Sermon for Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 27, 2015, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Mark 9:38-50
Sermon Theme: “A Funny Thing Happens When You Don’t Pray”
(Sources: Emphasis Online Commentary; Emphasis Online Illustrations; Anderson’s Cycle B Preaching Workbook; original ideas; “Too Much Prayer/Prayer Jokes Online; jokes.christiansunite.com; The Parables of Peanuts)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
In a Peanuts cartoon strip, Linus is kneeling by his bed saying his prayers. When Lucy walks in on him, he says to her, “I think I’ve made a new theological discovery.”
“What is it?’ Lucy asks.
Linus replies, “If you hold your hands upside down, you get the opposite of what you pray for.”
Although meant to be funny, Linus’ “theological discovery” shows the confusion many folks have about prayer. Many of us have questions about prayer. Can I pray for things I need when there are others with greater needs than I have? Would it be an insult to God if I prayed for a parking spot? Etc.
It’s not surprising then that the Bible has a lot to say about prayer, with Jesus even giving us The Lord’s Prayer, a model prayer to pray. Obviously, with the Biblical emphasis placed on it, prayer is very important in the life of a Christian. In our sermon text, the Apostle James gives us some solid counsel about prayer.
He says to pray for the suffering and the sick. This makes me think of the cartoon of Snoopy hugging a heart and saying, “When my arms can’t reach people who are close to my heart . . . I always hug them with my prayers.”
James also says we should pray by singing praises. We should thank and adore God in all things. The Apostle Paul tells us we must always pray with thanksgiving. It seems that you and I are always begging God to give us things, to bless us, to heal us, and we should do that. But we forget about thanking Him and praising Him for all that He has done and will do for us.
In another Peanuts strip, Charlie Brown is sitting up in bed, as though this thought suddenly came to him, “How would we feel if someone never talked to us till they wanted something? God has feelings, too!”
James says in our text we are to be prayed for by others, especially by the Elders of the church, and to be anointed with oil. By oil, he possibly could be referring ot the Balm of Gilead.
James lived in a world where the success of medical care was severely limited. There were no antibiotics, no understanding of germs and viruses, and infected wounds often led to death.
There is more to what James says in the text when you consider that the word “salvation” is derived from the Latin “salvation,” that which preserves from harm. It is from the root word, “salve,” from which we get the general term for ointment. Salvation, then, does not mean just being saved from our sins; it means to be healed in every way, inside and out, physically and spiritually.
A person tells his friends, “This situation with my family is really getting me down,” and soon after, he comes down with a bad case of the flu. “My teacher makes me sick!” keeps many a child in bed with stomach cramps and fever. It’s very common for employees who can’t get along with their boss to suffer from severe headaches which keep them from productive work.
Doctors today are beginning to point to unresolved tensions and conflicts as being the root cause of many of the illnesses that beset us day by day. Cure the spiritual, psychological or interpersonal problems facing an individual that lies behind the ulcer, tension, headache, spastic colon and rheumatoid arthritis. Give the cancer patient a new slant on life, a new sense of power in the Lord, and many will go into remission. That’s exactly why physicians like for chaplains to pray for patients before being wheeled into surgery.
Modern medicine is only beginning to understand the power of confession in the healing process. As Christians, we know that power, which really comes from God’s absolution, even if doctors don’t.
In our text, the apostle also says we are to pray FOR others. Isn’t that what our prayer chain is all about? Further, he says we are to pray for all backsliders who have fallen away from the church.
He says we are to confess our sins. We need to make sure this is not another aspect of prayer we neglect. You recall that Jesus often said when doing His ministry of healing, “Your sins are forgiven,” rather than, “Be healed.” Forgiveness of sins and physical healing cannot be separated.
According to our text, we are to pray in all things, — such as, for rain; or for it not to rain, and to pray, as Elijah did, with faith God will answer, even expecting miracles. James says, “[Elijah] prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months, it did not rain on the earth.”
But James continues the story, “Then [Elijah] prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” It gets too dry, we pray for rain; it floods and we pray for the rain to stop.
Johnny, a very bright five year old, told his daddy he’d like to have a baby brother and, along with his request, offered to do whatever he could to help. His dad, a not so bright 35 year old, paused for a moment and then replied, “I’ll tell you what, Johnny, if you pray every day for two months for a baby brother, I guarantee that God will give you one!”
Johnny immediately began praying for a baby brother. He prayed every night for a whole month, but after so much time went by with no results, he became skeptical. Older kids told him that you don’t just pray for two months and then, whammo, — a new baby brother appears. That’s ridiculous! So Johnny quit praying.
After another month, Johnny’s mother went to the hospital, and when she came back home, his dad took him into the bedroom to see his mother. There was a little baby brother lying next to her on her right side, and there was another little baby brother lying next to her on her left side. His mother had twins!
Johnny’s dad looked at him and said, “Now aren’t you glad you prayed?”
Johnny hesitated a little and then looked up at his dad and replied, “Yes, but aren’t you glad I quit when I did?”
It bothers me when people talk about the POWER of prayer on facebook. I’ve even been asked, “Do you believe in the power of prayer,” and I answered, “No, I believe in the POWER of GOD! The power comes from God, not from prayer. Beating God in the face with your prayer until He gives in denies the power of God. Believe in the power of God, not in the power of prayer.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pray. No, God commands us to pray.
Dr. Larry Dossey, a medical doctor, tells the story of a patient of his, a man of great faith, who was dying of lung cancer. Unlike many medical doctors, Dossey sat at the man’s bedside and asked him what he usually prayed for.
“I don’t pray for anything in particular,” the patient responded. “How would I know what to ask for?”
The patient’s answer surprised the doctor, who thought that of all people, a dying patient would know what to ask for. “If prayer isn’t asking God for something, then what is it for?”
“It isn’t FOR anything,” the patient replied, “it mainly reminds me I am not alone.”
And that is the crux of the matter. When we pray, we are in the presence of God, and we experience the reality that we are not alone. We discover anew that at the very core of the universe is not cold, unfeeling matter, but an enormous heart of love. We comprehend fully that God is not some impersonal abstraction, impossibly distant from the joys and sorrows of our lives, but one who took on human flesh and went to the cross for us, who died so that we might live forever.
In short, James’ counsel on prayer tells us that we are to pray in times of trouble, happiness, and sickness. We learn how to pray when we call on the elders of the church for prayer, pray in the name of the Lord, pray in faith, and pray together with our repentant church family. Why we pray is to make the sick person well, to ask for forgiveness, to ask the Lord to lift us up, and to pray for healing. No doubt, James would agree with the modern church sign displaying the words, “A funny thing happens when you don’t pray, . . . nothing.” Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.