James 5:13- end
‘I don’t like to bother God with my little troubles or triumphs’ she said to me.
One of the things I have noticed in the last three years is that whenever I tell people at a dinner that I am now a vicar they start telling me something about their relationship with God
Last Saturday was no exception. The lady I was sitting next to at a friends party, turned the conversation to her prayer life; which it appeared was fairly non existent. ‘I don’t like to bother God with my little troubles or triumphs,’ she said.
‘Do you have children?’ I asked. ‘Yes’ she said, ‘but they are off at university now’. ‘Do they ever ring you up?’, ’Yes, at least once a week’. ‘And do you enjoy hearing about their life at university, their troubles and their triumphs? ‘Yes, of course’ she said. ‘Don’t you think that our heavenly father might feel the same about us?’
‘But there are such big problems in the world’, she replied, ‘so much suffering, so much that is bad, so much that is wrong. I don’t want to trouble God with my little problems, when he has enough to deal with as it is.’
‘Don’t you think that the Creator of the Universe can cope with all of these problems at once?
And so often this sort of conversation continues: ‘But what about when I have prayed and nothing has happened?’.
The agony of disappointed experience comes to the surface.
I think this is the issue that underlies so many of our problems with prayer. Why pray when we have had experience of God being silent?
It may have been 2000 years ago that James wrote his letter, but the reading we have just read shows, that even in the first few years of the church, Christian disciples needed to be encouraged to pray always. Both in times of trouble and in times of triumph. So if you feel like my dinner party companion – please be encouraged! You are not alone, either now or over the ages!
An author called Pete Grieg has written a book on this subject called ‘God on mute’. It’s a really good read. He offers 16 reasons that our prayers may not be being answered and it is worth getting to grips with all of them.
I am going to look at only two obstacles to prayer this morning.
Getting on God’s wavelength
God’s will and our wants
Getting on God’s wavelength
When I was in the Army, one of the traps for the unwary, was to try and send a radio message to Battalion Headquarters when the radio frequencies had changed, as they did every few hours for security reasons. It was very frustrating when there was no answer. Until you realised that the problem was you, and not Battalion Headquarters at all. You could be saying in your best voice-procedure ‘Hello, zero this is one’ for as long as you liked, and getting crosser and crosser, but, if the frequency had changed, no-one would hear you. Or actually you would soon be hoping that no-one was listening and that some senior officer had not noticed your rather public mistake!
James says in 5:16 that ‘the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective’. So the implication from what he is saying is that, sometimes, the reason that our prayers are not answered (they may be heard but are not necessarily answered) is down to us – that we are ‘not righteous’. We are not on God’s wavelength.
Now this is tough to hear and would be totally outrageous, if it were not for one simple fact: that we can choose to get right with God – to be righteous – it is entirely in our hands whether we are righteous or not. We can choose to become ‘righteous’, simply by having the humility to confess our sins to him.
This will remove the obstacle that our sins are to our prayers being answered or even heard.
Our sins block our relationship with God and our prayers don’t get through. But when they are confessed, they are laid on Jesus, and we take on Jesus’ righteousness and our relationship with God is unimpeded. Its called the Atonement. It’s the gospel actually.
As James says in verse 15, in the context of prayer for healing, ‘if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective’.
So the first point is that we need to get on God’s wavelength by confessing our sins before we can expect him to hear any of our prayers.
God’s will and our wants
One of the most disconcerting things that I hear as a vicar is “I tried to pray, but it didn’t work!’
Because underlying that comment is the idea that God is just like every other aspect of the natural universe. Like gravity, for example. The assumption seems to be that once we understand how it works, once we get to grips with the natural law underlying an effect, we can predict it, we can get it under our control and use it for our purposes.
God is not like that. As I have said many times before, God is not the Genii in the lamp.
You know the story: Aladdin finds the lamp and rubs it and the genii appears ‘your will is my command, Sire..’
God is not like that. He is our Heavenly Father. He is not our slave. Its not about our will being his command, but rather his will being our command.
To go back to my example of the parent at home and the student at university, how often would the conversation go: ‘Hi Daddy, sorry I haven’t called you for six months, but I have run out of money. Can you send some please?’
Quite probably the answer will be ‘no’. And that is not because you don’t love the errant daughter or son, but because you do love them. And in the trivial case of running out of cash at university in this world, the lesson has to be learned about how to live on a budget. Even our children will recognise that it is a nonsense to say ‘I tried that ‘telephoning my father’ business and it doesn’t work – I haven’t received the money I asked for’.
If God is our loving father, the answer will not always be ‘yes’ or ‘yes now’ it maybe ‘yes, later’ or even ‘no’. We have to learn to accept that he understands the whole picture better than we do. His view is over the whole of the universe and the whole of time, he can see our prayer request in its context.
Now I know that does not cut much ice as an argument as to why God does not heal the person that we love with a brain tumour.
But I think James hints as to the answer here also. In verse 14 James asks the question:
‘Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them
and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well…’
So far so good, what we would expect, but then James adds some strange language: ‘the Lord will raise them up’. And without missing a beat James continues ‘If they have sinned they will be forgiven’.
So whilst it is clear that James is principally talking about physical healing, this verse tends to suggest that when James is talking about ‘healing’, he is talking as well about something broader and more amazing than what our wonderful NHS seeks to achieve.
He is talking about a healing, not in the limited perspective of our understanding (a medical healing which is after all temporary – as we will all die at some stage), but a healing which will last over eternity.
As one theologian has written: ’The perfect will of God may be done in the lesser benefit of a return to bodily health, or in the supreme benefit of fullness of life in the immediate presence of Jesus. For this reason we must always say—in all our prayers, not just those concerned with healing—‘Thy will be done’.
We don’t actually know what is best for us, for those that we love – but God has an eternal perspective.
Once we grasp this exciting truth that successful prayer is really about submitting to God’s will about acting in concert with him, then God can act, magisterially and wonderfully and beyond our imagination.
And so we come to the painting on your sermon sheet. It’s a study for a much larger painting and it used to hang in our home in Kent, when I was a teenager and living with my mother and stepfather. And it has kindly just been given to me by my step brother as some of the family’s paintings are being redistributed due to a recent death. It is of the Prophet Elijah running ahead of King Ahab, as the storm clouds gather. I received it this week. This week in which the Lectionary (over which I have absolutely no control) schedules me to speak about this reading in James, and its reference to Elijah in verse 17.
The background to the scene depicted is that Israel had spiralled into systemic sin under the leadership of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. The people were worshipping the fertility god Baal. There was only one of the Lord’s prophets left – Elijah. God’s response was to send a three year drought. A manifestation that all was not right between God and men.
The people were desperate for rain. Eventually Elijah comes out of hiding and puts the prophets of Baal to the test and defeats them. The people massacre the prophets of Baal, thus, it would seem, decisively deciding for God in the cosmic spiritual conflict between Good and Evil.
So Elijah prays for rain. As James says – Elijah was just an ordinary man, like us. But a man whose relationship with God was without obstacle, a righteous man, a man on God’s wavelength. A man who, despite the times in which he lived, was entirely focused on God’s will. And he calls on God to send rain after years of drought, to mark the defeat of Baal. To mark the return of Israel to worshipping the Lord.
Elijah prays for rain. His servant goes off, told to go and look towards the sea, but there is nothing on the horizon – nothing – the drought looks set to continue. But Elijah persists; calling the servant to go look towards the sea over and over again until finally, the 7th time, the servant tells Elijah he has seen ‘a cloud as small as a man’s hand….rising from the sea’. Elijah tells King Ahab – hitch up your chariot, before the rain stops you. And he runs ahead of Ahab all the way to Ahab’s summer palace of Jezreel. The story in 1 Kings 18 continues ‘Meanwhile the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling’.
As I looked at this painting over the years, it always surprised me that Elijah runs in front of the chariot, why does he run in front?
I think it’s because he will arrive at Jezreel together with King Ahab. Having been an outlaw for so long, the arrival of Elijah running ahead of the King’s chariot in a traditional position of homage, suggests a moment when the citizens of Jezreel will see that King and prophet are reconciled, that man and God, are in alignment, that God’s will has been done. And the drought is over.
As Isaiah 52:7 puts it ‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news’. As James concludes, everything was restored to the way it should be, the way God planned for it to be: ‘..[Elijah] prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops’.
As we learn to confess our sins, to become righteous and seek God’s will, not just our wants, in our prayers, ordinary people like us, we too can play our part in restoring things to the way that God planned that they should be.