Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 15, 2019

James 5:7-10 Commentary

This is a season of the year that we don’t generally link to patience.  Children are chomping at the bit to open their presents.  Some of us are impatient for holiday visits from family members and friends who live at a distance from us.  A few of us may even feel impatient to be done with this whole Christmas business so that we can return to some kind of normalcy.

Of course, it can be difficult to stay patient in this or any season.  Ask any children who keep peering under your Christmas tree for signs of presents with their names on them.  Ask any businesspeople that need a package delivered as soon as possible.  Ask any cook who needs to thaw something that is frozen.

But particularly ask anyone who is in the hospital for some kind of treatment how hard it is to be patient.  Is there any greater incongruity than to label someone who is hospitalized as a “patient?”  People tend to be most impatient patients.  Few things upset us more than having to wait or make time for our bodies.  About the worst time in the world to learn patience is when you’re sick, note Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches.

I grew up in a time when I had to wait four to six weeks for the baseball cards I ordered off the back of the Corn Flakes cereal box.  Now Fed Ex could deliver those cards the very next day.  After all, we live in an impatient culture of instant oatmeal, instant dry cleaning, instant film developing and instant potatoes.

James 5’s proclaimers might spend some time exploring with our hearers the nature of patience in such a ready-made society.  What are some of the challenges to the kind of patience James’ author lauds?  What sorts of negative affects does our cultural impatience have on our society?

Will Willimon calls patience a “profoundly Christian, counter-cultural virtue.”  It’s a virtue the church once spent much time talking about, encouraging and teaching, but now sometimes neglects.  Now, for example, since even some Christians like to think that we’re the bosses of our universe, we sometimes naturally assume that we can fix all that is wrong with the world – yesterday.

The kind of patience about which James writes in the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday arises from our confession that this is God’s world.  Patient people know that God is, in fact, busily at work, though not always visibly to us or on our time schedule.  The Spirit uses texts like James 5 to help us sing and try to believe that “This is my Father’s world, I rest me in the thought . . .”

In today’s Epistolary Lesson the apostle calls Christians to show by the way we live that our lives aren’t our own but belong to God.  He invites God’s adopted sons and daughters to show that the importance of our lives doesn’t rest on what we do, but on God’s amazing grace.  James summons us to recognize that suffering isn’t just part of life on this side of the new earth and heaven, but can also in some ways also be redemptive.  It, after all, often offers us at least glimpses of the “mercy and compassion” with which the Lord is “full” (11).

Through James, God calls God’s adopted sons and daughters to be patient, but not because it’s our natural virtue.  God’s beloved people can be patient because we believe that behind, within and sometimes even beyond our activities, God is somehow working things out for our best.  James 5 summons God’s people to patiently witness to that reality, even when we hurt.

We don’t know exactly why James wrote this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson.  We sense, however, from the way he wrote it that the people to whom he addressed it were struggling.  Perhaps their pagan neighbors were persecuting them terribly.  Maybe James’ first readers had unbelieving friends that were mocking them by saying, “When is your Jesus going to come back and take you home?”

James’ Christian contemporaries seem to have believed that Jesus would return in their lifetime.  Some of the Christians in Thessalonica even, for instance, apparently quit their jobs, sold their possessions and waited in the fields and on the hills for Christ’s return.

In our text James urges Christians to be patient, to remember that God remains faithful.  He reminds God’s adopted children that a farmer must patiently wait for crops to grow and be ready for harvest.  James also reminds his readers of the prophets and their words.  He implies that his readers should cling to our memory of God’s past actions so that we can patiently trust God’s future work.

As we lose patience, however, with God’s plans and action, we’re susceptible to two temptations that James mentions.  First, verse 8 implies that Christians may waver in our faith and commitment while we wait for Christ’s return.

God’s beloved people’s great danger isn’t that we’ll say, “Christ isn’t coming back.”  Our great temptation is to live as though he won’t return.  So James 5’s proclaimers might spend some time exploring with our hearers what such living looks like.  In what ways do we naturally live as though Christ were not coming back any time soon?  How do God’s adopted children live as though Christ were returning tomorrow?

God’s adopted sons and daughters naturally live as though we can postpone publicly committing our lives to Jesus Christ.  Christians tend to live as though we can wait to be reconciled to our enemies until we’re seventy or eighty years old.  Against this temptation, James in verse 8 calls his readers, both ancient and modern to “stand firm.”  Be ready and live, he says, as though Christ were going to return tonight or tomorrow – as he may well do.

However, those who grow impatient with the apparent delay of Christ’s return may also, verse 8 says, “grumble against each other.”  Brothers and sisters in Christ tend to take our frustrations with God out on each other.  All too often Christians succumb to the temptation to quarrel and bicker with each other.  Against this, James says, “Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming.”

If Jesus’ followers need encouragement as we wait, James says in verse 10, look to the prophets.  People persecuted them for speaking on behalf of God, yet they patiently persevered.  Look too to Job, James says in verse 11.  He complained to God about his intense suffering, yet persevered in his faith.

This is the third Sunday of the Advent season in which we remember that we’re awaiting the Advent of Christ among us, his return to and for us.  In a sense, however, God’s beloved children always await Christ’s advent, his presence among us.  After all, we live between Christ’s first advent at Bethlehem and his next sometime in the future.  Especially when we’re in pain or suffer some way, that waiting can be most difficult.  You and I also know, however, that God doesn’t always heal our brokenness, for instance, without us exercising patience patience.  Things take time.

So Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters continue to patiently celebrate Advent, looking both back to his first coming and ahead to his second.  Christians wait and celebrate with patience.  After all, we don’t always know what exactly our future holds.  We do, however, know exactly who holds our future.

Yet those who proclaim James 5 may also want to explore with our hearers not our impatience for Jesus’ return, but our relative contentment with the way things are for us between his first and second coming.  It’s important for us to remember that at least some of the people to whom we proclaim today’s Epistolary Lesson don’t feel in any great hurry for Jesus to come back.  So James 5’s preachers and teachers can be honest about how when things are going reasonably well in this creation, we’re in little hurry to have the returning Christ open the door for us to the new creation.

So while most of are fairly patient about Jesus’ return, those who proclaim this Lesson might want to stimulate a little holy impatience.  We might invite our hearers to hear these words not with the ears of comfortable North Americans, but with those of beleaguered African, Asian and Middle Eastern Christians.  We might also invite each other to hear James 5 with the ears of those who sometimes desperately long for Jesus’ return because their bodies, minds, memories and relationships are under assault.  We might even invite our hearers to share their own sometimes-painful stories of their longing for Christ to return to make all things new so that we might enter into and perhaps even share some of that longing.

Illustration Idea

Healing often depends on the kind of patience James extols in today’s Lesson but doesn’t come naturally to any of us. I recently read about a woman whom doctors sent home to recover from hip surgery.  The doctors told her to stay off her repaired hip and not to put too much weight on it.

This woman, however, was an active and energetic person.  People marveled at her positive attitude and determination not to let a broken hip slow her down.  As some people predicted, however, she also rushed the process.  She pushed herself too hard.  So she ended up back in the hospital to have further surgery on her broken hip.

People later recognized that they should have urged her to be patient rather than praising her for her determination.  She had said, “I’m not going to let this broken hip get me down.”  Did she impatiently mean, however, “I’m like God and know more than the doctor or anyone else how to heal myself”?


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