Tuesday, September 30, 2008

How Does The Church Handle Sin And Sickness?

James 5:13-20

13 Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.
14 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.
15And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.
16Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
17Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.
18Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
19My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

We have come to the last passage in the letter of James. Its message is challenging, very practical, and action packed. I wonder as we listen to this series of sermons on the book of James, which message particularly struck you? Do you recall some lessons that are especially relevant for you?

Do not be listeners of the word only but also be doers of the word as well, to walk the talk, to demonstrate our faith by our works etc. It was a letter written to a church of poor and suffering people under intense pressure to give up and walk out of their faith, so James want to encourage them to be patient in this time of trial and testing. To rally the troops to press on in doing good.

To step back a bit, let us look again at what Pastor Caleb has preached on last Sunday: James encouraged his readers to be patient in suffering and press on till the finishing line, don’t lose sight of the Big Picture. Verse 8: “Be patient and stand firm because the Lord's coming is near… The Judge is standing at the door!” (verse 8, 9) Dun give up, Christ will return and put things right. There will be justice. He will reward those who persevere till the very end and judge those who do wickedness. To some of us, (comfortable, middle class folks in the city) the idea that God is a judge who punishes people sounds very harsh and cruel, but to people who are suffering unjustly under oppression and persecution, the news that God will finally bring justice and punish the wicked is like a drink of cool water on a very hot day. It brings hope and courage.

So now as James is wrapping up, he reminds us that there will be a glorious day when there is no more sin, no more suffering and no more sickness. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and bring his healing justice in a new heaven and a new earth. The effects of sin will be reversed. Our decaying bodies will be resurrected into immortal, imperishable bodies that will not experience disease.

But that day is not yet come. In this side of heaven, we are not promised sinless perfection or perfect health. In the meantime, followers of Jesus (the community of faith, that we call the church) still struggle with sin and sickness.

So while waiting for that glorious day, how do we deal with them? How do we deal with sick and sickness? That’s the question I’d like to ask as we come to today’s text.

1) Verse 13: Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.

“In Trouble? Pray. Happy? Praise.”

Sounds easy? Simple? But how many times have we caught ourselves doing just the opposite. When things go well and the sky is blue, we say: “God is good all the time, and all the time God is good. Hallelujah! Praise the lord! I could sing of your love forever…” But when trouble comes, instead of praying, we complain and grumble: “This is just not fair. How can God let this happen to me? I don’t deserve this. God doesn’t really care for us.”

Or the other side of the coin, only when difficult times come and the storm clouds gather, we rush to God begging for help. Sometimes I look back on my college days and see the ‘most spiritual’ times of my student life (when I spend the most time praying and praying hard) usually happen to be the day before exams or assignment deadlines!

But when exams over or assignment passed up, when things are going well, it is business as usual… We live just like everybody else, as if God does not exist at all. In theory, we are theists (believers in God) but in action, we are practically atheists.

Both lifestyles – complaining against God when things go bad, ignoring Him when things are well – may just show that deep down, we are really more interested in what God can give to us, His blessings of help in trouble and giving us good exam results or good job or a good husband/wife etc we are more interested in His gifts than we are in the Giver himself.

No, that’s not how we should live. This is using God. There is no communion or personal relationship or intimacy.

So how shall we then as a church handle sin and sickness?

Scripture seems to tell us this: Let bad times drive us to our knees and pray, to recognize our desperate need for God’s grace. As Thomas Merton put it, “Prayer is an expression of who we are. . . . We are a living incompleteness. We are a gap, an emptiness that calls for fulfillment.”

And let good times be an occasion for us to be thankful for His goodness in providing for us and praise Him. Give Him glory. At all times, live before the face of God as if he’s our only spectator.

That means, in good times or bad times, all of life is to be lived before the face of God. It’s like we are living in front of the audience of ONE. Do we pray to just get things from God, or do we pray out of the sheer delight in who God is? To give him pleasure and glory because we see his worth and beauty…

2) Secondly, we come to the interesting question on sickness and prayer for healing.

If we are sick, we are encouraged to different kinds of prayer
- Personal: let him pray (v13)
- From Leaders: call the pastors/elders to pray over him (v 14)
- Corporate: pray for each other so that you may be healed (5:16)

So all believers are given the privilege to pray, not just for pastors or elders. If everyone calls the pastors when got flu or headache, he will be very busy indeed. Doctors will be out of business.

Living in this modern world, with advances in medical science, it does affect how we look about prayer and healing. As Philip Yancey says: “In former days when a child fell ill the parents cried out to God; now they call for an ambulance or phone the doctor.” Some Christians believe that miracles are only for special times in history like in the ministry of Moses, Elijah, Jesus and the apostles as signs that confirm God’s revelation. Now we have the Bible, God’s full revelation, so miraculous signs are not needed today.

I believe that James is clear that we are to ask for prayer for healing. This instruction is for the ongoing life of the church, for elders, for all of us, not just for apostles/prophets. (Verse16) “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” can be discouraging to us. We have all screwed up so many times, God will never answer my prayer. But “righteous” here doesn’t mean “sinless perfection”… James made a comparison to Elijah (v. 17- 18) (Wah! Super prophet! In a time of national apostasy, when the state of Israel led by a bad king and queen turn away from God, Elijah almost single handedly challenged them and brought Israel back.) But no, the point that James want to underline is the fact that this ministry of praying for healing is not for super healers. It's for regular folks. Elijah is just like us, he has his moments of courage and can fall into depression. One moment, he is bold and the next moment, he fled. He has his failures too, but his trust is in God and his faith is active in good work, he is counted as righteous by God’s grace and mercy.

On the other hand, there will be those who tell you that if you have enough faith, you can ask God and He will heal directly. You do not even need medical help. Medical help is only for those whose faith is not strong enough. If your prayer is not answered, it must be due to sins.

But we know this is not true. Last week, we saw the example of Job who suffered person tragedy and loss of health and wealth, and it is not caused by any particular sin that he has done. So we must be sensitive and not jump to conclusions. At the same time, there could be sickness that is caused by sin. (Verse 15: “If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”)

In CDPC, if you’ve been around for some time, you’d see how our pastors have applied this biblical teaching in the community life. When there are some serious illnesses, the pastors will pray over the church member and anoint the person with oil in the hospital or in church. And thank God, there have been testimonies of healing. God’s kingdom power has broken into history in the person of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It would seem that God wants us to pray expectantly for healing in that reality.

But at the same time, miraculous healing is not always forthcoming. We still live in a fallen world.
I have also prayed for a friend’s mother who battled with cancer and she does not get healed, and now in the presence of God.

We have to hold in tension these two truths (we should pray in faith for healing and trust in His sovereign wisdom). There is no simple formula that works for all cases because life is messy. On our part, we pray in faith and ultimately the result is up to God’s wisdom and sovereignty.

Clearly the bible does not convey a picture of instant healing on demand. In 1Timothy 5:23 Paul tells Timothy to take a little wine with his water because of his stomach ailments. He did not instruct Timothy to claim healing for his stomach and ignore sound medical practice. Another example, Paul left Trophimus sick at Miletus (2Timothy 4:20).

So we should not see God at work only in dramatic, miraculous healings. If a person is healed through medical science, it is only because a merciful God is behind the laws that make science works. Should we not praise the God whose natural laws allow medicine to do its healing work and the skills of doctors whom he created?

There is an interesting mention about applying oil on the sick. There is no magical power in the oil. It is “the prayer offered in faith” that God responds to. It is a tangible symbol of God’s presence and the Holy Spirit’s anointing coming on the sick person.

It is also interesting to note that oil is very commonly used for medicinal purposes in ancient times. (See Isaiah 1:6 and Luke 10:34) If this is what James has in mind, then it would be very interesting that here we have both prayer and medicine being used together for healing the sick.

Why does God choose prayer – seemingly weak, ineffective?

First, God wants us to do it this way so our hearts lose their self-sufficiency. If God’s blessings just came upon us without a lot of prayer, we would be proud, assuming that a good and comfortable life is simply our right.

Second, God wants us to do it so our hearts will be prepared to rejoice in him as the author of all blessings. If God’s blessings just came upon us without a lot of prayer, we would not perceive him as the source of everything we need. In short, it is very dangerous to give us good things unless we are prepared through much prayer.

Third, when we do prevailing prayer corporately then the attainment of blessing creates community, knitting our hearts together.

3) The Community As Means Of Grace To Keep And Correct Us.

“16 Confess your sins to one another and pray for each other… 19My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20 Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”

This implies that there is such a thing as truth. If there is truth, there is also error. Truth is not ice cream, it is insulin to the diabetic. It’s not just a personal preference, truth is a matter of life and death.

Also implies a safe space where we can be vulnerable and open and trusting. Confessing our sins to another person can be scary and not a common spiritual practice, especially in evangelical churches.

But we are created and saved for community. We are not isolated, individual, independent believers. James envisions the whole church as a safe place where we help each other to deal with sin and grow in holiness. It’s a community project and a journey we walk together.

Opening up to another person is a risk. It leaves us exposed, vulnerable, open to hurt. End result is we hide and struggle alone. Eventually, some just drop out or drift away.

We must remember however that we are all sinners together. God is not finished with us yet. All of us have weaknesses, insecurities, habits to overcome and the Holy Spirit is sanctifying us and giving different people gifts, skills and wisdom to help each other.

When we share our stories, we invite others into a part of ourselves that cannot be entered without permission. It’s a big honor and privilege. Those who listen sense a welcome to delve into their own stories, to make themselves open, to trust others with their pain. This results in a purer, more authentic fellowship of people who know and love and understand each other’s needs, anxieties, temptations and sins. In this act of mutual confession, mutual forgiveness, mutual help and prayer we release power that brings inner healing.

“The great mystery of our faith is that we get closest to God when we are willing to be vulnerable, when we are willing to say ‘I need somebody else’.”—Henri Nouwen

Testimonies of victory and triumph… Weddings… We rejoice with those who rejoice, we grieve with those who grieve. If all we get are stories of victory, some may get discouraged “what’s wrong with me?” I feel a profound sense of belonging in CDPC when stories are shared about struggles that are still ongoing, how they are trusting in God in tat unresolved situation, need for healing, for an answer… These are real people facing real issues.

But how do we apply this in our lives? Maybe some suggestions from how I’ve seen some people in our church are doing it.

-Intentionally cultivate friendships of trust and openness. Maybe it could be small group. Give permission to trusted friends to ask tough questions.
-Confidentiality must be maintained, except when it endangers someone.
-I know of guys who travel a lot for work and live out of the suitcase. One day, you could be in Amsterdam or Brazil or Bangkok. They would have this agreement. Call someone when tempted especially for guys
-As a general rule, brother to brother or sister to sister confession as in some ‘emotionally charged’ situations.

So how do we deal with sin and sickness this side of heaven?

We live in a fallen world that has been corrupted by sin and we cannot escape the realities of this fallen world. But at the same time we also live in a new reality that has already begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But it is a reality that will be only be seen in its fullness when Jesus comes again. In the meantime, we live by faith and prayer and in communion with each other before the face of God.

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