Prayer and Patience
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We have stood with James by the pond into which he’s been throwing stones. We’ve been considering these stones with which James has been bringing our attention to the nature of God, the nature of faith, and what it means to walk in the way of wisdom over these six weeks now. Now we’ve come to the end. My father used to say all good things must come to an end, except a cat’s tail, which comes to a point.
Of course when it comes to matters of faith we never really come to an end, do we? These are the last words though, that James is going to write, and in them we see James the Pastor. We’ve said he was called James the Just. We’ve talked about how he remained in Jerusalem steadfast, enduring, through many difficult things. We’ve heard him get to the point quickly and even a little shockingly. We’ve heard him speak forcefully against things like favouritism, angry speech, hypocrisy (a lack of congruity between what we believe, what we profess and what we do and say). We read his warning to rich oppressors right before the passage we’re ending with this morning.
Now he turns his attention back to the church. James’ pastoral heart shows through. What would his last words be to those of his time, and by extension to us? Let’s ask for God’s help as we consider God’s word for us this morning.
We said from the beginning that there’s no evident structure to James’ letter. No kind of linear argument or building a case brick by brick. At the end it’s almost as if James picks up a handful of stones and just lets them fly. We can think of this final section overall under two heading, both of which handily begin with P’s – Patience and Prayer. What does it mean to be a congregation which is about wholeness, healing, peace?
First of all it means patience. It means first of all to take the long view. We continue to come back to this but we need to be reminded of the long view when we can get caught up in so much of the things which seem to immediately demand our attention. Remember that we who follow Christ are a people who are waiting. Waiting might characterize seasons in our life or the life of our church. We’re in such a time now in many ways. Let us get used to it if we’re not already, because we are a people who are in a constant state of waiting. And so James’ call to patience:
“Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.”
Just as the farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and late rains. Many of us are pretty far from farming, but if you’re like my family you may have some vegetable going in the backyard or even on the balcony or maybe in a shared plot (these are becoming more common it seems and they’re great). We’re waiting for Mrs. Micas’ tomato crop with great patience. We’re even more removed from 1st century farming in Israel where 75% of the rain comes between December and February, and the early rains of the fall and late rains of the spring were of great importance for winter and summer crops (two growing seasons, unlike us). The farmer does the farmer’s part. Waiting is never passive. We’re called to an active waiting. I must say that in the immediate context of our own church this is a vital point. We do not know what the future might look like, but God forbid that we are waiting passively; adopting a “wait and see” approach thinking that there is nothing for us to do in the meantime. There is lots for us to do. We have an opportunity right now for people to be getting involved in educating faith with the youngest members of our community.
“You must also be patient. Strengthen your hearts for the coming of the Lord is near.” It could happen anytime and the Lord is always near, standing at the door. Strengthen your hearts. Do not grumble against one another. Remember who our enemy is. Do not grumble about the lack of spiritual progress others are making, or the lack of spiritual progress that you’re making for that matter.
As he has been doing throughout, James tells us to look to our examples. Remember the prophets. We call those who showed endurance blessed – in a good situation, good on them. You remember the endurance of Job (we looked at his story last summer). Patient endurance in the middle of all kind of suffering and questions. Confident endurance – we’re going to look at that next week. You remember how the Lord has shown himself to be compassionate and merciful. These are the ones in whose footsteps we are walking.
Oh and by the way, say what you mean and mean what you say. Let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. Interesting to think of this in an age where a lot of communication isn’t trusted, whether verbal or written. In James’ day there wasn’t a lot of emphasis place on truth-telling. Oh sure one should tell the truth to the ones who were closest to you, kin, friends and so on. Outside of that there was no big need. Whatever you needed to do to get ahead. Including what things cost. It’s an interesting fact of history that it was a group of Christians who came up with the idea of fixed prices for things. Quakers were the ones who came up with this practice, though we can hardly imagine life without it now. Let your Yes be Yes and let the price be the price – not dependent on how much we think we might be able to get out of the prospective buyer. I find that really interesting. Tell the truth and always tell the truth in love.
Here comes the third stone from that handful James is scattering out before he leaves us. We’ve talked about patience. Now James moves to prayer (and praise too, a third “P” for those taking notes). As Christians we take the long view but that mustn’t blind us to the short view. We’ve said from the beginning that James is all about how our faith is worked out practically in our day to day lives. As we go about our days, beloved brothers and sisters, we will know joy and we will know sorrow. Are any among us suffering? If you were before me now and I posed this question I know heads would be nodding. They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praises. Songs of praises, songs of praises, I will ever give to Thee! Being a virtual student has meant online access to more commentaries than I could ever have time to read and I have to say it’s been a real blessing to me (though I look forward to seeing my friends at Regis College Library again when I’m able to do that – I’m old fashioned enough (or simply old) to like a book in my hands. Online access to digital theological libraries is amazing. I was reading about this passage in a one volume whole Bible commentary called Africa Bible Commentary. A writer named Solomon Andria wrote the section on James and this is what he had to say about prayer and praising – “In times of joy there should be thanksgiving and songs of praise. By singing, we tell God of our thanksgiving and tell him what he means to us. We could do the same in a prayer, but singing is better because both the words and the rhythm and melody can express our joy, a joy that can only come from God.” Pray and sing. Sure he was only a boy named David and he only had a little sling but he could pray and sing. How well I remember my mother singing in our house as she went about her days looking after our family.
Do you sing along with us these Sundays? I hope you’ve been singing along with us. Nicole sings along in the living room every Sunday morning and I think that’s great. I do too, but quietly because a lot of the time I’m singing already. The words, the rhythm, and melody can express a joy that can only come from God. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Of course we don’t shy away from the hard things. A healing, wholemaking, peacemaking church does not shy away from suffering. Are any among you suffering? They should pray. If you’re not part of a group of people that carries one another’s burdens and prays for each then please do be in touch with me to let me know and I will help you find such a group of people. If we have found anything out over the last year and a half, it’s that technology can greatly enhance our prayer life together, and I can’t imagine ever being in a time of prayer now without a laptop beside us for those who are unable to join in person. We have a time of prayer every Saturday morning for our church and you can join us no matter where you are. Sickness and death are two subjects that people often shy away from in our age. Too often we want to say something like “Thoughts and prayers” and move on. Remember that James is talking about enduring together as we wait. Are any among you sick? Seek medical attention and prayer. Annointing with oil was a common medical practice in the 1st century. We’ve had a time of prayer and anointing each month at our worship services and God willing we’ll have this time again when we’re back together. The oil is a symbol of God’s blessing. The oil is also a reminder to the one who is sick that they belong to God. The power here is the power of prayer. It’s not special power invested in the oil or the elders for that matter – the leaders who pray are representative of the church who is praying. If you’re unable to get out the house then call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them with oil in the name of the Lord.
Someone has said that “Faith is that which connects a person to God and characterizes a relationship with God. It is this relationship to the healing God that secures answers to prayer.”
It is this relationship to God that makes us confident that the one who is suffering will be raised up, whether it is now or on that resurrection day to which we look forward.
The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. We have said many times that we must not try to draw a line from suffering to sin. We must never try draw a line of causality from suffering to sin. We do know, however, that sin brings suffering, disruption, dissension, division. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. Again I’m going to say if you’re not part of a group where you can confess to one another and pray for one another, become a part of one. Most Sundays we endeavour to confess our sins together. James is not calling for confession to be purely a private matter between you and God. Of course we must be discerning about how we practice confession too. Telling someone that you had really hateful thoughts about them last week might not be the best way to cultivate loving relationships. We’re in this together beloved brothers and sisters. Someone has said when it comes to a church, “The health of the community depends on the health of its members, and the prayer life of one is the prayer life of all.” When we are going wrong, when we are lost, let us seek one another out, just as the shepherd sought the lost sheep in Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ parable. “Love covers all offenses” is the Proverb to which James is pointing here. Earlier James had written “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law (you children of the King) according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’”… (James 2:8). We are enabled in this because he gives all the more grace.
I’m still taking the dog for a walk every night. I’m still passing that street sign that says “Jimmy Wisdom Way.” I’m still going to be asking God to guide us all in the way of wisdom and showing us what the way of wisdom is for us as a church and as individuals. Will you pray that prayer along with me, in faith, never doubting that every generous act of giving, every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights with whom there is not variation of shadow due to change. May we walk forward together confident in these truths.
The letter ends kind of abruptly, but that isn’t surprising. James has been our companion on the banks of the pond and he abruptly moves on to new tasks and challenges. It’s almost as if he’s been interrupted before he can finish and I can imagine him rushing off calling over his shoulder “Remember what I said!” All good things may come to an end, but one thing about this Christian walk is this - we’re blessed by those who get to travel with us for a while. We’re blessed by their words and by their example. We’re thankful for them and won’t forget them. C.S. Lewis once told a young friend – “And besides, Christians never say goodbye.” May we all be thankful for how God has spoken to and will continue to speak to us through the words of Jesus’ brother. May this be true for all of us beloved brothers and sisters.