Its all about hanging in there, isn’t it? It’s all about Jesus coming back, and it’s all about being patient while we wait. But we all know that waiting for something is always hard work. I was a small child once, as I suppose we all were, and as a child, waiting for Christmas to come was probably the worst thing in the world for me to endure. I had something in the back of my mind this week that told me that April was the cruellest month, and so I looked it up. It turns out that it is a poem written by T.S. Eliot. I didn’t bother to read much of it because it wasn’t really going to be part of this sermon. Although I do suppose, living here in Maine, April does qualify as the cruellest month, because we so desperately want it to be warm, but it never is. But if you are a kid, April is not the cruellest month, December is. December is interminably long. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “it’s always winter, and never Christmas”. Developing the virtue of patience was something that I never was able to manage as a child, and I’m probably not very good with it even today.
The truth of the matter is, though, as awful as December was, Christmas did, eventually, show up. It does that. Every year, on December 25, Christmas happens. But tell that to a kid. The reality of the arrival of Christmas is something that we all have to learn, and as we slowly learn it, the waiting for it becomes all that much more endurable. It may never be pleasant, but it does become easier to endure.
And while that’s pretty rotten segue into our passage this morning, I still think it can work. James is writing to a group of Christians who are growing more and more impatient as the days wear on. They have in their hearts a sure and solid and firm belief that Jesus is coming back to earth, not only to rescue them from their present and miserable lives, but also to snatch them away to live with him forever in eternal bliss. This is what they have been taught, and this is what they are eagerly anticipating. Except there’s a problem, and it is a huge one. Time is dragging on, and Jesus hasn’t returned yet. And as time is dragging on, James’ readers are getting frustrated, and they’re losing patience, and worst of all, not a few of them are losing hope and they are abandoning the faith. None of James’ readers would ever have imagined that Jesus would have taken this long to return.
They had expected him quite some time ago. Especially since they are enduring what they believe to be a great time of tribulation.
And so in our passage this morning , James is pleading with them not to lose hope. He wants them to hang in there, stay faithful and be patient. And so he says, “Be patient, therefore beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” Waiting patiently for the Lord’s return has always been a difficult process for the Christian church. It was especially difficult in the first century. No one even remotely imagined that the delay would last for nearly two thousand years. First century Christians believed with all of their hearts that they would see Jesus during their lifetimes.
And so to help them to develop some patience, James reminds them that seeds don’t sprout and come to harvest overnight. Wouldn’t it be grand if they did! Plant some tomato seeds after the service today, and enjoy a BLT tomorrow for lunch. But unfortunately things don’t happen that way. The seeds get planted, they sit in the ground. The rains come, they sprout and grow, some more rain comes, and the sun shines, and eventually the harvest comes. But there’s nothing that the farmer can do in the mean time except pick some weeds and be patient. The rest is up to God. And the certain implication that James wishes to convey to his readers is that Christ’s return is God’s prerogative and not theirs. There’s nothing that they can do to speed things up, so they might as well be patient, and pick a few personal weeds along the way, while they wait.
So here’s the scoop: in spite of all of this talk of patience, and James’ readers really did need to work on that, James still believes that the coming of the Lord is near, and he says so. And he says it very clearly, so that there is no question about what he believes. He doesn’t know when, of course, but he’s absolutely convinced that there isn’t much time left. He, and his readers won’t have to wait much longer before the skies open up and Jesus appears. Look! He says, the judge is already standing at the doors, ready to enter and pull this whole thing together.
Which brings us to the same interpretive question that we raised with the Apostle Paul a couple of weeks ago. Was James wrong to believe this? Was he wrong to believe that the Lord’s coming was just around the bend? Or worse, was he wrong to tell his readers that they really didn’t have that much more time to wait? Was he giving them a false hope, especially now that 2,000 years have come and gone?
Not at all. It is right, and proper and biblical for Christians to believe that Christ could return at any moment. Every single generation of Christians on this planet has hoped and believed that Jesus could return during their lifetimes. It is good and proper to anticipate seeing Jesus with our own eyes. The prayer, “Lord Jesus, come quickly” has been repeated over and over, and over again, for generations, and it ought to be our prayer too.
And the reason for this is that the delay in our Lord’s return is not nearly as important in God’s plan as it is in our plan. What is important to God is how we manage to live out our lives in the interim. It is understandable that Christians in the first century might lose hope and even faith when Jesus failed to return on their time schedule. For many Christians living in the first century, they had simply reached the point where they were deeply discouraged. They were suffering because of their faith, they were being persecuted by the Romans, more often than not, they were being criticized by friends and loved ones who chided them for putting all of their faith in a man who promised to return and rescue them and make everything all better, but who was obviously not going to return and do any of that.
And so the writers of the Epistles were faced with a huge problem. How do we keep faith and hope alive in an environment that is overwhelmed by people who are overwhelmed by grief and discouragement? And the answer was that we take them back to the Scriptures.
So when James writes to his people, and says “Strengthen your hearts” and “Do not grumble against one another,” he shows them how to do it by using the Scriptures. Let’s dispense with grumbling against one another first. Grumbling never happens unless it is also accompanied by disappointment or discouragement. James’ readers were experiencing both and so they were grumpy. They were grumpy with themselves and they were grumpy with each other. Things weren’t happening as they had hoped they would, and so they were grumpy; mostly because they hadn’t learned patience yet, but also because they were deeply frustrated that Jesus hadn’t returned.
And so James says, “Take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” The prophets saw things in their visions that they never saw with their eyes. In some cases, they died hundreds of years before their prophecies were fulfilled. And yet, they believed with all of their hearts and in full faith that all of these things would be accomplished. They were content to live out their lives in the realm of the promise only. And that’s exactly what James would love for his readers to learn to do; to understand that God’s promise is equally as good as the fulfillment of that promise, and to find total satisfaction and complete contentment in that promise. Can a grumpy and frustrated and discouraged and disappointed people actually do that? I believe that they can, and so did James. He wouldn’t have told them otherwise if he didn’t believe it.
Finally, we’re left with Job. If I was writing Scripture, I would not have bothered with Job. I don’t like Job. Job is a whiner and a complainer, and most of his complaining is bitterly directed at God. His story is long and boring, and extraordinarily repetitive. I’ll bet very few of us have troubled ourselves to wade through the entire book. He had terrible friends who only compounded his troubles, and he lacked the fortitude to tell them to go home and mind their own business. His story would have been a whole lot shorter if he had given them the boot early on. In my opinion, in 42 chapters he only manages to utter one memorable line. The rest is a litany of self-loathing and self-pity. That memorable line, by the way, is very germane to our topic this morning. I’m sure that James had it in mind when he focused his readers’ attention on Job. Ahem…as James might say, go to the Scriptures and discover this line yourselves. Remember a couple of week’s ago when Paul quoted only one half of one verse from a Psalm, and how he intended his readers to go to the whole Psalm, and glean all of the wisdom in it? There are invitations like this throughout the Scriptures. I think that God intends for us to read the Bible, and that’s why we get these little teasers so frequently.
But, of course, Job did lead an extremely miserable life to the max, and that miserableness was not brought on at all by his own doing. He was clearly a victim. And throughout his trials and tribulations, and they were many, he steadfastly maintained not only his innocence, but also his faith and trust in a just and righteous God.
But in spite of all of this, Job does fit James’ purposes in this passage. And that’s because Job endured a time of great tribulation, and he had no clue when it would end. And Job’s experience parallels exactly what James’ readers are experiencing, including the whole grumpiness thing. They’re waiting, albeit impatiently, in a hostile environment, for Jesus to return, and they don’t know when it is going to happen.
James’ readers also know that Job was ultimately vindicated by God; that his trials did eventually come to an end. And this is the hope that James wishes to convey, and it is why James encourages his readers to strengthen their hearts, and to bear patiently their own time of tribulation. And that encouragement hasn’t changed one iota for us. We, too, yearn for our Lord’s return, and just like James’ readers, we don’t know when that will be. And so we trust James when he says to us, “You must also be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”
Finally, James reminds his readers and us that it is God’s purpose to be merciful and compassionate. This is profound. At a time when James’ readers did not believe that God was being merciful or compassionate, James states very clearly that God is merciful and compassionate in all things. This is our hope. In times when we do not sense God’s mercy and compassion, we must remind ourselves that God is, in fact, merciful and compassionate. James’ readers had to intentionally seek that mercy and compassion, and so must we. Seeking God’s mercy and compassion will strengthen our hearts, and fill us with faith and hope.