Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 30, 2018
James 5:13-20 Commentary
Difficult people, things and circumstances exist over which even the most skilled and powerful people have virtually no control. But God graciously gives God’s adopted sons and daughters at least some control over how we respond to those difficulties.
James 5:13-20 at least implies that the apostle understood that as well as anyone. After all, while this week’s Lectionary Epistle describes a number of difficult circumstances, its author doesn’t counsel how his readers to control those circumstances. He does, however, teach them how to respond to them.
Just preceding this week’s Lectionary Epistle, James speaks of a circumstance about which 21st century Christians don’t always think as difficult. “Be patient, then, brothers [and sisters], until the Lord’s coming (italics added),” he writes in chapter 5:7. This suggests that what his readers thought of as a delay in Jesus’ return was a problem for them, that it was a cause of their impatience.
Most early Christians, after all, seemed to believe that Jesus would return sometime in their lifetime. Yet since Christians had already died and Jesus had not yet returned, some of James’ readers seem to have become impatient. The apostle even implies that some of them have taken out their frustrations on each other by grumbling “against each other” (5:9). In this week’s Lectionary Epistle James invites them to the better way of patience, persistence and perseverance.
In this text James takes up the cases of other difficult circumstances. He speaks of being some of his readers being “in trouble” (13) and “sick” (14), as well as others’ wandering “from the truth” (19). Interestingly, the apostle even lumps in what we think of as a happier circumstance (being “happy” – 13) with those trying ones.
Those who proclaim James 5 might ask themselves why he groups those three difficult circumstances in with the one happier one. Might it be that the apostle is reminding his readers of the need to properly respond to a wide array of circumstances? It isn’t, after all, just difficult circumstances that sometimes tempt us toward inappropriate responses. It’s also happier ones.
James 5’s teachers and preachers might explore our natural reactions to those difficult circumstances. We might ask our hearers about their instinctive responses to difficulties. As we do we may hear that they include things like lashing out at each other or God, taking an illness to a doctor and even handing over spiritual wanderers to the evil one.
Those who proclaim James 5 might consider noting a couple of things about the unnatural but appropriate responses to difficult people and things the apostle suggests. First, they’re positively focused. The apostle seems to understand that the most natural response to difficult circumstances is to grumble or lose patience, especially with God. So he invites those who are dealing with trouble, sickness and spiritual wandering to respond in relatively positive ways.
James, secondly, invites God’s people to respond to difficult circumstances by turning especially to both God and the Church. He may realize that their suffering for a variety of reasons sometimes drives people away from God and God’s Church. The apostle invites those who are in trouble to, instead, turn and pray to the Lord about it. The apostle also summons those who are happy to respond with praise to God. What’s more, he invites people who are sick to respond by summoning the church’s elders to pray over and anoint them with oil in God’s name. On top of all that, James summons those who have wandered from the gospel’s truths to let someone bring them back to both God and God’s Church.
That suggests that suffering gives the church community the opportunity to respond to trouble as a caring community. It offers members chances to respond in Christ-like ways to the kinds of misery that so often plagues both their neighbors and themselves. James invites God’s adopted sons and daughters to rather than turning away from their siblings’ suffering, turning to squarely face it with things like mutual confession, prayer and the laying on of hands.
The apostle, thirdly, emphasizes the role prayer plays in responding to and with those who are dealing with difficulties. It’s not just that those who are in trouble should pray or have someone pray over them. It’s also that singing songs of praise (13) is a form of prayer as well. Prayer even seems to play an implied role in restoring those who have turned their backs on God to a faithful relationship with the Lord.
Prayer is, after all, as James says in one way or another five times in just seven short verses, “powerful and effective” (16b). Prayer makes a difference because it’s both God to whom God’s children address it and God who answers it for God’s glory and God’s people’s good. “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well,” the apostle insists in verse 15a. He even adds, “Pray for each other so that you may be healed” (16a). The apostle then goes on to remind his readers of the effectiveness of Elijah’s prayers, first for God to stop the rains, then for God to resume them.
Of course, any proclamation and discussion of prayer’s power and effectiveness doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Even the godliest people have heard God say “no!” to their prayers. Of course, we might argue that even those “no’s” are often effective in shaping us into more Christ-likeness. Yet loving preachers and teachers will admit that’s not the kind of power and effectiveness to which we long to link prayer. God’s “no’s” are sometimes one of the difficult circumstances to which God’s people must respond.
James’ perhaps rather unusual ending has long fascinated biblical scholars. The apostle doesn’t end, after all, as Paul often ended his letters, with some kind of doxology or even farewell. He ends it, instead, with a command and an invitation.
Yet while there’s no grace-filled benediction at James’ end as there is in so many other New Testament letters, the apostle does end his letter with a lovely statement of grace. “Remember this,” he says in verse 20. “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”
The apostle has spent much of his letter calling his readers to a more faithfully obedient response to God’s amazing grace. He has condemned things like speaking more than listening, showing favoritism to rich people, misusing our tongues and sowing dissension. His letter may leave some of its readers walking away discouraged. So it seems appropriate that James ends all of this teaching with a reminder that at the end of a life of obedience is the true Life to which God graciously summons all of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
This promise ends James’ letter on a hopeful note. It offers encouragement to keep its readers going in the potentially life-saving work of helping people to faithfully turn their faces away from sin and death and back toward God. It reminds God’s beloved children that because God loves spiritual wanderers, God’s people do too. The work of helping to restore them may seem long and discouraging. Yet the stakes, James insists, are incalculably high.
As my colleague Stan Mast notes in an earlier Sermon Commentary on this passage, this seemingly unusual end actually reflects James’ entire letter’s passion. Throughout this epistle, after all, the apostle has called the church back from the precipice of refusing to live by God’s will. He wants to keep people from wandering (and staying) away from the Lord. So James ends as he has, in many ways, begun and emphasized throughout his letter: “Bring them back … Turn a sinner from his ways.”
In his sermon, “A Labor Not in Vain,” Fred Craddock, retired professor of preaching at Emory University, tells about what happened when he pastoring a small Christian church in east Tennessee. As he was visiting hospitalized church members, he passed the room of a patient.
From it a woman called to Craddock, ‘Uh, sir, are you a minister?’ ‘Yes, Ma’am.’ ‘Would you come in here by the bed and pray over me?’ ‘Yes, Ma’am, I’ll be happy to. What would you like me to pray for?’ Craddock asked as he entered her room.
She looked at him as if he’d lost his way and said rather abruptly, ‘That I’ll be healed of course!’ And so Craddock went over by the bed, took her hand and began to pray that God heal her.
When he had finished praying, the woman began to stretch a little in her bed. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘I feel kind of strange. In fact, I feel pretty good!’ she said, throwing off the covers. She got out of bed, jumped up and down a little, and started shouting. ‘I’m healed! I’m healed! Thank you, pastor, thank you!’
Craddock reports that when he got back to his car, he bowed his head and prayed, “Dear God, don’t ever do that to me again.”
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