The passage we had read to us this morning is in two parts. Vs 7-9 give us instructions about being patient, along with some examples, and vs 10 and 11 concentrate on more Biblical examples and reassurances.
When I was young, there was a saying around:
“Patience is a virtue,
Sought by many, won by few”
… usually said by the kind of teacher that would look down their nose at you, telling you off for something you were very close to giving up on. In fact, I can’t recall ever having a teacher that said it with that tone! I do remember it being said by kindly teachers who recognised the struggle, but knew the payoff. And that did apply to situations requiring patience – for me it was struggling to tie a clove hitch, or practising until I got my piano scales and pieces right. These days sometimes I struggle to make my point understood in conversation. I certainly struggle figuring out the system we have for putting these slides on the screen …. hence none today, and frustration, not patience, was in my heart!
And although those are the kinds of daily struggles we have with patience, this passage has a different framework, and is expressed in V7: “Be patient, then, brothers (and sisters), until the Lord’s coming.” We’re to be patient in our lives not just to help us through today, but to keep ourselves prepared and blameless for the day the Lord returns to call us home.
In the times when James was written, Christians thought the Lord’s return was going to be quite soon, a few years maybe. That thought is reflected in V8 where it says “because the Lord’s coming is near”, again in v 9 “The Judge is standing at the door” – if I tell you someone is standing at the door, for a start, grammatically, the verb is in the present tense, but in practical terms, if you have a picture of someone at a door, it is right now. The famous Holman Hunt picture of Jesus, “Behold I stand at the door and knock” is a picture of Jesus standing at a door waiting for an answer, now. (and there’s a whole sermon in that, but for another day!)
If you’ve been given an instruction, it is much easier to keep to if you must be accountable fairly soon, you can keep up an effort, or change, for a short time. The opposite of that what happens after people have been on a weight loss programme, when the once a week weigh-in stops, often the pounds creep back on! Or my dentist, when it becomes apparent that my tooth cleaning regime isn’t what it could be, advises me to space out my appointments so I see him or the hygienist once every three months, that way I manage to keep up pretty well because there is not too long a time until the next visit when they will check up on my progress! So it can be easier to follow an instruction if we know we are going to be called to account quite soon.
So James called on his brothers and sisters to be patient, to live as the Lord required, because they didn’t think it would be long before the Lord came back, and James wanted to encourage them to, literally, keep the faith. James quotes the example of farmers who rely on regular autumn and spring rains to water their crops. The people struggled to be patient, but James encouraged them to keep going, saying in v8 because the Lord’s coming is near”, in other words, it won’t be long, don’t give in just to find the end is closer than you thought, and for just a bit of extra effort, you too could have achieved your goal – in this case, being with the Lord for all eternity.
Well, like me, you may have thought, “Well, that’s fine for the people James was writing to in the times he was writing, but here we are nearly 2000 years later and still the Lord hasn’t come back.” The shout, “How long, Lord?” can be heard. We might even pity the poor farmers down the road today, who are waiting for at least some of the rain we usually get in the summer, but here we are with three weeks of sunshine behind us, and the prospect of another two or three weeks before there is any significant rain. And we are still waiting. Well, James has some instructions for the people he was writing to, and us: “Be patient and stand firm”, “Don’t grumble against each other”.
I was thinking about what it’s like when we’re caught in an apparently endless traffic jam, or slowdown. When we first encounter the holdup, it’s “Oh dear, I wonder how long this will last?” and we make adjustments to make the wait more bearable. We might turn the air flow to in-car circulation so we don’t breathe the emissions from the car in front, we might put the car in “park” or turn it off, it’s probably safe enough to have a mouthful or two from our water bottle, put on our very favourite radio station – or if we have young children in the car, resort – resign ourselves! – to listening to or singing many rounds of “The Wheels on the Bus” or “Old MacDonald”. And we will be patient with the hold-up for a while. But if it goes on too long, we become impatient, looking out the car window to see if we can see what’s ahead. We may chat to the drivers next to us, especially if they are lorry drivers – they can see further ahead, and often have good communication and information systems which give us an indication of the answer to the question “How long?” But if it goes on for too long (and that will probably have a different definition depending on who you talk to), the impatience comes back, and we might begin to argue with the man behind who decides to get out of our lane and drive up the hard shoulder – or whatever. When we don’t know the answer to the question “How long?” it is more difficult to be patient.
And the same applies to us about waiting for the Lord’s coming. The traffic jam picture loses relevance when we think about this, because eventually it clears. The thing about the Lord’s coming, for us, means we have to continue to live Godly lives for our whole lives maybe, certainly those who have lived for the past 2000 years have had to do that. But isn’t that the point, to cultivate the ability to live according to God’s law, following Jesus’ example for as long as it takes, whether it’s our whole earthly span, or until the Lord makes his second appearance on earth! And not to give in to grumbling while we’re still in the line as we wait for the second coming?
James puts it this way in v 9: “Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged.” In other words, if you feel impatience rising in you, acknowledge it by all means, but don’t act on it, because by doing that, we’ll end up in all kinds of unhelpful arguments. We can have all kinds of interesting conversations while we wait, but they are to be done in a Godly way, and whatever God wants to come from the discussions will be his work, not ours. We must guard against acting in such a way that we will be judged and found wanting. If the Judge is standing at the door, we will hear about it soon enough, but if his judgement is not so soon and we give into impatience and wrong ways, we may end up going down paths of bad actions which have all kinds of bad consequences, some of them unintended, so it really is worth being patient and persevering in our close walk with the Lord.
Now what about the second few verses of the reading? Well, they are an encouragement to us. We may find the Old Testament hard work and it can be, we don’t understand all the customs and ways of the people, and in many ways their actions seem primitive to us. But human nature doesn’t change.
Let’s consider Job. Job’s story is buried in the OT just before the Psalms, and tells of Job resisting the temptation to renounce God in spite of having all kinds of terrible things happen to him in his life. In the end, he acknowledges that God is even greater than he had originally thought, God was the creator of the complexity of the whole universe. At this, he admits his underestimate of the Lord’s actions, repents of his inadequate understanding, and acknowledges and accepts God for who he truly is. He repented of his sin of ignorance and accepts God – what we are called to do in our lives! In some ways it may be easier to believe in a God who doesn’t, right here and now, have a physical presence, than it would to have Jesus return and have us follow him, physically. There would be so many questions, we would have to verify to ourselves that it really is him, unless there was direct heart-to-heart understanding and conviction.
In OT times, the times of Job and the prophets, people who believed in the Lord, the God of Israel, the one true God, were persecuted, sometimes beaten, sometimes killed, yet they showed patience in their suffering and were given “A happy issue out of all their afflictions”– in terms of being loved and saved by the Lord for eternity, even though their deliverance did not happen in earthly, physical terms. And there are many people who have similarly suffered since. But they have shown patience in their faith in the Lord, no matter what has come to them. Like Job, they have not renounced God, but accepted him as God of their lives and the world. That is amazing, and a great example for us to follow.
Depending on our circumstances, we may feel encouraged by that if our times are challenging, or we may feel humbled to see what some have had to endure, compared to the relatively minor things that we have to deal with today. Either way, we can hear the words of James ringing down the years: “Be patient, then, brothers (and sisters), until the Lord’s coming.” And what helps us with this patience? V 11: “The Lord … full of compassion and mercy.”
And when you find yourself saying: “I prayed for patience but I’m just not getting it fast enough!” laugh at yourself, make a cuppa and have time-out to regroup – with Jesus and his teachings!