endure their suffering alone. We are called upon to share each other's burdens in the Body of Christ. And when we are in the throes of pain, it is often difficult to find the energy and confidence to pray. But here is where our brothers in Christ can help. They can put our needs before God and, in this way, share our load.
But why call for the pastor or elders to come and pray over us? Are their prayers more efficacious than other people's prayers? Not at all! Just because a pastor is a pastor, it does not mean that he has been given a special relationship with God or that his prayers possess some extraordinary healing power that a layperson would not have. No, the prayers of all Christians for the sick or suffering would be just as effective.
James mentions the "elders" of the church because the "elders," or pastors, by their office, represent the whole church. Just as the pastor often serves as the spokesman for the entire assembly in worship services when prayers are offered, so when the pastor comes to someone's bedside to pray for them, he comes as the representative of the whole congregation. The entire congregation follows him. His prayer is the prayer of all. Furthermore, God has given those who hold the pastoral office the authority and permission to pronounce God's forgiveness of sins to others. Accordingly, the pastor can not only pray for the sick but also, through the Holy Absolution he speaks, God through him, brings the healing of forgiveness to the troubled conscience and soul of the sufferer, where they are genuinely the sickest.
Please note, however, that praying for others is in addition to and not a substitute for caring for the person's immediate and physical needs. James says the elders can come and "oil with oil" the sick and pray for them. If we genuinely care for someone's suffering, our praying will always be accompanied by doing for them physically, whatever is within our ability to relieve their suffering.
Even though our English text words it as "anointing with oil," James does not consider the sacred right of anointing with oil to ordain someone into the ministry or establish them in some office. Such application with oil is a whole different term than what James uses here.
Sacred anointing is "Christening," as Jesus was "anointed (Christened)" to be our "Christ."
Here James uses the standard term for "oiling" or "lubricating" something with olive oil. Before all of our modern medicines, applying olive oil to a wounded body or the sick was common practice. It was the first line of medicinal help in those days, just like the good Samaritan did for the injured man he found along the highway. Jesus said, "He bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them." (Lk 10:34).
Praying, along with giving proper help and medical attention, is therefore central to our compassionate care for the physical and eternal welfare of others.
James makes these astounding statements to encourage us to pray our constant occupation for ourselves and others: "The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick... "A righteous person's prayer has great power as it works."Wow! Then prayer is effective. But is it the prayer or something else—or someone else—that does the working?
Regarding the effectiveness of prayer, James refers to the Old Testament example of the prophet Elijah. It seems that at one point, to bring God's wrath against the wicked King of Israel and the people's disobedience, Elijah "fervently prayed" that it would not rain on the land. As a result, it did not rain for three and a half years! That's some prayer! Then later, Elijah prayed again, hoping the heavens would water the earth again. And, again, it happened as he prayed. It rained to the extent that the once dry, dusty, and barren ground bore fruit again. Who then could question the power of prayer?
But was the power really in the prayer, or was it so effective because it came from the lips of a mighty prophet of God, like Elijah?
As I noted earlier, prayer is not an incantation. The words of one's prayer have no inherent power. Like the church pastor, Elijah does not possess any special powers of his own, nor does he have any particular "in" with God.
No, James tells us what made Elijah's prayers so effective. He says his prayers were those of a righteous man of faith. Effective prayers are prayers uttered in faith in God and His promises, especially those given to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus promises: "All things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they shall be granted." And again, he says, "Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son." "If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it" (Jn. 14:13–14).
Prayer needs more power and energy to accomplish anything. God is the power, and His grace toward us sinners in Jesus Christ is the precipitating agent that moves His ability to work in our lives. God is the One who heals, raises to life, restores, and saves.
But according to His grace and promise, God admits that He cannot resist the prayer of faith. So we see when God, in a pre-incarnate form, permitted Jacob of old to wrestle with Him and hold on to Him until God blessed him (Gen. 32:22ff). So we see this when Jesus did not ignore the Gentile woman who persistently clamored after Him, as everyone expected Him to do, but instead granted her request to heal her daughter (Mark 7:24-ff).
The prayers of the righteous, people of faith, are effective because it is their prayers that He has promised to hear and answer. He often sends His answer and helps on their way even before the words of the believer's petition are on their lips (Is. 65:24).
It is not prayer that works! It's our gracious God who works to meet the needs of His people. With such beautiful promises from God to answer the prayers offered in faith, how can we not make prayer our continual occupation?