September 27, 2009 - Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jill was busily dabbing toothpaste all over her legs. I was visiting a member of our church in Nebraska who was a pediatrician. As I entered their living room I saw his teenage daughter sitting on the floor with the tube in her hand and bits of white goo dotting her skin. Dale the doctor explained: Jill had been at the lake water-skiing and in the process was nearly eaten alive by mosquitoes. She was now applying the remedy her dad prescribed.
Dale’s theory was that mosquito bites itch upon exposure to air. Just cover the bite with anything that blocks out contact with air and it relieves the itching. Toothpaste works just fine and is cheaper than lots of other “bug bite” medications. All you need is something that provides an airtight cover for those little bumps.
In order to grasp what God is after in our text this morning from James 5, I’d like to start at the end of it, with the last phrase, where we as Christians are urged to help restore those who have fallen into error and wrong-doing and “cover over a multitude of sins.”
Reading what the Bible says about sin in a multitude of other texts, we can eliminate right away the idea that James is talking about a “cover-up” in the way we understand it today. He’s not calling for us to sweep sins under the rug, pretend they didn’t happen, or hide them from the critical gaze of people outside the church. No, James is talking about dealing with sin in the way prayed for by David in Psalm 51:9, “Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquity.” He is talking about sin covered and healed.
James is offering the covering remedy for sin that we hear about in I John 1:7, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all unrighteousness.” There’s no cover-up, no hiding. Just the opposite—as we compassionately bring to light our own failings and those of others, God covers them with the saving blood of His own Son and heals us by His grace.
God wants to restore and heal the sick and the wounded, especially those who are sick and wounded in spirit. That’s the frame I would like us to put around the rest of this text this morning as we hear the call to pray for healing. If we read the whole text, it’s easy to see that this is not at all just about a kind of magical formula for healing our bodies. It’s about God’s prescription for healing and restoring us as whole people, body and soul, and His emphasis for now, though not forever, is on our souls.
Verses 13 and 14 start out with a beautiful and simple division of any Christian congregation into three parts: “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 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.” Suffering, cheerful, sick? Not everyone who comes to worship feels the same. We each come from our own situation, our sorrow or happiness, our pain or comfort. But however you come, however you feel today, there’s a prescription for you, a way to enter into the health and restoring grace of Jesus.
We tend to zero in on the last prescription, partly because it’s the longest and most detailed and partly because it’s where some of our greatest anxieties, frustrations and disappointments are found. We would so much like to have a spiritual treatment to effectively cure the aches and diseases of our bodies. And it’s clear that God can and does sometimes respond to our prayers for bodily healing. We read how Jesus healed and many of us can tell at least one story of our own healing or of someone we know.
Yet healing prayer is pretty hard to pin down. Another doctor friend of mine, a neurologist, was sold on the idea that we just needed a carefully controlled scientific study of the effect of prayer on those who are sick and it would be demonstrated once for all that prayer works. Well that sort of study was actually done and completed in 2006, funded to the tune of ten years and 2.4 million dollars by the Templeton Foundation. Over 1,800 cardiac bypass patients were divided into three groups to be prayed for by a selection of spiritual people, with one group as a control not being prayed for. It was a classic, careful double-blind statistical experiment. The result? Those in one of the groups prayed for, the group that knew they were being prayed for, actually did a little worse medically. There was no scientific validation of the effectiveness of prayer at all.
That’s exactly why I started with the end of this passage. If we get the idea that prayer is just another kind of prescription in the arsenal of medicine we haul out to attack whatever is ailing us, then we’re going to be frequently disappointed. In any statistical study, prayer is going to land in the useless drug trash bin along with Echinacea, saw palmetto, and shark cartilage. So why do we keep doing it?
Prayer is the work of God’s people to bring healing and restoration to human lives. Healing sometimes means physical healing, but much more of the time God wants to heal and restore what is damaged in our spirits. He wants to heal us of our sins. I’ll say it again: He wants to cover our sins with the cleansing, healing blood of Jesus. He wants to send down His Holy Spirit to renew and refresh and restore our spirits.
That’s why the prayer James describes in verse 14 includes the direction to anoint with oil. It’s hard for us to comprehend this business of oil on the body being desirable, because we are privileged with so many body soaps and cleansers and moisturizers and plentiful clean water to wash in. Many of us work hard to get rid of oily skin and oily hair.
Yet picture people who live outside more than we do, in a hot, dry, sunny climate, who don’t get to bathe very often. Imagine dried, cracked, damaged skin. Imagine insect bites and skin infections and scrapes and cuts with no recourse to repellents and topical antibiotics and nice sterile bandaids. Then think what it would feel like to pour clean, pure oil over damaged, dry, itchy flesh. It would be glorious relief. It would soothe. It could heal.
The olive oil used when the Bible talks about anointing is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, of God’s presence and power working in and through the person anointed. That’s what is being pictured when the Church anoints someone with oil. It’s the soothing balm of the Holy Spirit being applied to our souls.
It’s healing for body and soul that we pray for. Verse 15 and 16 can be troubling if we are focusing just on bodily disease. They suggest a connection between sin and sickness, implying that, if one of us is ill, it’s the result of sin. There are other places in the Bible making that connection. It was a common belief among Jewish people in Jesus’ time. You get sick because you sinned. Yet it’s not what the Bible teaches. Jesus got asked that question about a blind man in John 9:2, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The answer was neither. His illness was an opportunity for God’s glory to be displayed in His life.
The connection with sin in verse 15 here is purely, purely conditional. “If he has sinned, he will be forgiven,” as the NIV translates correctly. There’s no assumption that a sickness has been caused by sin, only an awareness that for many of us, a sinful soul is as much or more a problem than a sick body. Don’t blame sickness on sin, but be aware that we are often and frequently “sick” with sin.
So verse 16 offers a prescription for sin along with the previous prescription for illness. “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” The vision for us is a complete healing, not just body, not just soul, but the whole person, physical and spiritual.
That, in the end, is God’s goal for us. Christ died on the Cross and rose again to heal us completely, to forgive us our sins and to give us a new life that will be complete when He raises our poor mortal bodies into everlasting life. When we recite our faith in the Apostles’ Creed we say “I believe… in the forgiveness of sins,” and that’s immediately followed by, “the resurrection of the body.” There will be total healing when Jesus returns to finish His kingdom among us.
I sat in on a course on Eastern Orthodox theology at North Park. The professor explained a basic difference between western and eastern Christianity. He said, “In the west, the Church sees the problem as guilt, and the answer is the Cross and forgiveness. In the East, the Church sees the problem as death, and the answer is the Resurrection and new life.” Yet James says it’s both. We confess our sins and pray for each other so that we might in the end be healed… completely, body and soul, forgiveness and new life.
Verse 16 closes with a little statement that, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” One person who will be praying today asked about that, wondering if he should claim to be righteous. But that’s exactly why we are also confessing our sins, and praying for each other to be forgiven. Our righteousness is not our own creation. It’s the work of God in us through the grace of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
James’ example in verses 17 and 18 of a person who offered effective prayer is Elijah. He prayed once and it stopped raining for three and half years. He prayed again and the rain started back up. That’s impressive, to say the least. But go back and look at why Elijah prayed that prayer in I Kings 17. It was to call King Ahab to repentance. It was to do what James is pointing to in verse 19 and 20, to bring back one who had wandered from the truth, to turn back a sinner from his ways. It was to “cover” a multitude of sins with the grace of God and to restore His people to spiritual health and save them from death.
Prayers offered in that spirit, with the aim of asking God for complete healing, spiritual and physical, will be effective. Sometimes God will give the physical healing we ask for, but it’s only part of how He’s calling us back so that we can be forgiven and spiritually healed as well.
Our friend Peg sits here among us today because Christian people gathered around her and prayed for her healing a few months ago. If you ask her, she would tell you that she is here just because of those prayers being answered, and I think she would also tell you that she experienced spiritual healing in the process. God healed her body and He also brought her back into fellowship with us here. That’s what James is talking about.
Both our Old Testament lesson from Numbers 11 and our Gospel reading from Mark 9 talk about God’s people responding to those who seem to be outside the fellowship, maybe doing things that didn’t have the sanction of the community. But both Moses and Jesus counsel what I talked about last week, gentleness, a willingness to see God at work in someone else’s life, and patience for that work to be complete.
Jesus also warned against putting a stumbling block in front of those who are coming to him, those who want to come back into His love. He asks us to be people who are doing just what James asks, leading people to God’s grace and forgiveness and restoring them to fellowship and wholeness and health.
So our service will end today with a little time of prayer. While many of us fulfill James’ direction to “sing songs of praise” because we are cheerful, those of us who are suffering, those who are sick, those who need forgiveness will receive an opportunity for prayer. And I ask that all of us would be praying, even as we sing, that God will make us more and more into people who know how to cover sin with grace and to bring health out of sickness.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj