Book of James: “The Power of Prayer”

Sermon Series on the Book of James: “The Power of Prayer”
A Message on James 5:13-20
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Sept. 24, 2017
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com


James 5:13-20

13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, 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 the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

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Today we’re going to talk about prayer and more specifically explore what James has to say about prayer.

 

There are a lot of misconceptions about prayer.

 

I used to say there is no wrong way to pray. But then a friend pointed out a country song by the group known as Jaron and the Long Road to Love and I realized that there IS a wrong way to pray. Here are some of the lyrics:

 

I haven’t been to church since I don’t remember when
Things were going great ’til they fell apart again
So I listened to the preacher as he told me what to do
He said you can’t go hating others who have done wrong to you
Sometimes we get angry, but we must not condemn
Let the good Lord do His job and you just pray for them

I pray your brakes go out running down a hill
I pray a flowerpot falls from a window sill and knocks you in the head like I’d like to
I pray your birthday comes and nobody calls
I pray you’re flying high when your engine stalls
I pray all your dreams never come true
Just know wherever you are honey, I pray for you

Just to be clear, now, that’s not praying, that’s cursing. “A pox upon you!” If you pray for something bad to happen to someone, we need to talk. Seriously. We need to.

 

So, now that we learned how NOT to pray, let’s look at some of the other misconceptions about prayer. One of them is that you have to use fancy theological language in order for God to hear your prayer.

 

Not so. Prayer is conversing with God. It can be aloud or silent, with a group or all by yourself. And you don’t need to use a bunch of polysyllabic theological words or a generous use of “thees” or “thous” (although that is fine if you want to).

 

In the 6th chapter of Matthew Jesus says, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7-8)

 

Just pray to God from your heart. Oh, and It’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to be mad, it’s okay to scream if you need to. God’s big enough. He can take it.

 

Another misconception is about what I call the “name it and claim it” prayers. In Mark 11:24 we read “ So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

 

Unfortunately that verse has been absconded by those who want to use it for material gain. We are probably all aware that there are certain pastors, especially some television preachers, who urge to you name what you want (notice I didn’t say “need”) and claim it in the name of Jesus and poof, you will get it.

 

How many remember this song from Janice Joplin?

 

“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”

 

Yeah. Uh, no. (By the way, I think Janis sang this as a satire, poking fun at the prosperity gospel way back when.)

 

Another misconception is that God doesn’t answer prayers. I believe that he does, but often it is not in the way or the timing that we are wanting. Here’s an example. Say there is a baseball game and the score is tied in the bottom of the ninth inning and the bases are loaded. The pitcher is praying, “Lord, just let me strike him out.” And the batter is praying, “Lord, just let me hit the ball.” Which prayer is God going to answer? Will he answer the person who is “holier?” Maybe, but maybe not. We have to remember Isaiah 55:9, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

 

I am convinced that not only does God hear every prayer but that he answers every one, too. Sometimes the answer may be “yes.” Other times it might be “no.” (We usually don’t like that one.) Or he may answer “Not yet.” (We don’t like that one very much either, do we?) Just because God answers in a way that we don’t want him to doesn’t mean he isn’t answering our prayers.

 

Another reason many people don’t pray more, one that I hear quite often, is “Well I just don’t know what to pray for.” When are in crisis we often turn to God as our last hope. We don’t pray much (or any at all) prior to the crisis, but when everything else fails then we turn to God.

 

We even use our prayers to try to barter with God. “Dear God, if you will just get me out of this I promise I will ___________.” There’s even the story about the man that’s stranded by himself in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. He cries out to God, “If you will save me then I will tithe 50 percent of my income, gross, not net!” After a while he sees an island and starts trying to paddle toward it using his hands. “God, if you will just get me to that island, I swear I will tithe 35 percent of everything I make.” After the boat beaches he says, “Thank you, God, and I intend to tithe 20 percent every Sunday.”

 

If the amount of time we spend in prayer is proportional only to how deep our crisis is, then there is a problem.

 

The scriptures give us a solution to those times when we don’t know how or what to pray for. We find it in Paul’s writings to the followers of Christ in Rome. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)

 

In the scripture we read in James today he talks about the power of prayer. In verses 13-18 he mentions prayer seven times. He tell us that if someone is suffering they should pray. He says that those who are sick should call the elders of the church and have them pray over them and anoint them with oil, saying that “the prayer of faith will save the sick.” He then tells the early church member that they are to pray for each other after confessing their sins to one another.

 

He then writes this sentence: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

 

Now I want to pause here and examine this sentence a little closer. Notice that he does NOT say simply, “Prayer is powerful and effective.” No. He specifically says, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

 

So, who are the righteous? What does it mean to be righteous?

 

One way of thinking about righteousness is that of “right-living.” In the Old Testament it was mainly considered following all the religious laws. That meant not only the 10 Commandments but all of the 600 or so other laws as well.

 

In the New Testament things are a little different. The way I read it, and this is just my opinion of it, Jesus fulfills the law and by taking our place on the cross makes us righteous, something we couldn’t do on our own because of sin. So righteousness is more about the heart than in following a bunch of laws about clean and unclean.

 

Now that doesn’t mean that we can purposely go on sinning and say, “It’s okay. Jesus makes me righteous.” Uh, no.

 

To live a righteous life means to make God and following Jesus your number one priority. It means thinking of others before your own. It means making your decisions based on kingdom priorities, not worldly priorities.

 

So, if James says that the “prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective,” then does that also mean that the prayers of those who aren’t righteous are less powerful or less effective.

 

Hmmmm. Good question. Welcome to the deep end of the theological pool.

 

On the one hand it appears that is the case. But there is danger in that approach because of works/righteousness, the belief that we earn special favors from God–or even our salvation–by things that we do. It’s a slippery slope that can lead to us believing, “Well, my prayers are more important to God because I am righteousness than those poor sinning heathens’ prayers.”

 

If we get to thinking like that we need to read Jesus parable of the Publican and the Tax Collector found in the 18th chapter of Luke:

 

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)

 

Ouch!

 

I think it boils down to a matter of the heart.

 

Let me give you an example.

 

Our Bishop, Rev. Scott J. Jones, spoke at “The Gathering” at Lakeview this past week. This is an event for all the pastors in the Texas Annual Conference . Afterwards he met with a group of us preachers from “County Seat” churches (I know Jacksonville isn’t the county seat of Cherokee County but we were invited anyway, probably because we are the largest United Methodist Church in the county).

 

With the County Seat pastors he talked to us about 20 components of an evangelistically effective congregation.

 

One of the top items he talked about to was “create and sustain a spiritual culture.” Integral to this is prayer.

 

He pointed out that as churches, and as clergy, we don’t do enough praying. And when we pray we need to be careful not to pray “God bless what I’m doing,” but instead pray “God show me where I can bless you.”

 

He said that one of the reasons churches don’t grow is because the people of the church don’t pray for growth.

 

He told us about an experience he had early in his ministry when he was serving a small town church. He made it a point to visit the members who were in nursing homes once a month. He had a schedule he followed and on a particular day of the month he visited those members in nursing homes.

 

Well he was visiting with Miss Smith (not her real name, of course), and elderly woman who had been a very active member of the church. She told him that she was frustrated because her health prevented her from serving in the church like she used to. She asked him, “Is there something I can do?”

 

He replied, “Sure, you can pray.”

 

She got excited. “Sure, I can do that. What do you want me to pray for?”

 

Well he hadn’t really expected that so he just said the first thing that came to his mind. “Pray for our church to get new members.”

 

“Okay,” she replied. “I’ll do that!”

 

Well the weeks went by and he got distracted by the other demands of being a pastor, but on his scheduled monthly day he once again visited Miss Smith. As soon as he walked in the room she said to him excitedly, “Did it work?”

 

Well, he had forgotten all about it, so he asked, “Did what work?”

 

“Did you get any new members? I’ve been praying all month that our church would get new members.”

 

And then he realized and it hit him. Hard. “Well, come to think of it, yes, as a matter of fact, we had two families that joined two Sundays ago.”

 

The prayer of the righteousness is powerful and effective.

 

Here’s my challenge for you today, although it’s not just for a week, but a month. And it is going to require you to do some homework.

 

If you look in your bulletin you will see a note card. At the top of that card you’ll see the word “Prayer” with the numerals 1, 2, and 3 under it. Take that card out and get a pen or pencil to write with.

 

Here’s what we’re going to do. We are going to pray for new members. We are going to do like that elderly lady in that nursing home in Prosper, Texas that the future bishop visited.

 

I want each of you to write down three names of people you know in our community who are unchurched or who don’t go to church. Not a relative that lives in another state, but someone you know in our community who is unchurched. Don’t write down the name of a person who goes to another church. (Although according to Mike Slaughter, the pastor of Ginghamsburg UMC in Ohio, who also spoke at the preachers’ meeting, if a person claims they are a member of a church but hasn’t set foot in it in 5 years, they are unchurched.)

 

Write down three names of unchurched individuals. Now hang on to those cards. We are NOT going to take them up, but instead I want you to take them with you. I want you to tape them to your bathroom mirror, or put them on the dash of your car (not obstructing your view, of course), or on your dining table, or on your refrigerator. Place it somewhere you will see it every day, and maybe even several times a day.

 

Now I want you to pray for those three people every day or even several times a day. Pray that they come to realize they need a relationship with Jesus Christ. Pray that they will take that first step and attend church, whether it’s our church (which would be nice, of course) or even another church or another denomination. (This is kingdom work we are doing, not playing favorites.) Pray that they may come to understand the great love that God has for us, that his son, Jesus Christ, sacrificed himself on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven and that we could be reconciled with God, something we simply cannot do ourselves.

 

I want you to make a commitment to do this for a month. Pray daily for those three people. Pray fervently. Not with lots of big fancy words, but from the heart with sincerity. And at the same time draw closer to God. Read the Bible or a devotional before or after you pray. Seek to become righteous.

 

By the way, this is the Bishop’s idea, not mine. But I think it’s a great one. Let us see for ourselves the power of prayer.

 

“The prayer of the righteous are powerful and effective.” Let us name THAT and claim THAT.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

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