After a national tragedy a few months ago, there was a meme that floated around social media.
Maybe you saw it. It was the world’s way of saying: prayer doesn’t work! It was a picture of a garbage truck parked in the middle of a garbage dump with trash coming out the back end. On the side of the truck were the words: YOUR THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS.
Is this meme wrong?
James, drawing near to the close of his letter, says: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 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 one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:13-15).
Clearly, prayer is the emphasis of this text. In fact, if you look closely, not one verse in this text passes without the word “prayer.” It’s all over the paragraph. But, and here’s where I’m drawing my emphasis for this blog, two verses are devoted to a particular type of prayer: ask your pastor to pray for you (v. 14-15).
There are enough visible cues in these two verses that an image comes to mind. It’s an image of a church member from the early church who is visibly ill, maybe with cancer or maybe with the flu, maybe able-bodied or may be confined to his bed. Regardless, the elders of the church are present. The ill church member loves his pastors with enough trust that, when the sickness hits the fan, the pastors are there with prayer and oil.
This needs to be an image you store in your heart because when sickness hits the fan in your life, you experience the temptation to not ask for prayer. This is a conversation that you probably had at least once this past year: in the midst of chronic pain or physical illness, you sat down for a cup of coffee with a disciple, church member, or friend. At some point in the conversation, they leaned across the coffee table and asked you: “is there any way I can serve you?” Right away, you feel it. The urge to ask for prayer. And then, you bury it. You shrug your shoulders, open your mouth and say: “not really.”
Are you afraid to ask for prayer? Are you afraid to ask your leaders for prayer? Or, like James specifically commands you to in this text, are you afraid to ask your pastors for prayer? Here are three reasons you might answer that question with a yes:
Practical reasons: You think: “The pastors at my church have stuff. Sermon preparation, organizational administration, budget stuff, event planning, policy writing. And my prayer request, should I Bring it to them, will require 30 minutes of prayer, 30 minutes that could be spent on something practical.”
Do you think your prayer requests are an intrusion to your pastors and the work they are called to? If this is you, you’re wrong. You are what your pastors are called to.
Theological reasons: You think: “If God gives me 5%, he only has 95% percent to give to the rest of the world. If God takes time to answer my prayer, will that take time away from the starving children over in ________? How can I use up God’s power when there are world wars?”
Do you think your prayers are a drain on the Most High? If this is you, you’re wrong. He is so big he that he can care about small things (your illness, your worries) with 100% of himself while caring about big things (world hunger, world wars) with 100% of Himself.
Spiritual reasons: You think: “Christians are people who only care about the spirit, not the body. We pray for things like salvation and sanctification, not the healing.”
Do you think God only cares about spiritual stuff? If this is you, you’re wrong. When you pray, you are praying to a God who came to earth in a body and prioritized his time on earth to heal other bodies.
So, if any of these three descriptions above describe you, I want to take the strangest part of James’ text and encourage you with it: “let the pastors pray over the sick person, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.“
At this point in the letter, as mostly Jewish Christians, their ears would have perked up and their brains would have made Old Testament connections. In the Old Testament, God would anoint prophets, priests, and kings with oil in order to set them apart from the congregation. So significant, so important, so valuable was the right use of oil in the Old Testament that the book of Exodus gives us these guidelines: “The oil shall not be poured on the body of an ordinary person…. It is holy, and it shall be holy to you.” God is saying: “don’t use oil casually! Don’t use it disrespectfully! Use it with honor! Use it with distinction!”
It’s like the way pop-culture sets certain people apart. Not with oil, but with relics like magazine covers, Nobel peace prizes, golden globes, and Oscars. A single, momentary glance at the magazine rack should quickly show you who pop-culture sets apart: the beautiful, the symmetrically shaped, the superiorly healthy.
So who does the church set apart with honor? James is saying: “We set the hurt, sick, and ill apart with honorable distinction.” I know of very little that the Lord could have said through his word that would have brought more encouragement to the sick. Not only is your sickness not evidence that the love of God has left you, but in fact, in your illness, God’s loves has set you apart with unique honor. In his love, he has made you an occasion to be prayed for by the church and an occasion to praise him for his healing. He wants you to seize your sickness as an opportunity to pray and, just maybe, experience healing.
Because God chooses to heal however he wants whenever he wants wherever he wants.
Sometimes God heals through natural law: When the skin is cut open, the body clots the wound to keep more blood from flowing out. Then, this clot hardens into something called a scab so that the skin cells underneath have time to heal.
God is sovereign over the bodily processes.
Sometimes God heals through medication: When your head begins to pound, you pop an Aspirin, and the pill produces a chemical that interferes with the pain messages that your nerve endings are sending out.
God is sovereign over the chemical processes.
Sometimes God chooses to heal people supernaturally: Natural law and medication are all tools in the hands of the Lord, not random coincidences of nature. They are tools he created, tools he controls, and tools he wields to bring healing. He loves to use them and, sometimes, God ditches the tools and just uses his bare hands. Sometimes, God chooses to skip the blood clotting, to skip the chemicals, and to do it without tools.
Consider the body of Jesus: it had absorbed the sins of the world, the heart had stopped beating, the brain had stopped firing-off neurons, and the bones laid in the ground for three days. God the Father didn’t wire aspirins or merely exercise the natural laws of time on him: he suspended the laws he controls, he skipped the chemicals he created, and just raised the body.
Sometimes God doesn’t heal: I don’t know what to say, but I have only to ask: would it be enough if God answered the prayer with Jesus rather than healing?
Or would you just “like” or “share” the world’s meme: the one with the garbage truck and the words “YOUR THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS” printed across it. The meme, if you grant it any sort of considerable thought, turns out not to be wrong. Our prayers really aren’t literary works that will be posted on heaven’s walls or eloquent speeches that will be replayed in eternity’s theaters. Honest prayers are more like poorly strung together words, buffered by sniffles, with loosely connected subjects like “help!” and “please!” Our thoughts and prayers really do sound like garbage.
But this our hope: Christ is a dumpster-diver. What the picture didn’t feature was Christ in the garbage, hearing; Christ in the stink, smelling; Christ on the cross, listening. This is why we pray even when the world says it’s a waste. Because we worship the God in the dump.
Watch full sermon based on these truths: