St Barnabas and St Michael … September 4th 2011
It feels very strange that my second contribution to our series of studies in James is the conclusion, when in my first sermon I preached on his introduction. And as you know, any good letter or essay starts with an introduction that tells you what you’re going to read, and ends with a conclusion that tells you what you’ve read. So if this morning it sounds as if I’m repeating myself – I probably am! (You may say I always do, but this time I’m not to blame as I don’t plan the preaching programme!)
So first of all, let’s remind ourselves of what I said the first time round!
We looked at the opening verses of James, and saw that he established three foundational characteristics of the Christian life … perseverance, patience and prayer. We learned how those three characteristics were the foundation of all that James had to say, and noticed how he returns to them in his final chapter …
Three characteristics of the faithful life …
- perseverance (1:3-4)
- patience (1:2,9)
- prayer (for wisdom 1:5f)
Three characteristics of the faithful life …
- perseverance (5:11,17-20)
- patience (5:7-12)
- prayer (for healing 5:13-16)
In between his introduction and conclusion, we’ve seen that James has focussed his teaching on how those characteristics play out in the life of the church.
We’ve read …
- that there should be no favouritism,
- that we should mean what we say,
- that we should work for the good of others, and show by our behaviour together that we have a living faith,
- that we should hold our tongues and recognise the damage words can do,
- that we need wisdom to live at peace with each other,
- that our priorities should reflect our relationship with God,
- that we can only rely on him for security, and not our future plans or our income,
- and finally that there should be justice in all our dealings.
We often nod our agreement to those teachings without realising that James intended them first and foremost to be defining characteristics of the life of the Christian community that we call the local church. If you’ve not seen that as we’ve read through James, why not read his letter through again, perhaps in your quiet times this coming week, and see how many times he addresses this teaching to ‘my brothers’ … or ‘Brethren’ or ‘Brothers and Sisters’ depending on which translation you’re using! He is addressing those in fellowship together. He’s showing us that fellowship is more than a shared cup of coffee on a Sunday or even belonging to a mid-week GIFT group. Christian fellowship is a shared life together, working out the rough and the smooth, learning to work together despite our differences. It’s very intense and intimate, it shapes our whole lives. James, perhaps more than anyone else in the NT, sees the Christian life first and foremost as the love of God shaping our community.
So while patience, persistence and prayer appear to us to be individual responsibilities, individual duties of the Christian life, James puts them firmly in the communal context.
In his sermon last week, Tim returned to the themes of patience and perseverance, as well as highlighting contentment and reverence, as features of a truly Christian character. But did you notice there just how many times in that short reading, James addresses his teaching to ‘my brothers’?
In our reading today, James draws his letter to a close with a second, closer look at prayer.
Although, I’m not totally sure where to begin … there is just so much teaching about prayer in these few verses … we read about prayer in community, and prayer in every circumstance … we have the call to prayer, the effectiveness of prayer, and the eternal effects of prayer … there is the Christian who prays, the elders who pray, the friends who pray, the prophet who prayed …
In effect, James is saying that the Christian life in community is totally submerged in prayer as we surround each other with prayer.
Whatever our individual circumstances, we are called to pray … verse 13 …
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him …
Remember that these verses are still in the context of the fellowship … it may not sound like it if you read the verse in isolation … but we need to remember that there are no introductory titles to each paragraph in the original, because in fact there are no paragraphs! So verse 13 carries immediately on from verse 12 …
Above all, my brothers, do not swear – not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned. Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray …
We read in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus said,
‘I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.’
So I have indeed been repetitive as I’ve made the point that the prayer James is talking about here is communal prayer … so let’s move on now to the detail!
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. I can’t be alone in confessing that often my first thought when trouble arises is rarely prayer – more usually, prayer is a last resort and I only turn to prayer if I can’t sort something out for myself. But if we live our lives as part of an active and close community, it won’t be long before someone else will remind us that prayer is, in fact, our best bet, our most readily available source of whatever help we need … strength, patience, perseverance, insight, wisdom, even financial and practical support … whatever it is, in our hearts we know that God is the provider of all these. So why do we forget so easily? Being with other Christians is the best reminder I have of the need to ‘bring it to the Lord in prayer’. And he has made so many promises about the effectiveness of prayer – we’ll come back to that in a moment.
Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Do you sing when you’re happy? Are you a contralto in the shower? Do you sing along to the radio while doing the washing up? I’m more likely to be found talking to myself – but that’s a family failing. The point here is not just that we sing because we’re happy, but that we give praise to God and – remembering that we are still in the context of fellowship – that we proclaim his goodness to each other. James is only repeating here a point he made earlier in the letter, James 1:17, that
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights …
So when things are good, that too should be turned to prayer – we could simply describe praise as ‘positive prayer’. Again, it’s about our focus … in times of trouble and sadness, and when we are glad, where is our focus? Is it fixed firmly in the realities of our limited existence here on earth, or can we lift it towards God and acknowledge that really, we have done little to deserve the good things we enjoy?
I could go on to talk about praise in the midst of disaster … but in his teaching last week on perseverance, Tim brought us two verses from the OT,
I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. (Job 19:25-26)
Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. (Habakkuk 3:17-18).
… and I don’t really have anything to add.
So whether our world is collapsing around our ears, or things are good and the future is looking even better, our focus should always be on God … and together as part of the close fellowship that James expects of the local church, we can help each other maintain that focus as we share together, praying with those in difficulties, and in turn being uplifted by the praise of those who are rejoicing.
But what about those times when it is all just beyond us?
Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him. There will be times when we are simply unable to either pray or praise, and James uses the example here of severe illness … when the believer can’t get to the fellowship, the fellowship comes to him. The elders are the mature believers that the church recognises as given by God to lead them, but notice that they only come at the invitation of the one who is sick … he is unable to pray but expresses his ongoing faith by the invitation.
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. In the understanding of the day, oil was the only available medicine – often suffused by herbs believed to have certain healing properties. But it’s the prayer offered in faith that is the healing agent here … although the word isn’t so much ‘heal’ as rescue or save. There is no promise here of physical healing. I am not saying that God can’t or doesn’t heal, he can and he does. But this verse is interested in something much deeper.
James isn’t merely speaking of physical disease and healing – these verses apply equally well to depression or to spiritual suffering of some kind. And the healing that James has in mind is also much deeper than simply being in good physical health. That’s why he goes on to speak of sin and confession … this illness is the responsibility of the whole church because it affects the whole church, even if caused by one individual.
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. Sickness is not always the direct result of sin, and sin does not always mean you will become sick, but we should always work at living at peace with each other, and at ridding ourselves of the sin that has already been forgiven at the cross where Jesus died. For James this is the culmination of the whole letter … he has written about quarrels and fights within the congregation, he’s ranted against the injustice done by the rich to the poor within the church … but there is always this opportunity to put things right: Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.
And just in case we think something or someone is beyond help or remedy … James reminds us that, The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. When we have sorted the sin, then prayer becomes a spiritual weapon to be reckoned with!
We don’t have time now to look at the story of Elijah in any detail … but in passing, we can see that his story is one of perseverance and prayer and patience all rolled into one. You may not realise that the background is one of spiritual warfare between Elijah, wicked king Ahab and the priests of Baal … there has to be a good reason to pray for drought! Elijah, James tells us, was a man just like us. He had his faults and he didn’t always get it right, but his relationship with God was the main focus of his life, and because of that, God heard and answered his prayer – on this and many other occasions. But it’s the spiritual background to this particular incident that is our link to the final two verses of James’ letter.
My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
In the closing words of his letter, James’ concern is that we all, every one of us, should be in that close relationship with God through Jesus, that blends eternity with our life here and now. So his final instruction to the congregation, the local church, is that we should be aware of each others’ relationship with God … and that when someone drifts away, we should do something about it! It may be that someone who ‘wanders from the truth’ has been part of the fellowship for years, but has never really understood or experienced the depth of relationship that is possible with God, or it may be that other things have come along to distract them, but when someone who has belonged to the church drifts away, the issue is a spiritual one, whatever the cause. And the responsibility is everyone’s, whatever their role in the life of the church.
So that’s the letter of James … I wonder how much of it you will remember in a few weeks time, or a few months? We’re continuing to look at the life of the disciple in our new series, starting next week, In the service of the King, but before that, will you take some time this week to read through James, to remind yourself of anything you’ve learned or that God has highlighted for you. If you can’t quite remember something that was said – some of the sermons are online on the church website.
But to finish this morning, I’m going to leave a moment of silence for you to process what you’ve heard today, and then I’ll pray …
It may be that you are unused to praying – prayer is simply talking to God, believing that he is there and hears us. There are no right and wrong ways to pray, and you can pray silently or aloud. The key is to ‘just do it’ …
Or perhaps you feel that you have never really experienced the depth of relationship with God that I have talked about. Why not ask God to show you what is possible – and perhaps find a Christian friend who you can ask to pray with you as you seek to deepen your knowledge of the life of faith.
If it is that you have never committed yourself to a relationship with God through Jesus, why not do so now? It will help it ‘stick’, if you then find someone else and tell them about it … or let me know through the contact page. For more information, click on the links in the side bar – ‘The Christian Faith’