December 09, 2019
Author: Scott Hoezee
“The War on Christmas.” We have heard about this a lot in recent years. Some while back people assailed Starbucks for removing the word “Christmas” from their holiday coffee cups. Some were upset some years ago that the White House wished a blanket “Happy Holidays” instead of specifically mentioning Christmas. And some while back the current President assured the country that in his White House, they would be wishing everyone a Merry Christmas without apology.
There is, in short, a fear that if we are not vigilant, we will lose the very Christ of Christmas himself. This is a time of the year to be certain, to be firm, to stand up for the truth lest our whole celebration be watered down or flat out taken away from us. Yet in this Third Sunday in Advent reading from Matthew 11, we actually encounter a text that casts something of a doubt-filled pall and a sense of uncertainty over the season after all.
A straightforward, commonsense reading of Matthew 11 would tell us that John the Baptist—unhappily rotting away in prison—has been getting reports about the work of Jesus, reports that struck him as being not nearly as interesting or dramatic as what he had hoped for. Having flagged Jesus as the Coming One, as the Messiah, John (who has way too much time on his hands now) begins to wonder if he had made one of the biggest mistakes in history. And so he dispatches a delegation of his own followers to ask Jesus an explosive question borne of doubt: “Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else? You know, someone better?”
But for some, this kind of high-level doubt will never do. And so recently I was assured by a well-meaning person that of course God’s chosen servant of John had no doubts. That could never be. No, no, no, John sent his disciples to Jesus to shore up their faith or perhaps to address the questions they may have expressed in John’s presence there in prison. John the Baptist himself was forever and anon serene in his own certainty.
Plastic saints, in other words, need to remain beatific-looking at all times or they cannot be saints. John the Baptist has to appear steely-eyed in his faith at all times. His face can never look any different than how we’d depict it on a stained-glass window. So in an effort to protect John’s character, we need to come up with another way to approach this and so we’ll throw John’s disciples under the proverbial bus in order to keep John himself cocooned safely inside of all that keeps faith ‘safe and secure from all alarms.’
But that will never do. Not in Matthew 11. It is eminently clear that John is the one asking the question and that John is the one to whom Jesus directs his answer. Something about Jesus’ ministry disappointed John sufficiently as to make him doubt the very identity of Jesus as the Christ of God. (I actually love the way Matthew frames this: in verse 2 he says “When John heard what Christ was doing . . .” This is the first time in this gospel that Matthew as narrator refers to Jesus as “Christ” in the course of a story—it’s Matthew’s little hint of saying that Jesus is the Christ despite John’s doubts. Good one, Matthew!)
But how and why does this count as an Advent text in the Year A Lectionary? Surely there are other candidates to choose from for an Advent III text. Who needs a story of doubt as to who Jesus is a scant two weeks before we again celebrate the birth of Jesus precisely on the belief that he is the Messiah? It’s like trying to get ready for the Fourth of July by spending some time pondering whether the colonists were right to break away from England in the first place. It’s like getting ready to celebrate your wedding anniversary by spending a week recalling the times when you had your doubts as to whether you should have married this person to begin with (and should you get a divorce after all and then see where that other girl, Linda, might be these days . . .?!).
No, doubts about Jesus don’t fit Advent. This is a time of the year to be sure. This is a time of the year to speak in the indicative and imperative moods, not the interrogative. No one wants to approach the Third Sunday in Advent (by which time the church is all decked out in Christmas decorations) only to have someone say, “Are we right to celebrate this holiday or could we even now just possibly have the wrong Savior?” (Talk about a war on Christmas!)
Still . . . I like this passage. I like having it as part of Advent. I wish we in the church wondered more not so much about whether Jesus is the One but whether or to what extent we succeed in acting like and following the One we hail to be both Lord and Christ.
You see, when Jesus answered John’s doubtful query, he pointed to what he had already been doing. True, it was not quite the razzle-dazzle John has expected (what with all that fire-and-brimstone and axe to the root of the tree talk John had engaged in) but at the deepest levels of all that is important in life and in the world, Jesus was doing kingdom work.
Maybe preaching hope to poor and marginalized people did not seem like much, especially if anyone had been hoping that what the Messiah would be mostly all about would be speaking truth to power and slamming his fist into the face of Pontius Pilate or Herod. But who needs hope in this world more than the ignored, the invisible, the “little ones” Jesus will talk about in Matthew 18? And if not every blind person in Palestine could now see, some could as a sign of what was yet to come. Not every disease had been cured, but some had and the kingdom that would come would bring more of the same.
As an Advent text ten days out from celebrating Christmas again in 2019, Matthew 11 can remind the church of what we are really to be all about, and sometimes it is not the things that we in the church try to be all about. Too often today even the church wants to make a splash, shake up Washington, engage in power politics and headline-grabbing behavior. We’d just as soon leave NO doubt as to who is who and what is what.
But Jesus leads us another way. He leads to a cross first and then calls us to sacrificial living in a discipleship that needs to anticipate (and not be shocked by) resistance and even outright persecution.
There is a lot of fear in North American churches these days. We fear that the rise in agnosticism and atheism and the growing number of mosques and other religious expressions are chasing out and threatening the hegemony of the Christian church (and of this allegedly “Christian nation”). We want more John the Baptist and a little less Jesus, at least in terms of how we’d like our public ministry described.
But here in mid-Advent, Jesus uses John’s doubts as a teaching moment to remind us of what is truly important, and that is simple faithfulness to the kingdom in which our true citizenship lies. We may not join John in doubting whether Jesus is the One or not. But if we believe Jesus is the One, we can properly wonder how well we’re following him and if even the way we are celebrating and promoting Advent and Christmas in the church is reaching out to the poor and the marginalized and the disease-ridden in ways that may be quiet but that are nonetheless the business of grace that we are called to be preoccupied with at all times and in all places.
Note: Our specific Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season of 2019.
Matthew in chapter 11:2 was quite clever. In that second verse Matthew referred to Jesus not by name but simply as “Christ.” Within the narrative section of Matthew’s gospel this is only the second place where you find the word “Christ.” The first came in chapter 2 when the Magi prompt King Herod to ask his Bible experts where “the Christ” was supposed to be born. But Matthew has not called Jesus the Christ. Until now. Now he throws in the very loaded title of Christ, Messiah. Everything Jesus is doing is happening only because he is the Christ. By inserting this into the text, Matthew is pre-answering the question John the Baptist is about to raise. Is Jesus the Christ? Yes!
Have you ever felt really let down by something? Maybe it was a meal at some well-known restaurant. You’d looked forward to tasting this particular chef’s cuisine for so long but then when you actually got to try the food, it was strikingly . . . ordinary. Or perhaps it was some long-anticipated movie: maybe it was the sequel to another film you had really enjoyed and so you had waited for years for the next installment of the series to come out. You eagerly went to the theater on opening day only to discover the new movie turned out to be . . . really boring.
And so you feel let down, disappointed, deflated.
Well, if this has ever happened to you, then you perhaps also know that it’s finally a little difficult to admit that the food or the film in question really wasn’t all that good. You maybe hedge a bit , do some hemming and hawing, when someone later asks you how it was. “Was it everything you thought it would be?” to which you reply, “Yeah, it was good. I, uh, I, um, I pretty well liked it. Sure. It was fine, OK, not bad—well, not too bad anyways.”
But deep down you know the truth: all your waiting looks to have been in vain. Somebody in the kitchen or behind the camera let you down, leaving your high-flying expectations in tatters.
John the Baptist was disappointed. He had “talked Jesus up” and was a kind of divine warm-up act for the star attraction of the salvation show.
Years ago I attended a taping of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” in Burbank, California. Before the taping began, the show’s announcer and second banana, Ed McMahon, came out and talked to the audience. He cracked jokes and humorously reminded us to laugh at Johnny’s jokes when he came out so that we’d all be nice to the show’s star. Ed warmed us up, got us ready. We never saw Johnny himself, of course, until that moment when the band was fully cranked up and Ed said his famous intro “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny,” at which point the curtains parted and out stepped Mr. Carson.
John the Baptist was the warm-up. He had spent years getting people ready to hear him say, “Heeeeeeere’s Messiah!” but in this case when the curtain parted, the man who stepped forward ended up being camera shy. He ducked the spotlight. He muffed his lines. He fled to out-of-the-way places. John sensed that the audience was let down, and so was he.
No doubt it took a while before John could even admit this to himself and dispatch some followers to check this out with Jesus himself. The open question never answered in the New Testament was whether the answer Jesus gave provided John once more with hope.
Author: Stan Mast
Advent in Year A of the Lectionary’s cycle of readings is a poetry lover’s delight. From the images of mountains and military in Isaiah 2 to the plants and animals and a little child in Isaiah 11, we now come to the images of a trackless desert transformed into a verdant paradise with a superhighway running straight through it.
I love the desert southwest of America; it’s my favorite place to vacation in the winter when it is frigid and frozen in my home state of Michigan. But I enjoy the beauty and warmth of the desert from the comfort of an airconditioned condo or from the seat of a golf cart with a cold drink in the cupholder. The desert is a very different place for a Honduran refugee plodding through cacti and sagebrush following a rough path and carrying a jug of stale water for herself and her family. Or for a Jew returning to the Promised Land from Exile in Babylon
Depending on what route the Jewish returnees took, that journey was 500 miles as the crow flies, straight across a blazing desert. Or it was between 1000 and 1600 miles if they followed a more northerly route that kept them closer water supplies and civilization. No matter how they went, it was a daunting journey for the strongest men, let alone the weak and the disabled. The mere prospect of such a walk would give “feeble hands, weak knees, and a fearful heart” to even the most eager pilgrim.
Many of your listeners on this Third Sunday of Advent will relate to being in a desert. Some have been sick for a long time or are chronically disabled. Others are far from home, alone in a foreign place, while still others have been wandering in a wilderness with scarce resources and nowhere to go for help. All of these folks have “sorrow and sighing” in their hearts and on their lips all the time.
For all of these folks, Isaiah 35 offers a beautiful picture of hope and joy. At the heart of it is the simple promise of verse 4, “Your God will come… to save you.” That’s the message of Advent every year, and Isaiah 35 gives that promise a particular color and texture and flavor. When your God comes to save you, he will transform your desert into a garden and create a highway from exile to home.
David McKenna summarizes the various dimensions of this transformation with these handy titles:
From Wasteland to Garden, verses 1-2
From Weak to Strong, verses 3-4
From Lame to Leaping, verses 5-6a
From Drought to Delta, verses 6b-7
From Wilderness to Highway, verses 8-10
When you are going through a desert experience, it is almost impossible to imagine what hope looks like. The poet prophet uses lovely pictures to stimulate our imagination. Imagine the desert itself rejoicing because its once barren landscape has burst into life: a carpet of colorful crocuses covers the ground, the soaring cedars of Lebanon and the mighty oaks of Carmel replace the scrub brush, and the roses of Sharon dot the formerly colorless ground. In this impossible transformation, the glory and splendor of God himself will be displayed. As the heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands (Psalm 19), the transformed desert is a testimony to the power and grace of God. As a result, “all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.”
The prophet now uses this spectacular transformation to encourage those with feeble hands, shaking knees, and fearful hearts. “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come….” The next words will strike some of your listeners all wrong: “he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” In a day when we emphasize grace for all, this seems out of step with the gospel.
But our reaction may reveal our privileged lives. Most of us have not been ravaged, robbed, raped, and kidnapped as the Jews had been. For those who cower in exile or trudge through a desert, the promise that God will make it right is a comforting word. We shouldn’t read “vengeance” and “divine retribution” as acts of angry revenge, but as the action of a just God making the wrong right. Victims can only hope that will happen one day. Isaiah says it will.
What’s more, the coming of God to save will bring health to those who have live with disabilities and disease: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute shout for joy.” Some scholars take this in a spiritual sense; those who are deaf to the gospel and unable to move toward God will be enabled by grace to repent and believe. That may be, but it is surely not accidental that when God came to save his people in the person of Jesus, Jesus physically healed people. That wasn’t incidental to his ministry; it was a tangible sign that the day spoken of by Isaiah 35 had come. Indeed, Jesus himself quoted these very verses when John the Baptist asked if Jesus really was the Messiah (Luke 7:22).
Returning to the picture of a desert in bloom, the prophet explains how that could happen. The God who controls the waters above the earth and the waters in the earth will abundantly water the dry land with artesian wells gushing water, streams in the desert, bubbling springs, and oases with pools of water. There will be so much water that “in the haunts of where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow” as they do in the far-off land of Egypt. Is that a subtle way of saying that even as Israel once escaped Egypt and journeyed through a wilderness to reach the Promised Land, so Israel will escape Babylon through a desert and return to the Promised Land?
That second return will be different, says the prophet, because they will not wander in a trackless waste. There will be a highway straight through this verdant desert. One can imagine the Exiles asking, “But how can we get there from here?” It’s a question we all ask when we can’t see a way through our troubles and the Enemy sows despair by whispering yet another lie, “You can’t get there from here. You’re stuck, you’re lost, there’s no hope for you.”
Don’t listen to the Hopeless One, says the prophet, because “a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness.” That title might point to the qualifications for those who would travel this road. “The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way.” This is the highway that only “the redeemed and the ransomed of the Lord” will walk.
But those words also point to the fact that this road has been constructed by the Holy One of Israel, who will redeem and “ransom captive Israel.” This is a limited access highway, but you don’t gain access by being good. You get on the highway to heaven by being saved by a Good God. It is the Way of Grace that one can walk by trusting him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
How we can we get home from our “distant country?” How we can we survive and navigate our desert places? Only by trusting the One whom the demon possessed called, “The Holy One of God (Luke 4:34).” We don’t have to pay a toll to get on the superhighway, because that price has been paid. Not accidentally, Isaiah 40 says that it is the Lord himself who will travel this highway through the desert. He walked the Way of Holiness, so that we could too.
Isaiah 35 began with the desert shouting for joy and it ends with the joy of the redeemed. Because their God has come to save them, “They will enter Zion with singing, everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
We’re not there yet, so Advent is a season of waiting, expectation, anticipation, especially for those who still have much sorrow and sighing. But this lovely picture in Isaiah 35 assures us that the God who came to save us will come again to transform our deserts and lead us home. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
I rarely use personal stories in sermons, but I’m going to give an example here that might be useful as you think of illustrations for this rich text. Recently I was lost in the desert of legal paperwork. Applying for a loan to provide for my mother’s long-term care, I encountered one obstacle after another. It was like the carnival game “Whack A Mole.” I would get one contract signed and think, “There, I’m done.” And then a complication would pop up. And another and another. I got to the point of saying, “How can I navigate this trackless waste? I don’t think I can get there from here.” Hope faded and joy was hard to find.
But as I began to work on this Sermon Starter, the lovely language of Isaiah 35 focused my mind on those wonderful Advent words, “Your God will come to save you.” And then he did, in the person of a traveling Notary Public, a humble, compassionate, aging Christian who had heard me preach years ago. He showed me the way through the desert. And I am singing for joy. I wouldn’t say that “everlasting joy” has crowned my head, but at least I’ve had another foretaste. For the moment, “sorrow and sighing have fled away.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
The Year A Lectionary presents two options on this week’s Psalm. One option is what I will reflect on here from Luke 1. The other is a portion of Psalm 146. I am not writing on that as this entire psalm was the Lectionary psalm just a couple of months ago. If you wish to preach on Psalm 146, I would refer you to the sermon starter I posted this Fall.
At a recent conference in Canada, a colleague of mine made a bold statement for these politically riven times in which we are living: the Gospel is unavoidably political. Note: The Gospel is not partisan, and if any preacher grinds a blatantly partisan axe in the pulpit—and then claims that the Bible or the Gospel endorses ever and only one partisan point of view—that is wrong. But to claim the Gospel has no political ramifications and applications would likewise be wrong.
Enter Mary’s Song, The Magnificat, in Luke 1. Whether in the short-term or in the longer-term, Mary’s Song is all about public events that have a political edge to them. She foresees a world turned upside-down: the high and mighty get brought low, the wealthy and comfortable get sent away empty handed. In other words, if and whenever this happens, it will be the most famous people in the world who will find themselves on the wrong end of the stick. It will be celebrities from the entertainment and sports fields, it will be well known millionaires and billionaires, it will be the most highly elected officials in any given nation.
Those who will be lifted up and exalted in the place of these famous folks are, quite naturally, precisely the opposite: they will be the little people on the margins of society of whom most people have never heard. They will be, well, they will be like Mary herself. In fact, it seems that in addition to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, what led Mary to sing the lines she did was precisely her own recent experience.
There she was, an unknown young woman living in the backwaters of the Roman Empire. She lived in what the wealthy and powerful of her day might have regarded as something of a Podunk town. But of all the people on the earth, it was she who got a visit from no less than an Archangel of God (and who bowed down before HER as though Mary, not Gabriel, were the exalted person in the room!). The angel told her she had been selected for an utterly remarkable honor to bear God’s own Son. She was told that all generations would rise up to call little old Mary blessed. She went from a Nobody to very nearly the ultimate Somebody in the blink of an eye. And something about that core dynamic of God’s raising up the lowly humble from the margins—folks like Mary herself and probably most every single person Mary had ever known in her life—something about all this triggered in her the idea that this reversal of fortune is just generally how God behaves. What happened to her will happen to everyone eventually.
C.S. Lewis called the Magnificat “a terrible song” and by that he was not critiquing the quality of the lyrics. Rather he meant it in the deeper Latin sense of the word terribilis, meaning something awe-some, awe-inspiring, chilling, and terrifying in its vision of God’s rebuking the proud, the powerful, and the rich in favor of exalting probably many of the very same people who had previously been exploited by the proud, the rich, and the powerful. To imagine this amazing vision of a world upended and made new emanating from the lips of a young maiden like Mary was . . . well, it was a terrible thing to countenance because it was an awesome thing. (One wonders what a parent today would think were he or she to hear a teenaged girl singing violent lyrics—probably we might chalk it up to too her streaming too many rock-n-roll music videos from MTV or VH1 or YouTube or something!)
Of course, none of this happened literally in Mary’s day. The ultimate fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Israel of which Mary sings were a long ways off (and anyway “Israel” was soon going to be defined not as just the descendants of Abraham but anyone and everyone who joined the New Israel by virtue of following Jesus as Lord and Savior). But the vision is valid. This is what Jesus’ coming kingdom is going to look like, as Jesus would make plain again and again 30 years later in his public ministry when in places like The Beatitudes Jesus turned the world’s way of reckoning value upside down by blessing the lowliest of the low: the meek, the mild, the suffering, the weeping.
Like mother like son.
Does Mary’s vision in this song carry with it some socio-economic blueprint for societies yet today? Should this song be seen as a manifesto on which to build nations and economies? Probably not. But the political nature of the Gospel does mean that this should have a powerful shaping influence for how followers of Christ to this day view the world and the manner by which we assess value.
Whether the powers that be in any given society want to pursue this kind of vision, those who follow Jesus and count themselves already now as citizens of his Kingdom need to see the world as young Mary did. We view it hopefully for the completion of final justice. We view it radically differently than most people, seeing those who are powerful and rich now as altogether insignificant in the longer run. No, powerful/wealthy people are not automatically damned on account of their position and vulnerable/poor people are not automatically saved on account of their poverty alone. We all get saved via baptism into Christ. But once we are thus saved, joining Mary in this terrible song seems only fitting.
Note: Our specific Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season of 2019.
I mentioned C.S. Lewis earlier. Here are his reflections on Mary, her song, and her influence perhaps on even her divine-human son:
“I think, too, it will do us no harm to remember that, in becoming Man, [Jesus] bowed His neck beneath the sweet yoke of a heredity and early environment. Humanly speaking, He would have learned this style, if from no one else (but it was all about Him) from His Mother. “That we should be saved from our enemies and from the hands of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant.” Here is the same parallelism. (And incidentally, is this the only aspect in which we can say of His human nature “He was His Mother’s own son”? There is a fierceness, even a touch of Deborah, mixed with the sweetness in the Magnificat to which most painted Madonnas do little justice; matching the frequent severity of His own sayings. I am sure the private life of the holy family was, in many senses, “mild” and “gentle”, but perhaps hardly in the way some hymn writers have in mind. One may suspect, on proper occasions, a certain astringency; and all in what people at Jerusalem regarded as a rough north-country dialect.)”
~~ C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1958, pp. 5-6.
Author: Doug Bratt
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.
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”?