The Prayer of Faith
October 1, 2006
Topic: Biblical Verse: James 5:13–5:20
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
"The Prayer of Faith"
They come out at any number of times. They come out in the loud times: explosions all around, bullets flying past, tires screeching. They come out in the quiet times: when you're lost, alone in the woods, when you're sitting beside the bed of a loved one who is sick and dying. They come out in the nervous times, when you have your No. 2 pencil in hand and the clock is ticking down. Prayers.
In our epistle lesson for today, James teaches us about prayer - about the prayer of faith. But why? Why at this point? James' letter, rather than being to a specific individual - like today, where I might write a letter to Pastor Meehan - this is a letter to the church at large, Christians all around the known world. A letter to Christians who say, "We believe," but who may have grown complacent and comfortable. The majority of James' epistle up to this point has spoken to how to live out the Christian life. "You say you have faith, this is what that means." So in our text, James' parting words, he points the people still to what this faith means, and how that plays out in the life of prayer.
The prayer of faith is the prayer of the community. Is the prayer of faith that of someone who does not believe in God, someone who gets into a tight spot and cries out, "God, save me!" Is that the prayer of faith? No - that is the prayer of desperation. The prayer of faith is prayer in the community, by Christians both individually and corporately, because we believe that God hears. The prayer of faith expects a response. The prayer of faith is offered in the knowledge that it will be heard.
So, how do we pray? What do we learn from God through James' letter? The prayer of faith is expectant. When we come before God in prayer, sometimes we might say, "God, we just hope that..." or "Great God, we just..." We don't "just" anything with God! We know. God has called us, told us to come before Him, to lift up our petitions in prayer. And when we come before God, we do so with respect, with awe. Because God is big. God is really big. And we are not. God is holy. And we are not. So when we come before the Creator of the heavens and the earth, of the fields and the valleys, we do so with reverence, but also with confidence. Because He told us to do so. So in this way we pray: with awe, but with expectation. With reverence, but with hope.
Hope, because God answers prayer. God answers prayer in two ways. The answer that we'd most like to hear is, "Yes!" The sick will become well; they will be healed. The lost will be found. We will be delivered from the trial that confronts us, whether it be temptation, financial hardship, mental struggles, or the dreaded standardized test.
And then there's "No." We don't like that one so much, do we? "No." Does God say, "No," just to spite us, or if we're just not worthy? Truth be told, we're not worthy at all! But God makes us worthy. He makes us worthy in Jesus. He came for us, became one of us, died for us, and rose from the grave. God works though all things for the good of those who love Him, even when He answers, "No." Because sometimes, people get sick. Sometimes, people stay sick. Sometimes, people die. But even in these times, God is at work. Even when He answers, "No," we can hope and trust that He has a plan, for He has shown that He stays with us.
So, God answers prayer in two... Well, God answers prayer in three ways: "Yes," "No," and "Yes, but not in the way you think." That's a bit trickier, eh? When we come to God in prayer, we lay before Him some fairly specific requests. But He may respond in ways other than we'd been expecting. His "Yes" might come in a form that was completely outside our preconceived notion of how God would work. But the prayer of faith is an expectant prayer, and in its expectation, we listen. We listen for God's response, for the prayer of faith is a conversation. It's not a monologue, us talking to God: "Here I am, give me what I want." God isn't a heavenly vending machine who'll dispense whatever we may request on-demand. But God does answer prayer, even if the answer does not conform to our expectations.
God answers prayer in three... OK: God answers prayer in four ways. "Yes," "No," "Yes, but not in the way you expect," and then the difficult one: "Wait." And you thought "No" was tough! We really don't like "Wait." "Wait" is hard. "Wait" is what God calls us to do sometimes, as we are in conversation with our Father. The prayer of faith is not restricted to sitting in quiet contemplation. Prayer is also the dialogue with God that goes on throughout the day. God is with us and He hears our prayer. And sometimes the answer is, "Wait." When we wait and listen, we might find that the prayer of faith is doing something completely unexpected. Because the prayer of faith changes the pray-er. It changes us. As we wait, our faith may be challenge to grow. It looks to the cross, where we have our hope and assurance that God is there, that God is active, that God does stand beside us.
God answers prayer in four ways.
You will hear more in the coming months about the intentional prayer ministry that we are building here at St. John's. I encourage you to find out more about this ministry and how you might become a part of it, incorporating the prayer of faith into your own life. For James wrote to the community of believers - from St. John's, Alexandria, or St. John's, Champaign, Illinois - we are all part of the community of faith, in Christ, and we all share in the gift that God has given. The prayer of faith is powerful and effective: through it, God works to heal and raise up the sick, to deliver us in times of trial. This is why during the worship service we lift up in prayer the petitions of the people that we collect on the prayer request stand right outside the sanctuary doors. This is why we come together before God to give Him adoration, confess our sins, thank Him for His gifts, and lay our requests before Him. This is why we ask for our Lord to teach us how to pray.
When we pray, may the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in God's sight.