September 27, 2015 1 Kings 17: 1; 18: 1-2, 41-46 James 5: 13-18
Rev. Catherine Purves
I think sermon titles are important. Not everyone would agree with me. Some people think that they are a waste of time. But as a sermon-writer, I find that a well-considered title gives me an anchor and a trajectory. It helps me to root myself in one aspect of our Scripture readings, and it points me in a direction so I can see where the sermon needs to go.
Here is a case in point. I came up with today’s very simple title, “Pray!” on Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday were very busy days, and I had no time to think about my sermon. On Friday when I sat down to write the sermon, I started, as always, with a blank computer screen, and the first thing that I did was type the title, “Prayer.” After re-reading the texts from I Kings and James, I began to think about what I might say. It seemed like there was so much to say about prayer that I didn’t know where to begin. I stared at that blank screen for quite a while. Then I glanced again at the bulletin and I realized that I had put down the wrong title. I had not wanted my title to be “Prayer” but “Pray!” (with an exclamation point).
What difference does that make, you may be wondering. To my mind, it makes all the difference. “Prayer” is a topic, and my problem wasn’t that I didn’t know what to say about that topic. It was that I could talk about it for hours. There was too much to say, too many aspects to consider, too many different kinds of prayer to discuss, too many circumstances in which prayer is important. I could talk about prayer for ourselves and prayer for others, private prayer and corporate prayer, prayer that is answered and prayer that is not… There was just too much for one sermon. The Old Testament story of Elijah’s prayer related to the drought could be discussed in so many ways. And James lists all sorts of different kinds of prayer in his epistle. I didn’t know how to begin a sermon with the title, “Prayer.”
But “Pray!” (exclamation point) is different. “Pray!” is a command. “Pray!” says, “Just do it!” Pray, after all, is a verb, while prayer is a noun. A sermon on prayer might invite us to think about where, when, or how to pray. It could consider all of the ‘what ifs’ related to prayer – what if nothing happens, what if I pray for the wrong thing, what if my prayer seems self-serving, what if I can’t think of anything to say, what if… This could go on forever.
You could still be sitting here well into the afternoon, and we would have possibly never gotten to the most basic thing that Scripture tells us about prayer, and that is that we simply must do it. Pray! As a community of faith and as followers of Christ, we are not called to think about prayer, or worry about prayer, or come up with questions about prayer or answers to those questions. We are told, “Pray!”
Certainly, that is what James was saying to the Christian communities he was writing to. His letter is addressed to the Twelve Tribes in the Dispersion, so he was writing to his fellow Jews (now Christians) throughout the known world. This is one of the general epistles, not directed to a particular church with its own issues and problems. He is talking to and about all churches and all Christians, and he is telling them that they must pray. This is a first order activity. Are you suffering? Pray! Are you happy? Pray! Are you sick? Pray! Have you sinned? Pray! Just pray! He does make one general comment about prayer itself. He says, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” And he provides one example: Elijah’s prayer for a drought and his prayer for rain.
I spent a bit of time reading through chapters 17 and 18 in 1 Kings. I was looking for the actual prayers of Elijah that resulted in the drought and then the torrential rain. I found other prayers of Elijah: his prayer over the dead son of the widow of Zarephath, and the prayer he uttered during his competition with the priests of Baal in which he asked God to send fire to consume his offering. But where was the prayer that called for a drought? And where was the prayer that begged for rain?
I find the fact that we don’t have the words of those prayers interesting. Listen again at to Elijah said to King Ahab at the beginning of chapter 17. “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” Elijah is not asking God to withhold rain. He is proclaiming something that God told him. It is God’s word and God’s will that would cause the drought and that would end it. This is confirmed in the first verse of chapter 18 which reads, “…the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year of the drought, saying, ‘Go, present yourself to Ahab; I will send rain on the earth.” This example of prayer, that James lifts up for us as exemplary and as proof of the effectiveness of prayer, seems to consist of God speaking to Elijah and Elijah first listening and then acting, as he is directed by God. He is not bending God to his will by prayer. He is aligning himself with God’s will through prayer.
We are not going to be diverted into a theoretical discussion on the nature of prayer, silent or spoken, or the relationship between cause and effect when it comes to prayer. Remember, our title for today is “Pray!” We simply want to participate in the reality of what Elijah was engaged in. And the essence of that reality of his praying was listening, waiting, relating to God, and obeying. In chapter 17 Elijah speaks of the living God “before whom I stand.” At the end of chapter 18 we find Elijah near the summit of Mt. Carmel bowing down to the earth with his face between his knees. It is an awkward posture for prayer, but it speaks of humble waiting for God to act. And he stayed that way for some time. His servant ran to the summit of the mountain so that he could look out to sea seven times before even the hint of a cloud appeared. Elijah simply remained in the presence of God, trusting that God would act, in God’s own time, to fulfill God’s will.
Pray! Just do it! Live in the presence. Let God order the relationship. Listen for the word that may whisper or that may thunder. God spoke to Elijah in both a still, small voice and in the lightning strike of divine fire that consumed his burnt offering, along with the wood, the stones, and even the dust. Wait, wait for God. And then act, as you feel you are being directed by God. All of this is prayer. So, pray! Pray like Elijah!
We know that Elijah was a prophetic giant. He raised a widow’s son from the dead. He called down the fire of God. He slew 500 of the priests of Baal. He fought king Ahab and his wife, the wicked queen Jezebel and won. He was a mysterious and a powerful holy man. I think it’s fair to say that we feel nothing like Elijah. It’s probably hard for us to imagine ourselves emulating any of the biblical characters, even those who were obviously flawed, but who were, nonetheless, trying to be people of prayer. How can we pray like Elijah?
James will hear none of these excuses. “Elijah was a human being like us,” he insists, “and he prayed fervently.” He was a prophet, but he was just a human being, a human being like us. He stood in the presence of the living God. He bowed down before that God. He listened to the word of God. And he spoke with God. These are not miraculous things or impossible things or even terribly mysterious things. So, just pray! Pray like Elijah.
You know, when a relationship starts to die, one of the first things to go is ordinary speech: simple listening, and gentle attentiveness to the wellbeing of the one you love. Patience is lost, and along with it understanding. There seems to be no more living together, minute by minute, simply breathing the same air, sharing the same joys, and the same sorrows. This is how relationships die between husbands and wives, parents and children, and between friends. It’s not rocket science. Do you agree?
The same can be said of our relationship with God. That is why we must pray! Talking about prayer – what it is, how or when or why we do it – will not help our relationship with the God who loves us, and it can even get in the way. Just pray! Start with ordinary speech, basic listening, gentle attentiveness and sensitivity to the God who has chosen to be in relationship with us. Have patience. Stand in his presence, or bow down before him. Persevere, and you will gain understanding. Breathe in, and breathe out. Share your life with God, your joys and your sorrows. Pray for others, with others, and in the silence of your own heart, and you will find a peace that passes all understanding. It’s not rocket science. Just pray! Pray like Elijah!