Confession and Intercession

Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone cheerful? He should sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? He should call for the elders of the church, and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up; if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect. Elijah was a human being as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the land. Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land produced its fruit.
— James 5:13-18

There was a point in time where, in the throes of frustration and lament, the whisper of the serpent came into our ears saying, “did God really say?” More specifically, the liar asked, “do you think God really hears your prayers?”

As I lingered in this passage as it was assigned to me to teach on, God in His loving kindness poured truth on the words of the enemy, convicted my heart to repentance, and lifted my hands in thankful praise.

James himself, the brother of Jesus, writes to the messianic Jewish community that is spread out throughout the ends of the world, giving beautiful, poignant wisdom as they seek to live as light in darkness, and yet, the darkness is heaped heavily and continuously upon them. As he writes, it’s clear that he wastes no time going straight to the imperatives as he literally and figuratively sees what he imparts as a matter of life and death.

His focus on ethics is on doing good, speaking the right way, and expressing the gospel in the socio-economic ways of compassion and mercy. Hence, he targets prophetic barbs at the compassion-less rich, at the unloving work-less, at the unmerciful abuse of power, and at teachers who unlovingly divide and murder. … We should not forget here that James’ intent is to form a community (or set of communities) who embody his ecclesial ethic and that the work of God is at stake in this formation. For James, ethics flow out of what God has now revealed in the Messiah as the community both challenges the systemic injustices of society and awaits final consummation.
— Scot McKnight

The ending of the book lands not with a inspiring benediction, but with these verses and a few after, a hard word for those of us wrestling with the persisting question of if prayer even matters. Confession and intercession are marks that distinguish members of the Kingdom community. These “one-another’s” remind us what words should be ever on the lips of the faithful.

In our very first verse, it seems we are hit with two differing, completely contrasting parties, especially when it comes to their circumstances. Yet, if we remember the context of the audience that James is speaking to at all, we will remember that just about all of the Jews in diaspora were poor and persecuted. The difference here not lies in one life being better than the other, but of those who are struggling under the crushing weight of their journey, and others who have taken heart. In both of these instances, no matter joyful or joyless, they are called to pray. With this context in mind and these words in mind, we would do well to look at the example of those in our own world who are burdened under the hand of systemic injustices and evils, like our black, latinx, hispanic, asian, and native american brothers and sisters, who have shown us what it means to pray in light of this.

As we move into the semantic range of the word here for sick, we find ourselves either looking at those who are physically ill and bedridden, to even those who are just weak. No matter, the elders are brought in, interceding on their behalf, using oil to anoint that sick person as they symbolize purifying the body in devotion to God and His work of healing. Although it seems as if everything here is happening on a horizontal level, it is the vertical movement of God that brings help.

Prayer is not about our expertise. It is about our experiencing the power of the One to whom we pray. It’s about the great expectations that grow in us when we have a genuine experience of the God who hears and answers. Great results come from our gracious Ruler, the great rewarder and reward of his people who cry out to him.
— John Onwuchekwa, Prayer

We must be cautious in handling God’s word, and here is one of those pieces that gets twisted and abused for people’s gain and others’ destruction. This is where it’s important to see the language here, the word if here in verse fifteen. Even in matters that James has called out throughout the book itself, matters of double-mindedness, spiritual adultery, pride and more, sickness can be a tool used to bring about repentance, but James is not trying to say that all sickness is arising from personal sin.

The New Testament urges great caution in making this sort of connection. In general, sickness is part and parcel of life in a broken and fallen world. It’s part of the fallout from our collective rebellion against God, and in that sense is indiscriminate (see John 9:1–3).
— Sam Allberry

Healing is a beautiful symptom of the Kingdom’s presence, and in that, healing both physically as well as forgiveness are signs that Jesus has broken through. The echo already reverberates: God hears. God acts. Prayer is not in vain. Paying attention to this therefore helps us to know that spending time in context, especially with this language in tow, is important. We now are called to confess our sins to one another.

Confession is not something abnormal for the community to which this was written to. These people were shaped by confession, as all liturgy does, as they regularly sacrificed and even participated in measures of restitution. These words to one another help us to see what it looks like in a synagogue community to be a people who are all priests, all participants in this community in greater measure.

In our day and age, the practice of vulnerability is now popularized, or rather, a mask of vulnerability instead of the real thing. I think even of my own demographic as we are able to skim the surface with our “confessions” and add a funny little hashtag hot mess with a cute picture on social media to our silly blunders. Sadly, that show of vulnerability is rewarded.  

Yet, true vulnerability has power behind it, exposing darkness to light. True confession births repentance, a cry that turns us around. Repentance is not meant to be done without a village. Confession and repentance are a very beautiful, putting to death, sign of the Spirit at work in the lives of those who seek and have found. This is a true reward.

The second one another marches us right into the response of not only hearing a confession, but being a part of this community, to pray, to intercede for one another.

Within the whole of this book, and the whole of Scripture, not only is the point to pray, which most often we do not do, but oftentimes the person praying somehow becomes part of that answer to prayer. Boaz’s prayer for Ruth to God is answered in himself ridiculously quickly. Prayer is an action that drives us into action. Our interceding means much more than words directed vertically, but hands and feet moving horizontally. This means we act on the suffering around us. Sometimes, it looks like prayer and prayer alone, which this text has shown us is not useless, but effective. Sometimes, it’s prayer that also means embodying burden bearing through advocation, through perseverance alongside someone. Thankfully, this also means with the community, that although some of us might have great faith, others will be weak and struggle, and they carry one another in it, the blessed-be’s finding strength with one another.

The promise is so that you may be healed. The promise is good news, freedom, renewal, the DNA of the Kingdom of Heaven. Elijah is brought forth as the exemplar for all of what we have walked through, with the caveat given that he was a human as we are. The point? Pray.

We don’t have to moralize this passage either. If you look at all of it, prayer is effective because God is. Prayer is effective because God hears. Prayer is effective because God acts. Prayer is effective because God. We are the righteous person that prays because God made a way, because of His sacrifice, because of His grace and mercy. This is about Him.

This past Sunday was the lighting of the first candle on the advent wreath, our first week in this beautiful season. Advent embodies the gut-wrenching, longing for Christ to return as we also get the joy of looking back at Christ having come. Another quote:

Advent is not for sissies.
— Fleming Rutledge

We are a people caught in the in-between, a people who have the already with these beautiful pieces of Kingdom living through confession, intercession, healing, but not yet, with many of us looking at prayers that feel unanswered, sickness, heartache. These one another’s, confession and intercession, embody the never ceasing language on the lips of those who call Jesus their Messiah. We hope, because as He comes, as He returns, that which was wrong will be made right, that which is sick will be healed. In our waiting, this season that preaches it with both lament and joy intertwined as we even started in verse thirteen, we get to pray, not because He is far off, but because He is God with us.

And Mary said: My soul praises the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, because he has looked with favor on the humble condition of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed, because the Mighty One has done great things for me, and his name is holy. His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear him. He has done a mighty deed with his arm; he has scattered the proud because of the thoughts of their hearts; he has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly. He has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he spoke to our ancestors.
— Luke 1:46-55