I will never forget the high school chapel where I was promised God would give me a new bike if I only asked. I attended Denver Lutheran High (go Lights!) where we had regular chapel services. We would have a variety of pastors or teachers speak to us about the Word of God. But, one week, we had a former NFL player come speak to us about prayer. The former Bronco (whose name escapes me now) told us Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you,” and He meant it. “I know this,” he theologized, “because when I was a kid, I prayed the Lord would give me a new red bike. My parents couldn’t afford it, but I knew if I prayed hard enough, Jesus would give me that bike. Then Christmas morning, I walked into the living room and there it was, my red bike! My answer to prayer.” His point was Jesus will always answer your prayers IF you just believe enough.
Such teaching is wrought with theological problems. They are easy to spot, right? Turning Jesus into a genie and prayer into a demand for material blessings does not quite capture the biblical gift of prayer. Telling impressionable kids God will give them whatever they want if they just ask the right way is a recipe for unbelief when God “fails to come through.” Misusing God’s name by ripping Bible verses out of their context and forcing them to make promises God never intended is misguided at best and a blasphemous breaking of the Second Commandment at worse.
One cannot just carte blanche promise God will answer any prayer we pray, right? But then what do we do when James comes along and tells us if someone is sick, he should call the elders of the church to pray for him and, “God will raise him up” (James 5:12-15)? He goes so far as to say:
“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (James 5:16b-18).
James makes it sound like prayer is actually effective, that God listens, God answers in line with our requests. Does James realize the questions he is raising? Does this mean prayer will automatically heal the sick? Does this mean God will do whatever I demand? Does this mean my NFL chaplain was right to tell me to request the bike? But then, where is my bike? Where is my healing? Where is the healing for my child with cancer? Was God not listening? Did we not have enough faith? Does prayer only work for a select few? Why does prayer not work for me?
James makes it sound like prayer is actually effective, that God listens, God answers in line with our requests.
James preaches prayer like one who believes what Jesus taught about it. God does indeed answer the prayers of the righteous, that is, His beloved, baptized children. But there is a marked difference between the cry of faith for healing, forgiveness, and mercy and the requirement for God to meet my demands. The former is prayer, the latter is tempting God. This is not what James speaks of today. He declares the reality that our Father in Heaven is working His will on earth as He does in Heaven, and we are simply asking Him to do it for us, too. To such praying, God’s answer is, “Yes, and amen in Christ Jesus” (2 Corinthians 1:20). This is true, as James says with complete confidence in Christ, even for prayers of healing and forgiveness.
The question is never “if” our Father will answer the prayers of the righteous (namely, the baptized), but “when.” James speaks in the future tense today when he says, “The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up” (5:15). “Raise him up,” is resurrection language which points us back to James’ exhortation a few verses earlier to be, “...patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord” (5:7). This is a time of suffering and hardship, of sin and sickness, of longing and prayer. But James promises, faith will turn to sight, prayer will turn to praise (Jesus I My Cross Have Taken). Christ, who forgives your sins and heals your diseases, will return, and make all this right. So, we pray in faith, longing for that day, knowing He can full well heal in a moment, in a month, or on the last day. Prayer is faith in the promise that He will. So, we pray for God’s will to be done in this way. God listens to that prayer, takes it into account, and says, “Yes, dear child, it shall be so, in spite of the Devil and all the world” (The Large Catechism, Introduction to the Lord’s Prayer). He may not give you a red bike, but He will raise you up, forgiven and whole, body and soul, to dwell in His presence forever!
This is the sort of text which raises more questions than answers, some of which I have addressed above. It is necessary for the preacher not to shy away from them. Any pastor worth his salt has had to help a parishioner wrestle with the problem of unanswered prayers and the subsequent crisis of faith. The questions, “Does God hear my prayers? Is He listening?” are familiar. A text celebrating the power of prayer—and really, the power of the listening God—as much as James does will inevitably bring these questions to bare. Because of this, I would suggest preaching right into the tension with the Question Answered structure.
In this structure, you will open by placing the dilemma of unanswered prayers against the promises in James. Then, ask the question: If God is listening, why does He not answer me? Why is my loved one not being healed? Then, offer two or three answers that are weak or unsatisfactory. For example, God answers the prayers of the righteous, but you are not righteous enough, or maybe God will not listen because you do not have enough faith. Take a few minutes to demonstrate where these answers fall short. Then, explain James’ promise from the perspective of eternity and the last day when Christ will indeed raise us up and all our prayers will be answered.
There is always the danger of taking the edge off James’ words by saying, “Sometimes God says yes, sometimes no, sometimes wait.” As true as this may be, this explanation can be perceived as a dismissal of both the difficulty we face with this text and the real struggle our congregants are facing. People may also say, “Prayer does not change God, it changes us.” But that is not what James says at all here. He says faith prays, trusting God to answer for my good. Prayer is not about me changing, but rather it is the cry of faith trusting God to act. Let the Holy Spirit speak for Himself here. You do not need to protect the Word from hard sayings, nor do you have the right to!
You do not need to protect the Word from hard sayings, nor do you have the right to!
Christ in the Text
Prayer comes from faith. David Scaer says, “Since faith places all its reliance on Jesus, such faith is always in a state of prayer. Faith is always at prayer.” The reason we trust God to answer prayer is because Jesus has opened the ears of our Father to our cries. In the Old Testament, priests would cleanse their garments, offer up sacrifices, and enter the Temple to pray on behalf of God’s people. Jesus is our great High Priest who has shed His blood to forgive our sins and cleanse our hearts. He lives to intercede for us (Hebrews 7:25). What is more, not only does He pray for us, but He has washed us in His blood, cleansed us of our sins and all that would keep us from the Father’s presence, and has thus promised us a listening Father (see also John 16:23). The baptized are a kingdom of priests, welcomed into the presence of our Father, to make prayers and supplications with the promise He will not give us scorpions when we ask for eggs (Luke 11:12). Prayer is a gift purchased with the blood of Christ and given to the baptized. God has commanded we do it and attached the promise to answer! Jesus piles one promise of answered prayer upon another, and His half-brother James took these promises seriously. So should you as you preach and pray!
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in James 5:(1-12) 13-20.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach James 5:(1-12) 13-20.