What follows is an edited version of my sermon on James 5:7-11, with some brief thoughts on the first six verses of this chapter.
While I’ll be concentrating on verses 7-11 in this message, for us to do so we’ll first need to give a bit of context. The fifth chapter of James, up to verse 7, is an extended depiction of the types of uncaring pain “the rich” inflict on the world. “Rich,” in the context of this letter, is a stand-in for those who have overtly rejected the wisdom of Christ and his Kingdom in order to embrace the riches of this world 1.
Now, it can be difficult to look up at “the rich” as they multiply their many privileges by continuously stacking the deck in their favor. Christians, who were part of an illegal religion in the first century, were a long way down the social ladder from “the rich.” They would have never had the opportunity to do such “stacking” themselves 2. Which is why, as this passage opens, James reminds his readers of an important virtue. And it’s one for which we’re warned never to pray 3.
Christianity, as we’ve pointed out the last two weeks 4, is a faith based on hope. And patience, as much as we don’t relish opportunities to practice it, goes hand in hand with hope. You literally cannot have one without the other.
Now, in our world of instant everything, patience often seems like an alien concept. I mean, for us patience is waiting two minutes for someone to text us a picture, two days for an order to show up from Amazon, or four days to actually have the free time needed to go out and see Star Wars: Rogue One after it’s release 5.
As amazing as it might be to actually have the endurance to wait four whole days to see Rogue One, the patience James references is a bit different. His is a patience which stands in the face of overwhelming evidence one’s hopes may not come to pass. His depiction of a farmer, waiting for the rains needed to make his crops grow, is a wonderful image for the patience of a hopeful faith. In the first century the types of irrigation we use nowadays were pretty much unknown. Once a farmer sowed seed they were at the mercy of the weather. The rains would come, or they wouldn’t. If they did, then their family would probably be ok for another year. If not, they were in serious danger. That is the type of patience for which James calls.
But this type of patience brings stress along with it. This is why, even as he encourages his readers to “strengthen their hearts” through patience, he warns against a dangerous toxin which often emerges when stress becomes overwhelming. Grumbling.
People can get along great when things are going great – as when a certain unnamed football team got along with its fan-base when they had a 3 and 0 start. But when things begin to go bad people begin to point fingers, whisper in corners, and try to make sure they’ll rise to the top of a situation which is becoming increasingly toxic. This is negative stress at work. We see this in play all throughout our society, don’t we? From the lofty positions of political parties and corporate board rooms, all the way down to schools and churches and civic organizations — when things aren’t “rosy,” situations can deteriorate rather quickly.
For people of faith, the most toxic expression grumbling takes is seen in people who “jump ship” because they no longer desire to be associated with “losers.” In the first century, much as it is today, these people often depart the demands of the faith in order to pursue wealth, power, or prestige contrary to the ethos of Christ’s kingdom. This is why James reminds his readers of the impending judgment, because he knows the temptation to toss up one’s hands and give up is real.
And so, to show his audience strengthening is better than grumbling, he reminds them of an example of faith.
Specifically, the prophets of old who spoke in the Lord’s name. These folks were remembered centuries after their messages were delivered, and both Jews and Christians consider their words part of the canon of Scripture to this very day. They suffered for what they said, often at the hands of their own people, but they patiently waited for the word of the Lord to be revealed as true. Many of them never saw their words come to pass in their day and age, and none of them lived to see their hopes’ ultimate fulfillment in Christ, but still they spoke — hoping their vision of the LORD’s ultimate redemption would one day come true. And, while the prophets of old are certainly some of our best examples of patient endurance, they are by no means our only examples.
John Wycliffe thought the Bible should be readable in the language the people, and was tried as a heretic and killed for his efforts before the church finally came to it’s senses and said, “You know, he’s right.”
Adoniram Judson, the first foreign US missionary, spent years translating the Bible in Burma but personally led only a handful of people to Christ. In our world which values instant results he’d probably be considered a failure, and yet his translation of the Bible is still in use to this day.
William Wilberforce spent decades trying to awaken the consciences of his people to the evils of slavery, and only succeed after he experienced much personal pain and sorrow.
Martin Luther King Jr. believed the color of one’s skin shouldn’t determine social status or relationship to power. He was assassinated for his beliefs, and the struggle for that awareness is still on-going. The need for a patience tied to hope will never go away.
And that is why, in the midst of the hopeful longing of Advent, we have a week which focuses on the joy which is coming. Because the final revelation of the joy of Christ is always “almost here.” As we wait may we let go of stress-induced grumbling, and be strengthened with a joyful patience — shaped by hope. May we live this way so the light of the coming celebration burst into this world though us, transforming the darkness and extending the presence of hope. Amen.
- Not that we can think of anyone in this country who resembles this type of depiction. ↩
- Nor should we ever. Sadly, we’ve not always lived up to our own faith. ↩
- Because we’ll get opportunities to practice it. ↩
- The first two weeks of Advent typically highlight Hope and Peace/Preparation. My Advent series uses uses each subsequent candle as a lens to focus back in on hope. It’s sorely needed. ↩
- I’m seeing it on Monday, no one spoil it. ↩