What We Really Need
After watching a myriad of reports concerning the tragedy in the U.S. this past week, perhaps the best summary of the situation was given in these 3 words, "Tense, confusing, and chaotic".
Chaotic, of course, accurately describes the scene in Washington and, particularly, in Manhattan on that September 11th day. Tense and confused is probably how the average person in North America feels about what transpired that day. It is certainly an accurate description of how I felt that day.
Thinking about my role as your minister, I agonized over how to frame this tragedy in theological terms. I probably share many of the same questions you have this morning. But you and I must face the reality that we do not see things as God sees things. And so I continue to trust in His perfect character. I continue to believe that evil men cannot thwart the eternal purpose of God. And I continue to persevere in prayer.
This tragedy in the U.S. tempted me to get off track, it tempted me to preach on something totally different, in order to address this very unique situation. And so I went to bed Tuesday night not knowing what I would say to you this morning. When I awoke Wednesday morning, however, I awoke to a thought so loud and clear that you would think someone had audibly spoken. I awoke to the words, "Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray"(Jas. 5:13). Those words are the words of James 5:13--the passage I had intended to preach on all along.
I'd like you to open your Bibles with me, to James, chapter 5, in order that you may see the power of prayer at work.
Given that this is the end of James' letter, it is important that we understand a bit about the context in which this letter was written. James, who is the half-brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3), addresses this letter to "the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad"(1:1).
This is a letter written by a Jewish Christian to Jewish Christians. It is written to Jewish Christians who have been forced to scatter due to intense persecution. These are Christians whose lives are in danger, and so James writes to them in order to encourage them, and in order to strengthen their faith.
From the first chapter to the fifth, James offers instruction for suffering Christians. And for his final instruction to these dispersed Christians, James focuses on the subject of prayer.
He begins, "Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray"(5:13). This instruction about the problem of suffering and the necessity of prayer applies as much today as it did in James' day. This verse can help those affected by the tragedy in the U.S. and it can help us here in Beeton/Tottenham as we face various trials and challenges to our faith.
For those of us who aren't troubled or suffering, James gives the instruction, "Let him sing praises"(5:13). So then, whether we are troubled or whether we are cheerful, our attention is to be fixed on God. If we are troubled, we ask God to help us. If we are cheerful, we should thank God.
Now, as we move to verse 14, we move to a poorly translated and often misunderstood verse. The text reads, "Is anyone among you sick? Let him call the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord."
The word translated "sick" is the word "astheneo" which most commonly means feeble, or weak. Astheneo may refer to weakness caused by disease or sickness, but this not typically the case. And whenever there arises a question as to how we should translate a particular word, we rely on the context to determine which translation is most appropriate.
The context, as we have noted, is James writing to dispersed, persecuted, Christians. It is highly unlikely then, that James had physical sickness in mind when he used the word astheneo. These Christians had been suffering because of their faith. And because of their suffering, some of them had grown weak in their faith. "Is anyone among you weak?" is a more fitting translation. Then "let (the weak person) call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him".
This translation makes more sense. This is the translation of astheneo we get in 2Corinthians 12:10, when Paul writes, "when I am weak, then I am strong." And why call on the elders? Well, if our spiritual condition has been weakened by some outward circumstance, we may find it difficult to pray for ourselves. And if we find that we are too spiritually weak to pray, it makes sense for us to seek out those who are spiritually strong.
This is, by the way, an important passage to consider when you find yourself thinking about who should hold the office of an elder. Before you recommend a name for consideration, you should ask yourself, "Is this someone who is spiritually strong? Is this someone I would feel comfortable calling on to pray for me if I became spiritually weak?".
So you see, James is not talking about prayer for those who are physically sick, but he is talking about those who have become spiritually weak. Granted, the two are often connected. If you, or someone you love, is battling a serious disease such as cancer, it may injure or weaken your faith in Christ. Quite often, thankfully, just the opposite occurs. I have seen countless times, when the one who becomes physically sick becomes, as a result, spiritually strong.
While we are thankful that many people become strong in the faith while battling adversity, this is not always the case. And this is where calling on the elders is so very important. And this, to our shame, is not something we are good at. Our sinful nature does not want to admit that we need help. Spiritual pride often keeps us from telling another that we have become spiritually weak. Friends, this should not be.
Are any of you suffering? Have any of you become weak? Then call upon your elder. Call upon your pastor.
Admittedly, I am tempted to pass over the second half of this verse because our application here is not nearly as clear. Not only are we to call on the elders for prayer, but we are told to have them "anoint (us) with oil in the name of the Lord."
The Greek word for "anoint", literally means "to oil" or "to rub". James is not talking about some ceremonial dab of oil here (there is another word for that). The literal translation is "rub him with oil". What is this? We're supposed to call our minister over to rub us with oil? What is this about? Surely we are not meant to become the Presbyterian Massage Parlour! What does James mean?
I think James means to remind us that our physical strength can be compromised by our spiritual weakness. In the ancient world, oil was a healing agent. If you were physically wounded, you would rub oil on the wound. We all know "stress" can cause bodily harm. Let me suggest that what we often take for "stress" is really "spiritual weakness".
I've seen this in my own life--when I become spiritually weak, I begin to suffer physically. Then I find myself unable to carry on a prayer. What should I do? I should call on the elders to pray for me. And perhaps the summons to rub with oil is a reminder to give physical support as well. Perhaps what James is telling us is that elders should come armed with prayer, and with a hug. Surely, the only thing better than having someone pray for you is to have them hold your hand or touch your shoulder while they pray for you.
What then should we expect to come from these prayers? I expect that God will give us what we really need. And, I would argue that what we really need from God is forgiveness from Him, and faith in Him. My body can be shackled with disease and I may have trials beyond number and still enter the kingdom of heaven. But I cannot get into heaven without a Divine pardon. I cannot get into heaven without having a faith in Christ propped up within my heart.
James confirms this, "the prayer offered in faith"--'What if my faith is wounded?' Call on the elders. "The prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick". Once again, we have a poor translation. The word here for sick is kamno. Kamno means "to tire" or "to become weary" by way of toil. The only of place in the New Testament where you will find this word is in Hebrews 12:3 where it says "consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart."
James knows that his readers have faced great hostility. He knows that, as a result of this hostility, many of them have grown weak and weary. He knows that many of them are so weary that they are unable to pray. James exhorts them, therefore, to call upon the elders. Call upon those who are spiritually strong so that their prayer "in faith will restore the one who is weary".
James also instructs "if he has commited sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much"(5:15,16).
The healing that James promises is a healing from spiritual weariness. He is not promising healing from physical illness. James is promising Divine forgiveness and faith that is refreshed. This, my friends, is what we really need.
As you pray from those affected by tragedy in the U.S., and as you pray for those suffering from various illnesses, pray that God might preserve and strengthen their faith in Him. And, as you face the day of trial, I implore you to pray for God's forgiveness and for renewed faith in Him. These are the things that matter for eternity. Amen.