Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (September 30, 2012)

Wordle: Untitled

“The Prayer of a Righteous Person” (James 5:13-20)

          “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”  I suppose this is one of the many places where people get the idea that prayer has power.  You hear that a lot: “the power of prayer.”  I’m always a little uncomfortable with this.  It seems to place undue emphasis on what the person is doing.  Sometimes the power of prayer is connected with the strength of the faith of the one doing the praying.  It’s thought that the stronger your faith, the better chance you have of having your prayers answered. That’s not necessarily true.  Nor is St. James giving us a failsafe method to ensure that everyone who gets sick will get well if you just pray the right way, say the right things, use the right formula, and give the patient an oily rubdown. 
          Yet there is no doubt that this passage does indeed say that there is power in prayer. “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”  We certainly can’t deny this.  But the power in the prayer lies not in the one who prays, but in the one to Whom we pray.  He is the one who holds the power in his hands.  He is the one who invites us to pray.  He is the one who promises to listen to our prayers.  He is the one who mysteriously invites us to participate in his work in this world.  In our vocations, God serves our neighbor with our hands, our gifts, our talents.  In our prayers, we bring the needs of others, the world, the Church, and ourselves to God’s throne, and he answers those prayers in accordance with his good and gracious will.
          “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”  But who among us is righteous?  How worthy do you think you are to bring your prayers to God?  Paul writes in Romans 3[:10-12], “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12).
          James sets Elijah before us as an example.  “Now,” you say, “there is an example of someone who is clearly righteous.  I mean, he was one of the greatest prophets of Israel!  Of course his prayers were full of power!  After all, consider what he did in his ministry.  He raised to life the son of the widow of Zarephath.  He stood up to the mighty yet idolatrous King Ahab.  He defeated the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel.  His prayers kept it from raining for three and a half years.  His prayers brought the rains back again.  Those are some powerful prayers.  Of course, he is a righteous man.”
          Now, far be it from me to malign one of the great prophets of Israel.  But listen to what James says about Elijah: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.”  In other words, a sinful nature.  With the same temptations to doubts and weakness as the rest of us.  This was evident, in particular, when Elijah had run away and was in hiding after Queen Jezebel threatened to kill him.  Elijah had had enough.  He was tired of running.  He felt all alone.  This is what he said: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4) … “the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it” (1 Kings 19:10).  I’m the only one left.  Might as well just kill me now, Lord!  Let’s get it over with.  I might as well be in the grave like those who have gone before me.  Of course, the Lord finally encouraged Elijah with a sign of his presence and the fact that he had reserved a remnant for himself in Israel who had remained faithful.  But the point here is that even the great prophet Elijah was subject to sinful weakness, doubt, even depression, like you and me.
          Elijah’s prayer was the prayer of a righteous man because he was righteous by faith in God’s promises.  You and I are righteous in the same way.  We are righteous because of the one and only truly Righteous Man, Jesus.  He is the Righteous Man whose righteousness we receive in baptism and by faith in his death at the cross.  And his shed blood “covers over a multitude of sins” … for each and every one of us, not to mention those whom James says have wandered from the faith and are brought back. 
          This is why repentance and confession are so important.  Confess to one another.  The pastor hears your confession and in Christ’s stead announces the sure and certain absolution to you.  And you can confess your sins to each other and announce God’s forgiveness to each other.
          In the text, James connects confession to healing.  Sickness is often seen as a punishment from God.  It may be a way of disciplining us, training us.  But it is not a punishment.  The punishment for our sins was taken care of in Jesus’ death.  And so, confessing your sins when you are sick can be a special opportunity.  You get to unburden yourself, especially if you are worried that God must be upset with you, and that’s why you’re sick.  You are given peace of mind and heart in the absolution.  You can have a good conscience, knowing that the sin that gets in the way of trusting in God’s promises – the sin that gets in the way of confident prayer – is taken away, cleansed, wipe clean, forgiven.
          Moreover, the apostle is teaching us about the corporate nature of prayer and healing.  When someone is sick in our midst, we can surround them with God’s Word and prayer and our presence.  James says to get the elders of the church involved, the spiritual leaders.  These are not like our elders today, but more like our pastors.  Visiting the sick and suffering is certainly one of my ongoing duties.  But this is not to say that our elders or any one of us cannot be involved in gathering around the sick and the ailing in our midst and serve them with prayer.James also says to anoint with oil in the name of the Lord.  This was probably medicinal, not sacramental.  The sick were often rubbed down with olive oil, which come to find out does indeed have antibacterial properties.  And so we might say that just as oil was used to soothe the body, confession and prayer were used to soothe the heart.  The patient is placed “into the Lord’s hands with faith and confidence in his gracious will” (Lenski, James, 664).  When it is God’s will, the sick will be healed.  “The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.”  Yes, prayer offered with faith has power, but notice who is really doing the work … it’s the Lord who raises up the sick from their sickbed.
          In New Testament times, guests at your home may have been anointed with oil.  This signified that your guest was included in all the blessings of your household (Luke 7:44-47).  Anointing the sick would indicate to them that, in spite of their disease, they were still included in the blessings of a loving and merciful God.
          Like other ancient practices, anointing with oil is another one that is “making a comeback.”  It’s not seen to have any sacramental or magical qualities.  But when made in the sign of the cross on the forehead, the oil can certainly be a good reminder of the anointing of the Holy Spirit we received in our baptism … making us members of God’s household and giving us an inheritance in heaven that we can count on, especially if it is not God’s will that our illness be cured … well, cured in this life.  We will all have the final cure called the resurrection of all flesh and our bodies will be made brand new again.  “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.  O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?’  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:53-57 ESV).
          We are fellow members of God’s household.  We are fellow members of the Body of Christ.  We are to care for one another, especially in times of sickness.  That’s the time when some of us are often alone.  This ought not to be.  Instead, we can join together in prayer at all times for one another … in suffering, in joy, in sickness, and in calling the wandering back to Jesus.


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