Elijah and Mary: Ones Just Like Us

Message: John Cline

James 5:7-20; Reader: Tinu Olabimtan

What Christmas means to a person is beside the point of what Christmas is really about. Just as a person’s “truth” does not change God’s objective “truth”, in the same way, a person’s claims that Christmas is about warm feelings, families, music, or whatever, the truth about Christmas is that is means one thing: Jesus Christ was born. Now, how we respond to the ways of God determine how effective we will be in our living for Him and in our prayers. For today’s sermon, as we complete our preaching series through the Letter of James, I came across a video clip of the well-known and highly respected pastor Francis Chan in which he stated that James 5:17 is his favourite verse in the Bible. It’s seems strange. Listen to it and 18:

Elijah was a human being, 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. Again, he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5:17,18)

Why would that be Francis Chan’s favourite verse in the Bible? It challenges us to not be lazy or sloppy in our beliefs or actions. Think about the things Elijah did and consider whether you are a person just like him. God had told him that it wouldn’t rain for 3½ years so Elijah prayed that it wouldn’t rain and it didn’t. Then, at the end of the 3½ years, Elijah prayed that it would rain, and it did. Then there were the other miracles he did. His prayers were so effective that through them, God fed a widow and her son, and when her son died, Elijah prayed, and the son was resurrected back to life. Could you do that? Do you have that kind of faith? Elijah didn’t have an “S” for Superman on his shirt; he didn’t wear a cape; he wasn’t a superhero; he was a human being just like you and me. He prayed in the time of King Ahab and his evil wife Queen Jezebel, who ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel, a nation that contained the land of Samaria within it. We read,

Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to King Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there.” So, he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook. Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land. (1 Kings 17:1-7)

After a long time, in the third year, the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.” So, Elijah went to present himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria. (1 Kings 18:1-3)

Between the time of famine and then the rain coming, one of the most amazing events in the Old Testament happened: Elijah’s defeat of the 450 priests of Baal on Mount Carmel but after being involved with that miraculous and courageous event, which ended with the people crying out in awe, “YAHWEH – he is God! YAHWEH – he is God!”, Elijah turned to Ahab to tell him the drought was about to end, and the rains fall. Remember, he was a human just like you and me, a normal man.

And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” So, Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees. “Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked. “There is nothing there,” he said. Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.” The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” So, Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.’” Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. The power of the Lord came on Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel. (1 Kings 18:41-46)

Elijah was a human just like you, just like me. But do you feel like you are just like Elijah? Do any of us have his kind of faith, the kind that fed people, raised dead kids, defeated 450 priests of evil, and had authority to affect whether or not the rains fell? Are any of us like Elijah? Do we have a faith such as his? And, yet James says that he was a man just like us, normal, ordinary, but God used him greatly. The original groups of people James was writing to were the scattered communities of believers who had been forced out of Jerusalem by persecution. They ended up in different places around the eastern Mediterranean Sea and life was not easy for them, both from persecution from outside the churches and arguing within the congregations. James wrote to them to get them out of their naval-gazing, to help them to persevere, and to instill courage in them.

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned. (James 5:7-12)

James exhorts his readers to consider the prophets, people like Elijah who suffered while speaking in the name of the Lord. After all, he goes on to say, we are “humans just like Elijah”. Live a life of faithfulness, in other words. Let your word be your guarantee. Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no”. Don’t swear by anything as a way of proving how trustworthy and honest you are. Just do as you should and honour the Lord. That brings us to the Christmas story and a teenaged girl named Mary. Her older cousin was miraculously pregnant. We read,

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38)

Mary was just like Elijah, like you and me, a normal human being. There was nothing special about her, just as there was nothing special about Elijah. The thing we can see in both of their lives is that God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Elijah and Mary were just like us, normal, not sinless or highly educated or rich or powerful. All they had was that they loved God and were faithful to you. When God called them to do their seemingly impossible tasks, they felt inadequate and fearful, but God used them because they were humble and receptive, willing to be used for Him, to doing what He asked, agreeable to doing His will. They weren’t impressed with themselves, but God used them. And they were just like you and me. So, can God use us? James tells us one way God will use us, and that is in praying for one another, with expectation that God will work. James writes,

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being, 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. Again, he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5:13-18)

Just like Elijah’s prayers and Mary’s prayers were powerful and effective, so can our prayers be. Remember who James originally wrote these words to: a group of Christians who were fearful, doubting, struggling from persecution, and at loggerheads with one another. They would not have considered themselves to be very “righteous”, but James knew that Jesus, that baby born to Mary, had made them “righteous” in his sacrifice and death for them on the cross and in his resurrection. Because of what Jesus has done, in God’s eyes, we, His children, are righteous. So, we can pray with expectancy and believing that our prayers will be “powerful and effective”, to quote from James’ letter.

You have heard me say before that I don’t believe in “coincidences”. That is Eastern religion thinking. Christians believe that God is in control. Well, here’s your Christmas non-coincidence: A couple of months ago, when deciding that James was going to be the letter I would preach through in Advent, I said to Shannon Robertson that it seemed like such a strange part of the Bible to be preaching from at this time of year, as I normally try to preach from the well-known birth stories about Jesus found in Luke and Matthew, or focus on the prophecies about his birth as found in Isaiah and Micah, or doctrinally look at the Gospel of John or the letters of Paul to explain why Jesus came, but this year, I decided to preach from the Letter of James. I let our Worship Committee of Shannon Robertson and Zack Lim know what I was thinking, and Shannon said, “Well, let’s do it and see what God does with it and how he leads. It seems strange but the Lord will figure it out.” So, we’ve plunged ahead through James, which has nothing to do with Christmas. But here’s the non-coincidence. Remember, God is in control. This week, Shannon’s brother Rob Snyder, who has been suffering from bouts from cancer decided that he was going to come to Edmonton for Christmas from his home in San Diego – that is a rare event, let me say, and then, ever rarer was the request he made of Shannon. He asked, “Do you think your pastor would agree to praying James 5 prayers over me this Sunday?” Shannon replied by telling him that she was sure I would because I just happened to be preaching on that exact passage today. So, following the benediction, we are going to pray, in faith, that the Lord will “raise” Rob “up” and healing him, as James writes. We will anoint Rob with oil “in the name of the Lord”, as James instructs, believing with great expectation that our prayers will be powerful and effective because of the work of righteousness Jesus has done on the cross and in his resurrection. Now, if any of you would also like prayer, please come forward, following Rob’s lead, and we will pray for you.

In closing his letter, and as one final proof of how powerful and effective the words of a righteous person can be, James closes his letter by saying that through them, people can be saved.

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19,20)

Let’s pray…

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