You can parachute right down onto James 5:7 if you want to and pretend nothing else is going on here but . . . good luck. Truth is, starting a reading at verse 7 here is like walking into a room where, unbeknownst to you, a horrible fight had just been taking place between two people and in front of a dozen others. By the time you get there, someone has taken to talking in more measured tones but there is no denying that the air is still fairly crackling with electricity from the fight that had just happened even as the stunned and scared looks in the eyes of the others in the room confirm for you that something big—something bad—had just gone down.
In the case of James 5, the something big that had just gone down are the first 6 verses of the chapter in which James—no shrinking violet he—had just given rich folks a tongue lashing and moral thrashing designed to leave these wealthy folks a smoldering ruin. Remember the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign against Baghdad in 2003? James has a nice rhetorical version of that right here.
Yet, as often happens, the Lectionary would prefer you not notice that, not sense the taut acoustics and tense atmosphere of the room you bumble into starting at verse 7. But the truth is, the patience and hope James urges on his readers starting in verse 7 make no sense without a context, and in this case that context is brutal.
It is a curious thing that the Year A Lectionary on this Third Sunday in Advent gives us a Gospel text from Matthew that is all about doubting the validity of Jesus as the Christ and now an Epistle reading that tears into the wealthy smack in the middle of a holiday shopping season that has become more and more about capitalist avarice as the decades and centuries have rolled on. Cheery texts for Advent III these are not!
Yet in an odd way they may be the texts we need. The only way to move past John the Baptist’s doubts about Jesus in Matthew 11 is to take a longer, deeper look at the words and the work of Jesus. Don’t look for the razzle or the dazzle, the fireworks lighting up the skies or a political movement with clout and bare-knuckled power. Look for hope’s embers glowing in the heart of the poor person who had Good News preached to her. Look for how the power of love could not be unmade by the power of a vicious Roman cross. Notice that some roads that had once been very crooked are now getting just a little straighter thanks to the ministry of Christ’s followers.
Or in James 5: as I write this it’s Cyber Monday and that follows on the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday in which it was all about money, money, and more money. The incoming President is a multi-billionaire and has already hired so many other uber-wealthy people that someone recently estimated the new President’s Cabinet might have a net worth of $35 billion. (Look it up—I did not make that up.) It’s nothing new, though. It was this way in the Roman Empire of James’s day too. Money rules. The rich get richer. The rich can buy their way into anything.
And the poor cry out over the inequity, over the unfairness, over how those who don’t need more money even so cheat and sue and ride over top of the poor anyway just to eke out a little more. And if ever there were a season that highlights those who can afford the luxury gifts for friends and family and those who cannot, it is (sadly enough) the Advent and Christmas season that does this in spades now.
When in verse 7 James begins to counsel his fellow believers with patience and with the reassurance that God is really on their side and is really bringing a better day, this does not come from out of nowhere. James is giving this counsel in the face of a society—and from the looks of the wider letter of James in the face of also a CHURCH—that was giving way too much deference to the rich. James is telling people to have Advent hope—the hope of Christ’s second Advent in this case—as a way to say that the way things are is no indication of the way things will always be.
Jesus Christ has come to level out these mountainous economic inequities, to smooth out the wrinkles in the social fabric, to adjudicate the inherent unfairness of who gets what in life. Those who condemn and murder the innocent—the content of verse 6—are not going to get away with it. Not finally. Not at the end of the cosmic day. Have hope! Chin up!
Does this lead to a quietism for now? Is it wrong to speak up about injustices? Obviously not or else James could not have written this very epistle! But what James desperately wants is for Christian believers to deal with all this AS Christian believers. Grumbling about it all, attacking one another out of frustration over it all, trying to get ahead of God by taking matters into our own hands or, worse yet, adopting the strong-armed tactics of the wider world will never do.
As Jesus does for John the Baptist in Matthew 11, so here Jesus’ brother James does for his readers—and now for all of us—in James: we are called to have quiet hope. We are called to believe that when it comes to all this, God’s got it covered. That confident and quiet hope does not make everything “all better” for now or heal every bump we experience along the way. But it does keep us from lashing out in ways that undercut the Gospel and the witness of the Church to that Gospel.
In Advent or at any time, we can shout and scream and cuss about the way things are. But we need to do all that with what a document called “The Contemporary Testimony” calls “tempered impatience.” We are impatient with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer and ignored but we temper this with hope. Christ has come, Christ will come again. This is our Advent hope. That hope animates how we act but also becomes the lens through which we view this often harsh and unfair world. This hope doesn’t solve everything in one fell swoop but . . . it is so very much better than having no hope at all.
Even so, Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus.
Note: Our Year A Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season.
Most of the non-biblical stories, songs, and dramas that have clustered around Christmas would likely not meet with much approval by the Apostles if they could see and hear such things. Lots of it is saccharine sentimentality, fairy tales, and goofiness. But you have the funny feeling that if James could have known about one such Christmas-related story, he would have liked it at least a little. I am thinking of Charles Dickens and his A Christmas Carol in which old Scrooge wakes up Christmas morning a changed man. Gone will be his days of parsimony and cruel avarice and in its place would be a new generosity toward all, with a special eye for the poorest and the most vulnerable.
One version I particularly like is the one starring Patrick Stewart. The scene where he wakes up to discover he has another chance concludes with a joyful laughter that emerges like a roar from deep within the old miser. At first you think he’s choking to death or on the verge of a major coronary event but no: it’s just that Scrooge had not laughed for joy for so long that he had to remember how a good belly laugh goes. (Watch this scene here.)
The hope and the patience James urges on his readers is for a day when weeping will turn to laughter, when avarice will give way to generosity, and when there will be good reason for the whole creation to sing and, yes, also to laugh for joy.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 11, 2016
James 5:7-10 Commentary