James 5:13-20 (Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 21—Series B)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
September 27, 2015
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Epistle lesson recorded 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.
“None can believe how powerful prayer is, and what it is able to effect, except those who have learned it by experience. It is a great matter when in extreme need, to take hold on prayer. I know that whenever I have earnestly prayed, I have been amply heard, and have obtained more than I prayed for. God, indeed, sometimes delayed, but at last He came.” —Martin Luther (Table Talk)
Today we are going back to basics with our Bible text from James 5. In our time together this morning, we are going to review and refresh what God’s Word tells us about prayer so that you and I might continue to joyfully pray the prayer of faith in our lives.
Having a lesson on prayer fresh in their minds, I should ask our Confirmation students, “What is prayer?” And if I did put one of our students of the Word on the spot, I know that they would say, “Prayer is talking to God with thoughts and words.” Back to basics. Prayer is one-way communication with the Lord. We speak to God in prayer; He speaks to us through His Word in the Bible.
Consider the awesome privilege of speaking to God in prayer. By right, this is not something that we should be able to do. Holy Scripture repeatedly shows us that sinners have no standing before God except condemnation. That which is evil cannot come before God’s holy presence. Isaiah 33:14, “The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: ‘Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?’” It is very horrible to consider what our sinful-standing before God actually is. Our sins and our sinfulness prevent us from entering into God’s presence, from even speaking with Him in prayer. Think about Adam and Eve in the Garden. “And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ And he said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.’” (Gen. 3)
As we go back to basics and think about prayer, our first realization is that we who are poor, miserable sinners are not worthy to speak to God. We have no claim that God should listen to us people who willfully rebel against Him and His Word. So how are we able to pray and be heard? Luther gets us to the right understanding of this question, “O how great a thing, how marvelous a godly Christian’s prayer is! How powerful with God—that a poor human creature should speak with God’s high Majesty in heaven and not be frightened, but on the contrary, know that God smiles upon Him for Christ’s sake, His dearly beloved Son.”
We owe it to Christ that we may approach God in prayer. Before a person can pray to God, the individual must be in a right relationship with God. Holy God and rebellious sinner is not a right relationship. Therefore, “prayer relies upon God’s mercy, when we believe that we are heard for Christ’s sake. He is our High Priest, . . . Without this High Priest we cannot approach the Father.” It is Jesus Christ alone who served as our Great High Priest, our one mediator between God and people. It is because of Christ’s righteousness given to us that we stand before God’s throne righteous. It is because of Christ’s full payment for our sins won for us by His suffering and death on the cross that we stand before God’s throne forgiven of our all our sins, made holy by Jesus’ blood shed for us. The only reason James is bold enough to say, “Pray!” is because of the merits and work of Jesus. The writer of Hebrews says by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that because of Jesus’ saving work, “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Heb. 10:12, 19-23) The reason you and I are able to pray is because Jesus Christ has won the forgiveness of our sins and made us holy and righteous with His own righteousness and holiness given to us. With faith and trust in Jesus Christ as our Savior, Mediator, and High Priest, we can approach God’s throne and speak to Him in prayer.
We do not come before the Lord as if He owes us anything. We do not come before the Lord as if He is a divine vending machine dolling out the stuff we want. As believers in Jesus Christ, we approach God in prayer with faith and humility. We are worthy of none of the things we ask for, but we ask that because of His mercy and grace in Christ that He would hear us. We appeal to the grace of God in Christ when we present our requests before Him. And we pray with a believing heart. We do not doubt whether or not God will hear us, but firmly believe that our prayers are acceptable to our Father in heaven and are heard by Him because of Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord. In chapter one of his letter, James wrote, “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting.” (James 1:6 ESV) And so the example of Elijah today, a man just like you and me, who prayed to the Lord with faith because of the merits of the Messiah-Savior to come. And God heard His prayer. There was no rain for 3 years and 6 months. He prayed again. God heard and the rains came.
So then you and I are to pray “without doubting.” Our faith trusts the certainty of God’s promise that He will hear and answer according to His will. Our faith trusts the Spirit-inspired Words of James, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 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. 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. 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.”
“Yes, but I didn’t get what I asked for.” “God didn’t do for me what I wanted.” “God hasn’t answered my prayer yet. Hasn’t He heard?” The prayer of faith is always heard by the Lord. We have His Word of invitation to pray and His Word of promise to hear. As we get back to the basics of prayer, it is good for us to remember that God hears our prayers and acts at His appointed time. God answers prayers in His own way, and not always in the manner we expect. That’s part and parcel for the prayer of faith. We pray, trusting that our Father will hear our prayers for the sake of Christ. But we also pray trusting that His answer is always going to be what is best for us because He is our heavenly Father who loves us with an everlasting love. And our Father in heaven knows best. The Lord might withhold His help to make us realize more fully how helpless we are, or to teach us to call on Him more fervently (Mark 4:37-41; 7:25-30). But He will with everlasting kindness have mercy on us. As Isaiah writes, “’For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,’ says the LORD, your Redeemer.” (Isa. 54:7)
Consider St. Paul. Three times he prayed to the Lord that “the thorn in his flesh,” whatever that was, might be removed. But God didn’t remove it. Instead, He gave Paul the strength to bear the suffering, “My grace is sufficient for you.” (2 Cor. 12:9) Luther shared the story of St. Augustine’s mother and her prayer: “It is impossible that God should not hear the prayers which with faith are made in Christ, though He give not according to the measure, manner, and time we dictate, for He will not be tied. In such sort God dealt with the mother of St. Augustine; she prayed to God that her son might be converted to the Christian faith, but as yet it would not be. Then she ran to the learned, entreating them to persuade and advise him to believe in Christ. She proposed to Augustine a marriage with a Christian virgin, so that he might be drawn and brought to the Christian faith through her. Nothing worked. But when our Lord God came, He came to purpose and made of him such an Augustine, that he became a great light to the church. St. James says, ‘Pray for one another, for the prayer of the righteous avails much.’ Prayer is a powerful thing, for God has bound and tied Himself to it.”
And since that is the case, we pray in faith. We trust that God’s will is going to be accomplished when we pray. We ask boldly and confidently in prayer, trusting that God will do that which is best for us. We offer prayer according to God’s will. We offer prayer trusting in the Savior who alone makes us worthy so to pray. We pray with the Spirit’s gift of patience. With faith, we pray that we would receive God’s perfect answers with thanksgiving and trust, knowing that He will not leave us or forsake us. He will give us His grace that is all-sufficient for us in all our needs.
Back to basics—prayer. What an awesome gift and privilege we have because of the saving work of Jesus. Is anyone among you suffering? Is anyone sick? Is anyone burdened with sin and guilt? Pray. Is anyone grieving or hurting? Is anyone lonely or in need? Pray. The prayer of a person who has been made righteous by the Lord Jesus Christ is powerful. Amen.
 Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 133.