A church was holding a revival. The pastor had worked his way up to a fever pitch. There were going to be miracles seen this day! And right in the middle of it all stumbled a confused looking young man who came down and sat right in the front. The pastor saw his opportunity. “What’s wrong, young fella?” he asked. Tell us, and whatever it is, we will pray and the Lord will answer!”
“I need you to pray for my hearing,” said the man.
At this, the pastor was ecstatic. A real, live opportunity for a healing in their midst! With great ceremony the pastor put his hands on the young man’s ears and he prayed. He prayed long and hard. He prayed fervently and with loud exclamations. And finally, when he was done, he turned to the young man and asked, “So, how’s your hearing?”
“I don’t know,” the young man replied. “It isn’t until next Tuesday.”
James says, “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.” James says healing will take place and sins will be forgiven, because the prayer of a person who is right with God is a powerful thing. This includes praying for hearing, and hearings.
When James speaks of prayer he covers all of life, all of the ups and downs. His words are much more nuanced than we might think at first glance. What we have in English as “in trouble” sounds like a kid about to be grounded, but really it means to be suffering because bad things are happening. Who knew that a language could have one word for that? This includes any negative experience life sends our way—grief, depression, sickness, family conflict, problems at work, losing our job, persecution for our faith, anything at all. Basically, if we are having a rough time, we should pray. At the other end of the spectrum he says if anyone is feeling on top of the world and full of positive energy, they should use that energy to praise God. And if anyone is sick, they should ask the leaders in the church to lay hands on them, anoint them with oil and pray for healing.
We have had healing services at Penn Wynne, and I have laid hands on people and prayed for healing many times, with and without oil. We have seen people healed. But we have also seen people taken home and healed in heaven. We are to pray for healing, and to trust God for the form in which it comes. Full healing in Christ involves more than just the body. It includes forgiveness of sins and salvation. The word in this passage translated as “heal” is the same word as “save”. Our minds and bodies are connected, and guilt, fear and shame can literally make us sick. So James connects healing with a piece of advice that makes a lot of Protestants uncomfortable. He says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
It takes a high degree of trust to confess our sins to one another. James is stating an ideal that is rarely achieved in practice, because in practice people are imperfect. In practice we cannot go around willy nilly telling everyone everything. If we do we run the risk of being judged and gossiped about. But there are times when secret sins hold power over us and weigh us down. The guilt robs us of the ability to live a free and joyful life. In times like these we can find a trusted person, someone whose faith we admire and ability to keep a confidence is firm, and lay down our burden. We are really confessing to God in the presence of another human being, but that human being is an important part of the equation. Having a flesh and blood person makes the words we say somehow more real in our minds, and just as important, a human being can assure us of God’s love and forgiveness. A person can be a vessel of God’s grace.
There are different types of confession of sin, because in addition to confessing to God with or without the presence of another human being, we can also confess to the person we have sinned against and ask their forgiveness. The goal is reconciliation. This is the, “I’m sorry, I was wrong, please forgive me” type of confession. But we must exercise wisdom here too. A sound principle is this: we should go to another human being, confess how we have wronged them and ask for forgiveness ONLY when doing so will not injure them or others. Telling a dying spouse that you cheated on him twenty years ago might make you feel better, but it won’t help him much! We must not try to unburden ourselves at the expense of others.
When James says that: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective,” he was not talking about perfect people. He used the example of Elijah, making clear that Elijah was human just like us. Elijah had both amazing spiritual highs and crippling lows. He was bold and strong in his faith confronting the prophets of Baal in grand style calling down fire from heaven. But he was also terrified and running for the hills because Jezebel was out to get him. We have not been given the example of Elijah to convince us we can never get there, but to encourage us that we can.
The biblical definition of righteous is simply that which is right. Righteousness has become such a heavy religious word that we lose the sense of what it really means. As my Old Testament professor back in New College used to say, “If my car is operating perfectly, it is righteous!” To be a righteous person is to be one who is right with God, who acts justly, shows mercy, and walks humbly with God. The righteous person simply strives to do what is right. But ultimately, we are only right with God through Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. Not one of us can achieve perfection on our own. Our righteousness will always fall short. We can strive to grow spiritually, but Jesus alone was perfect.
Having said all of this, the degree to which we pray in God’s will and live in a relationship of love and trust with God directly relates to the power of our prayer life. There is a difference between someone who occasionally shoots up a prayer and someone who lives immersed in prayer. It’s like the difference exercise makes.
There is a man who comes to the gym I go to who I cannot figure out. He’s dressed for working out. He looks like he’s going to work out. But I’ve never seen him work out. Instead he just lies down on the mat and naps. Sometimes he watches videos on his phone. Once I saw him sitting at one of the tables eating a gallon of ice cream, and it was first thing in the morning! I don’t know why he comes. Maybe he turns up every day to get his wife off his back? If so, does she ever question why he’s still so flabby? On the other hand there are those who come to the gym and take it seriously, who exercise regularly and in a well-rounded way. They look like it! And I am willing to bet that if a heavy object needed lifting, they would be able to do it, whereas my ice cream eating friend, not so much. He’s like someone who comes to church but doesn’t pray and ignores the service. Faith doesn’t come to us by osmosis. Faith comes by action. If we want to lift heavy objects in prayer, we need to exercise our faith.
It’s really very simple. The more we pray, the stronger our prayer life becomes. And God does answer prayer. When we pray for healing there will always be healing, although it may not always come in the form we want. Healing is not a formula, and God is not a vending machine. We have seen people healed of physical illnesses, but we have also seen God heal people by taking them to heaven. This does not mean that our prayer did not work, or that it would have worked if we had just tried harder or been a better person. God’s will is not always our will.
James concludes by saying one more mysterious thing. If someone wanders from the truth and we bring him or her back to faith, we have saved a soul from death and covered a multitude of sins. People do stray and get lost. It’s very easy, in fact. The first step is missing church because other demands crowd in and things happen. From there, we start missing on other Sundays as well because it’s just too much of an effort. Then when we do go back we start to feel out of sync with what’s going on, because we haven’t been there in awhile. Because we feel out of the loop we stay away more, until it becomes months, then once a year at Christmas, to maybe not at all, and the only Christian message we get at all is occasionally on the radio or TV. It’s like the devil’s anesthesia. We just gradually go spiritually to sleep. There’s nothing obvious, nothing drastic, but before we know it, the enemy has won. I have done funerals for people who once were very active in a church, but when the children got busy in sports and other activities on Sundays they stopped going. Before they knew it, 40 years had passed. If we bring someone back to their faith, if we help wake them up and encourage them by reminding them that God loves them, then we are performing a wonderful and gracious ministry. The multitude of sins that may have been committed by the one who slipped away are covered and gone, because a lost child has come home.
It is all connected to prayer, even restoring others to their faith, because we can’t do this without praying for them and praying for the wisdom to say and do the right things. If prayer is like the air we breathe we will grow strong in our faith. So let us pray daily and often. Let us seek God’s will in prayer, and pray for our world and nation. Let us pray for one another, and when we need to, let us confess our sins so we might let go of our burdens and be reconciled to one another. God love us. God wants to fill us and heal us, and the way God does this, is through prayer. Amen.
1 Kings 17: 1-6
17 Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”
2 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: 3 “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. 4 You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there.”
5 So he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. 6 The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.
13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
17 Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.