Softening the Face of God

James 5:16

16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Dear Friends in Christ,

How many of you believe that there is power in the words you speak?  For example, if your child spilled his milk at suppertime and you were to say to him in a very angry tone of voice, “You are such an idiot!  You are so clumsy!” how do you think that child would react?  They’d probably cower in fear before you and burst into tears – and understandably so.  On the other hand, if you were to say to your child someday, “You are such a sweetheart” with a big smile on your face and maybe give then a little pat on the cheek, what kind of response would that evoke?  Obviously one of great joy, delight, and pleasure.

So there is power in the words that we speak to one another.  But you know what?  There is even greater power in the words that we speak to God on behalf of one another.  Listen once again to our text for today:  “Pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”

When I read that passage recently I was reminded of an incident that happened when I was probably in about the 6th grade as best as I can recall.  It was a Saturday afternoon and I was upstairs in my bedroom when all of a sudden I heard the unmistakable sound of glass breaking outside.  Then I heard a lot of voices and commotion and ran downstairs to see what was going on.  I saw my older brother, Steve, come running into the kitchen with blood gushing from his arm.  He was playing outside with some of his buddies and had accidentally pushed his arm through the window of the door that led into our garage, which was bad enough.  But he panicked and when he instinctively pulled his arm back out, that action produced a number of deep cuts and lacerations.  I can still recall seeing this rather sizeable flap of skin hanging from his arm when he came in the door.  I could tell you more, but I don’t want to spoil your appetite for lunch today.  Fortunately my mom was home and she started running water over his arm in the sink.  Meanwhile, I didn’t quite know what to do, but then it hit me.  I needed to find my dad and let him know what was going on because he would be the one who would take charge.  He would be the one who would know what to do.  So I rushed over to the church which was right next door to our house, ran down into the basement where my dad studied his sermon every Saturday afternoon, and told him what had happened.  Now those of you who knew my dad and his rather feeble condition prior to his death 4 years ago might find this hard to believe, but he shot out of that basement like a rocket.  He ran home, wrapped Steve’s arm in towels, put him in the car, and according to Steve he laid on the horn all the way to the hospital, running stop signs and driving like a maniac.  But he got him there in record time and a few hours later my brother was back home again with 36 stitches in his arm.

Now I really didn’t do much that day, but at least I knew what to do when my brother was hurt.  I ran to my father and told him about it.  Isn’t that what James is telling us to do in our text for today? “Pray for each other so that you may be healed.”  Got a friend that’s been hurt or injured?  Talk to the Father about it.  You know somebody that needs their life stitched back together again?  The best thing you can do is run to the Father on their behalf.  Pray for one another.

We call this intercessory prayer, and there are many examples of it in the Bible.  I think, for instance, of Abraham when he was informed that God was going to destroy the 2 cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their extreme wickedness.  That was of major concern to Abraham because his nephew Lot and his family were living there.  Remember how Abraham went before the Lord and pleaded with him to spare those cities if 50 righteous people could be found in them?  Then he lowered the number to 45, then to 40, then 30, then 20, and finally all the way down to 10.  And each time God said he would not destroy them if that many righteous people could be found there.  Unfortunately, Abraham didn’t go quite low enough because not even 10 righteous folks could be found there and they soon found themselves on the receiving end of God’s fiery judgment, though God did allow Lot and his family to escape.

But I really believe that one of the greatest examples of the power of intercessory prayer can be found in Exodus 32 where we find the Israelites doing the unthinkable.  They had just been delivered from more than 400 years of slavery in the land of Egypt with great signs and mighty wonders that God had carried out on their behalf through his servant Moses.  These included the 10 plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the miraculous purifying of the bitter waters of Mara, the miraculous provision of water from a rock on another occasion, the miraculous provision of manna and quail each day so they’d have something to eat out in the middle of that wilderness.  Please understand, my friends, those Israelites were everyday eyewitnesses to the miracle-working power of God.

So here they are at Mt. Sinai.  Moses, their leader, has been up on the mountain meeting with God for a number of weeks.  They’re growing impatient.  They don’t know what’s going on up there.  For all they know, Moses could be dead.  So they decide to take matters into their own hands.  They grab Moses’ brother, Aaron, who was supposed to be in charge and basically force him to build them an idol in the shape of a golden calf.  And then they bow before that image, even going so far as to worship it and proclaim that “this is the god that brought us out of Egypt.”

Need I tell you that God was not very happy with them?  In fact, in vv. 9-10 of that chapter he says to Moses: “I have seen these people and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.”  So God’s arm was raised.  He was poised to virtually wipe these ungrateful, rebellious, idolatrous people from the face of the earth, much like he’d done with the vast majority of the world’s population at the time of Noah and the great flood. But Moses intervened.  Moses interceded.  Moses stayed the hand of God.  And how did he do it?  He did it through prayer.  In vv. 11 and 12 we read:  “But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. ‘O LORD,’ he said, ‘why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?…Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.’”  Then a few verses later we read some of the sweetest words in Scripture when it says:  “Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”  What does our text say once again?  “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”  So powerful and so effective that it literally changed the mind of God in that instance.

In the light of that story then, can you understand why I would want to include in our current study of the “one another” passages of the New Testament this one that encourages us to pray for one another?  As brothers and sisters in Christ this is not just an awesome privilege that we have; this is an important responsibility.  And while we’re on this subject, I would like to just take a moment to acknowledge some ladies in our congregation whom I consider to be some real prayer warriors.  They’re called our prayer chain (have them stand; applaud).  These ladies deserve our commendation because there are some weeks and even some days when they have a number of urgent prayer requests that come their way.  And I have seen such incredible responses to their prayers over the years that I’ve told my wife that if something terrible happens to me, get me on the prayer chain as quickly as possible because, to paraphrase the words of our text, the prayers of these righteous women are definitely powerful and effective.

But let’s get down to brass tacks now.  Let’s get practical because if you’re like me, there’s a very good possibility that there are times when you struggle with your prayer life.  I guess that really shouldn’t surprise us because I guarantee you the last thing Satan wants you and me to do is spend time in prayer.  He knows all too well that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective, so he will do everything he can think of to distract us, to busy us, to keep us off our knees.

So what can we do to enhance and improve our prayer life?  My first suggestion is to keep a prayer list.  I started this myself many years ago after I heard a speaker at a conference suggest it and I’ve found it to be so helpful.  In fact, being the organized person that I am, I’ve divided my prayer list into a number of categories.  There are those who have health problems, those who have marital problems, those who have spiritual problems, those who need special help and support from God for a wide variety of situations and challenges they are facing.  I include my family on my prayer list, as well as our church family, our church body, our nation, our President and other leaders.  The purpose of a prayer list then it to simply help the one praying to recall specific needs and to stay focused on those needs while they pray.

Then a 2nd suggestion to enhance your prayer life is find a private, quiet place to praywhere you can be free of distractions and make it a daily practice to spend time there, even if it’s only a few minutes.  Sometimes I think we don’t pray because we feel we have to spend a good half hour or hour doing it.  But a few minutes is better than none, isn’t it?  Furthermore, I can almost guarantee you that the more private time you spend in the presence of your Heavenly Father, the easier you’re going to find it to do because you’re going to come to enjoy, anticipate, and value that time so much.

I remember reading once about a tribe in Africa that had been evangelized by a Christian missionary and how seriously these natives took their prayer time with God each day.  Each one had a private prayer spot in the jungle to which he would retreat and over the course of time a path would be worn to each spot.  But once in a while one of the natives would become slack in his prayer life and his path would bear the evidence of it as it would become overgrown with grass and weeds.  So the other natives would point that out to him.  They’d say, “You’re prayer path is becoming weedy.  What’s going on here?”  And they would hold one another accountable.

What about your prayer path, my friends?  Is it smooth and well-worn from frequent visits with the Father?  Or does it need a bush hog these days to knock down all the weeds that have overgrown it?

Then my last suggestion to enhance your prayer life is keep track of God’s answers.  If you do that, you just might be amazed at how God responds to the prayers of his people.  Granted, it’s not always according to our timetable or our way of thinking, but that’s where we need to understand that God’s ways are not always our ways, but they are always the best ways.  And there’s no better example of this than in what took place at the cross.  What appeared to be the world’s greatest tragedy that day was God’s way of bringing about the world’s greatest triumph as love triumphed over hate, good triumphed over evil, Jesus triumphed over sin and Satan, and heaven triumphed over hell, all so that sinful, unworthy, undeserving human beings like you and me could share in and enjoy that victory forever.

So even though God may not always respond to our prayers precisely the way we ask, through our prayers we can do something very special that I’ve hinted at in my sermon title for today.  In the story that we looked at earlier of Moses interceding on behalf of the Israelites, it says that Moses “sought the favor of the Lord.”  The Hebrew word there literally means “to soften the face of God.”  So when you pray for someone, you soften the face of God toward that person.  You move God to be favorably disposed toward them  So it is my prayer today that we will all take that privilege ever so seriously and that we here at Salem Lutheran might become the praying church and the “P.I.’s” that God has called us to be.  And by that I don’t mean “private investigators,” but rather “prayerful intercessors.”