James 5:13-20, 7-8a; Mark 9:38-50
18th Sunday after Trinity 8am
St Barbara’s 30.09.18
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today we have our final reading from the letter of James. For those of you who have been following the daily devotions you will have finished the letter yesterday.
James’ letter has been a wonderfully practical and challenging read. A friend of mine once said of a former London-based bishop that “you never left a conversation with him without knowing exactly what he thought” – clear, concise, to the point of bluntness – and James is a bit like that.
During this month we have touched on a number of themes – how we welcome people, how we care for the needy, how we speak, how we live with integrity. And at the end of his letter, James chooses to return to one of the themes from the very early part of his letter – prayer.
James touches on a number of things about prayer.
Firstly, God is a generous giver, who loves to give to all those who ask. He wrote earlier in the letter: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” We can sometimes hold unhelpful images of God in our heads, images that rationally we know don’t hold true, but which can still continue to influence our attitude to prayer. Maybe its the image of a distant bearded old man, aloof and out of touch with us. Or it may be the image of a strict head-teacher, unbending and ungenerous. Well, for all of us, the image that needs to be foremost in our minds is that of a God of abundant generosity, the father of the prodigal son, that we touched on last week. The father who delights in giving good things and wants to bless and encourage us. This is the God who we come before in prayer. Realising that can make all the difference to our prayer lives.
The second principle for James in prayer is that when we pray and ask God for things, we must believe and not doubt that God is capable of answering. He writes: “When a person asks in prayer, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” We can pray for a whole variety of reasons. Sometimes we pray out of duty, sometimes out of guilt, sometimes out of desperation. But what is important is that we realise that our prayers are more than words. They are communion with the divine, all-loving, all-powerful God, the one who is capable of bringing about transformation. Think about the most remarkable way in which you have seen God work in your lifetime – whether in your own life or in someone else’s. Now the one who is capable of that is capable of doing other remarkable, transformative, life-giving things again. Let us have faith.
Thirdly, when we pray we must consider our motives for the things we ask for. Last week, we heard in our reading from James these words: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Why do we pray for the things that we do? Are we motivated by love and compassion for others? It is a good habit to reflect on what we pray most for? What does this tell us about our attitude to God and others.
Fourthly, linked to this, James tells us that it is the prayers of righteous people that are powerful and effective. The example he gives is that of Elijah, someone who spent time seeking to know God and his ways. The more we know God, the more we will know his heart and his desires, and the more our prayers will become attuned to his will.
That understanding of prayer leads James to making two simple conclusions about prayer. Firstly, that as we reflect on our prayer lives, we may become aware of our lack of faith, or our skewed motivations or struggle with integrity. That should lead us to a recognition of our failings, our sins, and that should naturally lead us to confession. And when we confess our sins, we should have confidence. God forgives us.
The other conclusion is this. Prayer should come as naturally as breathing. If anyone is in trouble, he should pray. If anyone is happy, he should sings songs of praise – in other speak to God, pray. If anyone is sick, he should ask others to pray. Prayer should be our most natural response in any situation.
For James, this great leader of the church, this man of wisdom whose faith had been refined through suffering and persecution, prayer ultimately wasn’t about theology; it was about relationship. Whatever situation you are in, pray. Pray to the God who loves you and delights in you. If we take nothing more away from his letter, then this is enough to transform our lives. Amen.