Sermon 06-01-14: “Prayer and Healing”

June 12, 2014

practically_perfect

 

Below is the final sermon in our James sermon series. This marks the first time in my ten-year ministry that I’ve preached through an entire book of the Bible! The experience has been rewarding for me. I hope it’s been for you as well. In today’s scripture, James looks back to a theme that he began exploring at the very beginning of the letter: “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Learning to “count it all joy” begins with the kind of prayer James talks about in today’s letter.

Sadly, we have no sermon video this week!

Sermon Text: James 5:13-20

Do you know about the prophet Elijah? Next to Moses, he’s considered the Old Testament’s greatest prophet. He prophesied during a time of wickedness in Israel, when Israel’s king, Ahab has turned most of Israel away from worshiping the one true God and turned them toward the worship of Baal, the pagan god worshiped by most of Israel’s neighbors. In one dramatic episode from 1 Kings chapter 18, Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest to prove once and for all who the one true God is—is it Baal, or is it Yahweh, Israel’s God? Elijah makes his case by asking God to bring fire down from the sky and consume a sacrifice on an altar. Surely now, Elijah thinks, the people would be able to see once and for all who God really is, repent of their idolatry, and turn back to God.

Except it doesn’t quite work out that way. Even after this miraculous spectacle of fire from heaven, most of Israel doesn’t repent, Ahab remains on his throne, and Elijah finds himself on the run from Ahab’s murderous wife Jezebel, who vows to have him killed. He winds up hiding in a cave on Mount Horeb—also known as Sinai, the mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Elijah is deeply depressed—he literally feels like killing himself. He feels like an abject failure. Everything he’s devoted his life to accomplishing seems to have come to nothing.

So God asks him why he’s hiding in this cave. He says, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” So God tells Elijah to stand outside the cave and watch something: Elijah sees a terrible wind so strong that it breaks rocks apart. But scripture says, the “Lord was not in the wind.”Then Elijah saw an earthquake, but the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake, either. Then he sees a great fire from the sky, perhaps like the one that he had called down against the prophets of Baal. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire either.

After these dramatic, miraculous spectacles, Elijah hears what the King James Version calls a “still, small voice.”

Elijah has no idea what any of this means. So God finally has to interpret these signs for him. And what God shows him is this: It’s easy to see God at work through big, dramaticevents—represented by wind, and earthquake, and fire. But God often works very quietly, invisibly, behind the scenes, in the small corners of our lives. All these changes that Elijah had been hoping and praying for, changes that he had devoted his ministry as a prophet to bring about—including the repentance of the people and the defeat of Ahab and Jezebel—were going to happen. They were just going to happen gradually, unspectacularly, through normal political events, and mostly through people other than Elijah.

So Elijah needed to be patient…God is surely going to carry out his plan and answer Elijah’s prayers, it just won’t happen the way Elijah believes it should happen, or as quickly as he believes it should happen.

I totally sympathize with Elijah. I much prefer the wind, the earthquake, and the fire to the still, small voice! I’ve told you before when I was up in Alpharetta my church was in the shadow of one of America’s largest churches, Northpoint. They had their tens of thousands of members. They’re beaming Andy Stanley to all these satellite campuses, and of course he’s great! He’s on TV after Saturday Night Live. And I look over my shoulder at him and think, “Someone like Andy Stanley never has to wonder what God’s up to in his ministry. He can just look around and see it. Because it’s so big and successful. He doesn’t have to wonder whether he’s reaching people and making a difference in people’a lives.

What about me? Am I making a difference?

And I promise you I used to worry about this. But God comes to me in that still, small voice and says, “Brent, you just worry about being faithful to me. It’s my plan, not yours. Leave the results up to me.” And in my best moments as a Christian, that’s how I sincerely feel.

I share Elijah’s story for two reasons. First, because being patient and trusting that God is at work, even when it doesn’t seem like it, will help us to do what James tells us to do in verse 13 of today’s scripture: “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.”[1] And of course singing songs of praise to God is also a way of praying. We’re supposed to pray all the time, in other words.

My wife Lisa has an older brother, Frank. When she was away at college at Auburn, Frank was away at college at Georgia Southern. Their dad would periodically send them money when they were at school—which they would use to buy food and other necessities. Now Frank considered beer a necessity, whereas Lisa didn’t. So Lisa didn’t spend nearly as much money as Frank. So a few times a year, Frank would call Lisa. “Hey! Can you call Dad and ask for money? And then when he sends it to you, can you send it to me?”And she’s like, “Why don’t you call Dad and ask for money yourself?”And Frank explained that he’d already called a couple of times and asked for money. It wouldn’t look good if he called again! Whereas Lisa never asks for money, so he would gladly give her some.

And because Lisa was a good little sister, she did this for him. Problem is, Frank only called Lisa when he needed money!

Isn’t it fair to say that we too often play this game with God? I’m much more likely to get on my knees and pray when I’m in trouble, when I’m facing a crisis, when I’m going through a difficult trial, than when everything is smooth sailing. Among other things, James is telling us that we need to set our hearts on God and pray…all the time—in good times and bad.

But James is also saying much deeper than that.

See, in verse 13 of chapter 5, James, in his own subtle way, is returning to a theme that he first began exploring way back at the beginning of the letter, in chapter 1, verse 2. It’s one of the most important themes in the letter. And I honestly believe it’s one of the most important lessons we can learn in life! Back in chapter 1, verse 2, James said, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”

In a similar way, when James talks about being happy in verse 13, he doesn’t mean happy in the shallow way we normally think of happiness. We think happiness means the absence of pain, suffering, sickness, and trials. Happiness is something that just happens to us when things are going our way. But the kind of happiness James is talking about goes so much deeper than that: what he’s talking about here is the kind of happiness that exists and endures and prevails even through the worst things that happen to us in life. Pain, suffering, sickness, trials, even death itself.

It’s the same kind of happiness that Paul possesses in Acts Chapter 27. Paul is a prisoner on board a ship bound for Rome, where Paul will stand trial before Caesar. The sailors on the ship have been battling a terrible storm for days, and the ship is now literally sinking. And Paul tells the sailors and the crew something surprising. Using the exact same Greek word for happy that James uses, Paul says, “I urge you to be happy.[2] Be happy, Paul says, even in the midst of this terrible storm, even while you fear for your life, even while your ship is sinking, even while you’re losing everything you own. Be happy!

Obviously, if Paul can says that we have reason to be happy in the midst of a literal life-threatening storm, then he would say the same about the figurative storms we face in life, whether they’re life-threatening or not. Likewise, James wants us to “count it all joy,”to be happy, even in the midst of life’s storms.

Don’t you want to have a kind of happiness that can withstand whatever life throws your way?

It’s available to us. Recently, a friend of mine told me something I’d never heard before: he said, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is a choice.” This quote doesn’t come from the Bible, but I believe it sums up what James is saying about happiness and “counting it all joy.”

Pain is inevitable in life, as we all know. But whether that pain causes us to suffer—and by suffering I mean, prevent us from being happy—well, that’s up to us.

One psychologist, writing in the January 2014 issue of Psychology Today, thinks so, too. He says there are two components of pain. First, there’s the biological component, which is simply the signal transmitted through our central nervous system that tells our brain that “something is wrong.” But just as importantly, there’s also the psychological component of pain. This is how we interpret the pain, the meaning we assign to it, what we tell ourselves about it. Our interpretation of the pain will either make the physical pain better or worse: it will cause us to suffer—which robs us of joy and happiness—or it will help us avoid suffering—which will maintain or enhance our joy and happiness.

Of course, Psychology Today is not the Holy Bible. The author of this article is sharing this helpful insight as a psychologist in a secular magazine that doesn’t bring Christian faith into the discussion. But if psychological research shows that this way of dealing with pain is true for people in general, how much more true is it for us Christians—who have the Holy Spirit, who have access to all the resources of God’s Word?

We Christians know, for instance, that “In their hearts, humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.”We know that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”We know that nothing in the world or outside the world—“neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[3]

We can say, along with pastor John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace,”“Everything is needful that God sends; nothing can be needful that He withholds.” In other words, we can trust that God has a good reason for either causing or allowing whatever happens to us to happen—and that reason is, God loves us. And whatever we’re going through is for our good.

Now, like Elijah in the cave on Mount Sinai, we often have a hard time seeing things this way. But that’s our problem. Scripture teaches us that when a crisis comes our way, instead of throwing up our hands and praying, “Why is this happening, God? This is terrible!”we can instead learn to pray, “Why is this happening God? What good and needful, necessary thing do you need to teach me from this experience? What are you trying to show me through this experience, God? How are you using this experience to make me a more faithful person? How are you using this experience to benefit other people, to enable me to bear witness to other people?”

These are the kinds of questions we should bring to God in prayer. That’s why in verse 13 James tells us to “sing psalms,”as the King James puts it. Now, of course James could be talking about any song of praise to God—even the hymns or songs we sing in worship. But as a faithful Jewish Christian, he’s mostly referring to the songs of praise that he and his readers would be most familiar with: the Psalms. In the Bible. And one of the main purposes of the Psalms is to help us to interpret events in life—both the good and the bad—in light of God’s purposes. To enable us to see God’s hand at work everywhere and in everything.

And when we learn to do that…Man, that’s the secret to knowing that lasting kind of happiness that James talks about. That’s the secret to “counting it all joy.”

I said earlier that I shared Elijah’s story for two reasons. The first was to show how Elijah failed to interpret events in his life properly. And instead of being happy, he was miserable.

The second reason I shared his story is to encourage us. Elijah, in spite of the fact that he doubted, in spite of the fact that he gave up hope, in spite of the fact that he got so depressed that wanted to die, is regarded by James in today’s scripture as a role model of a righteous man who prayed powerful prayers that God answered.

And if he’s a role model, then doesn’t that give us hope? If God answered his prayers in a powerful way, why wouldn’t he also answer ours?

We often doubt that God will give us what we pray for—especially big prayer requests, like those for healing—we don’t have perfect faith; we doubt. And so we don’t bother to ask at all.

I have two responses to this: First, I recall that episode from Mark Chapter 9, when a desperate father comes to Jesus seeking a healing for his demon-possessed boy. The father turns to Jesus and says, “[I]f you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.”And the father said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And despite the fact that this father was a mixture of belief and unbelief, faith and doubt, Jesus healed the boy.[4]

My second response is this: While it’s true that we don’t have perfect faith—and our faith at its best will be a mixture of belief and unbelief—here’s some good news for us: Paul writes in Romans 8 that we don’t really know how to pray as we ought to. But not to worry because the Holy Spirit—the very Spirit of Christ himself—prays for us “with groanings too deep for words.”[5] Paul writes, “Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”[6] The author of Hebrews writes: “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.”[7]

My point is, maybe our faith isn’t strong enough for our prayers to be answered by God, but Jesus’faith is! When we pray, his perfect faith will make up for the deficiencies in our own faith—so that our prayers become his prayers. And his prayers get results!

Remember: on the cross, Christ took our unrighteousness upon himself—and gave us his righteousness as a free gift.[8] So that when God sees us, it’s as if he’s looking at his own Son.

He loves us just like that, as his beloved children, and he longs to give us what we ask for. Not because we’re anything special, but because Christ is special…

[1] James 5:13 NIV

[2] Acts 27:22 ESV

[3] Proverbs 16:9; Romans 8:28; Romans 8:38-39.

[4] See Mark 9:22-26.

[5] Romans 8:26

[6] Romans 8:34 NIV

[7] Hebrews 7:25 NIV

[8] See 2 Corinthians 5:21

4 Responses to “Sermon 06-01-14: “Prayer and Healing””

  1. Nancy Drake Says:

    Excellent, Brent.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Great sermon, Brent. I do have one caveat. While it is true that the Spirit intercedes for us, it still matters what we do as to what response we can expect from God. For example, we are told to deal appropriately with our wives, lest our prayers be hindered. Also, God’s arm is not short, that he cannot save, but our sins have separated us from God. So, while God certainly deals with us more graciously than what we deserve, and God, through the Spirit’s and Christ’s intercessions for us, is “on our side,” still what we are and do at least likely has something to do with seeing our “prayers answered.” That is what I think, anyway.


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