July 17, 2011

Filling the Holes

How many of you would consider yourselves as having a rich personal prayer life?  Actually, don’t raise your hand.  But think about this for just a second.  Prayer is one of the simplest practices that followers of Jesus should be incorporating into their lives—I mean, at the simplest level it’s just talking about what’s on your heart and mind which most of us can do pretty easily—and yet very few followers of Jesus would honestly acknowledge that they pray “as much as they should” (whatever that means).  For most of us, we pray from time to time as we think about it, but don’t really have the practice fully incorporated such that we are accessing the power available there to the level possible.  In fact, if we’re really honest, I’d be willing to bet that most of us have quietly questioned just how much prayer really makes a difference in the world.

Now, if you have been in church for very long, you know all the “right” things to say about prayer.  If we are engaged in a conversation in which someone is telling us about their problems the “right” response is, “Well, I’ll pray about that for you.”  When we are in a situation that has us floundering, and someone asks us how we are getting along, the “right” response is, “I’m just getting by on prayer.”  Again, if you have been in the church for very long, you know what I’m talking about.  This kind of language about prayer is easy for newcomers to learn.  But, what’s more difficult is the nuance behind this language.  When we say, “Well, I’ll pray about that for you,” what many of us really mean is, “You’re boring me and depressing me with all these terrible details about your life so I’m going to throw some holy sounding language at you so you feel like I’ve really listened, really care, and will leave me alone.”  When we say, “I’m just getting by on prayer,” what many of us really mean is, “My head is about to explode from all the nonsense in my life right now.  I don’t really know what else to do because I’ve tried everything with no real success.  So, I’m going to pray because if I’m so worried about it that I’m talking to myself, I might as well cover up my craziness with a holy blanket so it doesn’t look so bad.”  And I’ll tell you what: as far as the world is concerned, these mindsets make good sense.  I mean, how are we supposed to believe that some invisible, sovereign God hears what everyone in the world says and responds accordingly?  Take off all your Christian lenses for viewing the world for a minute and consider how crazy that sounds.  As far as the world is concerned, we’re nuts.

Perhaps, though, the reason for our perceived lunacy is not so much because of a problem with the practice of prayer, but because our understanding of it is so limited and dysfunctional that we give it a bad name.  For a lot of people, God is like a cosmic vending machine.  If we put in the proper words and sincerity He’ll do whatever we want Him to do.  There is, of course, nothing Biblical about that kind of a silly idea.  In fact, believing something like that really would make us a bit loony.  The proper antidote for this kind of magical-thinking—the idea that we can exercise some measure of control over God or the gods by doing or saying the right sequence of things—is a healthy diet of the word, like we’ll see this morning.

This morning we are going to turn to the last passage in the book of James and in the process get into some pretty tough questions about the practice of prayer.  Here’s the deal with prayer: it is powerful.  Because of the growing naturalistic nihilism of our culture, prayer gets looked upon with scorn by skeptics, incredulity by many prayers, and apathy by nearly everyone else.  It is often seen to be a sort of passive, last resort sort of exercise that you try when everything else has failed.  This is expressed in the often fatalistic cliché, “All we can do now is pray.”  Yet if we take even half of what the Bible has to say about the prayer seriously, what we are doing in prayer is accessing the very power of God.  That’s no last resort measure.  That’s more like the first line of defense.  It’s like a Maginot Line, but without the end-run weakness.  Faithful prayer has the potential of unleashing the raw, unpredictable, unimaginably potent power of God into this world.  For some incredible reason that the Bible never really makes very clear, God acts through our praying.  And when God acts, things happen.  Broken bodies are mended.  Broken relationships are reconciled.  Broken hearts are sewn back together again.  Things happen.  Things happen which would otherwise be inconceivable.  Prayer can fill all the holes in our lives, making them stronger after mending than they were before.  Faithful prayer wholly fills hole-filled lives.  And with the help of the words from our very last stop in James this morning, we are going to understand this idea a whole lot better.  So if you have your Bibles with you this morning, open them to James 5:13 and we’ll dive right in.

“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.  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.  Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.  My brothers [and sisters], if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 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.”

So let’s look at this.  Where does James start?  He asks about the situations of his audience and encourages them to respond appropriately.  Here’s the first thing we can say about prayer from what James is saying here: prayer should come out of the circumstances of our lives regardless of what they are.  Whether things are going well or going terribly, prayer is always an acceptable response.  The idea here is that we are sharing our entire lives with God.  If something good is happening to us, let’s tell Him about it.  If something really bad is happening, let’s describe to Him in great detail exactly what we’re feeling about the situation.  I can specifically remember having very angry conversations with God.  I remember driving down the road beating on the steering wheel just nearly yelling at God because I was so frustrated with whatever was going on in my life at the time.  But don’t take just my life as an example, study the Psalms.  If we can learn anything from the Psalms it’s that we don’t ever have a good reason to hold back on our feelings with God.  All of the psalmists, but David in particular, consistently lay it all out before God and leave it there for Him to deal with.  This is what James is getting at here: whatever the situation of your life, prayer is always an appropriate response.  And the best way to do it is to be as absolutely honest with God as you possibly can.  Forget about trying to use the “right” words or about trying to make sure it “sounds like a prayer” and just pray.  Faithful prayer wholly fills hole-filled lives, but in order to experience that filling we have to actually pray.  But there’s another reality in this that we need to face: there are some situations in our lives that are bigger and more challenging than our single voice of prayer can cover.  This is what James hints at in v. 14.

The language James uses in v. 14 suggests someone who is deathly ill.  He is so sick he can’t even manage to go to where the elders are, but must call them to come to him.  Now, the next few verses have been the subject of a lot of inked debates over exactly what kind of a situation James is describing and what happens in it.  Let me save you from all the details of the debates and get right down to the point.  What James is talking about specifically here is praying for folks who are in situations so dire that for whatever reason they can’t pray or else their single voice of prayer isn’t enough.  Imagine a woman lying in a hospital bed with a prognosis from the doctor that isn’t encouraging to say the least.  This woman calls for the elders of her church to come and pray over her.  Now, who are these elders?  Some might associate them with the deacons and that would be fair.  But I would argue that the “elders” James has in mind here are simply the leaders in the church; folks who are mature in their faith and dedicated to following the Lord Jesus in every aspect of their lives.  These folks are called to pray over the sick person and to anoint her with oil, which was essentially a way to symbolically set the person apart as under the special care and protection of God.  When this prayer is prayed by the elders in faith, God will act and restore the person to health once again.  Faithful prayer wholly fills hole-filled lives.  In this case the hole was the result of a physical illness.

That all sounds pretty straightforward and, frankly, pretty awesome.  In light of this I think we can end this sermon right now and get out of here…unless that is, you’re at all like me and your theological noses have gotten a whiff of some foul-smelling stuff.  Let me see if I can put words to the question and objection quickly welling up inside of you: what about when this doesn’t work, because it doesn’t always work.  When my grandpa was dying when I was ten years old I prayed and he didn’t get any better.  Furthermore, if you remember what comes next in the passage, James says this thing about the sick person being forgiven of his sins and goes on to talk about confessing our sins.  What on earth does that have to do with the sick person being healed?

Let’s treat these in reverse order.  As James gets into the confession and forgiveness of sins, he is really getting into the larger question of why people get sick in the first place.  That’s a biggie.  It’s a corollary of the larger issue of theodicy: why do bad things happen on a good God’s watch?  James doesn’t try to answer this whole question and neither will I.  What James is saying, however, is this: there are a lot of reasons why someone might be sick and in our praying for them, we should cover all our bases.  It could be that the person’s illness is the result of our living in a fallen world.  Certainly we have all experienced the reality of that.  Disease is a tragic part of life on this side of eternity.  Sometimes, many times even, friends and loved ones get sick because we live in a broken world and for reasons to which we are not fully privy God has not made everything right yet.  But, this isn’t the only side of the story.

You see, sometimes it is not the brokenness of the world around us that is the root cause of our illness; it is the brokenness inside of us.  Faithful prayer wholly fills hole-filled lives and sometimes the holes in our lives are of our own making.  In other words, sometimes people fall ill because of sin.  While this idea isn’t all that popular today (mostly because the whole idea of real [and negative] consequences for things we’ve done isn’t very popular), there is a great deal of Biblical data suggesting that sometimes God allows us to face illness and disease as a form of discipline for our sin.  Most of the time, when people fall ill, there is a medical solution to the problem.  But when illness is a result of sin, until we deal with the root of the problem (the sin) medicine isn’t likely to help all that much.  Now, if this seems unduly harsh of God to use physical illness as a means of dealing with sin consider a few things.  First, it happened pretty frequently in the Bible and so it’s not like God is suddenly not being consistent to His character.  Second, take into account the words of the book of Hebrews on the subject: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.  For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”  Which would you prefer: deal with a tragic illness that brings you back to God when you have left the fold, or have Him leave you alone to deal with the consequences of your brokenness for the rest of eternity?  Third, sin and disease are not the final answer.  This is James’ point here.  Forgiveness is possible and it can come as a result of the faith-filled prayers of the group gathered and offering them.  These faithful prayers—as verses 19-20 make clear—can result then in not only physical healing, but also spiritual healing.  Faithful prayer wholly fills hole-filled lives.

And so I don’t leave you wondering about this: this faith-filled prayer is powerful stuff.  Putting the power of prayer in our hands is like giving a kindergartener plutonium—you don’t know what might happen.  Maybe seemingly nothing.  And maybe the face of this world changes forever.  As James puts it, “the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”  And I know what you’re thinking as I read that again: “Oh great, so you have to be righteous in order for your prayer to accomplish anything?  That pretty much rules me out from being a powerful prayer.  I guess I can’t come to the Prayer Team meetings.”  Here’s the thing, though: the designation of righteous isn’t something that the Bible reserves for a dedicated few from among the followers of Christ. Righteousness just means right relationships.  Someone who is righteous is rightly related to God and to the people around her.  This should be a fitting description of every follower of Jesus.  Even if righteous isn’t a very accurate description of your life right now, though, forgiveness and grace, which grease the wheels to righteousness, are always available.  In fact, we can access them by going humbly to the foot of the cross in prayer.  Faithful prayer wholly fills hole-filled lives.

As an example of the power available to us through prayer, James offers us the example of Elijah.  Now, if you know the story of Elijah, this seems pretty far-fetched to you.  After all, Elijah is recognized as the prophet in the Old Testament second only to Moses in his greatness.  He appeared with Moses on the mount of transfiguration with Jesus.  He is often pictured as one of the two witnesses from Revelation 11.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t see myself as really belonging in the same spiritual lineage as Elijah.  He called down fire from heaven for goodness’ sake.  I’ve never done that, nor do I see myself doing it anytime soon.  And yet, James is clear in his envisioning prayers to bear the spirit of Elijah.  As a matter of fact, Elijah wasn’t so different from you and me.  He was not super human.  He had frailties.  He had doubts.  For example, the story right after his calling down fire from heaven is about him hiding in a cave and having an “Oh-Woe-Is-Me” pity party.  Here’s the deal with Elijah’s praying: he prayed about things God told him He was doing in the world.  And when he did, lives changed.  Cultures bent in submission before God.  The world was never the same.  Now, the things that happen in response to our prayers may not seem like much, but it’s all a matter of perspective.  Seeing a son or daughter return to faith after being out playing the prodigal son for a season may not seem as extraordinary as calling down fire from heaven or making it not rain on the earth for three and a half years, but the power involved in changing a life is incalculably greater than the power involved in effecting a drought.  The kinds of things we can see accomplished through our prayers because of the constant indwelling of the Holy Spirit are several orders of magnitude greater than the kinds of things Elijah saw happen.  Faithful prayer wholly fills hole-filled lives.

Let’s bring things back around now by sitting with the big question for a minute: what about when we pray and nothing seems to happens?  Looking at this passage, James doesn’t seem to allow for that.  He focuses pretty heavily on the positives here.  The elders are going to pray faithfully.  God is going to act to raise the sick person up.  Sins are going to be forgiven.  This is a guarantee, isn’t it?  No, it’s not.  Attempting to take this as a guarantee removes it from its broader context.  It was just two sermons ago that I said we have to make our plans and then put them in God’s hands.  His plans trump ours.  We might have plans for the person to get better, but if He doesn’t, our plans won’t amount to a hill of beans.  And if we hold on to our plans with a mournful death-grip all that’s going to happen is we are going to wind up depressed with life and mad at God.  That kind of an end doesn’t serve anybody well.  What we need in both this case and in our lives in general is a broader perspective.  Physical healing is not the end-all, be-all when someone is sick.  Getting stuck on seeing a sick person brought back to health glues our attention to this world and its affairs.  It indicates a worldview belief that this world is all there is.  In the bigger picture, the state of our hearts is infinitely more important.   Let me give you a tough truth: if we are following Christ and they are following Christ, then in the grand scheme it doesn’t matter if they are sick now except in whether we draw closer to God because of it or drift away.  We can rest assured that if God sees fit for someone to not get better He has a good reason for doing it.  There’s a good chance we’re never going to know it.  This is why prayers for spiritual healing are put on par with those for physical healing.  Because if one of these two parties isn’t following Jesus, that’s a much bigger deal than someone being physically infirm getting better.  This life and all its intricacies are but a moment in the scope of eternity.  Our view of it is skewed by our situated-ness.  We are staring at a missing piece in a small corner of a giant puzzle agonizing over where it could be.  And if we don’t look up, we’re never going to see the gaping holes in the middle.  Faithful prayer can bring things back into perspective for us.  It has the potential to remind us of what’s really important so that we can submit ourselves to the Hole Fix-It Man in order to see all the pieces of the puzzle set back in place.  Faithful prayer wholly fills hole-filled lives.

As I was thinking this past week about how to draw this morning to a close something occurred to me.  I don’t want to let you out of here to life as it was before.  I don’t want you to leave without the opportunity to experience what we have talked about this morning in a real way.  So here’s what we are going to do.  In just a minute, some members from Central’s prayer team are going to space themselves across the front of the sanctuary.  They are here to pray for and with you.  I can tell you with great assurance that each member of this team more than sufficiently fits the image of James’ elder.  If any of you has something about which you want some prayer, slip down front and one of these nice folks will pray with you and for you about whatever it is.  If you have good news, come on.  If you are sick, come on.  If you have sin you need to confess, come on.  If you don’t really know what you are feeling, come on.  We are going to create some space and time for this to happen.  And if you need to keep going beyond when the service officially ends, the sound man is going to keep the music rolling and we’ll stay out of your way.  As this is going on, I’m going to give the rest of you a chance to take an active part in this praying too.  I’m going to have you close your eyes and as you do, I’m going to read through the names on our prayer list.  I’ll pause briefly after each name and I would like a person or three to volunteer to be a special intercessor for each person on the list this week.  Take time every day to pray for whomever it is.  If you choose someone about whose situation you don’t know very much, I would be delighted to fill in your knowledge gaps.  Pray for their healing if that’s the issue, but pray even harder for their holes to be filled.  Pray that God will act in the ways He knows are best and that He would give us the grace to see that He is good regardless of whether or not His actions fit in with our plans.  Pray faithfully, though, because there is great power in this.  Faithful prayer wholly fills hole-filled lives.  Let’s enter into this time of prayer together.