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a homily based on James 5:7-10
by Rev. Thomas N. Hall

Did you catch the first three words of our epistle lesson? The book of James says, “Be patient, therefore . . .” In the Greek Bible-the language that James was first written in- it's even more emphatic: “You must be patient.” And for how long does James require us to be patient? Until we finally get up to the check out counter? Until we get that last gift for Uncle Harvey? Until the light finally turns green again? We wish! But James says we're supposed to patient until the Lord returns! Sounds to me like he's asking us to be patient for our entire lifetime!

When it comes to patience, I'm no saint. I remember as a child waiting for Christmas. That was a long wait especially on Christmas Eve. The hours stretched into agonizing eternities. We would sit under a metallic tree with blue and red bulbs and watch this cellophane wheel turn slowly. The 100-watt bulb behind the cellophane would turn our gifts green, then blue, then yellow and red. It was cool . . . . . . for awhile. Then more waiting and wondering. Even now, I must admit, that patience is not one of my greatest virtues. Up until last Christmas, I would still sneak in by the Christmas tree and cut little one-inch square holes in the packages to have a little peek two weeks before we opened gifts. I just couldn't wait!

What makes us impatient? Think of some daily event that breeds impatience in you. I get nervous when I'm engaged in s -1 -o -w c -o -n - v -e -r -s -a -t -i -o -n -s. If people talk excessively slow I find myself carrying on this intrapersonal conversation with myself, completing the sentence for them in my mind and then giving them my answer. I run out of patience when the person in front of me waits and waits to make a left turn, missing some dandy opportunities. Finally, he turns-just as the light changes-leaving me sitting there to wait for the next green light. I get steamed--there goes 30 seconds from my life.

And I really lose my patience with voice mail. I feel it coming on when I hear this voice come on the line that begins with “If you have a touch tone phone please press one now; if you know the extension of the person you would like to speak with press two, if you want to speak to someone in customer service please press three. ” I usually never get past option three; I impatiently begin to press indiscriminately and then the voice scolds me: “You have pressed an incorrect number;” so the options begin allover again.

I've confessed my impatience. Now it's your turn! What makes you impatient? Traffic lights? Slow drivers? Slow computers? Waiting for December 25th? Waiting for that four-day weekend? Waiting for the fish to bite? For school to be called off? Waiting for the snow to melt? Waiting in the shopping lines? Waiting to use the pay phone--and this guy sees you waiting and uptight, but just keeps on talking to his girl friend? How about sitting in the Doctor's office reading through all the summer issues of People Magazine? I think we all must confess our impatience.

But as one poet reminds us, Advent is a season of patient waiting:

Waiting is the hardest part.
We want to get going.
We want it to happen.
We want to get there.
We want to see how it turns out.

Waiting wasn't what we had in mind.
We spend our lives waiting:

  • Waiting for the train to come on time,

  • Waiting for calendar days to fall to the floor,

  • Waiting to grow up,

  • Waiting to arrive,

  • Waiting to get away,

  • Waiting for somebody else

  • Who is never on time,

  • Or who is waiting, also for others.

  • Waiting for the crisis to come,

  • Waiting for the crisis to pass,

  • Waiting for God,

  • Told patiently to stay in line--

  • And so we wait patiently there, not sure why-

  • Waiting for the last month,

  • Waiting for something to celebrate.

  • Waiting for the baby to be born.


So here we are in the third week of Advent--the very season America gets the most uptight about-and James tells us to be patient! Yet not only James, but many other voices in Scripture call us to patient living:

The more we read Paul, the more we become aware that patience is not just a rare and remarkable virtue, but an indispensable quality for our lives. Paul defends himself before the Christians at Corinth by saying that he's always tried to live “by purity and truth, patience and kindness. . . ” (2 Cor. 6:6) . And he encourages the Ephesians to be humble and kind and most of all to be patient (Eph. 4:2). “May God grant you ample strength,” Paul prays for the Colossians, “to meet with fortitude and patience whatever comes. ” In Colossians 3, he describes patience as that virtue that is so indispensable to our lives, that everyday we should pull patience out of our closet and wear it like we wear our socks and shoes; he says, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” ( Col. 3: 12) . And in one of the greatest passages in the New Testament, Paul writes this “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace--and there it is again-- patience. . . ” (Gal. 5:22). So one of the distinguishing marks of spiritual maturity is the ability to be patient.

But what's so great about patience? Why would Paul say that patience is a remarkable virtue that can only be produced with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit? Aren't some of the greatest problems caused by our lack of swift action? Every two minutes another person dies of AIDS, another bloated bellied child in Ethiopia dies and we're su pposed to say like James, “be patient? ” Every 40 seconds an American woman somewhere in this country becomes the punching bag of some guy who's out of control and we're supposed to say, “just be patient? ” She's lived with this Mike Tyson kind of guy for twenty years--always hoping that he might change. And so we say to her, “Well sometimes you just have to be patient. ” So we may ask why in the face of bloated bellies, beat up spouses and girl friends, why? Why be patient?

But patience is not standing idly by with our hands in our pockets, doing nothing. Just standing around being patient. What might help us to make some sense of all of this is to understand what the Bible means by patience. So let's unpack this term. “Patience” comes from two words-- makros and thumos. The first term, makros carries the idea of long or far . The second word, thumos means “hot anger, wrath. ” Put it together and we come up with “long-anger. ” We've heard of being “short-tempered,” Well, James is encouraging us to be the opposite--”Long-tempered. ” Patience is a “restrained anger” toward people and circumstances.

Patience is a spirit that could take revenge it if liked, but utterly refuses to do so. In our epistle lesson, James calls us to be patient. But he does so by using a different word. None of the makros-thumos stuff. Instead, he uses a word that means “endurance,” or “to bear up under. ” Job endured under the load of suffering. He determined that he would “bear up under” the trials of suffering--no matter hot it got. And in the process, the impurities of self-will, phoniness, stubbornness, and resentment floated to the top under the heat of heartache, grief, pain, and sorrow. And the result was patience. Formed like the purifying process of raw gold. James' version of patience means that while we're all waiting for the complete advent of God into our lives--we'll feel the pain that won't go away.

So we will wait for God. And James tells us, “Be patient.” “Endure under fire.” For God will come--soon. Patience, according to James is not some limp, passive resignation, but a quiet confidence that God fives, that God acts, that God cares, and that God eventually moves toward us. We see the vision of Isaiah about deserts blooming into a Longwood Gardens and we rejoice because we know the power of God to change our world; we rejoice in Isaiah's vision of God's Peaceable Kingdom because we know that God is already at work making a place here and there in which there will be nothing that will hurt or destroy. We even rejoice in our personal suffering and trials because we know that through it all we'll be stronger , wiser, and more able to help others going through tough times.

On this third Sunday in Advent, we can take this call to patience a step further by responding to two questions. First, what's happening in your fife right now that's trying your patience? See every moment of impatience as an opportunity to deepen your faith and roots in God. Rather than get angry at that person, at that illness, at that tragedy, ask God's Spirit to produce character, to produce patience in you and through the trying circumstance. Secondly, think of someone you admire for their patient spirit. Ask them for advice; how have they developed that long-tempered quality? “Lord give us patience.” Amen.