Higher Expectations


James 5:13-20

Is any among you suffering? If ever there was a rhetorical question, that certainly is it. At any given time, in every Christian fellowship, some one is going to be having an awfully rough time of it. Suffering seems to be the lot of all human beings. Suffering happens to all of us. We don’t like it to be that way, we always wish it were otherwise, but in this broken and damaged world, we really ought to learn to expect it. We know that our Lord suffered, and we have seen, very recently, that part of our own Christian experience is to follow Jesus down the same paths of agony that he traveled. Jesus suffered, he died, he rose from the dead, and he is exalted in the heavens. That, too, is our path: suffering, death, resurrection and exaltation. That’s our ultimate hope. It is a hope that Jesus promised us by having lived and died it before us.

But in order for hope to become reality, we need to be people of prayer. Prayer is one of the ways that we use to connect with God. Scripture reading is the other. Both are essential. Both Scripture reading and prayer combine to make a supernatural communication that is far deeper than texting, and far more meaningful than normal conversation. In the midst of suffering, prayer and Scripture reading give us a sense of settled peace in our lives. They both force us into a more realistic, more godly understanding of ourselves. In keeping with the common metaphor that we have worked with for the past few weeks, prayer and Scripture reading helps us to set our minds more on godly things and less on human things. And miraculously, prayer and Scripture reading tend to eliminate whining, self-pity and grumbling, which we are prone to engage in when we find ourselves suffering.

Part of the reason that James counsels prayer for those who are suffering, is so that he can catch the attention of those of us who are doing just fine. No one, in any Christian fellowship, should ever suffer alone or in silence. The sad fact, however, is that all too often, many Christians reject the support of their brothers and sisters in Christ, and choose to suffer alone and in silence. In the Early Bird Bible Study, we have been exploring some of the biblical covenants, and we have discovered that covenants remind us that we are all in this together. We are intimately connected to one another and to God. That’s why we call ourselves the children of God, and the brothers and sisters of one another. That isn’t just a cute thing to say; it’s how we ought to be living with and relating with one another on a daily basis. James is saying subtly, but very intentionally, that since we share this common, intimate bond with one another, that we ought to be caring for one another. When we know that someone among us is suffering, we ought to be willing to hold the hands of those who hurt, and to lift up in prayer all who are struggling. Like God, who does not abandon or forget anyone, we must let folks know that we will not abandon nor forget them, and that we truly hold them in our hearts. This is so that when those of us who are doing just fine find ourselves in a place of difficulty, we can count on others to pray for us and care for us. To often, when someone chooses to suffer alone and in silence, they drift away, separating themselves from the healing power of the fellowship, and abandoning the covenant relationship. We must commit ourselves to never doing this.

And so then, James asks another rhetorical question: Are any cheerful? Of course we are! Our Christian faith is a faith that is primarily characterized by joy. Lot’s of us are cheerful, and we should be! Jesus is alive and so are we! Our futures are secured, God has blessed us abundantly, and that is always cause for joyous celebration. And James is saying, if you’re cheerful, kick it up! Enjoy it! Never be ashamed of it. Get together, join heartily with others and sing songs of praise and worship. Be together in your cheerfulness! There’s a powerful pattern developing here. Is any among you suffering? Then get together with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Is any among you cheerful? Then get together with your brothers and sisters in Christ. What is James saying? Be together. Be together no matter what. Be together under all circumstances. Be together with God and with God’s people. That’s what worship is all about. It is the adoration of God in the company of God’s people. Never neglect worship.

I think sometimes, though, that deep down, we are afraid to be cheerful. We’ve somehow come to believe that cheerfulness is misplaced in a world, and even in a church that is filled with suffering and pain. And so we tone down our joy. We put a damper on it. Maybe it is for fear that by being joyful, that we are somehow mocking those who are suffering, and so if we are joyful, we had best keep it to ourselves. That is just as wrong as suffering alone and in silence! That’s human thinking, not godly thinking. We should never be ashamed of the joy that Jesus has put into our hearts. We should never hide or deny our joy. James says to share it, celebrate it, sing it out and get loud with it. And guess what? Joy, true Christian joy, serves as a healing balm to those who are suffering. Joy is contagious.

Suffering people need to be around people who are filled with joy. That’s why, in the Christian church, Jesus puts joyful people, and people who are suffering, together in the same place. There’s no accident here. Jesus does it on purpose, so that our joys and sorrows can be shared. Is there any other institution on this planet that can carry out such a wonderful mutual ministry as the Christian church? Why doesn’t everybody beat-foot it into this place? Do they know?

And now, James tosses up a third rhetorical question: Are any among you sick? Yes, some of us are sick. We are sick in heart, and we are sick in mind, and we are sick in soul, and we are sick in body. Some of us have illnesses that are going to lead to death. And while all of us want to live long, happy, healthy lives, we have already seen in this passage that that dream is an impossible dream. All of us are going to die someday. But we are faithful people, and we must never fear death. Death, as frightening as it sometimes can be, is God’s best gift to us. It is the portal to salvation and eternal life. It is how God ultimately heals us of all of our suffering and pain and disease and sorrow and loss. Without death, there can be no resurrection, and resurrection is our rock-solid hope. It is why we have given our lives to Jesus Christ.

Now sadly, this passage has sometimes been promoted as a magic cure for illness. But practical experience has shown us that it is not, and sometimes the words seem to be a mockery to us. In real life, these words have caused us grief, not joy. And sometimes these words have been used to beat us up with shame and guilt, especially when a cure is not effected. The troublesome verse is verse 15. James says that, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.”

In a sense, I believe that James is speaking primarily about salvation and resurrection here, and only secondarily about a cure. He certainly uses the language of salvation and resurrection. The problem comes when we focus on a cure, and the cure fails to come, and the Lord doesn’t raise up our loved ones in this life. It suddenly becomes our fault. We didn’t have enough faith. We didn’t pray hard enough. If we had had more faith, our loved ones would not have died. It all depended on us and on our ability to believe.

This cannot be what James intends for us to understand. I cannot imagine that James would be heaping a load of guilt and shame on us at a time when we are honestly and fervently connecting with our Lord. The healing of our loved ones cannot be all up to us. That’s quite presumptive, actually. We are not the healers. We aren’t the ones who get to determine who gets well in this life and who does not. Jesus is the one who heals, not us. The decision is the Lord’s, not ours, and the Lord always does what is right, even if we disagree.

And in that, there is strong comfort. I’m not sure that we would always make the right decision. Our wisdom is not always the Lord’s wisdom. The faith element here is not so much on the cure as it is on learning to trust in God’s wisdom. It may be that God’s love and compassion is best expressed to our loved one who is dying, and who is eagerly anticipating resurrection and eternal life, than it is to us and our own, sometimes selfish needs to keep our loved ones alive. That’s a tough thought to jamb into our hearts.

So what do we do? We pray. And we pray with honest and yearning hearts. We earnestly entreat our Lord to heal us and our loved ones. We pray for wellness of hearts, for healing of minds and souls, and for physical cures. And we call upon the elders of the church to minister to us.

There’s something wonderful and powerful going on here, and again, it absolutely depends on our connection with one another and with God. But there’s also an individual responsibility here. James counsels the suffering to pray. James counsels the cheerful to sing songs of praise, and he counsels the sick to call upon the elders of the church, who are the primary ministers to the congregation. The initiative and the responsibility for this rests upon the who is seeking the cure. Effort is required of the person who is suffering, to pray. Effort is required of the person who is cheerful, to sing. Effort is especially required of the person who is ill, to seek out the elders of the church. In this congregation, that would be your board of deacons. This re-enforces our connections to one another, and it affirms our covenant relationships.

When all is said and done, do I believe that some of us will be cured of our diseases in this life? Absolutely. Jesus lacks no power to abolish illness in our lives. Miracles in God’s Kingdom still abound. We have witnessed them right here in this fellowship, and we can expect even more. And so we pray, and we pray without ceasing. And along the way, we will know the mighty things that God does in our midst.

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