Lent: Prayer

Lent: Prayer
A Message on James 5:13-18
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
March 8, 2020
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

James 5:13-18 (NRSV)

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 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. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 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. 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. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

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In his book Blueprint for Discipleship Kevin Watson (who spoke at the District Leadership Summit a week ago) tells the story of going to Mexico with a group to do some mission work. They drove down with a trailer full of lumber and construction materials. The trailer also held an old, beat up bicycle. A church member had shown up with the bike right before they left, and although they had been reluctant to take it, they threw it in the trailer anyway, not wanting to hurt the donor’s feelings.

When they got to where they were going in Mexico they put the bicycle in the room they were staying in and then forgot about it as they started working on their mission projects.

As they were nearing the end of their time there they began discussing what to do with the bike. They didn’t want to take it back but didn’t know who would want it in Mexico. Kevin remembered a young boy named Zacharias who had shown up every day at their work site, talking to the Americans, curious about them. One day Kevin noticed that Zacharias was wearing a cross necklace and complimented him on it. Without hesitating the boy took the necklace off and gave it to Kevin. Surprised, Kevin received the gift.

Remembering that exchange, Kevin suggested they offer the bicycle to Zacharias, if he wanted it, of course. After all, it was a beat up ol’ bike. The others agreed and they offered the bike to the young boy. He smiled, didn’t say anything, but then raced off with the bike.

The next morning Zacharias showed up early, begging the Americans to go to his house and talk to his mother. If they didn’t, he explained, he would have to return the bicycle. Curious as to what was going on, the Americans followed Zacharias to his house. There they talked to his mother, who they found out was a widow trying to make ends meet for Zacharias and his siblings.

She explained that Zacharias wanted to get a job in the next town over to help out financially, and had been bugging her to get him a bicycle so that he could ride it back and forth to the job. Not having the money, she had told him to pray for a bicycle.

Her problem, she explained, was that he hadn’t been praying for a bicycle for very long. She was worried that he had stolen it instead of praying and waiting for it. The Americans explained that they had indeed given the bike to Zacharias, that he had not stolen it. Then in talking to the mom they found out that he had started praying for it just the night before they had given the bike to him. And the Americans knew that it wasn’t coincidence that they had given the bike to Zacharias, but the hand of God at work.

Today we are continuing our sermon series on Lent: by looking at an important aspect of Lenten discipleship: prayer.

In the scripture we read today from James, we find Jesus’ brother saying, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

I believe the story I just told you of Zacharias is an example of that.

Now the danger of that story is that we might come away from hearing it thinking that prayer is simply asking God for things that we want and that God will give them to us. Sort of like a spiritual Santa Claus.

No. Prayer is much more than asking God for things. It is much deeper, much more personal, much more… well… holy.

Prayer is conversation with God.

A simple but effective way to pray is to use the acrostic ACTS. A is for adoration, c is for confession, t is for thanksgiving, and s is for supplication. ACTS. This is a great outline to follow during prayer time especially if you find it difficult or uncomfortable to pray.

Start with adoration of God, follow that with a time of confession, where we confess the times and situations where we have sinned. Then a time of thanksgiving, thanking God for who he is and the gifts and graces he offers us. And then finish with supplication, asking God to provide our needs (and not forgetting that our needs and wants are two different things).

Some people don’t pray because they say they don’t know how to pray. I used to believe that. As a teenager in church I can remember listening to the preacher praying. He used such big words and phrases that I didn’t understand but I figured they must be like super holy because he was using them. I remember thinking that I couldn’t pray because I didn’t know the right words.

Max Lucado points out the error in that thinking. “Our prayers may be awkward. Our attempts may be feeble. But since the power of prayer is in the one who hears it and not in the one who says it, our prayers do make a difference.” – Max Lucado

Lysa TerKeurst points out another fact about prayer: “The reality is, my prayers don’t change God. But, I am convinced prayer changes me. Praying boldly boots me out of that stale place of religious habit into authentic connection with God Himself.” – Lysa TerKeurst

Prayer is an important part of every Christian’s spiritual life. Martin Luther said, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”

And we pray because Jesus prayed. A lot.

Prayer is emphasized at Lent because the season remembers Jesus 40 days spent in the wilderness where he fasted and was tempted by Satan. And if you go 40 days without food and get tempted by the devil you better know prayer was involved!

But that wasn’t the only time Jesus prayed. He would often go off by himself and pray. A lot. Matthew 14:13 is just one of many examples: “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.”

He taught his disciples to pray by saying the prayer the we call the Lord’s Prayer. And remember that this was at their request. They had observed Jesus praying, and asked that he teach them how to pray as well. Jesus’ response was the Lord’s Prayer.

I want to make a distinction about the scripture we read today from James. He writes, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Note that he doesn’t say, “All prayers are powerful and effective.” No. He specifically says “The prayer of the righteous…”

Let’s look at another scripture about prayer, this one from 1 John 5:14, “And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” Did you catch that part, “…according to his will…”

I can pray for a bass boat. I can be specific and pray for a 20 foot Skeeter bass boat with dual power poles, a Minn Kota Spot Lock trolling motor, and state of the art fish finders. There is nothing preventing me from praying for that. But if I am not righteous, if it is not “according to his will,” then the odds of me receiving a boat like this are very small.

Prayer is not the currency for a spiritual vending machine, where you look at the broad selection of items, figure out which one you want to pray for, and then expect God to crank the metal spiral rods to have it drop from heaven and into your life. No.

That’s the problem with the prosperity Gospel, which preaches that God will reward you financially for doing certain things. Now don’t get me wrong, God certainly has the power to do whatever he wants, but expecting a financial windfall because you “name it and claim it” negates the “according to his will” part of the scripture we read from 1 John.

In order for prayer to be effective it has to be about the will of God.

Let me give you another example. It’s baseball season soon. Say that a batter gets up to bat with the bases loaded, top of the ninth inning, two outs. What if the pitcher prays to God, saying, “God, just let me get this batter out.” And the batter is praying, “God, just let me get a hit.” Which prayer will God answer? The person who is most righteous? Hmmm.

Now I have heard before that the scripture that we read from James today is not true, that someone prayed for a loved one who was very ill, and instead of God healing them they passed away.

My response is to look at verse 15 again. “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.”

God heals in many different ways. Sometimes God heals even through death. James’ scripture doesn’t say God will save them from dying, only that the “prayer of faith will save the sick,” and that “the Lord will raise them up.” This can mean resurrection, not necessarily physical healing, although I have seen that happen as well.

God responds to prayers in his own time and in his own way, not ours. For example, praying “God give me patience, and give it to me now!” my not result in instance patience, but opportunities to use and grow that patience in order to deepen your use and understanding of patience.

So my challenge to you this week (and all of Lent, actually) is to pray. Set aside specific times to pray, but also pray while you are driving (but keep your eyes open), pray at work or at play, pray as Paul admonishes us to, “without ceasing.” Have conversations with God regularly throughout your day, knowing that the “prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

We’re going to give you an opportunity for you to put that into practice. The altar is available and we’re going to create some time for you to come forward now and to kneel and pray. Stay as long as you want. If you don’t know what to pray remember ACTS: acclamation, confession, thanks, and supplication.

After everyone is through we will combine our voices and our souls in the Lord’s prayer, praying the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples.

Believe in the power of prayer. Pray regularly. Pray earnestly. Pray. Pray. Pray.

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

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