In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Max Lucado is the Christian author of a number of best-selling books, including several on prayer. In one such book, Before Amen, he makes this admission:
Hello, my name is Max. I’m a recovering prayer wimp. I doze off when I pray. My thoughts zig, then zag, then zig again. Distractions swarm like gnats on a summer night. If attention deficit disorder applies to prayer, I am afflicted. When I pray, I think of a thousand things I need to do. I forget the one thing I set out to do: pray.
Some people excel in prayer. They inhale heaven and exhale God. They are the SEAL Team Six of intercession. They would rather pray than sleep. Why is it that I sleep when I pray? They belong to the PGA: Prayer Giants Association. I am a card-carrying member of the PWA: Prayer Wimps Anonymous.
Can you relate? It’s not that we don’t pray at all. We all pray some.
Who here can identify with him, having difficulty focusing during prayer, unsure of what to pray or how to pray, or even why you pray? Mr. Lucado also notes, “Surveys indicate that one in five unbelievers prays daily. Just in case?” You have to wonder what motivates an unbeliever to pray, and what such a prayer is like. Again, though, we also know our own shortcomings in prayer, don’t we?
Well, if we’re looking for some instruction on prayer, some words of encouragement to pray, we have today’s Epistle reading from St. James. “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise” (Jas 5:13). This is some good, God-pleasing Christian advice in just one verse, is it not? Someone commenting on today’s Epistle reading observed, “[I]f you could somehow find a way to preach just from James 5:13, that would be some solid teaching. … This one verse covers the wisdom of the majority of the Christian life.” But this reading is the end of James’ epistle, and he has a little more to say about prayer. That same commentator said that this ‘more’ from James is exactly the problem. She says, “I think this passage may be in the running to win a ‘Most Negative Spiritual Baggage’ award. I can personally count a rather alarming number of conversations I’ve had with faithful people who have felt that they’ve prayed their hearts out over people they’ve loved only to see them not be healed.” James says, “The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up” (v. 15a). Save here is the same word in Greek as used in the spiritual sense, saving from sin, eternal death, and the devil. It is also used for physical healing—and some prefer to take James in this sense almost to the exclusion of the other. We all know people who have “died too young,” who have suffered and died in great pain, in ways that seem so unfair. Yesterday we had a memorial service for one such member; she was about my age. A “guaranteed divine healing system stings like a slap in the face. Sickness and grief and death are pretty difficult without the added baggage.”
James also urges us to pray like Elijah. He was a man just like us! And when he prayed for it not to rain, it didn’t rain for three and a half years! Then he prayed again, and it started raining again. (How well does that work?)
Never mind that Elijah was a prophet who also didn’t die because he was taken up into the heavens in a fiery chariot. He’s exactly like us. He is the most average human being ever there was. You should absolutely compare yourself to him, especially when someone you love is sick and your prayers aren’t magically working to fix [the person]. Then you can feel guilty not only for your prayers clearly not being said/heard correctly, but also for not being ELIJAH.
We’re familiar with the fact that Luther had a rather low opinion of the Epistle of James. He thought it was chaotic and unorganized, and that it taught justification by works and not by faith, as Paul clearly did. It mentions the name of Christ, but taught nothing of His crucifixion or resurrection—so Luther thought, and many have followed him in their assessment of the book, reserving special ire for today’s text.
Is James really suggesting or promising a “guaranteed divine healing system”? Is he really telling us how inadequate we are in prayer when we can’t measure up to Elijah? That commenter asks one final question: Is James really that oblivious to reality, the human condition, even to the practice of compassion, or is he saying something more here? Well finally! That last part is the right question! Much of her diatribe is actually well off the mark. Of course James is saying something more here!
David Scaer, one of our Fort Wayne seminary professors, calls James “the Apostle of Faith.” This James is neither James the Elder nor James the Less, two of Jesus’ twelve disciples whom He appointed as apostles. This is James, the brother of the Lord and the first bishop, or overseer, of the mother church at Jerusalem. We often miss what James is actually saying because we aren’t familiar with the context in which he’s writing, and because we don’t catch his similarities to Jesus and the Gospels and, yes, even to Paul. James was, like Jesus and the Twelve and Paul, a Jew. James, Ya‛akov, Jacob, was named after Grandpa, Joseph’s father. He was the chief pastor to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. It was these believers whom Paul called “the saints” and “the poor” for whom he took up collections among the Gentile believers. Many of them were poor because they were often ostracized by their fellow Jews, cut off from their families, from work and business, and from the life of the community. James/Jacob had first-hand knowledge of the problem, and of the suffering, affliction, and persecution of these believers.
To an oppressed, afflicted, persecuted community of believers like his, James is first addressing his epistle, including these exhortations to prayer. “Is anyone among you suffering [affliction, hardship, persecution]? Let him pray.” This isn’t permission or a “get out of his way and let him pray.” It is an imperative, a command for the afflicted believer to pray. Why should we pray? Because God commands us to pray, as we hear when our Lord instructs His disciples, “When you pray, say, ‘Father, hallowed be Your name …” (Lk 11:2). By the way, that raises an interesting question. The Lord’s Prayer is found in both Matthew’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel; but, why are they different? There’s a simple answer, and those of you who have had me for Confirmation class have heard it. There are two different versions because Jesus taught it on at least two different occasions. Being the Good Teacher that He is, our Lord doesn’t necessarily repeat His teaching exactly the same way every time.
“Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” Sing praise is literally “strike the harp,” or in the Jewish worship familiar to James, “play/sing a psalm.” The Psalms were the hymnbook of Israel, and of Jesus, and of the early church. The Psalms, as Holy Scripture, are also a great part of the pattern for prayer which the Holy Spirit has given to His people. Luther was known as a man of prayer, who especially loved to pray the Psalms. There are psalms of complaint and lament, and psalms of great joy and cheer. When we are looking or struggling for the words to pray, turn to the Psalms. Let them and the other Scriptures shape your prayers—especially the Prayer which our Lord taught us. For it is the Prayer from the mouth of God Himself!
What about praying for the sick, that it “will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up”? We may be tempted to pass right over this, avoid it, because otherwise it seems cringe-worthy. After all, it doesn’t work—not always, anyway. Hear again what James really says: “The prayer of faith will save the sick one, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” The prayer is “of (the) faith,” and faith, the Christian faith, has content and an object: Christ Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One, with whom we also receive the Father, and from whom we also receive the Holy Spirit. The power and energy of prayer to work is from the One Praying—not us, but Him who is the Divine Energy, the Holy Spirit, who intercedes for us, as does Christ Himself! He fills the gaps and covers the sin that taint our prayers.
What is prayer? Two of our newer hymns on prayer answer that very well. LSB 772, “In holy conversation / We speak to God in prayer.” And LSB 773, “Hear us, Father, when we pray, Through Your Son and in Your Spirit.” Christian prayer is holy conversation, it is Christ-centered, and it invokes and involves the Triune God. Notice also, the saving, the raising up, and the forgiving of the sick one will happen, in the future. Though we may not see it now, the Lord will make it come to pass, in His time, and in fullness on the Last Day, in the Resurrection of all flesh. What is prayer? Is it asking for what we want? Or is it supposed to be asking for what God wants? What He wants to give us, and what He wants to make of us, (what He has in store for us,) for our good and His glory?
What of James’ strange encouragement to be like Elijah in prayer? He is especially addressing those whom the Lord calls to proclaim His Word. Elijah suffered a great deal of persecution for speaking the Truth of the Lord to people who didn’t want to listen to him. He experienced great success, defeating the priests of Baal, but then was “afflicted with a sense of personal failure to the point of finding his own ministry useless” (Scaer). So did Moses before him. When the people grumbled against Moses and God and complained about the manna, the food supplied by the Lord, the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and the fire of the Lord consumed part of the camp (Num 11:1–3), and later consumed those who craved meat. (Same thing would also happen to some of those who stood against Elijah.) Moses cried out, Lord, if You’re going to treat me like this, then kill me now! Lest we forget, Jesus also endured persecution, affliction, and hardship even before the Cross. People grumbled against Him, even some of His own disciples. He warns His disciples of the grave danger of causing “one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin” (Mk 9:42), to stumble and fall and wander away from the Faith, faith in Him.
Jesus also says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heavenly realms their angels always see the face of My Father in [the] heavenly realms” (Mt 18:10). We are not supernatural angels, nor will we ever become angels; but, we are to be “angels” in the original sense of messengers of His Word. And He calls us to be like His holy angels, calling upon His holy name, constantly in prayer to Him and ever singing His praises.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.