In the movie Jaws there is a scene when Chief Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider, gets his first look at the massive shark and then remarks “you’re going to need a bigger boat.” Then there is a scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark there is a scene where a large intimidating bad guy pulls out a sword and brandishes it menacingly. In response, Indiana Jones draws a gun and shoots. In the thriller based off the Stephen King story The Shining, the character played by Jack Nicholson, breaks down a door with an axe before shouting, “Here’s Johnny!”
These scenes as well as several more like them are some of the most memorable and iconic scenes from some of the most beloved films of all time. These scenes also all have one thing in common: They were improvised. None of them were in the original script. In Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford was supposed to engage in a big sword fight, was not feeling it, so he drew the pistol. Stephen Spielberg loved it and it stayed in the movie. In the case of Jaws and the Shining those iconic lines were not in the script, but the actors inserted them because they thought it fit the scene and the character.
There are a lot of instances where some of the favorite scenes or standout lines from movies turn out to be improvised. Sometimes, they are just happy accidents but a lot of times they happen because the actor makes the choice to ditch the script to better embody the character. One of the reasons why these improvised scenes stands is because they are moments when the actors stop playing the character, and they embody the character. They internalize the character and so the character just flows out of them. In essence, for a few magical moments they become the character. I think there is a lesson here for our faith as well. Faith is not about doing a right set of actions, it is not about knowing the right answers, it is about internalization. It is about taking the information that “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” and believing that from the very core of our being. Faith requires more than just knowing the gospel, it requires becoming the gospel. When an actor internalizes their character it works to create some magical moments on the silver screen. When we internalize following Jesus then our faith works in a way that is powerful and effective.
Today’s scripture is the conclusion of James and it wraps up the letter. James is a very practical letter, the whole focus of James is having a faith that works in our everyday lives. A lot of the writing in James is about how faith should influence how we live and act. In this conclusion James points out when we have a faith that works then we have a faith that goes to work. As James wrote in verse 16, the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective. Prayer is not magic. It is not like we can say the exact right words and instantly create the effect we want. Prayer is the primary way that we join God in transforming this world. When we pray we are not just doing a good luck ritual, we are interacting with the Creator of all that exists. When we ask for something in prayer, we asking the single most powerful and creative being in the entire universe to intervene and possibly change the very fabric of reality to make a miracle happen. In order for that work we need to have an idea of how to pray.
This morning’s scripture does not just say prayer is powerful and effective, but it qualifies it. This morning’s scripture states the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective. Righteous is a very churchy word because it is a very biblical word. Righteousness is the word the bible uses time and time again to describe people who take following God seriously. It is the word used to describe people who internalize their faith. The righteous do not treat faith like a hobby, but it is a fundamental expression of who they are. Just like an actor can improv the perfect line because they fully understand their character, the righteous know just what to pray because they have internalized loving God and following Jesus. The apostle Paul also writes about this in Romans. In Romans 12 Paul writes that when we submit ourselves to God then we can know and approve what God’s perfect will is. Perhaps that is the best definition of what it means to be righteous: submission to God. Having a faith that works is being able to truly say “not my will, but yours be done.” When we believe that, and when we seek to truly embrace that way of thinking then we pray for God’s will and the world is transformed.
Praying righteous and effective prayers do not come from a formula or reciting a specific prayer. Our prayers are not powerful because we deliver the right lines, our prayers are powerful when we pray in faith, with the expectation that our faith will work and God will move. Prayer, just like acting or any skill, is one that requires practice to learn. Learning to pray righteously takes a lot of experience in prayer and requires a genuine and deep love for God and people. While there is no guaranteed multi-step formula for world changing prayer, in this morning’s scripture James does give us some broad guidelines to help us better learn how to pray in a way that is powerful and effective.
I think there are three guidelines that James gives for better prayer. The first is not explicitly stated, but is found in verses 13-14. There it states if any among you are in trouble, if any among you are happy, if any among you is sick. It does not say if you know someone, the scripture states if any among you. Among you means together, and it shows that prayer is meant to be communal. Prayer is not always meant to be a one on one chat, it can and should be a group discussion.
The scripture goes on to states when someone is sick then the elders of the church should pray over them, because again prayer is something we should do together. In my experience of attending church all of my life, this is a common experience. Church-goers tend to be really, really good at praying when people are sick. Every week we share our prayer concerns with one another, and we can trust that the community of faith will lift us up. By and large that trust is well placed, because many faithful saints pray powerful and effective prayers. I think testimony to this is that just about every church if not every church in the world, will have someone who can share testimony of how God answered their prayers and brought about physical healing in their lives. We tend to do really well being a community of faith that lifts up one another when someone needs physical healing. However, we tend to struggle a bit more with the second guideline.
The second guideline to powerful and effective prayer is found in verse 16 where James writes, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” We have no problem lifting up in prayer the aches, pains, and sniffles we have, but we do not often confess our sins to each other or pray for one another that the damage done to our hearts, minds, and souls by sins be healed.
If we are being honest, that kind of prayer is a little too real for most of us. It is more comfortable to show up in church and pretend we have it all together as opposed to confess our sins and admit that we can be a bit of a mess. What would happen if we took down the masks and showed each other our messes? What if we were willing to confess to one another that we struggle with anger? What if we confessed that we harbor bitterness and we have not been able to forgive someone who wronged us? What if we sought healing by telling our brothers and sisters in Christ that we hate someone, and the person we hate is ourselves? Can you imagine ever finding that kind of brutal honesty and humble vulnerability in churches? Do you have any idea what would happen? I do, because James wrote about it. If we pray for another, if they have sinned they will be forgiven. If we confess our sins to one another and pray for one another then we will be healed, because the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective.
Friends, think about how freeing that is, how miraculous that is. The temptations, the struggles, and the inner demons we fight we do not have to do it alone. Friends, we were never meant to do it alone. We can turn to one another, we can pray for one another, and we can count that God will heal the broken heart, restore the joy that leaks out, and mend the soul torn by sin. One of the things I find most heartening about this morning’s scripture is that it states the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective, not the prayers of a perfect person. When it comes to following God, we do not have to fake it until we make it. We can be honest about where we are and the struggles we face. We can be imperfect and righteous at the same time. This means that even while we have our own struggles, we can pray and lift up our sibling in Christ who is struggling as well. We can pray that God will provide the strength that both one of us have, and we can pray that prayer with confidence because the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective, even if they are imperfect.
The final guideline that James gives us is in verse 20 “remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their ways will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” I so appreciate that this morning’s scripture ends by lifting up how important it is for us to regularly pray for those who do not yet know Jesus. How else could we have any part in helping someone leave a life of sin to follow Christ, if prayer is not involved? The prayers of the righteous are effective, because they line up with the will of God. This can leave us sometimes wondering if what we are praying for is in God’s will. However, there are some things that we can know with absolute certainty are within God’s will, and praying that a heart will turn to Jesus and a soul will be saved is always, always within God’s will. Praying that someone would come to know Jesus, to turn away from sin and accept the love that God has for them is always a good, worthwhile prayer. There are over seven billion people on the planet today, and Jesus died to forgive the sins of every single one of them. There are people who have done terrible things and are currently unrepentant. There are people who are convinced they do not need or want God. Through words and even our actions we may not be able to convince people in those categories about the errors of their ways. However, with God all things are possible. We can love the people who do not yet know Jesus and we can pray that they will accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. We can pray with confidence, because the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective.
Prayer that is powerful and effective is the result of having a faith that works. May that be the kind of faith that you possess. May your faith not just be a hobby that you engage in on Sunday mornings, but may it be a deep, internal part of who you are. May you live your faith out consistently and daily in your thoughts, your words, and your actions May you be so in step with the Holy Spirit that you know exactly what to pray about. Through the power of your prayers may miracles happen, and the world be transformed because the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective. So may your prayers be so as well.