Third Sunday in Advent
It’s all about hanging in there, isn’t it? It’s all about Jesus coming back, and it is all about being patient while we wait. But waiting for something is always difficult, isn’t it? It’s hard work. And sometimes, it’s scary; like when we are awaiting the results of a medical test.
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. Not too long ago, I had something in the back of my mind that told me that April was the cruelest 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, that April does qualify as being the cruelest month, because we so desperately want it to be warm, and it never is. This is only December, and we are not yet sick of the cold. It is still a novelty. But if you are a kid, April is not the cruelest month, December is. December is interminably long. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, it is 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 and the eventuality 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 manageable. It may never be pleasant, but it does become easier to endure. I have even heard of people who dread the coming of Christmas.
And while that’s a pretty rotten segue into our passage this morning, I still think it can work. James is writing to a group of believers 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. For them, this is a matter of deep hope. It is something that dominates their everyday thinking. Jesus is coming back 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:
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. And perhaps we can’t imagine it either. We have this in common with James’ readers.
And so in our passage this morning, James is pleading with all of us not to lose hope. James wants us to hang in there, to stay faithful, and to 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 followers of Jesus. It was especially difficult in the first century. No one even remotely imagined that this delay would last for nearly two thousand years. First century believers were convinced in 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 out of their spiritual lives.
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. He says so. 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. “See,” he says, “the judge is 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 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 it is proper for the followers of Jesus to believe that Jesus could return at any moment. Every single generation of believers has hoped and prayed that Jesus would return during their life-times. It is a good thing, and it is a joyful thing to anticipate seeing Jesus with our own eyes. The prayer, “Lord Jesus, come quickly” has been repeated over and over 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 quite understandable that believers in the first century might lose hope, and even faith, when Jesus failed to return when they expected him to return. First century believers had simply reached the point where they were deeply discouraged and hurt. They were suffering because of their faith, they were being persecuted by the Romans. And, 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 these things.
And so the writers of the Epistles were faced with a huge problem of perception. How do we keep faith and hope alive in an environment that is overwhelmed by people who are overwhelmed by grief and discouragement? How do we keep faith and hope alive when it seems as though there are so many, especially today, who seem to have no faith and no hope at all? How do we keep faith and hope alive when everything seems to be coming undone in every corner of our world? How do we keep faith and hope alive when the tasks of feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty, and welcoming the stranger, and clothing the naked, and caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner, seem so downright impossible to accomplish, even though our Lord has commanded us to be doing these things while we wait? Do we just throw up our hands in despair? James’ answer is that we must return to the Scriptures.
So when James writes to his people and says “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.” And “Beloved, do not grumble against one another” he shows them how to accomplish that 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 and hope 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 fully understand that God’s promise is equally as good as the fulfillment of that promise. And then to find total satisfaction and complete contentment in that promise only. 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 they could do 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, Job only manages to utter one memorable thing. The rest is a litany of self-loathing and self pity. That memorable thing, by the way, is marvelously appropriate to our topic this morning. I am sure that James had it in mind when he focused his readers’ attention on Job.*
But of course, Job did lead an extremely miserable life, and that to the max. And his miserableness was not brought on at all by his own doing. He was clearly a victim. And throughout his trials and tribulations, and there were many, his 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 really does fit well with James’ purposes in this passage. And that is because Job endured a time of great tribulation, and he had no clue when it would end, and he was hardly patient about it. It may surprise some of us to learn that James is being subtly sarcastic when he describes Job as being patient. James and his readers both knew that that patience was not one of Job’s virtues. And Job’s experience parallels exactly what James’ readers are experiencing, including their impatience and grumbling. They’re waiting, albeit impatiently, for Jesus to return, and they don’t know when that is going to happen. Not at all, they don’t, not any more than we do.
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 must learn to 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 compassion, or his mercy, we must remind ourselves of the truth. 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.
*By the way, that one memorable thing that Job said? It’s in Job 19, verses 23-27: Listen carefully. Job, even in his agony could say this: “O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!”
This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ; the message of hope that James wishes to convey to his readers and to us. Praise be to God. May we have that same hope in our Lord’s return!