How powerful is prayer? - James 5:7-20

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 21st July 2002.

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A young police officer was taking his final exam at Hendon Police College in North London, when he came to this question. It read: 'You are on patrol in London when an explosion occurs in a gas main in a nearby street. On investigation, you find that a large hole has been blown in the footpath and there is an overturned van lying nearby. Inside the van there is a strong smell of alcohol. Both occupants, a man and a woman, are injured. You recognise the woman as the wife of your Chief Inspector, who is at present away on a conference in the USA. A passing motorist stops to offer you assistance and you realise that he is a man who is wanted for a series of violent armed robberies. Just at that moment, a man runs from a nearby house shouting that his wife is expecting a baby and that the shock of the explosion has made the birth imminent. Another man is crying for help, having been thrown into an adjacent canal by the explosion, and he cannot swim. Bearing in mind the provisions of the Mental Health Act, describe in a few words what actions you would take.' The young officer thought for a moment, picked up his pen, and wrote these words: 'I would take off my uniform and mingle with the crowd.'"

Well today we come to the end of our studies in James. And it's possible that after hearing what James has had to say to us, that you want to take off your spiritual uniform so to speak and mingle with the crowd. For James has made it clear that the Christian life can be hard and it's tempting to wonder whether it's all worth it, whether it would be easier just to pack the whole thing in. All along James' burden has been to warn us that we should not only say we are Christians but live out that profession of faith. We've seen that his message could be summed up by chapter 1 verse 22: "Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." Christians who have been given new birth through the word of the gospel need to live out that same gospel truth in their daily lives. We're to humbly accept the word planted in us. And if we don't, if we simply say we're going God's way, and actually do what we want, then we're being double minded.

James has had on his agenda several particular areas where we have needed correction. In chapter 2 he challenged us on our attitudes to other Christians and told us to be people of action, not just words. In chapter 3 he warned us of the power of the tongue. And in chapter 4, he told us in no uncertain terms that double mindedness means being an enemy of God, and we're most in danger in our attitudes to each other, our time and our wealth. Yes, James has said some tough things. But the reason he has said these things is because he loves us and longs for us to live God's wonderful way, which is the best way to live. Peppered throughout the letter are the words "my dear brothers" meaning the whole body of the church. For James is no grumpy headmaster, wheeling his cane over his terrified pupils, but a loving pastor who is genuinely concerned for the welfare of his flock. And it is with this pastoral heart that James finishes his letter. To Christians tempted to take off the uniform and to mingle with the crowd, to those of us who find living God's way a struggle in a hostile and sinful world, James gives three great commands to spur us on.

1) Be Patient (Vv 7-12)

2) Be Prayerful (Vv 13-18)

3) Be Pastoral (Vv 19-20)

So let's look at this passage together and I trust that by the end of James' letter we'll be encouraged to press on in the knowledge that God's way is the best way.

1) Be Patient (Vv 7-12)

So James' first command to us this morning is to be patient. Verse 7: "Be patient, then, my brothers, until the Lord's coming." Now in order to understand this command properly, we need to remember how James ended last week. We saw in verses 1-6 of chapter 5 that the non Christian wealthy landlords were abusing their Christian workers. And it is in that context that James goes on to say "be patient, then, my brothers." Suffering has been a key theme for James. You'll remember that he started off the letter by saying "consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds." And he went on to explain that trials and suffering can mature our faith. Through the fires of difficulty, God refines us to be more like him. And in the present difficult circumstances, James says to us, be patient. So why be patient?

a) The Reason- Well the reason is "because the Lord is coming", verse 7. Jesus is coming back. And why is that so good? Well James tells us in verses 7 and 9. In verse 7 he gives an illustration of the farmer: "See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains." The point is that the farmer must wait for the fruit of his labours. He is waiting for the rains to come to bring his crop to harvest. And the coming of the Lord will be the time when the harvest is seen in all its fullness. We will enjoy the rich blessings of being with Jesus for ever. We will delight to see the fruits of our hard labours for the gospel when Jesus comes again. It will be a wonderful time, when the Lord comes to be with his people. But there's also a flip side. Because not only will there be great blessing, but there will also be judgement. For as James says in verse 9, the Judge is at the door. The Lord's coming will mean facing the judge. So for those who are ready to meet the Judge it will be a joyful time. But for those who are not ready, it will be a painful time. So, Christian, says James, be patient in present times of suffering, because Jesus is coming back, both to reward and to judge.

b) The Example- And James gives two examples of those who were patient and persevered in difficult times. There were the prophets in verse 10: "Brothers as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know we consider blessed those who have persevered." These were people like Jeremiah and Amos who suffered for the name of the Lord. But they persevered. They kept serving God. For James, patience and perseverance go together. The Christian waiting patiently for the Lord's return, knowing it means reward and justice, patiently perseveres through the tough times. And notice in passing that waiting doesn't mean kicking your heels. The patient prophets proclaimed the gospel. They spoke in the name of the Lord.

And there is Job as well. Verse 11: "You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy." Job lost everything, his house, his ten children, even his health. And yet he held on to God by the skin of his teeth. He patiently endured suffering. And God rewarded him. For God is compassionate and merciful. These men are examples of those who have trusted the Lord and been patient in tough times. They have persevered. And in verse 11, says James, we consider blessed those who have persevered. The ones who are patient and persevere are those who are blessed, to a certain extent in this life, but fully in the next. So be patient for the Lord's coming, says James. For his coming is near.

c) The Challenge- But if James gives us the reason for being patient and also examples of patience, then he also gives us a challenge. And that is to live the way the NT urges us to live in respect of Jesus' coming again. You see we might be tempted to turn to James and ask him what he means by the Lord's coming is "near"? Because surely if Jesus was near in James' day, 2000 year ago, then James was wrong? And if Jesus hasn't come back for 2000 years, then who's to say he won't come back for another 2000 years? What does it mean to be "near"? Well we need to remember one very important fact that the NT constantly reiterates, which is that as far as God is concerned the next item on the agenda is the Lord Jesus' return. There is nothing else booked into God's schedule before the return of Jesus. Jesus came the first time to die and be raised again, and then he was raised into heaven. And the next thing he will do is come back. And it's in that sense that Jesus' return is near. Because it could happen at any time. It could happen today, tonight, tomorrow, or in many years time. None of us knows that date, but his coming is near. And the Christians who have taken this teaching most seriously are those who have been most effective for the gospel. Those who have realised that time is short, that Jesus is coming back, have sold their lives completely to the cause of the gospel. And God will reward them richly when he comes again. It was the perspective of the NT Christians- the coming again of the Lord Jesus is mentioned over 300 times in the NT, that's once every thirteen verses. And their lives were different. Lord Shaftsbury was such a man. Every morning, for forty years, when he woke up, he reminded himself that Jesus could come back that day. And his life's work for the reform of this county was incredible in all sorts of ways and is a testimony for his living in the light of the Lord's coming.

So here's the challenge. This is the perspective the Christian needs to have. The NT perspective that Jesus is coming back. It's the only promise Jesus has left to fulfil. And if he's kept all the others, there's no doubt he'll keep this one. And there is no earthly reason why it could be today. And that's why James urges us to be godly in verses 9 and 12. In times of stress, what's the first thing that cracks? Our tongues! We get short with each and we grumble! Or in verse 12, we get stressed and we swear, or make rash oaths. So once again it is the tongue that James urges us to control in these days of difficulty and suffering. So Christians who are waiting for the return of Christ, are to wait in a manner that befits the arrival of our King Jesus. Our lives are to show that we are citizens of King Jesus' kingdom.

I remember when I was at school, Prince Philip was due to open a new block at the school. And everyone was very excited. For weeks before hand all sorts of things happened which were great rarities in the school's life before. Parts of the school saw paint for the first time in decades. The kitchen staff were nice to the pupils, the gardens were tended so they didn't look like virgin rain forest. And then the great day came. And Prince Philip arrived.

We were prepared for the royal visitor. And we lived life in the months beforehand knowing he was coming. We were in a state of readiness. Well there is a far greater royal guest who is at the door. The King of kings, the Lord Jesus Christ. Are you ready for his coming? Are you prepared to meet him? Would anyone know you're one of his subjects by the way you live your life? Well get ready says James, and be prepared. And if you are going through times of immense pressure and stress, if you are having to face unbearable suffering and difficulty, then be patient, says James. Because the Lord's coming is near. He is coming back and he will keep his promise. Be patient.

2) Be Prayerful (Vv 13-18)

But if James had just told us to be patient, then I think we'd have all have given up a long time ago. But James doesn't expect us to be patient and persevere in our own strength. And that's why he goes on to give his second command. Be prayerful. And by all accounts this was something James knew a lot about. Church tradition says that James' knees grew hard like a camel's because he spent so much time kneeling in prayer. Clearly this man had applied his own teaching to his heart. So what does James teach us about prayer?

a) Pray in all circumstances- Well, first we're to pray in all circumstances. Verse 13: "Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise." The reformer John Calvin said: "There is no time in which God does not invite us to himself." You see if we are to survive waiting patiently and persevering through difficult times, then we must pray, we must show our humble dependence on the God who saved us and keeps us. Only in his strength will we make it to the end. James says that we should pray when we're in trouble. For the Christian, this should be our first instinct when we find ourselves in difficulty. And I guess of all the circumstances in life, it's easy to pray in trouble. When the pressure is on, and we're desperate for help, then do we turn to God. But it's often in the good times that we forget to pray, when things are going well. So James says we should pray, or specifically sing songs of praise when we are happy, when things are good. Because who is it that gives us the good times? It is God? Who is it that sends blessing? God. I sometimes use hymns or songs to spur me on to give thanks to God when I don't feel like it. There is always much to praise God for. And we should thank him every day for each blessing he graciously gives us. Pray in all circumstances, whether pleasant or bad.

b) Pray for each other- And that leads James to address a specific form of suffering in the next verses which is illness. But the main theme is still prayer, and the need to pray for each other. Now there is no doubt that these verse have caused some controversy. But often the main point is missed. These verses are about the need to pray above everything else. It's not primarily a passage about healing. It's a passage about praying. And with that in mind, we cannot go far wrong. And whilst we may differ on some of the finer points, please let's not miss James' main point which is pray for each other. Verse 14: "Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven." So let's see what James says. And with any tricky passage, it's worth putting down some marker posts where we can be sure what the verses are saying. And then we'll know that the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

For instance, it's clear that it is the sick man who is to ask for prayer. This man is clearly so unwell that he cannot go to the elders himself. He needs them to come to him, and he puts in the request. So this is not a healing time in a service or a healing team doing the rounds, whatever we may think of them. James is not talking about that here. This passage is about a seriously sick person who wants the church leaders to pray for him. Notice too that the oil is not what makes the person well. It is the prayer offered in faith in verse 15. So this is not anointing someone for death. This is anointing someone for life. The oil is likely to have been a symbol for setting someone apart for prayer or the like, but it's clear it's not James' main concern.

His main concern is the prayer. The elders are to pray for him and in verse 15, James says "the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up." So what is James saying? Well it's unlikely that he means that every time we pray for the sick in faith they will get better physically. This simply denies reality. Clearly, even in the Bible, not everyone was healed, and so it is today. Nor I think is James addressing a purely spiritual issue. Some believe that James is talking about those who have sinned in some particular way, and that God has sent them an illness, and so if they confess their sin, they will be raised up. Occasionally that does happen in the Bible, for instance in 1 Corinthians 11. But the general rule is that sickness is not as a result of specific sin. And James also says "if they have sinned" in verse 15. Clearly the sick person may not have sinned.

It's more likely that James is saying something in the middle. A person becomes seriously ill, and they ask the elders of the church to pray. But when illness comes our way, it is an appropriate time to examine our consciences. It's a good time to confess sin and ask for forgiveness. It may well be that our illness is given by God to wake us up out of our spiritual laziness. And if we have sinned, then we will be forgiven. But whether we're sick just because we're sick, or sick through sin, yet there is a promise. The prayer of faith, the prayer prayed with the knowledge that God is sovereign and God is in control, will make the person well, God will raise the person up. The original is ambiguous here. It could mean make the person well spiritually or physically. Either way God will do what is right. He'll lift us up. So the prayer offered in faith is prayed by a person who trusts that God will do what is right. We can have absolute confidence that he will raise us up in time. God will restore us and redeem us, but only in his time, and it won't be complete until heaven. And that's why James concludes this section by saying in verse 16: "Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you might be healed." We need each other to help us keep going in the Christian life, and we need to keep short accounts with each other, lest sin gets in the way in our various relationships. And it's in that sort of mutual prayerful atmosphere that we can press on to heaven. So pray for each other.

c) Pray like Elijah- And then lastly in this point on prayer, James says that we must pray like Elijah. And James' point is simple. Every Christian can pray. And Christian prayer is powerful prayer. That's what he means in verse 16 when he says that "the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective." The righteous person is not some super saint, but an ordinary Christian. So let's hear this loud and clear. He's saying that the prayer of a Christian is powerful land effective. Do you believe that? Why is it that so often we fail to pray? Is it not because we don't believe prayer works? James says the prayer of the Christian is powerful and effective. He uses Elijah as a example and says that he was a man "just like us" in verse 17. Now hang on, you say, Elijah, just like us? He was a powerful prophet. Yes, but he was just a man. He once even prayed that God would kill him, so depressed was he. And it's not the man that is powerful, it is the God the man prays to. That's why you and I are like Elijah. And if you read the stories of Elijah, you find that he simply prayed with God's glory in mind. That's what this business about rain is all about. He was asking God to judge the sinful nation by drought, something God had promised to do many years before if Israel was disobedient. And Elijah prayed that it would be so. He prayed that God would be faithful to his word. Is that how you pray, with one eye on the Bible, praying in line with God's will. If we don't pray according to God's will then we won't see our prayers answered. Yet if we do, then we will. If you pray what God has promised to do in the scriptures, then you will find that your prayers are powerful and effective. This is not the role of the super saint. It's the promise for every Christian, from the youngest to the oldest. So will you pray like Elijah, for God's glory and God's will to be done. It's a wonderful way to spend your time waiting patiently for the Lord and being involved in his work before he returns. Be prayerful.

3) Be Pastoral (Vv 19-20)

But then finally and briefly, James tells us to be pastoral, or in other words, look after each other. Verses 19-20: "My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner away from his error will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins." You see throughout his letter James has warned us of the danger of spurious faith, of being the sort of person who says one thing and does another. And James makes it clear here just how serious this position is. You're wandering from the truth and you're heading for death. So says James, we must be in the business of bringing wanderers back. We need each other's help to stay on the right track in order that we don't wander off. I think often we're too British to do it. But if we see someone wandering, someone we know, then bring them back.

And how do we do that? Well we cannot save them, but we can take them to the only place where their sins can be covered and where they can be saved from death. And that is the foot of the cross. The cross of Christ is the only place where we can be forgiven for our wandering and brought back to know God. It's the only place where we can be forgiven for our double mindedness and failures. It's there that God covers over a multitude of sins.

You may have heard the story of the man who owned a wonderful luxury car a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, one of the best British cars ever made. Well this man was touring in a remote part of France when a rear half shaft broke. Apparently that's part of the car, for those like me who are not technically minded. Well the local garage couldn't mend it, so the owner rang the Rolls Royce factory in Derby and explained the position. They agreed they would fly out a mechanic to come and fix the problem. So out he came, and he fixed the problem with a spare half shaft and the owner went on his way. Well when he arrived back in England, the owner expected to find a huge bill for repairs. But after some time hearing nothing, the man wrote to the factory. In due course he received a letter which read: "Dear Sir, Thankyou for your enquiry concerning an invoice for the replacement of a rear half shaft of a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. After searching our records carefully, we can assure you that there is absolutely no record of a half shaft ever having broken on a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud."

Because Jesus died on the cross, God keeps no record of sin. All our sins are covered and paid for. And it is at foot of the cross that James ends his letter. It's to the cross we need to point the wanderers, and where we ourselves need to keep coming when we are double minded. So will you come? For when we humble ourselves before him, then God will lift us up.

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