The central place the New Testament gives to the prospect of Christ’s return may surprise Christians for whom the prospect of that return is largely peripheral to their daily lives. The book of Revelation, for example, devotes much attention to it. Paul also speaks at length of Christ’s second coming especially in his letters to the Thessalonians.
Christ Jesus’ friends for whom preparations for Christ’s return are largely an afterthought may also be startled by this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s reference to it. We tend to think, after all, of James’ letter to “the twelves tribes scattered among the nations” (1:1) as little more than good advice for Jesus’ followers.
However, James 3:7-10 refers to Christ’s return three times in just three verses. “Be patient,” the apostles tells his brothers and sisters in verse 7, “until the Lord’s coming.” What’s more, in verse 8 he reminds Christians that “the Lord’s coming is near.” In verse 9 James insists, on top of that, that “The Judge is standing at the door.”
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s preachers might see view this as the Spirit’s invitation to explore how the prospect of Jesus’ return shapes the lives of his friends. In chapter 5 James especially emphasizes how Christians’ expectations and anticipation of that return calls for both patience and a refusal to grumble against each other.
Of course, as countless commentators note, faithful exposition of James 5:7-10 requires sensitivity to its literary context. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s call to be patient immediately follows James’ warnings to people who are materially wealthy. He accuses them of doing things like exploiting and cheating, as well as using and abusing their employees. James, in fact, warns them to “weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon” them (5:1).
So who is James calling to be patient in verse 7? Is it the rich people whom he’s just scolded in verses 1-6? After all, by speaking to “you rich people,” he at least implies that they’re among the twelve scattered tribes to whom he writes. Or is James calling those whom the rich oppress to be patient? Is he calling them to stay faithful in the face of the abuse and neglect they’re experiencing?
While most commentators seem to think that James is calling in verse 7 for patience among people whom the rich exploit, a case might also be made for him calling those rich folks to be patient. Perhaps, after all, by calling people who are rich to be patient, the apostle is reminding them that that for which they grab will be those Christians’ inheritance at Christ’s return.
But Christians who are materially wealthy won’t just receive that for which they long and more in the new earth and heaven. The Scriptures also promise them an even greater inheritance without the awful toll grabbing it has taken on those from whom they’ve seized it.
James may also, however, be calling those whom people who are rich are exploiting to be patient. In fact, it seems likely that he’s counselling patience among those whom wealthy people have pushed to society’s margins. Of course, as the biblical scholar Susan Eastman points out, ‘exhorting the “have-nots” to be patient can be a form of continuing oppression.’
But James isn’t trying to further oppress those whom others already oppress. He’s, instead, asking vulnerable people to let Jesus’ imminent return shape their response to their unjust treatment. They have every right to expect just and righteous treatment by their unjust employers. But James seems to suggest that because Jesus is coming back to make all things right, victims don’t have to violently retaliate against their oppressors.
The apostle goes on to invite his hearers who are materially poor to “be patient and stand firm” (8). Here he adds the call to sterixate tas kardias (literally, “strengthen your hearts”) to his earlier call to makrothumesate (“be patient”). While the call to “strengthen” James’ readers’ hearts is somewhat mysterious, it at least suggests the idea of clinging to the Christian faith rather than succumbing to doubts about God’s good and loving plans and purposes.
The Lectionary’s pairing of James 5 with Matthew 11 offers a helpful example of standing firm instead of wobbling. There, after all, this Sunday’s Gospel Lesson’s John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he’s the one for whom Israel has been waiting to come. Or, he wonders, should God’s people expect someone else?
We can understand why John would be suffering from this kind of “wobbling.” He, after all, is on death row. While John was once very confident that his cousin Jesus was the one in whom God would fulfill God’s plans and purposes for God’s people, his unjust suffering seems to make his heart flutter. Jesus responds by calling John as well as all who eavesdrop on that conversation to keep the faith.
When James calls his readers to “stand firm,” he’s summoning them to something similar to what Jesus summons his jailed cousin. As my colleague Scott Hoezee writes in a commentary on James 5, the apostle call us “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.”
There is certainly much to make lives wobble and hearts flutter in the 21st century. People who are materially poor are hit especially hard by rampant inflation as well as COVID-19 that often rampages through needy communities. They also share more affluent people’s concerns about the effects of climate change, economic downturn and political bickering and infighting. Yet James insists that God’s adopted children can “be patient and stand firm” in the face of all that and more. After all, the “Lord’s coming is near.”
To understand what James refers to by the “nearness” of Christ’s return, it’s helpful to remember the Greek verb he uses is engiken that literally means something like “has drawn near.” We generally assume that it means that James was confident that Christ would return sometime soon, perhaps even within his lifetime.
Yet while God has come for James and others, Christ has not yet returned for the whole world and all of its 21st century citizens. What may seem to us like a delay in Christ’s second coming may, in fact, be a reason why Christians sometimes focus on the Lord’s first coming in Jesus Christ during Advent.
However, Jesus’ followers never forget that God’s coming is also near in other ways. We remember and remind each other that God is always coming to God’s people and world by the Holy Spirit. We can be patient and stand firm because God is, in fact, always coming to make all things new.
But, of course, during Advent, the Church, at her best, also looks ahead to God’s coming in Jesus Christ. Whether it’s for Jesus’ individual adopted siblings or for the whole creation and its creatures, Christ’s return is chronologically closer at hand than it was for James and his Christian contemporaries. God’s dearly beloved people can be patient and stand firm because we know that the Lord could come at any time for any or all of us.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson offers a third way that Jesus’ return’s imminence shapes Christians behavior. James calls the twelve tribes scattered among the nations not to “grumble against each other, brothers [and sisters], or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door” (9).
This points to a role that Christ will play at his second coming: to “judge.” The Greek root is krino. Preachers can admit that it’s always at least a bit hard to know just what role God’s judgement will play in those whom God has saved by God’s amazing grace. Perhaps we need to say little more than that while all people will be judged at the Lord’s coming, the revelation of Christians’ sins will drive us to our knees in humble gratitude for God’s saving us in spite of our sins.
It may be more fruitful for preachers to concentrate less on the judgment’s logistics and more on how God’s coming judgment shapes God’s dearly beloved children’s interactions with each other. James calls us not to “grumble against each other,” lest that grumbling call down God’s judgment on us.
The Greek verb stenazete has a variety of potential meanings. While the NIV translates its use in James 5:10 as “grumbling,” it can also refer to the expression of grief and anger towards, or even desire for someone. What holds all of those various meanings together is, among other things, the deep harm each causes the community. None of them, insists James in rather sharp language, have any place in the Christian community whose life together is shaped by its anticipation of the Lord’s coming.
In his book, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West Stephen Ambrose writes about Lewis and Clark’s need for patience with the Native Americans they met during their travels.
When the famous explorers entered Sioux Country near today’s Yankton, S.D, Lewis met with some of the Yanktons and invited them to a council. The Yanktons entered the council in “full regalia” and cooked “a fat dog” for their visitors. The white men, too, wore their dress uniforms and ran up the flag.
Lewis gave his standard Indian Speech about the Indians’ new great white father in the East and about how if they only did what he said they would prosper through new trade options and in other ways. “When [Lewis] finished, the chiefs said they would respond in the morning — obviously they would need time to confer on this business of accepting a new father and becoming part of a new trade system. Lewis recognized that patience was not just a virtue in dealing with Indians, it was a necessity [italics mine].”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 11, 2022
James 5:7-10 Commentary