Scripture: James 5:13-20
Airports tend to be a place that we do not want to spend a lot of time. If you have ever had the unfortunate experience of a long layover, having a flight delayed or (worse) cancelled then you know this is true. Airports tend to be places that are full of bored, impatient people cramped into uncomfortable seats surrounded by overpriced food options just waiting for their chance to leave and escape. Airport officials realize this and in some locations they have taken steps to try and make the location a little bit less drab and dreary. There are some airports that use the space to create art displays. Heathrow airport in London, tried something else. They installed several public pianos with instructions in multiple languages printed on it to “play me”. With just basic google skills, you can find famous musicians giving an impromptu concert at one of these pianos. What I find more incredible though, is when two strangers, sit down at the piano together and create something beautiful like this:
There is something to be said for polished, flawless performances but I think improvisation like we just watched is the best. It does not matter if it is music, acting, comedy, or dance. I find well done improv to be amazing, because it shows more than just mastery of a skill. In music circles improvisation is known as a notoriously hard skill to teach and practice because there is no tried and true magic formula for doing it. One of the things that makes it hard is that being good at improvisation in any discipline requires a technical mastery of the skill, but it also requires internalization of the skill. The best and most loved musicians who are masters of improv, are considered so good because the music just seems to flow out of them. It is like they just know what to play because they know the music that well. Getting to that level requires a lot of practice at the skill, but it also requires having a feel for the music that goes beyond practice. It requires more than just knowing the song, it requires becoming the song. I think there is a lesson here for our faith as well. Faith is not about doing a right set of actions, it is not about knowing the right answers, it is about internalization. It is about taking the information that “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” and believing that from the very core of our being. Faith requires more than just knowing the gospel, it requires becoming the gospel.
For the entire month of September, we have been going through the book of James. James, a letter attributed to the brother of Jesus, is a practical, down to earth primer on how to have a faith that works. This work of scripture is all about having a faith that is seamlessly integrated into our lives. It is about how to internalize our faith and get to a point where we do not have to think what we have to do to act like a Christian, it just flows out of us. Throughout this month we have progressed throughout James, hitting the high points of how to develop a faith that works. First, we are to let the seed of the gospel grow in our hearts as we give thanks to God the Father for every good and perfect gift. Next we moved on to the second chapter of James, which challenges us to consider how favoritism still Infects the church, and the scripture pushes us to confess the ways we have practiced favoritism while moving to be more open to all. Then we considered what a “Christian accent” would sound like and gave thought to how our faith should impact the very words we think and speak. It was then last week we read from James chapters 3 and 4 to explore taking the high road of faith, a road where the goal of our faith is to become like Jesus.
Today’s scripture is the conclusion of James and it wraps up the letter. It draws a proper conclusion of what happens when we actually put into practice all of the practical advice that James wrote about in the rest of the letter. This morning’s scripture is about what happens when we have a faith that works. When we have a faith that works, we have a faith that goes to work. As James wrote in verse 16, the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective. Prayer is not magic. It is not like we can say the exact right words and instantly create the effect we want. I would argue prayer is something more beautiful and powerful. Prayer is like the piano video we watched. It is a duet of sorts where we pray and God responds. Prayer is the primary way that we join God in transforming this world. When we pray we are not just doing a good luck ritual, we are interacting with the Creator of all that exists. When we ask for something in prayer, we asking the single most powerful and creative being in the entire universe to intervene and possibly change the very fabric of reality to make a miracle happen. In order for that work we need to have an idea of how to pray.
The prayers of the righteous are effective, because they are prayed by the righteous. Righteousness is the word the bible uses time and time again to describe people who take following God seriously. It is the word used to describe people who internalize their faith. The righteous do not treat faith like a hobby, but it is a fundamental expression of who they are. Expert jazz musicians can do incredible improvisation where no one is playing off sheet music but it sounds great because they have all internalized music, in the same the righteous know just what to pray because they have internalized loving God and following Jesus. The apostle Paul also writes about this in Romans. In Romans 12 Paul writes that when we submit ourselves to God then we can know and approve what God’s perfect will is. Perhaps that is the best definition of what it means to be righteous: submission to God. Having a faith that works is being able to truly say “not my will, but yours be done.” When we believe that, and when we seek to truly embrace that way of thinking then we pray for God’s will, we join God in the duet, and the world is transformed.
Learning to play music improvisationally is hard to teach, and in the same way praying righteous and effective prayers do not come from a formula or reciting a specific prayer. Learning to do improvisational music requires a lot of experience and love for making music, in the same way learning to pray righteously takes a lot of experience in prayer and a lover for God. While there is no three step formula for world changing prayer, in this morning’s scripture James does give us some broad guidelines to help us better learn how to ray in a way that is powerful and effective.
I think there are three guidelines that James gives for better prayer. The first is not explicitly stated, but is found in verses 13-14. There it states if any among you are in trouble, if any among you are happy, if any among you is sick. It does not say if you know someone, the scripture states if any among you. Among you means together, and it shows that prayer is meant to be communal. Prayer is not always meant to be a one on one chat, it can and should be a group discussion. The scripture states when someone is sick then the elders of the church should pray over them, because again prayer is something we should do together.
The second guideline to powerful and effective prayer is found in verse 16 where James writes, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” In general we tend to do fairly decent with the first guideline. Every week we share our prayer concerns with one another, and we can trust that the community of faith will lift us up. We tend to struggle a lot with this guideline don’t we? We have no problem lifting up in prayer the aches, pains, and sniffles we have, but we do not often confess our sins to each other or pray for one another that the damage done to our hearts, minds, and souls by sins be healed.
If we are being honest, that kind of prayer is a little too real for most of us. It is more comfortable to show up in church and pretend we have it all together as opposed to confess our sins and admit that we can be a bit of a mess. What would happen if we took down the masks and showed each other our messes. What if we were willing to confess to one another that we struggle with anger? What if we confessed that we harbor bitterness and we have not been able to forgive someone who wronged us? What if we sought healing by telling our brothers and sisters in Christ that we hate someone, and the person we hate is ourselves? Can you imagine that kind if we found that kind of brutal honesty and humble vulnerability in churches? Do you have any idea what would happen? Because I do, as James wrote. If we pray for another, if they have sinned they will be forgiven. If we confess our sins to one another and pray for one another then we will be healed, because the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective.
The final guideline that James gives us is in verse 20 “remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their ways will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” How else could we have any part in helping someone leave a life of sin to follow Christ, if prayer is not involved. The prayers of the righteous are effective, because they line up with the will of God. This can leave us sometimes wondering if what we are praying for is in God’s will. However, there are some things that we can know with absolute certainty are within God’s will, and praying that a heart will turn to Jesus and a soul will be saved is always, always within God’s will. Praying that someone would come to know Jesus, to turn away from sin and accept the love that God has for them is always a good, worthwhile prayer. There are over seven billion people on the planet today, and Jesus died to forgive the sins of every single one of them. There are people who have done terrible things and are currently unrepentant. There are people who are convinced they do not need or want God. Through words and even our actions we may not be able to convince people in those categories about the errors of their ways. However, with God all things are possible. We can love the people who do not yet know Jesus and we can pray that they will accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. We can pray with confidence, because the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective.
Prayer that is powerful and effective is the result of having a faith that works. May that be the kind of faith that you possess. May your faith not just be a hobby that you engage in on Sunday mornings, but may it be a deep, internal part of who you are. May you live your faith out consistently and daily in your thoughts, your words, and your actions May you be so in step with the Holy Spirit, so that you know exactly what to pray about. Through the power of your prayers may miracles happen, and the world be transformed because the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective.