James 5:13-20 (Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Series B)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
September 30, 2012
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is from Epistle reading from James 5:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. 19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
“Next to the preaching of the Gospel (whereby God speaks with us and offers to give us all His grace and blessings) the highest and foremost work is indeed that we, in turn, speak with Him through prayer and receive from Him.” With these words the great Reformer Martin Luther urges us to pray. But does it do any good to pray? It seems like everybody prays, even non-Christians. And we know that people don’t always get what they ask for in prayer. So maybe prayer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
That was the conclusion published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings. The report was based on a study of patients with heart disease. Five people prayed for half of the study’s 799 participants at least once a day. After six months, researchers found no significant differences between those who were prayed for and those who were not. According to the leaders of the study, prayer is not effective at all.
But more factors are involved in prayer than the study considered. The study provided no information on the spiritual disposition of the patients or about those who prayed for them. That does make a difference. Not every person can pray to God and expect to be heard. Praying is the work of Christians alone since praying is the work of faith in Christ alone and only Christians possess this faith. “If anyone wants to call upon God, he must believe in his heart that God is appeased, is kind and gracious toward him, and wants to hear him. . . . You will never call upon God the Father, the Creator, who has made you, who feeds you bread, and who frees you from all evils, unless you believe and are sure that He is a gracious God to you.” (Luther on Genesis 49:13, 1545) And the only way a person can know that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding is steadfast love is through the knowledge of Jesus Christ by faith alone. How did James, the brother of our Lord, put it? “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
Prayer that is effective is the prayer of a righteous person. To be righteous means to be to be in a right relationship with God, trusting God’s promised salvation and living according to His promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ. To be righteous means to be just and holy, blameless before the Lord. Who, then, is the righteous person? The person who has been saved from sin, from unrighteousness, by the merits and work of Jesus Christ. It was the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross that took away our sins and unrighteousness and, in exchange, Jesus covers us with His own righteousness, justice, and holiness in the forgiveness of our sins. The person who then receives the blessings of Jesus’ cross and resurrection by faith —forgiveness of sins and everlasting life—is saved from sin and is therefore declared by God to be righteous! This is the gift of God to us. Righteousness doesn’t come from ourselves who, by nature are sinful and unclean, unrighteous. It comes from Christ alone by God’s grace alone through the gift of saving faith alone. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph 2:8 NASB) Therefore, the person who receives the gift of faith believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior from sin and death. So the prayer of a believer in Jesus, the prayer of a Christian—the one who has been made righteous by Christ’s death and resurrection—has great power as it is working.
In the Mayo Clinic study, then, if any of the five people doing the praying were not Christians, then their prayers were in vain. Only Christians, those who have faith in Jesus Christ, can pray and expect to be heard. And only the God of grace in Christ answers prayers. Muslims pray six times a day and they are very faithful in it. But their prayers are not offered to our Father in heaven with faith in Christ. They speak their prayers to a false god named Allah. Hindus pray to their various gods, none of them the one true God who has revealed His love to us in Jesus Christ. And, contrary to popular belief, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses also do not pray to God the Father with faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. So if non-Christians are praying without faith and trust in Jesus, their prayers are no good. They are worthless and not effective.
But that is not true for those who have been made righteous by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ! Our prayers are powerful and effective, not because of who we are or how we pray, but because of who God is, our heavenly Father, who has promised to hear the prayers of His people offered with faith and trust in His Son, Jesus Christ.
Why then is it that sometimes it seems that even our prayers of faith go unanswered? If God promises to hear the prayers of those He has made righteous in Christ, why don’t I get what I ask for? The answer again is found in James. We wander from the truth of God’s Word. We ask and do not receive because we ask wrongly, according to our sinful passions. (4:3; 5:19) As believers in Jesus, we have, at times, the expectation that God must always see things our way. We enjoy the benefit that our prayers are heard because we offer them from faith in Jesus, yet we wrongly assume that means God must answer them according to our will. While it may frustrate us or even cause us to become angry with God for not answering our prayers according to our wishes, it is far better for us that He not answer our prayers according to our wishes and will. Mercifully, God has no interest in answering requests that would only lead us further away from Him.
Fallen human nature, which still clings to us as long as we are on this side of heaven, thinks of itself and its comfort. So often we ask for the desires of our nature, material things that hold the potential of taking over our lives. Being nurtured and fed with the Word of God, faith is increased and grows and learns to recognize what is truly needful. So before we conclude that God is not listening (which faith already knows from the Word that He is because of Jesus Christ!) we might ask ourselves, “Why am I asking for this?” In faith we know that God wants us to pray and will surely answer according to His good and perfect will. Faith convicts us that God’s will and ways are right and best for us, always! Therefore, we pray, motivated by this faith, seeking God’s will in and for our lives. We then accept with thankfulness the Lord’s good and perfect answers.
“Next to the preaching of the Gospel . . . the highest and foremost work is indeed that we, in turn, speak with Him through prayer and receive from Him.” What a true blessing and gift from God prayer is—the ability to talk to Him with thoughts and words that flow from a heart of faith and trust in Jesus Christ. It is our Savior who has made us righteous by shedding His blood on the cross and redeeming us from our sins so that we might approach God’s throne of grace in all confidence that He will always do far more abundantly in our lives even more than we can even ask or think. Empowered by our most holy faith in Jesus Christ, with all boldness and confidence, let us continue to ask God in prayer as dear children ask their dear father. Amen.