This is the last in our sermon series, “Body by Jesus,” in which we are seeking to build our bodies in a way that reflects the light of Christ in us and follows his example. So far, we’ve talked about Big Ears, Broken Hearts, Greased Elbows, and Pierced Tongues. I hope this sermon is a blessing to you!
SCRIPTURE – James 5:13-16 – Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.
Body Building: Rough Knees
March 22, 2015
For this Lenten season, we’ve been using James to help us do some body-building. I’m not talking about rock-hard abs or buns of steel. Instead, we’ve been learning to have big ears for listening, broken hearts filled with compassion, greased elbows that do God’s work, and pierced tongues that only say good and Godly things. Today, we’ll get our last workout as we learn to have knees worn rough through time spent in prayer.
Now, the image of rough knees is a metaphor. We don’t have to pray on our knees with our eyes closed and heads bowed. We can pray in all different kinds of ways: we can be standing, sitting, or driving the car; we can have our eyes opened or closed, but if you’re driving the car please pray with eyes opened; we can have our hands folded, hands raised, hands by our side. The goal is not a flawless technique; the goal is the act of praying. But in order to reach that goal, you have to actually pray. And yet, so many of us give lip service to prayer but never really commit to it.
It seems quite appropriate to talk about prayer in the midst of the NCAA basketball tournament, because faith plays a big role in our favorite sports. Players pray when they score a touchdown or point to the sky when they hit a homerun, and let’s not forget the sport of football features the most holy and reverent of plays: the Hail Mary. In this year’s tournament, Two Godly teams, St. John’s and Providence, are already out of the tournament, so I guess that means you could make the case that God is rooting for Notre Dame…although I think we all know who God really wants to win. I think it’s humorous that an announcer will describe a last-second desperation shot by saying, “He throws up a prayer!” because that’s often how real prayer is viewed. Prayer is seen only as a last resort, the last-ditch effort when everything else has failed, instead of something we should do on a regular basis.
On one of our mission trips with my former church, a youth fell and seriously hurt her tailbone. While we waited for an ambulance, the host minister gathered us around the girl and said, “C’mon, let’s be about doing what we’re supposed to do.” And we prayed for her. We didn’t do it because there was nothing else to do. We did it because, as Christians, that should be our first response, not our last one. When we only turn to prayer when there’s nothing left, we seriously underestimate the power that is at our disposal through prayer.
Notice how James weaves prayer into the rhythm of everyday life. He says if you are you suffering, you should pray. He says if you are cheerful, you should sing, which is simply prayer set to music. Are you sick? Are you celebrating? Are you angry? Are you just blah? You should pray. Rather than seeing prayer as a lifeline only to be used in emergencies, James says prayer should be a natural part of our everyday life. Henri Nouwen calls prayer “the breath of Christian existence.”
And yet, we have trouble committing to such regularity in prayer. Why is that? Maybe it’s because prayer feels like – can I say this? – a waste of time. We have to-do lists and emails to answer, so how can we justify spending precious time in which nothing is accomplished? We are a results-oriented society, and too often our time spent in prayer yields no tangible benefit. And, really, is anyone really listening? We don’t know for sure, do we? So why pray?
I think we sometimes focus too much on the results and not enough on the process and the presence. Our prayer time is not about sitting on God’s knee and giving God our spiritual wish list. Prayer is about developing a relationship with God. Phillip Yancey wrote, “Prayer includes moments of ecstasy and dullness, mindless distraction and acute concentration, flashes of joy and bouts of irritation. In other words, it’s like all our other relationships.” We pray and pray and pray until our knees are rough because that’s how we build our relationship with God. .
But that takes time, doesn’t it, just like building any kind of relationship takes time. Prayer is simply a relationship between two people, one of whom happens to be God. And without a flesh-and-blood conversation partner, that relationship can often feel one-sided. A tourist bus visiting Jerusalem makes a stop at the Wailing Wall, one of the world’s most famous sites for prayer. One of the tourists sees a devout Jew on his knees in front of the site, rocking back and forth, beating his chest, raising his hands. When he finishes, the tourist asks him, “What were you praying for?” The Jew answers, “I pray for righteousness. I pray for the health of my family. I pray for peace in the world.” The tourist asks, “Are these prayers effective?” The Jew responds, “It’s like talking to a wall.”
Yeah, it is. Sometimes during my prayer time I get a sense of peace, other times I get impatient. Sometimes I get clarity on a decision, and other times I get bored. Sometimes I’m reminded of God’s love for me, and other times I wonder if God is even listening. Yancey said, “We wonder when we pray if God is really present. It might be fair for God to ask, when we pray, if WE are really present.”
I believe we seriously undersell the magnitude of what can happen when we pray. We are tempted to easily dismiss it as a fruitless exercise or to mentally check out and we forget that when we pray we are doing nothing less than talking directly with the Creator of the universe. Karl Barth wrote, “To clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” Prayer is a spiritual power tool. Jesus says in Mark’s gospel that if we have faith, we can pray that a mountain be thrown into the sea and it will happen. So why do we often treat it as if it’s simply something to check off our spiritual to-do list, a perfunctory, watered-down response to the challenges of life?
I was having lunch with someone the other day and when our food arrived, we kind of did that dance of shuffling our silverware and moving things around on our plates, waiting to see if one of us was going to offer a blessing. Finally, he looked at me and said, “OK, preacher, do your thing so we can get to eating.” We are talking to God, yet how many times do we mumble a half-hearted blessing with a forkful of food already on its way to our mouths?
In contrast, James reminds us of what our prayers can accomplish. He says that a prayer said in faith will save the sick and bring healing. Notice James doesn’t say these prayers will cure the sick person. James says they will save, and there are a lot of ways to be made well other than physically. Even as our bodies deteriorate, our faith can be healed, our relationships can be healed, our souls can be healed. James is not advocating prayer for the removal of trouble as much as he is for the strength to endure our circumstances and to connect with God. James says, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” That implies that our healing comes through praying for someone else. God created us to be in relationship with others, and we live out that calling when we include others in our prayers.
James concludes our workout session by reminding us that the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective. That word “righteous” may sound intimidating – “Well, that’s certainly not me!” – but it simply means anyone who professes faith in God. Our faith should lead us to seek God, to learn about God, to spend time with God, to grow closer in our connection with God. And prayers that are offered out of that connection are powerful, because they are built on the relationship we’ve developed with God. If a stranger asks to talk with me, I’ll listen, but I’m not invested in that conversation. But if my wife wants to talk with me, I’ll listen differently because of the relationship we have built between us. I believe God hears all prayers, but the prayers offered out of a close relationship with God draw upon the full power of God’s healing and presence. We neglect our relationship with God, we neglect our prayer life, and then we wonder where God is during tough times. God is right there, but we haven’t conditioned ourselves to hear God’s voice. That’s only done through consistent prayer.
The only way we can become more effective prayers is to pray. We don’t have to pray eloquently; we only have to pray faithfully. We have to rough up our knees in prayer on a regular basis. During the course of our day, we have the opportunity to turn the focus from ourselves and our lives to God, to put God at the center of what we say and do. This can be a simple pause in the midst of the day to give a word of thanks. James says to pray when we’re in trouble, when we’re happy, when we’re sick. It doesn’t matter the situation, there’s always a reason to pray. To give thanks for making it home safely. To ask God to comfort a loved one who is struggling. To lift up people in other countries. To praise God for our families. Or, simply to say thank you for God’s continuing presence.
To have rough knees, we simply should see each day as an opportunity to tell God something we want God to know, and to listen for what God wants us to know. Theologian Soren Kirkgaard wrote, “The true relation in prayer is not when God hears what is prayed for, but when the person praying continues to pray until they are the one who hears what God says.” Through our daily exchanges, a relationship is nurtured that will bless our lives in unexpected ways. We have the power of God at our disposal; we have the ear of our Creator anytime we want it. Why would we only make use of that when it’s a last resort?
Big ears, pierced tongues, greased elbows, broken hearts, and rough knees. Our Body Building regimen is now complete. From where I stand, I have to say that you look a lot like Jesus. Now, go show the world.