I’ve been much encouraged recently reading an article by church historian Keith Edward Beede. It’s called ‘Touched by fire: Presbyterians and Revival.’ That’s right Presbyterians and revival… Beede explores the roots of the Presbyterian Church not just in terms of the history of the reformation and the social and political dimensions of the day, that is part of the story, but in terms of it growing out of a spiritual revival in the hearts of our Scottish ancestors starting in the late 1500’s and an ongoing desire within the hearts of our forebears to know and experience God’s presence and reality bringing transformation in their lives and society.
He speaks of the influence of people such as John Welsh, who was John Knox’s son-in-law, known for his prayer and his evangelistic fervour. I find his example quite challenging, Welsh would spend up to eight hours a day in prayer for the spiritual life of the people of Scotland. He had a habit of rising in the middle of the night to fervently pray. He spent much of his ministry in the hard places in Scotland, parishes that were torn by division and even violent splits, bringing the word of God to warm the hearts of the hardest opponents. In his latter life he suffered greatly from knee problems, the skin on them was said to be hard like a sort of horn, his reply to those who would council him to cut back on what had become a painful practise was “he spent his life of God (talking of Christ death on the cross) and therefore it would be spent for him” (speaking of his own life).
Another key man was Robert Bruce, and you can’t get more Scottish than that name right, who followed on from John Knox in the church in Edinburgh and who was known as a great wrestler with God, who had more than ordinary familiarity with his Master’. Bruce was said to possess great power when he preached and many attributed it to his practise he had to wrestle out loud with God before he attempted to preach to the people. A passerby to his place of prayer said that you were aware of the presence of an unseen person in the room with Bruce, as he was heard to entreat ‘he could not go- he would not go – unless he (Christ) came with him”.
AS we draw near to the end of the book of James, we are called to devote ourselves to prayer by a man whose nickname was old camel knees because of the callouses on his own knees a result of his own fervent prayer life. A call that in all situations we should pray, as individuals in times of trial, and praise in times of joy, corporately for the healing of the sick, in unity as we confess our sins to one another and seek reconciliation and expectant that the prayer of the righteous person is effective.
James uses a series of three rhetorical questions to call us to pray.
If any of you are in trouble? They should pray. I am always reminded of the story of the city dweller that goes out into the country and decides to go for a walk through a farmer’s field, only to discover as he is in the middle of a particularly large field that this is the bull paddock, and the bull is not happy he is there. The bull charges him…So he runs for the fence but the bull closes in on him, and in a last point of desperation he decides he will pray for help… but he only knows one prayer, one he had learned as a child… so he prays “ for what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful.” We often throw out those help me God prayers, hoping for a quick fix and a way out, which is not over the fence on the horns of an angry bull. It’s Ok to cry out to God for his help, and God does and has intervened. But we need to remember that God is able to use those times of trial and trouble to build our character. That is why at the beginning of James book he had told people facing trials to ask God for wisdom, to understand to be aware of what God wants to do, even in the face of misfortune. Secondly, in praying in those situations we become aware of the presence of God with us and it allows us the patience and trust to keep going and to work our way through those times. But also we can pray for God’s help in those situations, trusting that God does answer prayer.
Is anyone happy? They should sing praise to God. Whether this passage is refereeing to finding joy and happiness even in the face of suffering or in life’s good times, James calls us to respond with gratitude not complacency. Every good gift comes from God, our joy is not totally dependent on our circumstances but on the promises and the goodness of God. God is able, God’s desire is for our good not for harm, God… they often seem like religious one liners, platitudes and pleasantries, but in giving praise and thanks to God we become more and more aware of God’s goodness and presence, providence and his work in and through us. There is that wonderful old hymn that talks of counting your blessings one by one, a way of seeing how good and loving God is and proclaiming the reality of God amidst the ebbs and flows of life.
If anyone is ill? Here James changes from our individual prayer life to corporate prayer. If we are sick, he says, we should call the elders to come and to pray over us, and anoint us with oil. It is not that elders have any special spiritual power, however as the leadership of the church they represent calling together the whole church to pray for you. They also are hopefully people who have spiritual wisdom to know what and how to pray. In some of Paul’s letters he talks of a specific gift of praying for healing and James is not countering that here, but as one commentator says why do we have to go off to some faith healer or false faith healer, when the spirit of God is with us and the prayers of the people of the community of faith we are part of are equally effectual, and who knows maybe more fervent as they know us so well. I am part of the presbyteries Prayer and healing team and we do run special services, but our goal is to encourage prayer for each other and in particular for healing to be a part of every congregations life.
Anointing with oil, is an interesting thing here, Catholics have used this verse to justify their sacrament of extreme unction, anointing people in preparation for death. Others see it as something that should accompany prayer for healing in all circumstances. Sort of like James is giving his readers some step by step instruction. In scripture anointing with oil in connection with healing is only mentioned twice. Once in Jesus parable of the good Samaritan where it says the Samaritan pours oil and wine on the man beset by the robbers wounds, and the other time it talks of Jesus disciples praying for people to be healed and anointing them with oil. It maybe that olive oil at least was seen as having healing properties in Jesus and James day. One of the problems with talking about healing prayer is that people think they can simply use it as an alternative to modern medicine, but in this verse I wonder of James isn’t seeing the two go hand in hand. The other thing that the oil represents is that it is acts as a very physical, tactile reminder of what God is doing: The presence of God’s spirit, being set apart to God. I’m always happy to anoint people with oil when we pray James is very quick to point out that it is the prayer of faith that is effective, that it is prayers prayed in the Name of the Lord so ultimately it is God who heals.
There is some debate as to whether these verses are talking of God’s ultimate salvation of the sick person or actual healing the words can mean both. It can mean spiritual healing and physical healing, and I actually think that when you look at the scriptures and in particular the gospel that Jesus’ healings were always holistic, they dealt with the whole person. The trust when we pray is that God does answer our prayer in the short term with healing and forgiveness and definitely in the long term, in eternity. The danger says Roger Olsen is that we can adopt the attitude that prayer does not change things, it simply changes the prayer and our prayers can be simply for comfort or please don’t let them suffer too much rather than believing in a God that can bring healing and wholeness. While we do need to acknowledge the very real suffering that not everyone who we pray for is healed I love John Wimbers insight into praying for healing… He said he has seen more people healed, now that he believes in it and prays for them, than we he didn’t believe and so didn’t pray.’
Some have wondered if James is saying there is a connection between sin and sickness in this passage, which was a prevalent thought in the first century, but the connection here is rather that unity is an important part of the prayer life of the church. It is hard to pray together when we have done things that affect that unity and oneness of purpose. As we turn to God together to pray we also turn toward each other. You can imagine as the church James had been writing to begins to pray together they are aware of the things James has been speaking of and how it had damaged each other and start to be reconciled.
James finishes his exhortation to pray by giving an Old Testament example for us to follow. In the previous passage we looked at last week we were told to look at the patience of the Old Testament prophets and the farmers who waited for the rain. Here James brings those two together in inviting us to look at Elijah. The event he refers to is in 1 Kings 17-18, when God had withheld the rain from Israel because of Ahab and Jezebel leading the people to worship the fertility God Baal. It comes after the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel and we had it read to us this morning. The first thing that James tells us is that Elijah is just like us, Elijah I guess had become personified as one of the heroes of the faith for the Jews, almost as superhero type, his stories are full of the miraculous, but James says he is just like us. In fact right after all the events that happen in this story it tells us that Elijah was threatened by Jezebel and so fleed and hid, depressed and worried for his life. The second thing James tells us was that he trusted God and prayed and the rains both stopped and then came again. When we look at the story it tells us that he prayed fervently, consistently, seven times in fact and expectantly, sending his servant to go and check and see if the rain clouds were coming, and he prayed obediently he prayed just as God had asked him to. These are examples for us as well.
I wonder if as the church in the western world and as a church here and now, we need to be aware that James is speaking to us and challenging us about being double minded as he did his original readers. He has started by saying they should expect their prayers to be answered if they were double minded, looking both ways at once, looking to God but also looking to the comforts and conventions, desires and pleasures of this world. Have we become so conditioned by the science and materialism of our modern world that instead of seeking the reality of God we have become as one theologian put it ‘embarrassed by the presence of God’. Are our hearts seeking to know God, for God’s wisdom and renewing and transforming power. Do we long to know and experience the presence and power of God moving in and through us to the hurting and lost world around us, or are we simply quite comfortable as we are thank you very much… I have a confession to make I need to hear James call to prayer, hear James call to change, hear James call to a life focused on Jesus and his kingdom, I need your prayers to help me in that.
Lastly and hopefully encouragingly like James first readers we need to be reminded of the importance and power of prayer in our lives. RVG Tasker sums up the assurance of this passage like this
“We know that our heavenly Father extends to us a standing invitation to draw close to Himself, which no experience of joy or sorrow and no conditions of prosperity or adversary has any power to cancel. The shed blood of Jesus has opened the way of direct access into the divine presence and that way is never barred." Take it to the Lord in prayer. Take it to the Lord in Prayer. Let’s pray.