We need to resolve to be patient

Jonathan Rowe, 11 December 2022

James 5: 7–10; Matthew 11: 2–11

By the third Sunday of Advent, we may think that we’ve been waiting for Christmas quite long enough. But the point of Advent is to prepare ourselves for Jesus’ coming in glory – and that takes time.

The first line of our first reading this morning is directly relevant for Advent, for it speaks of how Christians are to wait ‘until the coming of the Lord’. James doesn’t make it complicated; there’s a simple piece of advice: ‘Be patient’. Wait … patiently!

The letter of James is probably the earliest New Testament document, written within two decades of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Most likely penned by Jesus’ half-brother, the pivotal figure of the early messianic-Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem, it was intended for wide circulation and examined how to respond to growing persecution.

James addresses an issue that has resurfaced regularly in the history of Christianity. Its provenance can be traced back to various Jewish groups including the Zealots, who believed that God’s people should become a perfect community. It’s an attractive idea, one promulgated by utopian groups down the centuries. Unfortunately, it often results in the imposition of tyrannical authority.

And so James, following Jesus, employs agricultural imagery to demur. Remember Jesus’ parable of the wheat and tares in Matthew, chapter 13? It’s a parable I have taken to heart in our garden – Jesus says, ‘Don’t do weeding!’ You will see good and bad everywhere, says Jesus, and it’s not people but God who will judge between what is good and what is not. People should not be tempted to put themselves in God’s shoes by making premature judgements. In the same vein, James refers to the farmer and a harvest, a common biblical picture of judgement.

James is not interested in utopias. He doesn’t think life is often perfect. Instead, he’s practical and realistic, knowing that we all fall down and fail; we can all be forgiven and start again. Yet he’s not resigned to endless failure, but provides help for when that happens.

James says, ‘Be patient’ … So, what is patience? A good definition is ‘a withholding of oneself’. It’s stepping back, pausing, refraining from intervening. Our patience enables others – God, perhaps – to do or say something.

Imagine a child tying their shoelaces. A patient adult hovers attentively, willing them on in the task, encouraging them. The aim is not so much the tying of the laces as the child’s achievement; it’s the learning that matters. Conversely, impatience shows contempt or distain for the child’s abilities. Patience honours others; impatience demeans them.

We live in an impatient society. We fly vegetables half way around the globe so that we don’t need to wait for their season. We access information immediately, exasperated at a little internet buffering. Our impatience is not without consequence. It harms the planet, hurts our relationships and turns us in upon ourselves – the very essence of sin. So, James’ practical advice seems very relevant today: ‘Be patient’.

Our impatience is not without consequence. It harms the planet, hurts our relationships and turns us in upon ourselves – the very essence of sin.

James also shows us how we can learn patience. He points to the example of the prophets, he exhorts Christians to have the right priorities, and he reminds us that God is near to help. The prophets were not fortune tellers. Their role was not to predict the future. Although the juxtaposition of readings in our carol services might lead us to conclude otherwise, they were not ‘foretellers’.

Instead, the prophets were people who had perceived the heavenly dimension of earthly reality. They spoke the truth about God and justice and hope, rather than peddling self-serving platitudes. They spoke, in other words, ‘in the name of the Lord’. Not ‘foretellers’, they were ‘forth-tellers’. This was not always popular. The prophets proclaimed God’s word; people wanted didn’t want to hear – and shut them up.

James points to the prophets as an example of two things: attentiveness to God and perseverance in the face of opposition. Examples are often more inspiring and encouraging than a bald instruction or dry aphorism. I wonder if we can identify someone to be an exemplar for us in our struggles. It might be one of the Church’s saints. Or someone we know. Like us, they will not be perfect. But they might be an encouragement to self-restraint when provoked.

In addition to imitating a good example, we need to resolve to be patient. ‘Strengthen your hearts’ is how James expresses it. In the Bible, the bowels are the centre of emotion; the heart is the site of the human will. We are to decide to be patient.

We might decide to halt our relentless activity and provide space for others and God to work by taking a day off, a Sabbath. Or we may attempt to learn how to deal with the emotions of frustration by seeking out the longest supermarket queue or the slowest lane of traffic. I have to say that I’ve not tried that very often! But the point of doing so is to learn how to make patient decisions, to practise the virtue of patience so that it becomes second nature.

All this might sound as if patience depends upon us. But our decisions and choices are not the whole story, for patience is one of the fruits of the Spirit. In other words, patience is the result of God’s work in his people.

James highlights that God is near, standing at the door. Other New Testament writers think he’s even closer than that, speaking of the Holy Spirit ‘indwelling’ Christians; what this means is the topic of another sermon. We can take heart that learning patience comes from God’s work in us as well as our own efforts.

This Advent, let’s ‘be patient’. Let us look to the prophets as examples of patience, prioritise the right things so that we don’t get exasperated at the wrong ones, and rely upon God’s help as we learn patience. And, to paraphrase the medieval spiritual writer Thomas à Kempis, ‘May your peace be in much patience’. Amen.