13Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are 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. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16Therefore 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. 17Elijah 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. 18Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. 19My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20you 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.
There were these two boys who lived with their Grandma. They were about to go to bed but before they slept they prayed. The older grandson started to pray. He prayed about the day he had and about everything he had done. The younger grandson then started to pray, he prayed much louder than his elder brother, he prayed for bikes and toys, and when he finished the older brother asked him “Why are you praying so loud? God is not deaf.” The younger son responded and said “Yea but Grandma is.”
I am not advocating that we pray to God as if he were a genie in a bottle, existing to grant our three wishes. But today I would like to search the scriptures to see that God is a God of compassion who cares deeply about us and therefore is a God that hears and answers our prayers. So we will start today by looking at some background stories leading up to our scripture for today.
They say that God never changes, that God is immutable, which is not to say that you can’t mute God, but that God does not mutate. Not only do “they” say this, but God says this. In Malachi 3:6 we read, “I the Lord do not change.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that, my friends.
We also believe that Jesus is the manifestation of God on earth; Jesus is God incarnate, in the flesh. Jesus says “If you have seen me, you have seen the father.” So if Jesus is God and God does not change, Jesus does not change. Hebrews 13:8 tells us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
What does that mean? What does it mean that God does not change? It means that God does not stop being like God. There are characteristics about God that do not falter or fail. One of the most challenging thoughts that was given to me in seminary is that there is one thing that God cannot do: God cannot act outside of his character. God cannot stop being righteous, just, and loving. These are things that describe the God that we serve and because God does not change we can always count on God to be righteous, just, and loving. And I want to add one more item to the list of God’s characteristics: God is compassionate. Now prepare yourself for this, I’m now going to throw a little confusion into the equation. Because God is compassionate, God does change.
Now you’re probably thinking, “What in the world are you talking about? You just got done telling me that God does not change and now you are telling me that God does change?” And if that is what you are thinking then you are hearing me correctly. You see, I believe that the characteristics of God do not change, but that does not mean that God does not change his plans, his will, and his mind. In fact, I would say that because God has the unchanging characteristic of being compassionate, God will change his plans, his will, and his mind.
We find a number of examples of God’s compassion causing God to change his mind in the Bible. The first one that comes to my mind is the story of Abraham pleading for God to spare the city of Sodom from destruction. It was announced to Abraham by his three visitors that God was going to wipe out this city because of the sinfulness of the people. Abraham didn’t like this, so he began to plead with God to spare the city because it wouldn’t be right to wipe out the righteous with the wicked. Abraham began pleading with God saying, If there are fifty righteous, will you spare the city? And this bargaining went on until Abraham got God to agree to spare the city if there were only 10 righteous men to be found in the city.
Some have minimized this story by saying that God knew that there were not 10 righteous in Sodom and therefore he already had his mind made up that he was going to destroy the city. But this wasn’t the first time that God changed his mind, and it won’t be the last either.
Beginning in Genesis chapter 6 we find that humanity had strayed far away from their creator. There was a huge division between God and people, which was not the purpose for which God made humanity. No, God made humanity so that they might be in fellowship, in communion with God. So God decides to wipe out all of humanity.
Some people have said that God wanted to wipe out humanity and start again, but Genesis 6:7 says, “So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” There is nothing in that verse about starting over again. This is about God scrapping the entire plan and giving up on humanity.
But there was a guy named Noah that found favor in the sight of the Lord, and God decided to spare him. And not only did God change his mind and not eradicate all of humanity, God also chose not to scrap all of creation. That seems like a pretty big change in plans to me. We may not be sitting here today if God had not changed his mind.
Jesus as God incarnate even shows us how God changes his mind when given the opportunity to be compassionate. We find in Mark’s Gospel the story of Jesus walking on water. If you remember the story, Jesus had sent the disciples on ahead of him to cross the sea. Then when evening came, Jesus looks out on the sea and sees the disciples struggling at the oars, fighting against the wind. So he walks toward them on the water. Then verse 48 tells us that Jesus intended to pass them by. But the disciples were scared and they were tired and Jesus had compassion on them. So Jesus changed his plans and joined them on the boat, calming the sea.
We also read about how Jesus was ministering to the Jewish people when a foreign woman of Syrophoenician decent approaches him and asks him to heal her daughter of an unclean spirit. Jesus responds to her by saying that he came to feed the children, that is the Jews, and that it would not be appropriate to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs. The woman responds that even the dogs eat from the scraps of the master’s table. Jesus’ heart was moved by this woman’s faith and he did as she requested.
Contrast these examples to a different understanding of God. There is a school of philosophy known as Deism that claims that God created the world and all that is in it. But then God stepped away from the world and allowed the world to function on its own. The view of God within Deism is often referred to as “God the clockmaker” where a clockmaker would make a time piece and then not have to mess with it again.
Deists do not believe that God has ever intervened for the people that he has created. Deists deny miracles, deists deny the incarnation of God in the form of Jesus Christ. They believe that God created the world and then turned us loose on our own.
I believe that the examples from the Bible reveal that God does change because there is a part of God that does not change. God is compassionate. That does not change. And because God is compassionate, God sometimes intervenes and changes things up a bit.
So what does any of this have to do with the passage that we started with from James chapter five? I think this answers the question of why we pray. We pray because we serve a compassionate God that does hear our prayers and does change his mind and his plans. We serve a God that does break into this world and intervene on behalf of those that he has created and loved. If God did not care about us and if God did not care about what was important to us, then prayer would be nothing but a waste of time. But no, our God is a compassionate God.
James 5 tells us when to pray and how to pray. In verse 13 we find that if any are suffering, they should pray. James is encouraging us to pray for ourselves. Now he doesn’t go into detail as to how these people are suffering that should lead them to pray for themselves. But I would assume that he is not talking about being sick, because he gives instructions for how to pray when you are sick separately in the next verse. So these sufferers are suffering from more than a flu bug. They are suffering physically from oppression, slavery, life situations, and very likely persecution.
I’ll be honest with you all, this is when prayer is the most difficult for me. When life is tough, when things are not going the way that I want them to go, I am supposed to pray? Prayer is the last thing that I want to do when times are tough, and I really don’t know what suffering is. I hear some of your stories and all of the things that you have been through, the sicknesses, the loss of loved ones, and I know that I do not know what it truly means to suffer.
Last night Sonya and I went to a benefit auction for a couple of our friends, Dawn and Paul, that have been trying to get pregnant for about 2.5 years. They are trying to raise money to adopt a child from Russia. They both come from a very family-oriented background and they both want children very much. So when things didn’t happen naturally they underwent numerous fertility treatments; they have gone to numerous doctors. They have been poked, probed, stuck with needles, and questioned.
Dawn shared with me one day that every month they go through a time of mourning, mourning the loss of opportunity, mourning the loss of another child not born. They have suffered, they have prayed, and I know that they have struggled to pray as they know that they should.
One of the hardest things that I have had to do in a long time was to tell Dawn and Paul that we are expecting a child in January. Having known their struggles and knowing Dawn’s role at her church as the pastor of youth and family ministry, I realized that our news would be tough for Dawn to hear, even though I also knew that she would support us full heartedly.
Prayer is tough when you are in the middle of suffering. And people mean well, telling you things like, “God will see you through this. God will help you. God will (fill in the blank).” But when you are in the middle of suffering, it can be hard to believe in God at all. But I believe that God can and often does intercede. We serve a God of compassion. That is why we pray.
But prayer is not just something that you do on your own behalf. Look at verse 16, which says, “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.” I don’t want to focus so much on the confessing your sins to one another now (though I do believe this to be a good practice), but the praying for one another.
There are times when we just cannot bring ourselves to pray. When we are hanging on to our lives by a thread, when our faith is dwindling, that is when we need prayer the most. James instructs us that when we are sick to invite the elders of the church to pray for you. I don’t believe that James instructs us to do this because our own prayers are not effective, but because our prayers might not be happening.
I think that verse 13 lifts out another important aspect of prayer that we find on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, and that is how to pray when things are going well. James says, “Are any of you cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.”
We have a lot to be happy about. Each one of us. I am thankful for the rain we got this weekend. I am thankful for an abundant harvest from the fields and gardens in the area. I am thankful for a roof over my head, clothes on my back, a loving wife that is carrying a healthy child in her womb. I have much to be happy about. And that…is…dangerous.
We might think that James is simply stating the obvious here when he tells us to sing songs of praise when things are going well, but he says it for a reason. I know that when things are going well that I tend to take God for granted. God becomes a distant deity that I know is there if I need him, but I don’t take the time to thank God for what I have.
I think part of this is because we live in a capitalist society where we have self-made men and self-made women. We see the rich and the powerful and we hear stories about how Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, went from a college drop-out to one of the richest people in the world.
So I end today by asking the question, does prayer work? I say yes, prayer works. And you don’t need to be a pastor and you sure don’t need to be perfect in order to have your prayer answered. James lifts out the prophet Elijah as an example, saying that Elijah was just a plain human being, like you and me. Flesh and blood, bone and hair. He put on his tunic one leg at a time, just like anyone else. But Elijah prayed, and he prayed fervently. And because of his prayers, God made the rain stop and start again.
We all posses that kind of power with our prayers. We can control the rain and the sun, the wind and cold. Jesus told us his disciples that if they have faith the size of a mustard seed that they can move a mountain. So if our prayers have that much power, then why do we so often not see any results? Why can we pray and pray and pray some more, and a loved one still dies? Why have Paul and Dawn prayed and been prayed for for years, and still not find themselves pregnant?
Tony Campolo tells a story about being in a church in Oregon where he was asked to pray for a man who had cancer. Campolo prayed boldly for the man’s healing. That next week he got a telephone call from the man’s wife. She said, “You prayed for my husband. He had cancer.” Campolo thought when he heard her use the past tense verb that his cancer had been eradicated! But before he could think much about it she said, “He died.” Campolo felt terrible.
But she continued, “Don’t feel bad. When he came into that church that Sunday he was filled with anger. He knew he was going to be dead in a short period of time, and he hated God. He was 58 years old, and he wanted to see his children and grandchildren grow up. He was angry that this all-powerful God didn’t take away his sickness and heal him. He would lie in bed and curse God. The more his anger grew towards God, the more miserable he was to everybody around him. It was an awful thing to be in his presence.
But the lady told Campolo, “After you prayed for him, a peace had come over him and a joy had come into him. Tony, the last three days have been the best days of our lives. We’ve sung. We’ve laughed. We’ve read Scripture. We prayed. Oh, they’ve been wonderful days. And I called to thank you for laying your hands on him and praying for healing.”
And then she said something incredibly profound. She said, “He wasn’t cured, but he was healed.” (Tony Campolo, “Year of Jubilee,” Preaching Today Tape #212)
The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. God never promises to answer our prayers in the way we want him to, but God has promised to hear and answer our prayers. As Paul and Dawn prepare to adopt a child from Russia, I know that they would say that there have been times when they have become frustrated, angry, and questioned God’s motives. But yesterday as we sat at the benefit auction for them, we could see the love of God poured out through their many friends and family members. Sometimes, even in moments of sorrow, God surprises us with blessings too great for us to even anticipate.
God you are unchanging, and for this we give you praise.
God of compassion, hear our prayers.
You have given sight to the blind and hope to the hopeless.
God of compassion, hear our prayers.
You are the great healer of physical, mental, and spiritual ailments.
God of compassion, hear our prayers.
You have loved us, redeemed us, and called us to follow you.
God of compassion, hear our prayers.
Help us, Lord, for you alone are holy.
God of compassion, hear our prayers.—Amen