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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Equipped for the Journey

Nearly three months ago, we looked at the words that the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 15: 4, 'For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.' Our focus then, was the lives of the Old Testament saints, and what those lives, and the endurance found in them, could teach us. The record in scripture of God fearing, God following lives, contains much that we can learn from. In subsequent weeks, we have considered two of these 'lively' examples which are mentioned by James in his letter.

James was writing to 'the twelve tribes scattered among the nations' (James 1: 1). This means that, in the first instance, his letter was written to those who were descendants of Jacob and his twelve sons. They were Jews, children of Israel. But these Jews had been converted, changed to a new way of thinking, because of a message which they had heard. They already understood that Jehovah God had made many promises in the Old Testament scriptures, about someone that was coming. The vast majority of them had previously held a preconceived idea about what this person would be like. However, this new message told them that the promised one had now come, and his life had been very different to what they had expected. He was a man named Jesus, who had been put to death, on a cross, by the very people he had come to, the Jews themselves. But death had no hold over him. He had risen. And, as Peter told them, '‘Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah' (Acts 2: 36). These former Jews had received this message as truth. They became what we would call 'believers'.

Knowing his audience, James uses examples from the Old Testament scriptures to illustrate his point. He refers to Job and Elijah, whose lives these 'ex-Jews' would have been very familiar with. We have looked at aspects of these two men's lives in the past few weeks, but now I would like us to consider what James is saying about how this should instruct the church in its life as a whole.

I appreciate that there is some difficulty presented in this section, titled in the NIV as 'The prayer of faith'. Verses 14 & 15 contain things that probably don't fit easily into our idea of modern church life, such as church elders anointing those who are ill with oil, and prayers that seem certain to bring healing, and subsequent forgiveness of sin.

Among those that we would esteem as belonging to true, bible believing Churches; those of a reformed evangelical faith, there is no shortage of differing views on these two verses in particular. We should certainly be willing to put the hard work in to understand them. It may be that, like the Jews, when Jesus lived on earth, we have preconceived ideas that need challenging. It is something that I do look forward to having spiritual discussion on, in the future, but I'm not going to look closely at these two verses today.

James actually spends much of his letter dealing with preconceptions. We are all children of our generation. Much of our thinking is affected by what we pick-up from the culture into which we are born. The message that Jesus spoke was counter-cultural. It went against what was generally accepted as truth. He told people that their thinking needed to be changed. In the New Testament letters, of Paul, Peter, James and others, this theme is very evident as well.

The Church was suffering when James wrote his letter. They were experiencing persecution for their faith, and had other trials in their day to day lives. Our natural instinct, and the message of our culture, is to see trouble in our lives as a bad thing. Its something that needs dealing with and removing if we can. Otherwise, we will be sad. But James says something extra-ordinary. He says, 'Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance' (James 1: 2-3). Either James is mad, or our natural reaction to trouble is something that we need to undo. Actually, now that we have become Christians, our natural reaction to things can be totally wrong. We need a new way of thinking. Paul instructs believers in this way, 'Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind' (Romans 12: 2). Your mind, your thinking needs an overhaul!

Our minds are like vehicles that we use to navigate life. I have a car. It does the job that it needs to do. I use it to travel on relatively smooth, tarmacked roads. It's designed for just that, and copes with what I demand from it, from week to week, with little trouble. My family are transported from A to B, in relative comfort. It suits us well. But what if my life changes? Say I read a book which inspires me. Its a book about a journey that I have never considered before, a new way of life. Its about a man who has driven across the continent of Africa from North to South in a car. I think, 'I'm going to do that, I've got a car'. I ignore the fact that the man in the book had a car that was kitted out for that journey. His had four wheel drive and knobbly tyres, and an engine cooling system that would still function in extremes of heat. Its air intake was at roof level, and its underside was completely sealed from the elements, so that it could ford across rivers. I've got a Toyota Corolla! I wouldn't get far into the journey and the air filter would be blocked with sand, the tyres would be spinning on the loose ground, the engine would have overheated, and the electrics would be failing. Twelve miles from the North African coast, I'd be extremely frustrated! Why? Because I'm in the wrong vehicle.

Should I be surprised? After all, it worked fine in the surrounding environs of Ossett. But Africa isn't Ossett. This is a totally different journey. This old vehicle won't do. My new A to B is Algiers to Bloemfontein, not Asda to Barnsley Metrodrome. Should I be surprised? Of course not.

As Christians, though, we often are. We carry our old way of thinking into the Christian life, and wonder why the journey is so difficult, why we keep getting stuck. We think that, because our old mindset served us OK before we became Christians, it will serve us now, when we are on a completely different journey to the one which we were on before. Perhaps we might need some minor changes, things that God's word suggests, but overall we can continue as we were before. This is nonsense, in the same way that driving the length of Africa in my old Toyota would be nonsense. If we don't completely renew our minds, and our thinking, then we will struggle to complete our journey.

In what we have looked at in James' letter already, he has challenged the thinking of these Jewish converts. I hope that our thinking has been likewise challenged by what James says about Elijah. Have we seen that James is telling the truth? Elijah accomplished some remarkable things in his service to the Lord. But he wasn't superman, as we can often think when we pick and choose the details of his life that we consider to be the most important. Elijah wasn't superhuman. He was 'as human as we are' (James 5: 17 NLT).

Now, James wants to challenge our thinking about Church life, and about the way that it prays, and about the way that we deal with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

James begins chapter 5 with a comment on the happenings within fallen society. In this respect, the culture of the times in which the early New Testament Church lived were little different to ours. James rails against oppression. Time and time again in the Old Testament writings, this sin meets with the anger of God almighty. And James deals with it here. He speaks of those who had become excessively rich through the mistreatment of others. By overworking their employees, and refusing to pay them an adequate wage, they had increased their own personal gain, at the expense of their fellow man. This is the culture of me, me, me. I'm the only one who is important. If I'm happy, then everything is alright. But James says 'no, that isn't alright'. It's not alright in the eyes of God to elevate our own needs above the needs of those around us. Why does James mention these things? I think it's to contrast the way of the world with the way that the Church behaves, when the Church of Jesus Christ truly follows its Lord and Master.

The culture of the Church should be you, you, you. We should have a new question on our lips, like, 'What do you need me to do for you?'

James starts this section, in verse 13, with some instructions to us as individuals. 'Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.' It's like saying, 'Whatever your current circumstances, let the Lord be your vision'. Are you down? Then look to the Lord, commune with him, seek his face, pour out your heart and your confession to him. Are you up? Then use this time to praise the Lord.

Then James moves on to the harder to understand verses of 14-15, which give instructions to believers together. Whatever, we may conclude about the full meaning of these verses, it is difficult to confuse the meaning of their conclusion. James says, in verse 16, 'Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.'

The Lord answers faithful prayer. It is only the Lord 'who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases', as David tells us in Psalm 103: 3. But here there is a demand for confession, and confession to our fellow believers. I think that many of us find this difficult. I know I do. I'm much more comfortable highlighting something that I may have done quite well, than pointing out where I have been quite pathetic.

Part way through preparing this message, I had a telephone conversation with a brother in Christ. This command from James was fresh in my mind, so it helped me to be more honest than I might otherwise have been. I could speak about something in my life where the Lord had been truly gracious in his providential dealings with me. I needed the Lord to be good to me, because I had been rubbish. I spoke of how I was conscious of a way in which I had failed as a father. It was really difficult thing to admit. But, what was the response? My brother said this, 'Well, I can pray for that'. It made my heart sing for joy.

Do we value the prayers of our fellow believers? We should do. Should we be reluctant to make confession of our weakness? We shouldn't be. Yes, it flies in the face of the teaching of our time, where self-promotion is the mantra, and success is measured in how many 'followers' we have, and how many 'likes' are received against the manipulated version of ourselves that we so carefully project. For some of us, confessing our failures will be like driving a new car for the first time. It'll take some adjustment. But we are commanded to do it.

I'll make another confession here and now. It's something that I have observed in my own life. I have had a lot of pressure at work recently and things have been quite overwhelming at times. When I have voiced my complaint to my wife, it has tended to take a familiar pattern. I have criticised others. Much of this criticism is, I believe, justified, in the sense that others have failed, and proved their own inability and weakness, and this has impacted on me. But that isn't the real issue. Actually, its a deflection from the real issue. The real issue is me! I struggle to calmly and reasonably be brutally honest. I struggle to say, 'No, I don't have the capacity to do what you are asking me to do', and then leave the consequence of what I have said to the Lord's providence. In this, I evidence distrust in the Lord, and also show unwillingness to obey his word, by not honestly confessing my weakness to my believing wife. How will this affect her praying? Massively. I haven't told her the truth. I haven't correctly, completely, informed her, so that she can petition the Lord in prayer, for what I really need.

This is so important to realise, because, as James says, 'the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.', 'therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.' And his example is Elijah. Was Elijah's praying for himself? No, he was praying for the nation of Israel, God's covenant people at that time. Was Elijah's prayer effective? He prayed that it wouldn't rain for three and a half years, and... it... didn't. Then, after this lengthy period, he prays again that it would rain, and it did, that very same day. If you don't consider that to be particularly effective, then I'm definitely going to enlist your help in praying for me! Do we want this kind of effective prayer from our brothers and sisters? Then we'll need to grow spiritual legs fast, in order to hurdle over the barrier of embarrassment at our own humanity and weakness.

We may need to start by becoming honest with ourselves, before being truthful to our Lord himself, and open, in our confession, to his believing people.

We may be concerned that we will be judged by other Christians when we detail the ruin of our lives to them. This should never be so. When we are called to listen to the confession of our fellow believers, we need to be honest about our own hearts. We need to remember the words of our Lord, recorded in Luke 18 9-14, in that parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus says that one of them, 'went home justified before God'. It was not the one who said, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people', but the one who said 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner'.

As believers, we are called to get out hands dirty in service to the Church. James covers this somewhat in verses 19-20, where he speaks of those who may have really wandered from God's truth, and yet are recovered by the actions of others. I haven't got time to look properly at those things now. Maybe there will be further opportunity.

I'd like to finish with the best example ever. It's Jesus. He was never 'me, me, me'. Had he been, then he would never have come to this earth to do the will of his Father. He really was, 'You, you, you'. He came to get alongside sinners. How unlike the religious people of his day was Jesus? Look at that women caught in the act of adultery and how she was judged by her fellows. Jesus said I don't 'condemn' you. John 3: 17 says this, 'For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.' Jesus came to deal with the sins of people, once and for all. He was prepared to get his hands dirty in the service of others. He was prepared to give up his life and die a cruel, cruel death for them.

As Peter said, 'God has made this Jesus... both Lord and Messiah'. He is our Lord. He is our leader, 'the pioneer and perfecter of (our) faith' (Hebrews 12 2). May God give us grace to truly follow this Jesus.


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