RCL Year B:
18th Sunday After Pentecost: September 26, 2021
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22and Psalm 124
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 and Psalm 19:7-14
Summary of the Text
What is the role of prayer on life’s journey? For James, its role is central. A letter that has been historically bashed for an emphasis on “works” over “faith” is immensely practical on both. A workless faith is suspect for James while faith-inspired work reveals a heart of faith. The faith in action that James prescribes is not a means to one’s salvation, but rather an evidence of one’s standing before God. If it were not the case, then prayer would be simply a duty to be fulfilled. In contrast, in this pericope, prayer is no mere duty, but a way of the life of faith that hopes, trusts, rejoices, requests, and expects God to work on behalf of the one who prays in all circumstances. While the prayer of the righteous may sound like another work to do, it rather indicates a lasting trust in a relationship with the God who saves and sustains and an acknowledgment of our dependence upon him throughout life’s valleys and peaks, twists and turns.
James echoes Paul’s charge in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Seven times prayer is mentioned in six of eight verses (vv.13-20). The first six verses each have a reference to prayer within them with v. 16 doubling its reference to prayer. Why is that significant? Because the clear theme of James 5:13-20 is prayer. When should one pray? 1. When one is in trouble (v. 13), 2. When one is sick (v. 14) and in that circumstance, the prayers of the people, specifically the elders of the church, are called upon, 3. When there is sin in one’s life (v. 15), 4. When one has confessed their sin and seeks restoration (v. 16), 5. Like Elijah’s prayer, when the community surrounding one is estranged from God’s will (v. 17), and again, like Elijah’s prayer, when one desires the mercy of the Lord to be poured out upon the weary and forlorn (v. 18). When should one pray according to James? In all circumstances.
Again, before it might be argued that the one who prays initiates some kind of magic or even worse wins favor with a distant and transcendent God, James indicates in verse 15 that though the “pray of the faithful” will make the sick person well, it is the Lord alone who can raise them up. God himself is the power before, behind, and beyond the one who prays. While James says that there is much strength in the entreaty of the righteous in v. 16 it is born out of the wisdom that comes not from the horizontal but from the vertical. James 3:17-18 speaks to this source of wisdom and the righteousness that follows, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” The source of wisdom is God and the harvest of righteousness, by extension the prayer of the righteous, is only made possible by that wisdom. It is not constructed, conjured, created, or charismatically crafted by our own design. It comes from God himself and so therefore does our life of prayer.
Verses 19 & 20 summarize the purpose of the entire letter. It is intended to lead its hearers from wandering away from the truth, to turn those who have gone off course towards the path of life. It declares that turning someone away from error brings life and forgiveness.
Angles for Preaching:
Prayer’s Call & Mystery
The preacher may wish to delve into both the call to pray and the mystery of its power before God. From a pastoral standpoint, there are times when prayer for the sick may not lead to healing. Does this indicate that the prayer was not done in faith or that the person in question remains ill because of unrepentant sin? Clearly these are questions with which to wrestle. We know that although the ancient world often equated sickness with sin that Jesus himself in John 9 defies this assumption when answering his disciples’ question as to whether the blind man or the blind man’s parents’ sin caused his blindness. Neither, it was for God to be glorified in the healing of the blind man. What role does prayer have in the lives of the community in which the preacher serves and leads?
Confronting Sin As an Act of Mercy
Many of our communities, and that includes many of us, are quite bashful when it comes to confronting sin. We are rightly humble enough to know that the person without sin ought to cast the first stone and therefore, we should get to the back of the line. We are also aware that there are planks in our eyes that blind us to a clear and righteous judgement. With that said, what does confronting sin look like? What does leading people onto a path of life, redemption, and restoration look like, one that is not condemnatory, but which is grace-filled, merciful, healthy, and whole? Perhaps the preacher may want to tease out the implications of verses 19 & 20 for his or her community.
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.
We pray because we can’t help it. The very word prayer comes from the Latin root precarius — a linguistic cousin to precarious.
Prayer: Does it Make any Difference?, Zondervan, 2006, p.13.
Henri Nouwen on Ceaseless Prayer
To pray, I think, does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God instead of spending time with other people. Rather, it means to think and live in the presence of God. As soon as we begin to divide our thoughts into thoughts about God and thoughts about people and events, we remove God from our daily life and put him in a pious little niche where we can think pious thoughts and experience pious feelings.
Although it is important and even indispensable for the spiritual life to set apart time for God and God alone, prayer can only become unceasing prayer when all our thoughts – beautiful or ugly, high or low, proud or shameful, sorrowful or joyful – can be thought in the presence of God. Thus, converting our unceasing thinking into unceasing prayer moves us from a self-centered monologue to a God-centered dialogue. This requires that we turn all our thoughts into conversation. The main question, therefore, is not so much what we think, but to whom we present our thoughts.”
Henri Nouwen, Clowning In Rome: Reflections on Solitude, Celibacy, Prayer, and Contemplation, Image, 2000.
Additional Sermon Resources
- Confession of Sin
- & More
Call to Worship
Psalm 19:7-11; 14 ESV
Leader: The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
People: The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
Leader: The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
People: More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
Leader: Let the words of [our] mouth[s] and the meditation of [our] heart[s] be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, [our] rock and [our] redeemer.
Confession of Sin
Inspired by Mark 9:42-50
Gracious Father, the words of scripture are not without harshness in relation to our sin. We are prone to lead others astray in our words and actions. Knowingly or unknowingly done, we are condemned. Millstones tied about the neck and sunk to the bottom of the sea is likened as a better portion for us than leading another away from your goodness. The removal of hand and foot is declared better than allowing them to strike a blow, grasp a stolen item, or covet a neighbor’s possessions. How barbaric the image of an eye being removed to save us from the pit of hell. Yet, you are holy and we are not. You are righteous and we are far from it. We confess both our tendency towards sin and recognize the greatness of its offense to your holiness, that you hate that which is contrary to your goodness and intensely desire that we would flee temptation to sin by any and all means. Forgive us, we pray and do not act in harshness towards us, but in your divine mercy, may we be restored.
Assurance of Pardon
Inspired by Psalm 51:9-12
The Lord has hidden his face from our sin. He has blotted out all of our iniquity. In Christ and his cross, he has created within us a clean heart and renewed a right spirit within us. So that, we are not cast away from his presence. We are endowed with his Holy Spirit, restored to the joy of God’s salvation and given a willing spirit to do all that he asks and desires of us. For in Christ Jesus, the perfect suffered for the imperfect, the sinless became sin for the sinner; we are forgiven and freed to live in a right relationship with God. Brothers & Sisters, you are forgiven, indeed! Amen.
The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore. Amen.