Let me begin by asking you this. What trials are you going through or facing at the moment? What struggles or difficulties are you experiencing and what is your reaction to them? What trials are others you know going through and how are you responding? Well as we were reminded last week, James both challengingly and encouragingly, says in chapter 1 you're to consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds - why - because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance and perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature.
I'll never forget an older lady who was converted here at JPC. She clearly turned to Christ as her Lord and Saviour. Shortly afterwards she discovered she had cancer. I went to visit her in hospital on Christmas Day. It was very cold and snowy and I didn't know how she would be. The hospital was very quiet. But when I got to her room there she was smiling away, incredibly cheerful in the Lord, telling me that she was so excited about going to be with Jesus and we prayed together - not for physical healing - but giving thanks for her spiritual healing, for continued trust in the Lord and the joy of heaven. She had matured very quickly through her trial and was persevering, trusting in Christ to the end - joyfully.
And James also teaches us 3 further things we're to be as those who are joyfully trusting in the Lord. In the face of trials and in our life together as a fellowship - we're to be patient, prayerful and pastoral, which are my 3 headings. So firstly and very briefly as we looked at this point last week
Be Patient v7-12
And if you're going through any kind of trial including times of immense pressure and stress, unbearable suffering and difficulty, then be patient - not necessarily a patient but be patient, says James (v7). Why? Because the Lord's coming is near. Jesus is coming back and he will keep his promise to take those who are his to be with him in heaven forever. Be patient. But if James had just told us to be patient, then I think we'd have all given up a long time ago. But James doesn't expect us to be patient and persevere in our own strength. And that's why he goes on to give his second instruction:
Be Prayerful v13-18
After all when life knocks you to your knees - well that's the best position in which to pray, isn't it? Humbly, throwing yourself upon the Lord. So be prayerful. And by all accounts this was something James knew a lot about. Church tradition says that James' knees grew hard like a camel's because he spent so much time kneeling in prayer. Clearly this man had applied his own teaching to his heart. So what does James teach us about prayer? Indeed what does he teach us about praying effectively? The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective (NIV), writes James in v16.
a) Pray in all circumstances
First he says we're to pray in all circumstances v13:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.
The reformer John Calvin said: "There is no time in which God does not invite us to himself." You see if we're to survive waiting patiently and persevering, trusting in the Lord, through difficult times, then it's important to pray (let him pray says James) - it's a response of faith and of a real relationship with God (even though sometimes we may need to rely on the prayers of others when we're really struggling), in doing so we show our humble dependence on Almighty God who saved us and keeps us. Only in his strength will we make it to the end. Some of you here tonight have thought about giving up at one time or another. Someone once asked me - Jonathan do you ever feel like giving up? I think they were expecting a minister to say no - never. But the truth is you can feel like quitting almost every day! Winston Churchill famously spoke only these few words when addressing a whole school assembly during WW2, "Never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never give up." And then he sat down. I would want to add through prayer to the God who is able to keep us from falling, as Jude puts it, and by God's grace, which strengthens us for whatever we have to face and which is sufficient.
James says that we should pray when we're in trouble, when we're suffering. For the Christian, this should be our first instinct when we find ourselves in difficulty. Yet often it's not our first instinct. You see the one concern of the devil is to keep Christians from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless academic studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but trembles when we pray. And you and I need to be reminded of the power of prayer, of the effectiveness of prayer because our God is great. As Hudson Taylor, the well known missionary to China said - "Not a great faith we need, but faith in a great God!" But of all the circumstances in life, it's easier to pray in trouble. When the pressure's on, and we're desperate for help, then we do usually, at least eventually, turn to God. Yes we can also need others to pray with us in those difficult times - and that is good - it's part of what it means to have fellowship and it is powerful. But it's often in the good times that we can forget to pray, when things are going well. So James says we should pray, or specifically sing songs of praise when we're happy, when things are good. Because who is it that gives us the good times? It is God. Who is it that sends blessing? God. I sometimes use hymns or songs to spur me on to give thanks to God even when I don't feel like it. There is always much to praise God for. And we should thank him every day for each blessing he graciously gives us. Yes pray in all circumstances, whether pleasant or bad.
b) Pray for each other in faith - And that leads James to address a specific form of suffering in v14-16, which is illness. But notice that the main theme is still prayer, and the need to pray for each other in faith. Now there's no doubt that these verses have caused some controversy. But often the main point is missed. Remember these verses are about the need to pray above everything else, about praying in faith to Almighty God. It's not primarily a passage about healing. It's a passage about praying to the Sovereign Lord. And with that in mind, we can't go far wrong. And whilst we may differ on some of the finer points, please let's not miss James' main point which is - pray for each other in faith. V14:
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.
So let's look in more detail at what James says. And with any tricky passage, it's worth putting down some marker posts where we can be sure what the verses are saying.
For instance, it's clear that it's the sick man who is to ask for prayer. This man is clearly so unwell that he can't go to the elders himself. He needs them to come to him, and he puts in the request. So this is not a healing time in a service or a healing team doing the rounds, whatever we may think of them. James is not talking about that here. This passage is about a seriously sick person who wants the church leaders to pray for him. And at JPC the church leaders will respond to such requests and go and pray for people as here in James 5. Notice too that the oil is not what makes the person well. It's the prayer offered to the Lord in faith (v15). So this is not anointing someone for death. This is anointing someone for life. The oil is likely to have been a symbol for setting someone apart for prayer or the like, but it's clear it's not James' main concern. His main concern is the prayer for the person. The elders are to pray for him and (v15):
the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
So what's James saying? Well it's unlikely that he means that every time we pray for the sick in faith they'll get better physically. This simply denies reality. Clearly, even in the Bible, not everyone was healed, and so it is today. Nor do I think that James is addressing a purely spiritual issue. Some believe that James is talking about those who have sinned in some particular way, and that God has sent them an illness, and so if they confess their sin, they will be raised up. Occasionally that does happen in the Bible, for instance in 1 Corinthians 11. But the general rule is that sickness is not a result of specific sin. Jesus himself says so in John 9. And James also says "if he has committed sins" in verse 15. Clearly the sick person may not have sinned.
It's more likely that James is saying this. A person becomes seriously ill, and they ask the elders of the church to pray. But when illness comes our way, it's an appropriate time to examine our consciences. It's a good time to confess sin and ask for forgiveness. It may well be that our illness is given by God to wake us up out of our spiritual laziness. And if we have sinned, then we will be forgiven. But whether we're sick just because we're sick, or sick through sin, yet there is a promise. The prayer of faith, the prayer prayed with the knowledge that God is sovereign, that God is in control, will make the person well, God will raise the person up. Now the original is ambiguous here. It could mean make the person well spiritually or physically. Either way God will do what is right. He'll lift us up. So the prayer offered in faith is prayed by a person who trusts that God will do what is right. We can have absolute confidence that he will raise us up in time. God will restore us and redeem us, but only in his time, and it won't be complete until heaven. And that's why James concludes this section by saying in v16:
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
Now James is not saying that we need to go round the church telling everyone about all our sins, letting it all hang out, so to speak. No what James is saying is this. We need each other to help us keep going in the Christian life, and we need to keep short accounts with each other, lest sin gets in the way in our various relationships. And it's in that sort of mutual prayerful atmosphere that we can press on to heaven. So let's pray for each other.
c) Pray like Elijah - And then lastly in this point on prayer, James says that we must pray like Elijah. And James' point is simple. Every Christian can pray. And Christian prayer is powerful prayer. That's what he means in verse 16 when he says that "the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective or has great power as it is working as it says in the ESV." The righteous person is not some super saint, but an ordinary Christian. So let's hear this loud and clear. He's saying that the prayer of a Christian is powerful and effective. Do you believe that? Why is it that so often we fail to pray? Is it not because we don't believe prayer works? James says the prayer of the Christian is powerful and effective. He uses Elijah as an example and says that he was a man "with a nature like ours" or "just like us" in verse 17. Now hang on, you say, Elijah, just like us? He was a powerful prophet. Yes, but he was just a man. He once even prayed that God would kill him, so depressed was he. And it's not the man that's powerful, it's the God the man prays to. That's why you and I are like Elijah. And if you read the stories of Elijah, you find that he simply prayed with God's glory in mind. That's what this business about rain is all about. He was asking God to judge the sinful nation by drought, something God had promised to do many years before if Israel was disobedient. And Elijah prayed that it would be so. He prayed that God would be faithful to his word. Is that how you pray, with one eye on the Bible, praying in line with God's will. If we don't pray according to God's will then we won't see our prayers answered. Yet if we do, then we will. If you pray what God has promised to do in the scriptures, then you will find that your prayers are powerful and effective. This is not the role of the super saint. It's the promise for every Christian, from the youngest to the oldest. So will you pray like Elijah, for God's glory and God's will to be done. It's a wonderful way to spend your time waiting patiently for the Lord and being involved in his work before he returns. Be prayerful.
Be Pastoral v 19-20
But then thirdly, finally and briefly, James tells us to be pastoral, or in other words, look after each other in the face of suffering, troubles and difficulties. Verses 19-20:
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his [that is the wanderer's] soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
You see throughout his letter James has warned us of the danger of spurious faith, of being the sort of person who says one thing and does another. And James makes it clear here just how serious this position is. You're wandering from the truth and you're heading for death. So says James, we must be in the business of bringing wanderers back. We need each other's help to stay on the right track in order that we don't wander off. I think many of us who are from the UK are just too British to do it. But if we see someone wandering, then bring them back.
And how do we do that, you ask? Well we can't save them, but we can take them to the only place where their sins can be covered and where they can be saved from death. And that is the foot of the cross. The cross of Christ is the only place where we can be forgiven for our wandering and brought back to know God. It's the only place where we can be forgiven for our double mindedness and failures. It's there that God covers over a multitude of sins.