Sermon for Midweek of Reminiscere
James 5:13-20 + Mark 9:17-29
Tonight, in both of our Scripture readings, God turns our attention to prayer. Prayer, Jesus says, is the only way to deal with certain afflictions, like the demon possession He dealt with in the reading from Mark. Not for Jesus—He is God; He didn’t need to pray or fast to cast out that demon. But his disciples need to pray. We need to pray. And this time of Lent is an ideal time to recommit ourselves to an active, daily practice of prayer.
In fact, James paints a broad picture of the Christian life in his epistle as a life prayer.
First, he speaks to Christians in their day to day life, both in times of sorrow and in times of joy. Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Simple advice. Advice that every Christian knows to follow. But the sinful flesh doesn’t like to pray, even in times of trouble. The flesh turns to other remedies or other coping mechanisms when you’re suffering in some way: to drinking, to eating, to self-medicating in some other way, to complaining and worrying and arguing and fighting and figuring it out all on your own. And all the while, your Father, the Almighty ruler of the universe, stands ready, 24/7, to listen and to keep listening, and to help in just the right way. Pray. Pray without ceasing. And trust that your prayers mean something to God, who has called you into communion with His own dear Son. Trust that He will hear and act. Deliver us from evil!
Or, in times of joy, again James says, “Let him sing psalms.” James isn’t referring to humming a little tune, or singing along to the radio, but to the specific kind of singing that we find in the Book of Psalms, songs that are, really, prayers to God, prayers of thanksgiving and praise. Because if you have your daily bread and your heart is glad for it, that came from God. Sing or say a prayer of thanksgiving! It will not go unheard.
Christians can pray those prayers at any time, wherever you are, all by yourself. The Lord’s Prayer is a model for such prayers.
There is another kind of prayer that James refers to that you can’t pray on your own. Instead, he instructs Christians to go seek the “elders of the church.” And throughout the New Testament, when it says, “elders,” it’s always referring to pastors, to those who have been called and ordained to preach the Word of God and administer His Sacraments. He’s directing Christians to the ministry of the Word.
James says, Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
What is he talking about there? There are two things, really. When Jesus sent out His apostles, He gave them special, miraculous gifts, including healing the sick. In Mark 6, it says that they went out and preached that people should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them. This anointing with oil was an outward sign that accompanied the special gift of healing in the early Church. So James is instructing the Christians at his time to make use of this gift and how to make use of it: by going to the pastors when they were sick, having the pastors pray over them and anoint them with oil, as the apostles did when they healed the sick.
But that gift of healing wouldn’t last forever. The miraculous signs that accompanied the preaching of the apostles came to an end after the age of the apostles. Speaking in tongues, prophesying future events, healing miracles—they all ceased in the Church after the Gospel was confirmed. We have no permanent command from God to anoint with oil, and we have no permanent promise from God that He will miraculously heal when the pastor prays over you.
Incidentally, this is where the papists get their “extreme unction,” which they call a sacrament, where they perform the “last rites” and anoint the dying person with “holy oil,” as if this offered some special forgiveness that you couldn’t get until you’re on your deathbed. Nowhere in the context of James is this applied to last rites for the dying. On the contrary, James says that the sick person will get better!
But not everything James discusses here has passed away. On the contrary, outward sickness is always a reminder of the sin that infects everyone in this world, and Christians still have the instruction to go to their pastors, confess their sins, pray in faith for God to forgive them, and hear the preaching of the Word. Pastors still have the instruction to pray for the sinners who come to them, to teach God’s Word and to speak absolution to the penitent. And God still promises to forgive sins through the ministry of the Word and to hear the prayer of faith. Going to church is still an essential part of the prayer life of the Christian.
Finally, James gives instructions about how Christians are to deal with one another. Confess your trespasses to one another, he says, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. Confess your trespasses to one another. Jesus put it another way. He said, “If you remember that your brother has something against you…go and be reconciled to your brother.” That’s a command from Jesus. If you know that you hurt your fellow Christian—parent, spouse, brother, sister, pastor, fellow member—you are instructed to go and confess your trespasses to that person. And, if you are the one who was sinned against, then, if your brother comes and repents, you are commanded by Jesus to forgive him. And then, pray for one another. It’s so simple, really, but it’s something that Christians are sometimes slow to do. Instead, we let Satan persuade us to live in discord and disharmony, with bitterness and anger and with offenses that we let fester instead of dealing with them. That path leads to death, because refusing to say you’re sorry to your fellow Christian or refusing to forgive the one who repents drives out faith and the Holy Spirit.
As we deal with our fellow Christians, James has one last encouragement in our text: Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. This is yet another part of the Christian life that is “hard.” Approaching a brother who sins and “wanders from the truth.” Our culture tells us not to “judge.” But God expects us to judge if someone has wandered from the truth, and James highlights the immeasurable blessing of a Christian who turns back the wandering brother to the truth of Christ and to repentance. Not as if you have the power to make someone repent or return. Only the Holy Spirit has that power. But you have the power to speak to those whom you know to be wandering, to point out their error and to plead with them to return.
And above all, you most certainly have the power and the privilege to pray for them, as we pray often in our General Prayer for “those who have erred and gone astray from the faith of their Baptism,” or as we pray in the Litany, “to bring into the way of truth all such as have erred and are deceived.”
Are such prayers good for anything? Are your prayers when you’re suffering or when you’re giving thanks valuable? Are your prayers of faith for forgiveness useful and do your pastor’s prayers do anything for you? Yes, James says! The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.
This is the Christian life. A life filled with suffering, and yet with reasons to rejoice. A life in which sin will always be present, but so will repentance and faith and the ministry of the Word and forgiveness. A life in which we will always have needs, but also a life in which our heavenly Father has invited us to pray to Him in every situation, in every need. Let us all, young and old, learn to pray more and more, and to make prayer as much a part of our life as breathing. The Christian life is a life of prayer. Amen.