September 30, 2012
I. William Barclay tells an ancient oriental fable about a ring set with a wonderful opal. It gave whoever wore it a noble and compassionate character. This charmed ring was passed from father to son for many generations. The ring came to a man who had three sons, all of whom he loved dearly. When he knew the end of his life was coming, he had two copies of the ring made. They were such perfect copies that not even he could tell which the original was. From his deathbed he called for each of his sons privately. He blessed each one, expressed his love and gave each of them one of the rings, cautioning them to say nothing to the brothers until he had been buried. Of course, after the funeral the brothers discovered they each had a ring, and they could not discern any differences between them. They took their rings to a wise judge who told them, “I cannot tell which is the original, charmed ring, but you yourselves can prove it.” “We?” the brothers responded in astonished unison. “Yes,” said the judge, “since the true ring gives noble and compassionate character, everyone in the community will know which of you has the true ring by the quality of his life. So go your ways; be kind and truthful, brave and just. The one who does this is the owner of the true ring.” Never before or since had the community known three such honorable brothers. (Daily Bible Study Series, Commentary on Mark; p. 227) Similarly, prayer is powerful and effective to transform those who are suffering or cheerful, sick or wandering.
A. I deeply appreciate the seriousness with which the Elders pray at the Lord’s Table and the attention Julia and Andy put into their pastoral prayers. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:7) when Jesus cautions against praying with vain repetitions, I don’t think he meant either written or memorized prayers. His concern was going through an empty, powerless routine. When someone shares a personal need and we say, “I’ll pray for you,” I am sometimes concerned that this is a polite way to say “I care,” but misses invoking the power of God.
B. Though the passage we read from James may seem to head in several directions, powerful and effective prayer is at its core. Prayer is the power for every season of life: suffering, cheer, sickness and wandering.
1. The word for suffering is the word for the anguish of the prophets over wayward Israel. While it includes personal pain and struggle, this prayer points us to pray for our own and the Church’s spiritual strength.
2. People who are cheerful should sing praises. Praise is prayer directing honoring to God. When life is going well, we easily lose our focus on God. Praise not only credits God with good, but encourages us and others.
3. The most detailed instructions are that those who are sick should call the Elders to pray and anoint them with oil. That anointing is a tangible prayer calling on God’s power by following God’s instructions. The Elders pray on behalf of the whole Church. Sometimes we may be so sick we can’t even pray for ourselves, but the Elders pray for us.
4. The confession of sin and restoration of those who have wandered is also prayer in action. Our prayers make us agents of God’s grace.
C. Powerful, effective prayer is a deep mystery. Surely God does not need us to explain what needs to be done or how to do it. Yet, God has chosen the prayers of the people of faith to be the means of releasing divine power. Prayer is powerful and effective to transform those who are suffering or cheerful, sick or wandering.
II. James wrote that God’s power is released by the prayer of faith (v. 15) and the prayers of righteous people (v. 16). I don’t know about you, but in the face of what needs God’s power, my faith is puny. I wouldn’t dare call out God’s power by appealing to my righteousness. Neither would James!
A. Elijah is the example of the righteous person by whose faith God deployed great power in Israel. James wrote that Elijah was an ordinary person just like us. Don’t turn him into a superhero! James was saying, “If Elijah could pray with power, you can pray with power.” Elijah wavered with fear, but he knew that Deuteronomy 28:23-24 warned that if Israel turned to idols, “The sky over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you iron. The Lord will change the rain of your land into powder, and only dust shall come down upon you from the sky until you are destroyed.” As Elijah prayed from this warning, God let him know that when Ahab and Jezebel were leading Israel to worship Baal, the time for the drought had come. Scripture informed Elijah’s prayers.
B. Since none of us qualify to pray for God’s power as righteous people, James emphasized confessing our sins to one another. By confession, we appropriate the righteousness of Christ as Paul wrote in Romans and Galatians. So our prayers do not release the power of God because we are righteous but because Jesus is righteous. You may be uncomfortable with confessing your sins to one another. We ask, “Isn’t it enough to confess to God?” When we struggle with a persistent sin, speaking it aloud to a trusted, mature fellow Christian helps us to get some objective distance and let go of our rationalizing. Perhaps most powerful of all is hearing, “Know that in Christ you are forgiven and be at peace!”
C. The great power and effectiveness of praying is not what we get God to do for us but what God does within us when we pray. As we pray, the Holy Spirit helps us connect Scripture with our own situations, with the needs of people we care about, with the mission of the community of faith, with the dilemmas of the people of the world. With our prayers, God focuses power on people. Prayer is powerful and effective to transform those who are suffering or cheerful, sick or wandering.
III. Some of you may remember J. B. Phillips’ 1961 book Your God Is Too Small. James and Jesus both tell us that our prayers are too small. In Mark 9:38-41, Jesus is still in the house in Capernaum. He has just wrapped up his lesson on Great Humility that we talked about last Sunday.
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.40Whoever is not against us is for us.41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
A. Maybe you’re thinking John’s challenge to the man casting out demons in Jesus’ name isn’t about prayer, but in Mark 9:29, after the Transfiguration, when Jesus heals the boy with seizures, he says, “This kind can only come out by prayer,” which is echoed in what we have read in James. Jesus is tearing down the boundaries that limit our prayers. The name of Jesus is not magic mumbo jumbo – if you say the spell right you get results. No! The name of Jesus released the power of Jesus. So even if this man wasn’t traveling with Jesus and the Twelve, it was Jesus who was driving out those demons when the man spoke.
B. Several commentators, including some I usually respect and trust, wrote that this man was unauthorized and out of line, but Jesus didn’t want to get in a distracting dispute on his way to the cross. I don’t buy it! Jesus was teaching the disciples to be expansive and recognize God’s power comes from unexpected places. This man is essentially affirming Jesus, and Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” He includes the disciples in his generosity. In Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23 when Jesus is being attacked, he turns it around and says, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” He refers specifically to himself and not the disciples in this more restrictive use. The Apostle Paul takes Jesus’ expansive attitude to the rivalries that can spring up in Christian ministry when he wrote in Philippians 1:15-18, “Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.”
C. Both James and Jesus relentlessly push us out of our comfort zones. Confessing our sins to each other. Praying with effective power. Anointing the sick with oil. Pursuing the wanderers. Accepting those who do prayer, faith and church differently than we do. Prayer is powerful and effective to transform those who are suffering or cheerful, sick or wandering.
IV. Dr. Christina Puchalski, M.D. teaches at George Washington University School of Medicine and is a member of the lay Carmelites. I have heard her speak several times about spirituality and prayer, healing and medicine. She has conducted and collected empirical studies that explore the effect of spirituality and prayer on medical outcomes. I remember her talking about one study that was trying to distinguish the psychological and spiritual. An interfaith prayer group was given the randomly selected names of half of the patients in a hospital for a week and asked to pray for them but not contact them or anyone who knew them. While statistically significant improvements were observed, the uncontrollable variables made the results inconclusive. Yet, she has made prayer and spirituality an integral part of her medical practice.
A. In our empirical, results driven culture, we easily miss how and why prayer is powerful and effective to transform those who are suffering or cheerful, sick or wandering. What happens to the patient in the hospital is a tangential byproduct of what happens to the ones who are praying. Tim Stafford wrote in this month’s (September 2012) Christianity Today that the New Testament doesn’t speak of miracles but of signs. When something we have prayed for comes about, that does not say how wonderful our prayers were. Rather, it is a sign to pay attention to God and recognize that God’s Reign is breaking in on us. (p. 50)
B. Powerful, effective prayer is not about giving God a laundry list of everything we’d like fixed and every person we’d like to be healed. The focus of powerful, effective prayer shifts from all these things that swirl around and within us to a steady, stable focus on God. Seventeenth century Russian mystic Dimitri of Rostov said it this way: “Prayer is turning the mind and thoughts towards God. To pray means to stand before God with the mind, mentally to gaze unswervingly at [God], and to converse with [God] in reverent fear and hope.” (The Art of Prayer, Igumen Chariton, Faber and Faber, Boston, 1936 Russian, 1966 English; p. 50)
C. We pray together in worship and to open and close meetings, but our highly individualistic culture pushes us to think of prayer as an individual activity. Certainly personal prayer is important, but James wrote to congregations about how to pray in community. James envisioned churches that pray, that sing, that heal and that restore. That is how prayer becomes powerful and effective to transform those who are suffering or cheerful, sick or wandering.