Prayer Availeth Much
May 16, 2021
Prayer Availeth Much, 5.16.20
I’m really going to throw y’all for a loop this morning. I’m going to begin this morning by showing you a picture. You know what they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” So in this picture there are many different buttons and levers. All of the levers and buttons except on has “Do Something” on it. One of them has. “Thoughts and prayers.” To understand this picture, we need to understand the contrast that the creator of this picture is making. He or she is saying that “Doing Something” and “Thoughts and Prayers” are different realities. That is, to think and to pray is to not do something. Thinking and praying is inaction. It does lead to anything actually happening. Doing something is not thinking and praying. To do something we mustn’t think or pray. We have to act. And prayer is not acting. So this foolish person, with their hand, picking the “thoughts and prayers” button is a fool. He or she is not doing anything. Rather than choosing the obvious answer of doing something, they choose the foolish choice of not doing anything—which is thinking and prayer. In other words, prayer doesn’t change a thing. Prayer is us doing nothing.
The context for this picture is the debate in our country over gun violence. People who advocate for tighter gun control laws have criticized conservatives for simply offering thoughts and prayers instead of tightening gun laws. These people see thoughts and prayers as meaningless. Utterly stupid. These people say that praying for a complex societal issue is a form of slactivism. The effort of doing nothing. We live in an interesting age, don’t we?
Justin Taylor Comment
This criticism, though, that prayer is us not doing anything is not just out there in popular culture. It’s also prevalent in the church, too. I was listening to a podcast recently. It’s hosted by authors on the Gospel Coalition, a popular, evangelical website. In the podcast, the contributors were talking about how Christianity in America is doing. They all had some agreement that things are not going the best. And as they were talking about solutions, this is what one of the contributors, Justin Taylor, said,
I’ve been convicted lately of hearing a line out of my own lips that I don’t think is good theology in saying to people who are hurting and in need, I wish I could do more than just pray for you. And of course if there are tangible ways to love people we should be moving towards people in love and do what the Lord calls us to do. But I need to continue to preach to myself that praying is not doing nothing in fact it is doing the most significant thing in the world.
Have y’all felt that before? I have. I think within all of us there is a disbelief in the power and relevance of prayer. We all feel that. We don’t believe what Scripture says about prayer. We lack faith. This is a common and widespread condition. It’s prevalent in society and its prevalent in the church.
Well it is this problem that I want to address this morning. Scripture is our guide. Not what society thinks or how we feel but Scripture. And what we will see from our passage this morning, James 5:13–18, let’s go ahead and turn there. What we will see is that prayer is not inactivity. Rather, prayer is the tool that the Lord has given us to change the world. It’s not doing nothing. But as Justin Taylor said, prayer is doing the most significant thing in the world. That’s the idea that we want to capture this morning.
Let’s go ahead and read the passage together this morning. James 5:13. I will read through v. 18.
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
So this morning’s title is, “Prayer Availath Much.” This title comes from v. 16, specifically the KJV rendering of v. 16. “Availath” is such an archaic term that when I typed it into Microsoft Word, it gave me a read underline, indicating that Word didn’t think I was using a real word. The simple idea is that prayer is effective. When we pray that is us doing something. Something radical. Praying is not inactivity but the most radical step of faith we can take in this world.
What I want us to see is three different realities that prayer availith for us. These three realities that prayer brings about are the three points of the sermon this morning.
(Little theologians, I think from now on I will refer to you as little theos, I like that a bit better. Little theos, be listeing, OK?, because I have a gift for you this morning.)
Prayer Availeth Healing
The first blessing that prayer availeth for us in light of James 5 is healing. So the first point is this. Prayer availth healing. The healing I am mentioning is physical healing. When we pray about our physical sickness, we receive God’s physical healing. This point derives from vv. 13–15. Let’s go ahead and read these verses again.
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
Let’s break these vv. down.
The problem that this passage in James address is the problem of physical sickness in the life of saints. Just as people get sick today with serious ailments, so also saints back in the early church got sick. These saints did not the advent of modern medicine. No antiobiotics. No x-rays. No anesthesia. No c-sections. No vaccines. Their world was very different than ours. Nevertheless, they became sick like we become sick. They had pandemics, too. At the very beginning of v. 13, James says, “Is anyone among you suffering?” The suffering here could be general. It could be physical suffering or spiritual suffering, though due to the context I take it as physical suffering. So, James is saying something like, “Does your body hurt?” Then pray. The second question, “Is anyone cheerful?” Is anyone in good health and doing well? Then praise God. There’s a Christian response to all of life situations. The third question, going into v. 14. “Is anyone among you sick?” Here we are moving to physical sickness. James gets more specific with this question.
The Importance of Supplication
In this prayer series, which by the way we end today. We will jump into a study in the book of Ecclesiastes staring next week, so be reading ahead to prepare for our study. In the prayer series, I have tried to reorient our perspective on prayer away from ourselves and towards God. I think that prayer lists in churches generally become too preoccupied with physical needs and are not focused enough on God and his purposes in the world. So I have tried to counter that trend in our church by emphasizing the priority of God in prayer.
This emphasis, though, must not be understood to mean that we cannot and should not pray for physical needs. We should. That’s what this passage teaches. Yes, there should be a priority in prayer with God and his purposes, but this priority is not to the neglect of our own needs. If you are sick, you need to pray fervently. If your love ones are sick, you need to pray fervently and ask other to pray fervently. This is a very important part of our prayer lives.
God wants to hear all of our burdens. He cares for us. He is our heavenly Father. Just as every good earthly father cares tremendously for their child’s physical health, so also, yet in an infinitely higher way, our heavenly Father cares for our physical health. For any and every ailment, go to the Great Physician. He cares. He wants you to obey this passage. Go to God with all of your needs—your and your loved one’s physical needs included.
And the Lord prescribes a way of how Christians are to deal with physical sickness. They are to pray, yes. But also they are to include the elders of the church in our their need. Looking again at v. 14.
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.
So, this verse is teaching that if someone is sick in the congregation, they are to call the elders of that specific church, be prayed for, with the administration of oil.
Cannot Get Up
I take it that this is not a common cold type of sickness. Or even a flu. I take it that this type of sickness that is specified here is a life-threatening one. Here’s why. Notice how the person who is sick calls the elders of the church to themselves. That is. This person who is sick is not supposed to go to the elders. Rather, the elders are to come to him or her. This suggest that the person sick cannot walk. They are so sick that they cannot travel to church to have the elders pray for them. Rather, what the elders do, is they come to where that sick person is, probably their house, and pray “over” them. Imagine a sick person lying in a bed, unable to get up. A group of elders stand above this sick person and pray “over” them. That’s the idea. So this is a real bad illness. Not just a common cold or flu. Life-threatening. The sick person can’t walk.
Now we have to deal with what this reference to oil means. The elders are not just called to pray, but they are called to pray and anoint the person with oil. What does this mean? Are the elders of the church supposed to do this today? The short answer is that I am not sure. There is a diversity of opinion about this from good theologians. So I’m not sure. If I were sick, though, and I couldn’t walk, I would ask the elders to follow this verse verbatim. When in doubt, I take it, just stick to the script. That’s my thinking. Though, there is a diversity of opinion.
Now look with me at v. 15. There’s a promise here. The verse reads,
And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
This is a promise, dear friend. When we follow Scripture, we have this promise of healing. By means of the elders prayer for this sick congregant, the sick congregant is “saved.” I take “save” here as mostly physical; that is, the prayer of the elders will result in God healing the sick person. And if the sick person’s sickness resulted from sin, he will be forgiven by God as a result of the elder’s prayers. Quite a wonderful promise.
Now there is a big objection with this verse. You might say, “Pastor, I’ve prayed for healing. My elders have prayed for healing. I’ve been anointed with oil, and I’m still sick.” It’s very important that we understand this objection. It raises an important point about this passage. There will be times when you and others pray for healing and that healing will not happen. There are numerous stories of this throughout Christian history. We must understand this. Sometimes God simply says “No.” In this situation, the healing for the Christian will happen, but it is just delayed until the final resurrection. In the meantime, God says no.
I think this objection is dealt with in the text itself. Notice in the passage that it says, “the prayer of faith.” Notice the “faith” there? The “faith” is a faith which recognizes the sovereignty of God, which recognizes that all prayers end with, “Your will be done.” This promise must be understood in light of the sovereign will of God. The elders pray for healing, you pray for healing, the church prays for healing in light of the sovereign will of God. A prayer of faith models the Lord Jesus’s prayer of faith when he prayed in the Gospels,
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”
The prayer of faith is bold, but we do not give God directives. We do not tell God what to do but we do come to him boldly. Yes, this is a promise, but it is one that must be understood within the confines of what “faith” is. Faith is bold but set on the sovereign plan of God.
Examples of Healing
Nevertheless, we don’t want to rob this verse of all of its power. Dear friend, God does heal. There are ample examples of divine, miraculous healing throughout the Christian church. Yes, there is evidence that God can and does say no to our request for physical healing. But there is also evidence that he says yes to healing. That the promise embedded in the passage is true for us today. We must believe in God’s power to heal today. I believe it is a duty that we have as Christian. God is active and involved in the world. While we must never be given to the excesses of health and wealth gospel, we must also avoid the other extreme of believing that God isn’t actively involved in this world. God can and does heal today. In the here and now. We must believe this.
One of my favorite biblical scholars is a man named Craig Keener. Keener is a prolific scholar. One of evangelicalism’s best scholars. He’s received his PhD at Duke University, so he’s no dummy. About ten years ago, he wrote a two volume work on miracles. In this two volume work, Keener makes the case, persuasively so, that healings and miracles continue today. Last night during our family devotion time I read several stories to my children of the miracles that he records. Very, very encouraging and interesting. I want to share a couple stories with you to evidence the fact that God still heals today. Listen to this story.
My friend Dr. Bungishabaku Kotho, an Evangelical Brethren minister who is now president of Shalom University in Bunia, Democratic Republic of Congo, was part of a prayer group team evangelizing villages in 1993. The people of the village were dominated by a powerful witch doctor. One old man listening to the group, however, went to retrieve his blind wife from the witch doctor’s house, where she was receiving treatment for her blindness. Neither the hospital nor the witch doctor had been able to help her blindness, and the man brought her to the team as they had finished praying for people and were preparing to leave. The husband confessed that he was Roman Catholic and acknowledged that Jesus is more powerful than a witch doctor. The three team members consulted one another; they had never been in such a situation before, but they decided that this challenge for Jesus was the very sort of event that they had come for. They had prayed for the woman for about two minutes when she suddenly began shouting, “I can see!” She began dancing and jumping. Even those who had prayed were surprised, not having witnessed such a miracle previously, but they did find the woman completely healed. She lived on for another ten years, and the healing endured.
Dear friends, prayer availeth healing. Prayer is not doing nothing. Prayer is radical. We have access to all of God’s powers and riches by means of prayer.
Prayer Availeth Fellowship
Prayer is our medium to accessing God’s miraculous grace. No, healing is not guaranteed in this life, but it can and does happen. We need to believe this. We need to fight to believe that prayer availeth much—specifically physical healing. Prayer, according to v. 16, also availeth fellowship in the body of Christ.
So far, in vv. 13–15, there have been two types of prayer mentioned. In v. 13, I take this as individual prayer. “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” I take that to be individual, private prayer. Then in v. 14, we have the leaders of the church, the elders, praying. “Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him.” That’s the elders coming together as a group and praying together. Now there’s one more type of prayer in this passage. That is corporate, body prayer. Look with me at v. 16. It says this,
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
I take the “therefore” this way: James teaches that because prayer brings about physical healing when the elders pray, the whole congregation needs to follow in their example. For the whole congregation to receive physical healing that they need, they are to confess their sins to each other and pray for one another.
One again we see the connection here between sin and physical sickness. Sometimes there are instances of physical sickness in the body of Christ that are related to unconfessed sin. That’s what James is teaching here. When this happens, the congregation is to come together, and seek physical healing. The physical healing here is sought by means of praying together. Confessing our sins and praying together is what brings physical healing to a congregation.
I think that this is an area where our church needs to grow. I don’t believe we pray enough together as a church. I don’t believe that we have enough times set aside in our church’s weekly calendar for the body to pray together with the body. Tonight we will have a church-wide prayer meeting to facilitate this. This evening at 5:30 we will have the opportunity to obey this passage together as a church. What we will do is have a brief time of singing, and then we will break up into groups and pray. Confessing our sins to each other and praying for each other.
Praying together, according to this passage, will bring physical healing to our body. It will also bring spiritual healing, too. As with every church, our church is in need of spiritual healing. And the way we attain this spiritual healing is by means of praying together. When we pray together, we enter into each other’s lives. We love each other more. We know each other more. We are burdened for each more.
I am taking v. 16 as pointing beyond physical healing. When we pray together, we fellowship together. This is what prayer does in the body of Christ. Prayer availeth for fellowship. When I confess my sins to you, when I pray for you, you see my need for Christ more and as a Christian you become more burdened to love and care for me. The same can be said in the opposite direction. When you confess your sins to me and when you pray for me, you become more burdened for me. We need each other in the body of Christ. And the way we foster that need and meet that need is by coming together and praying together. We need to get beyond the surface level. Prayer does that. Prayer availeth for us fellowship, Christian love in the body.
Prayer Availeth World Change
Now for our last point this morning. It is this. Prayer availeth world change.
The last verses we must cover are vv. 17 and 18, which recount to us the story of Elijah. This is what the verses say,
Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
What James is doing here is he is using Elijah as an example of the prayer of a righteous person. So at the end of v. 16, James said, “The prayers of righteous people accomplish much.” And in v. 17 he says, “Look at Elijah as an example of that.” This story comes from 1 King 17–19, with Elijah’s confrontations with Ahab. I take it that what James is saying is that prayer can and does effect human history, even at the level of weather patterns.
This Friday I officiated the funeral of Lucile Nuttall. Lucile was an absolutely incredible woman. She died at the age of 102. She married her husband, Nolan, at 15. Her obituary said,
She left a family baseball game to elope with her brother’s friend Nolan.
She had 7 children. When you combine them all together, she had 91 grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren. Kathryn, we need to have more kids. We have to catch up. She was a hardworking, loving, kind woman. She loved to cook. I’ve heard she made the best coconut cream pie. More than this, she loved Jesus. Her love for sugar and her love for salvation, what is better than that. She was a woman of profound faith. Listen to this,
The change in life she experienced in her 102 years was amazing. In times of sadness and joy she persisted in unwavering faith in God. She could often be observed praying or reading her Bible even with unfailing eyesight. The legacy she leaves for us all is when you cannot do anything else, pray.
Lucile’s prayers have changed the world. They have radically shaped her family. And they have radically impacted this sermon. If you want to change the world, be like Elijah, pray. Be like Lucile. Pray.
As we conclude, just a few more stories of radical, miraculous prayers that God answer from Craig Keener’s book on miracles. These stories I share are like Elijah’s stories. Listen closely.
When some early twentieth-century villagers in southern Africa complained that the God whom the preacher Elias Letwaba proclaimed could not bring rain to their parched village, Letwaba declared that it would fall the next day. His momentary confidence quickly yielded to fear, however, and he prayed throughout the night. Nevertheless, the next day, rain poured down.
It is reported that during the West Timor Revival, Indonesia ministry teams going out on foot through the jungles during tropical rains often found rain falling on either side of the path but not on them or the path. After one Indonesian ministry team hired a boat to reach their destination, they confronted a dangerous storm. The Muslim boat owner promised to believe their message if their God could calm the storm, and he kept his word when, after their prayer, the sea grew calm.
When a torrential downpour began in the midst of Peterson Sozi’s alter call in Uganda, he prayed, “Lord, stop the rain!” People applauded as it stopped immediately. When one southern African chief requested that missionaries pray for rain because of local drought, the missionaries asked that God would not only send it but also make it convincing to others. That night, “there was a great downpour, the roads becoming rivers of water.” The chief was convinced. When a brushfire threatened to destroy a home in Swaziland, a mother and her sons cried out in prayer for a miracle; abruptly, rain came down, but only for the seven minutes needed to put out the fire, and not beyond a few miles surrounding them. When raging wind and waters threatened to swapm an evangelism team’s boat in Southern Nigeria, the leader followed Jesus’ example of commanding the storm to stop, and the sea became “as placid as glass.”
Dear friends, do you want to change the world? Do you want to live a life that matters? Do you want to make an impact in this world? Pray.