In Christian culture, it is so often glorified to live “sold-out for God” – trusting him for everything and not being ensnared by worldly things. John the Baptist and almost all the other Biblical prophets are good examples. Modern examples abound as well, and they can inspire and challenge us. But I wonder if focusing only on the most dramatic examples of faithfulness sets us up to feel like failures if we end up having an ordinary life.
What about those of us who don’t get a radical prophetic call? Can we be sold out for Jesus and still take a mortgage? Can we make friends without evangelising them or indulge our kids in ice cream truck treats without guilt over the panhandlers we passed by? I think the answer is sometimes yes. Does that sound like a middle class cop out? Maybe it is – I’m trying to figure out where to draw the line!
I don’t believe God gave us life simply for us to suffer (not that a life of sacrifice is necessarily a life of suffering). His promise is for abundant life to all who believe in him, and abundant life can take many different forms I think. At the centre of all those different forms is obedience to Christ and I think that’s where it gets tricky.
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Recently Matt preached about the woman with the issue of blood, and as part of that service, I wrote a monologue to read before the sermon began. Here it is!
I have been invisible for 12 years.
I felt myself wasting away from the inside out, felt strength withering from my bones in the heat each day.
I hate crowds, hate the crush of flesh and smells and sounds, like an ocean current cutting through the city, carrying a life that I’ll never know. People going to work, to weddings, running errands and meeting friends. That day the crowd was waiting for Jesus, hoping to see a show, and I watched from a doorway, kept my distance as usual.
It can be glamorous to be sick, if you know the right people, if you get the right disease, if you get better. I failed on all counts.
People cared at the beginning, brought meals, said prayers. But when the prayers go unanswered, you run out of things to talk about. “How are you?” Starts every conversation. And ends it because my eyes can’t lie – I am dying, drop by drop in slow motion shame. My skin aches for a kind touch, but my disease is polluting – like I’m spiritually contagious, waiting for forgiveness not for sin that I’ve committed but for the person I am.
My family is gone, and my friends gave up on me a long time ago – they moved on with their lives while mine has been stuck on pause. Until that day when Jesus came and Jairus asked him to heal his daughter. I know snake oil healers, catch the gleam in their eye when they promise what a difference silver coins will make, and when mine were all spent they melted back into the crowd.
Jesus was different.
When he went with Jairus, the crowd almost swallowed him up, so eager to see a miracle they would have crushed him on the way. But while the crowd pulsed, Jesus didn’t hurry – his measured steps were so sure, that I suddenly realized he was my only hope. He was actually going to heal a sick girl, not just put on a show and collect a paycheck. I pulled my veil over my face and pressed through the crowd. The flesh and the smells and the sounds swelled around me, and I gasped like drowning, but this was no time to die, not when life itself was passing within my reach.
I lurched through the crowd, shoving past bodies much bigger and stronger than my frame, eyes locked on Jesus’ back, giving no notice to the gasps and murmurs of those who realized my condition. If anyone could heal me it was this gentle, yet determined man who was on his way to a noble cause and wouldn’t even notice, if I could only touch the hem of his garment.
When I reached him and touched his cloak, it felt like reaching cool shade after walking through parched fields in hot sun. It felt like cool, clean water from a well after 12 years of drinking from puddles and streams. It was so good to be whole, that at first I didn’t realize the crowd had stopped. That the ocean current driving to Jairus’ house had stopped, and that people were staring. At me.
Jesus had noticed, of course he had, and while I stood stunned, feeling my heart beat and the wind on my face while everything else was on pause for a change, he saw me. I was no longer invisible.
When I found my voice, I fell at his feet and told him my story – I have been bleeding for 12 years, and nobody has been able to help me, but when I saw you I knew – I just knew – that you could make me well. And when I touched your cloak I was healed, and I will never ask for anything again in my life. He smiled at me and said, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”
And it was so.
Well the blog has certainly been quiet for a while! Life has been full of lots of good things, and time after time blogging sifted down to the bottom of my list of things to get to. No hard feelings, right? Honestly, I’m not even here to say things are going to change.
However, a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to preach at my church, and while the audio recording is currently incomplete, I wanted to share my transcript for those who are interested what I had to say. Feel free to read it out loud to yourself or ask a winsome and engaging friend to read it for a more sermon-like experience. It’s how they did it in the old days, before podcasts 😉
I read an amazing story in the news last week that I wanted to share with you. The quote that caught my eye said, “I prayed to be found, I prayed and prayed and I yelled ‘Amen!’ and then I heard a plane’ This is a quote from Pauloosie Keeyotak, who is an MLA in Nunavut. He had gone snowmobiling with his son and nephew, when they hit bad weather and their GPS failed. They took shelter from the storm, but then headed out in the wrong direction and spent two days on the wrong trail. By the time they realized they were lost, they didn’t have enough gas to get back, and they had to survive for 8 days before they were found. The whole survival story is amazing, but the conclusion is the most dramatic. Losing hope and worrying about who would freeze to death first, Keeyotak prayed one more time from the bottom of his heart as he walked outside, trying to keep warm. And rescue came.
When was the last time you prayed? Other than the prayers that have been part of our service today, did you talk to God this morning? Have you been in touch with him this week? What does prayer mean to you?
Before we get into this sermon any further, let’s pray.
God we thank you for your word and for the opportunity to hear it fresh today. Holy Spirit, we ask you to teach us today, to move in our hearts and minds so that the message you give us does not go in one ear and out the other. Silence the voices of doubt that tell us prayer won’t make a difference. We are here to hear from you, and I pray that none of us will leave today the same as when we came. In Jesus name, Amen.
When I was in high school, a movie came out that put Christianity front and center in our culture for a few weeks while everyone went to see and then talk about this hilarious and thought-provoking movie: Bruce Almighty. Bruce, played by Jim Carrey, is a man who gets fed up with God and feels he could do a better job at running the universe, and to his surprise, God takes him up on the offer. In his new role as Bruce Almighty, his first task is to answer the prayers of everyone around the world who prays. This sets the stage for the clip you’re about to see:
Too many people have this view of prayer – we send God a request, and we hope he’ll deal with it when he has time. But God is not like Bruce sitting overwhelmed behind a computer screen – he’s got this. He created and knows each one of us. He is the Creator and sustainer of the universe. By the Holy Spirit, he is completely available on a personal basis to each of us at every moment every day. Our prayers are limited not by God’s availability but by our availability.
I titled this sermon, Plug into God’s Power, because if only one thing sticks in your mind today, I want it to be this image of prayer as a powerful, instant connection to God, like electricity flowing into a lamp that lights up a room. Just as a lamp needs to stay plugged in to an outlet to shine, the continual prayers of God’s people are what sustain our efforts to live Godly lives and to proclaim God’s kingdom around the world. Without prayer we inevitably burn out or drift away.
Our passage is the closing piece to James’s letter, and he is concluding a message that touches on many topics. He has dealt, among other things, with the value of suffering, and the seriousness of sin. If you want bonus marks, read the book of James this week. It is five chapters full of practical advice and straight talk about Christian life. As he closes, James concludes his teaching with this passage on prayer.
“Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” The word for trouble here means to suffer misfortune, and we know James has already spoken to the value of suffering earlier in his letter. When we have trouble, our first response should be to pray – whether we ask for the trouble to be removed or for the strength to endure the situation. God can use suffering for our good, not least of all by drawing us close to him.
Now, James is not being a jerk by splitting the church into the happy and sad people. When James uses this word “happy” he doesn’t mean light-heartedness or good circumstances. Instead, he is speaking to those believers who can be in good spirits even when conditions are difficult. James’s readers were in a tough spot, and if you read the whole letter you’ll see that nobody is off the hook, but some handled their suffering with more grace than others. James does not insist that believers have a particular emotional response to suffering and hardship – we may grin and bear it, or we may grumble or weep, but our spiritual response should be prayer – reaching out to God and plugging in to his power.
If we are all dedicated to praying in every circumstance, then that will naturally draw us together as a community. The shared experience of God’s faithfulness will inspire us to worship together, to share our stories, and to celebrate. But there is more.
Prayer plugs us in to God, but it also connects us to each other. It is amazing to realize how much access we have to prayer in this day and age – I’m part of groups on Facebook where people share prayer requests, and it’s incredible to see people responding on behalf of people they’ll never meet in this life, lifting people up to God for encouragement, for healing, for wisdom, for salvation. We can sign up to receive prayer requests from different ministries, and as we hear news from around the world we are inspired to pray far beyond issues that affect us personally. As a global church we can pray for one another on a level that is unprecedented in history, and that is an amazing thing. But as a local church, we must be sure to pray for one another as well. James says in his letter, “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. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” I think that some of us would rather pray on the internet than call on people from church to pray over us or anoint us with oil. It sounds quite odd, and the skeptics among us find prayers for healing awkward because… what if they don’t work?
We have come to a passage that sounds very black and white – it looks like James is providing a formula, right? Just get some elders and anointing oil, pray with faith, and we could solve overcrowding in hospitals, not to mention the heartache of chronic pain and illness. Is James wrong? I wouldn’t pick a passage to preach on that had a lie right in the middle of it, would I?
Remember in the movie clip, when Bruce says yes to all the prayers? We didn’t see it in the clip, but it brings disaster! Weather patterns go crazy as everyone’s different prayers for rain or no rain or warmer or cooler weather all come to pass. Tons of people win the lottery so the payout is next to nothing, and there are other unforeseen consequences. The point of this scene is summed up when God tells Bruce, “people ask for what they want – they don’t know what they need.”
This verse in James looks like a formula for healing, but I believe it is a formula for prayer, just like the earlier verses. If you are in trouble, pray. If you are happy, praise God. If you are sick, call others to pray with you
What about the anointing oil? Anointing with oil is not part of our Canadian culture, but it would have been very familiar for James’s original readers. For Jewish people, the oil represents God’s unceasing interest in his people during times of hardship. Throughout the Old Testament when Israel was at its most vulnerable, God used even hardship for his purpose of forming them as a people, of correcting and shaping them. Prophets were persecuted when they insisted that disaster would be used by God rather than promising relief from suffering and oppression. Anointing with oil represents our certainty not necessarily that God will heal but that God cares, and that his power is at work in the sick person’s life whether or not they are physically healed. Being prayed for and anointed encourages those who are sick and keeps them closely connected to the rest of the congregation, even if they aren’t able to worship together or participate in different events.
Considering James’s focus on suffering throughout his letter, his teaching is for believers to stay firm in their faith and to hold steadfastly to their hope in Christ, even as God uses difficulties to bring about his purpose in their lives. If James wrote the Beatitudes, perhaps he would have added, “Blessed are the sick, for they will be prayed for.”
James’s emphasis is much more on prayer than on the anointing, and the whole focus of this passage is on prayer. Olive oil was used widely in the ancient world for medicinal purposes, and I think this passage could be fairly interpreted to mean that when we pray for healing, medical care will not counteract the prayer of faith. We can pray for medical treatment to be effective and recognize that ultimately, however it comes, healing is a gift from God. I believe that God has the power to heal directly, and that there are times he does so. I know we have people here with stories of God’s healing as a result of prayer, including myself, but I do not think that this passage makes a promise of God’s healing if we follow particular steps.
Now we’ve arrived at another sticky point in this passage, because James goes on to say, “If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 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.”
First of all, clearly illness is not always caused by sin – Jesus corrects his disciples from that view when they ask about the man born blind in John 9. Perhaps we have overcorrected since those days, because I’ve hardly met anyone who believes unconfessed sin can have an effect on our health. What do we do about Acts 5 and the story of Ananias and Sapphira who lied about their offering and both dropped dead as a result. We also heard last week of Paul’s warning to the Corinthians that their sin related to the Lord’s Supper had resulted in some people falling sick and even passing away.
Rather than getting caught up in the cause of an illness, wondering whether it is a consequence of sin or circumstance or God’s will, our response should always be prayer. Remember the formula, if you’re sick, then pray and ask others to pray with you. If we know we’ve sinned, then we should confess it, and not just to stop our migraines or heal our ulcers.
This confession piece is key to understand before we can grasp why James says The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Who is the righteous person, do you think? The one confessing or the one hearing the confession? What if both people confess to each other?
As Christians, our righteousness comes from Christ. Despite the perception a lot of people have, Christians shouldn’t think of themselves more highly than anyone else. Should we try to be righteous? Of course! But we’ll fail. And the temptation to cover up our sin is just as dangerous as the sin we point out in other people’s lives. If we aren’t confessing, if we aren’t able to honestly admit our failures and our need for grace, then we are not righteous because we are not leaning on Jesus. We’re trying to do it on our own. And what kind of prayer comes from someone who wants to do it on their own? An ineffective prayer.
If you struggle with porn, or you gossip, or you lie or steal or lose your temper, don’t bury those flaws and pretend that things are fine. Compared to Catholics or Anglicans, you might think Baptists don’t really do confession, but we do have a priesthood. As Baptists, we believe in the priesthood of all believers, which means you can confess your sin to one another and receive absolution through prayer with one another. Matt is absolutely available to hear from you or offer accountability, but it is just as valid to confess to your deacon or your Christian friend. When we confess, we find healing and we are restored to righteousness, able to pray with power. James gives the example of Elijah.
Now I hope you’re planning to read James this week, and once you’ve done that I suggest you also read through 1 Kings 17-18. This is the story of Elijah the prophet, who told the king of Israel that a drought would come on the land that would last until Elijah prayed for rain. This is not a claim you would make lightly, and Elijah actually spent years in hiding because that king wanted to kill him. But this is what Elijah said, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years except by my word.” Elijah is the same prophet who drenched a bull and altar in gallons of water (and this is three years into the drought, so water was a precious commodity) and then called on God to send fire from heaven if his sacrifice was acceptable. Elijah knew the power of prayer – he plugged in to God and didn’t back away from the life-changing results. In front all the people of Israel who had been gathered for the spectacle, Elijah prayed this prayer, “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” And fire fell down and consumed not only the offering, but the wood and stones and dust of the altar itself, and the water that had filled the trench around the altar. This is the story that comes just before Elijah prays for rain, and that comes too, after three and a half years of drought.
When Elijah prayed, the words he spoke flowed out of an ongoing connection he had with God. He didn’t just up and pray for God to send fire from Heaven – his actions flowed out of his lifelong relationship with God, a relationship filled with prayer times that didn’t make it into Scripture, prayers that weren’t witnessed by a crowd of people because they were between God and Elijah. Our prayers are limited not by God’s availability but by our availability.
James didn’t want his readers to think that they couldn’t pray like Elijah, and I hope we don’t count ourselves out of that story either. As James says, Elijah was a man, a human being just like us, but God responded to his prayer. Maybe this example is too dramatic. I know that I am certainly not ready to command fire from Heaven. Instead of turning people’s hearts back to God, I would just use it to zap people who stop in merge lanes or who stick their gum under seats on the TTC. But, what if you knew your prayers would be answered? What if you could have the confidence to tell someone, “God is going to get you a place to live – I’m praying about it.” Or, “that relationship is going to get better – I’m praying about it.”
Brothers and sisters, we are invited to enter the presence of God, and to speak with him so he will listen. If that sounds crazy to you, it kind of should.
This is my work badge. My office has magnetic locks on all the doors, so we have to swipe our badge to access the office. Now my job isn’t very important, so as a metaphor for prayer it’s a little weak, but imagine if my badge didn’t just let me into a locker room and a kitchenette. Imagine that this card gave me access to the CEO Jamie DImon’s office in New York. I could go there, but even if I walked right up to his desk I’d still be a nobody. The difference between this work badge and the prayer of a righteous person is faith in Jesus Christ. See, no matter what access is programmed into this plastic card, I will never be a person of influence to Jamie Dimon. However, I believe that because of Jesus, I can be a person of influence to the God of all Creation. This is what James says of Elijah, and of Job, of Abraham and Rahab the prostitute. Jesus’ death on the cross pays the price for all the sin that used to separate us from our Creator. The love of God that we’ve rejected through disbelief, through disobedience, through despair, has always been waiting for us to turn back in faith. Jesus made the way for us to turn back, and now through prayer we are granted access to God’s presence, and through faith we have received the Holy Spirit to walk with us and coach us and pray along with us to help us say the right things when we have God’s ear.
Let that sink in for a minute. Earlier in James 4, he says “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you… Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
What if you don’t know where to start? Simply reach out to God. You can pray out loud, or you can pray in your head, or write a prayer like a letter, and just say what you want to say to God. You can admit if you feel a bit like a crazy person. I love the prayer of a man in Mark 9:24, “I believe, help my unbelief!”
Pray with others, or pray on your own. If there are children in your life, I encourage you to pray with them – they will teach you to pray honestly and simply, and sometimes it will be ridiculous, but sometimes it will be gold.
Whatever you do, pray.