Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
This is the Sunday when the church remembers James, the brother of Jesus. He became an important leader of the church in Jerusalem after the resurrection and the ascension of our Lord. The one letter of his that’s included in the New Testament offers excellent suggestions for daily Christian living. He says we should watch what we say and keep control of our tongues, because an unbridled tongue is a tool of the devil. James also advises us to control and not to show partiality to the rich. His letter is a kind of New Testament version of the Book of Proverbs.
It goes without saying that the world is much different now from what it was in the days of the apostles. Experts say that ordinary people were highly attuned to God and the supernatural. Thinking adults believed that the greatest endeavor of the mind was to seek God and eternal truth. Many welcomed the authority of the church and the Bible. They expected truth to come from the top down, so to speak. Nowadays, many folks say that human beings are at the center of life, not God or else that human life has no purpose or meaning. The majority of folks today do not long for the deepest meaning of reality, but work to understand and control the physical world and bring about earthly happiness here and now. We rarely hear talk about the possibility of eternal truth except in the church. Many say that the whole truth is located in material objects like wood and stone and blood cells.
We see a great gap when we compare today’s world with the world of the Scriptures and we may ask where the believers and heroes of the faith are today, the strong and steady Christians. The truth is, dear friends, you and I are called to be strong and sturdy children of God. The Lord calls to us by his word through the spiritual confusions of the present to live with him in trusting faith till he returns. The Bible gives us patterns of faith to copy, for we also are to be examples whom others may follow. Along with other believers, we are the heirs of the first Christians whom God uses to spread his Word and to keep the church alive and vibrant.
We look at this morning’s epistle text with this background in mind. James writes about patience and also the grumbling that can disrupt patience. Like the prophets and apostles, we are to live patiently till Christ returns, for our own well-being and also to make a witness to others. I’m the last person in the world who should be speaking in public about patience, but this is the way the Lord works. He chooses unlikely people so that he may work his wonders through them.
In everyday usage, patience means the ability to wait cheerfully for good things that we want. A patient person doesn’t reach out greedily for his or her heart’s desire. A patient person does not whine or through a tantrum when desired objects don’t come right away. Patient Christians bring their wishes to the Lord, trusting that he will provide what is best in his own good time. A Christian knows how to wait and trust in God.
For God’s children, though, patience has a more profound meaning than the ability to wait for good things with serenity of mind and evenness of temper. Christian patience is the gift God gives us to exercise restraint during the times when we face opposition or oppression. The Bible gives us numerous examples of this kind of patience. We may think if the patience of Joseph in Egypt falsely-accused of wrong-doing, Moses when the people of Israel rebelled against his leadership, of David under persecution by King Saul. We pay think of the patience of Paul after the Romans imprisoned him for his faith, the patience of Mary and Joseph when they brought the infant Christ to Egypt because Herod wanted to kill him. Above all, we keep in mind the patience of our Lord when he suffered great provocation and did not complain, all for the sake of his mission.
Christian faith is different from the ways of the world. Christians expect criticism and reproach from worldly folks. We assume that opponents of the faith will try to provoke us. It stands to reason that the trends of the times will occasionally get our goat. Abortion and euthanasia, sometimes shopping on Sunday, shrinking church attendance – all these trends are designed to irritate us. Christians in other countries and other times have patiently endured far worse than we have. We trust that the Lord will bless us with patience, too, the ability to stand firm because we’re sure in our hearts that Christ will return.
Christian patience in times of stress isn’t simply an exercise in self-discipline. We’re patient not only because we love our neighbors or have developed some social skills, but because we trust the Bible’s promise that Christ will come again. We don’t know when. We don’t know how. But we know that a glorious day is coming when Jesus will come back to earth to claim us and millions of other believers for life in the holy city that he has prepared. The Lord asks us in the meantime to be patient with life as it comes to us. He will wash us clean in his blood day by day. He will pick us up and renew us. He will give us the patience we need.
Now, James mentions an aspect of Christian patience that I hadn’t considered before. “Don’t grumble against each other, brothers,” he says, “or you will be judged.” The word that James uses for “grumble”, in the original Greek, doesn’t mean outspoken complaining but unexpressed secret grumbling that we don’t tell anyone about. He means the kind of complaining that we might carry on in our own minds. Patient Christians seek to avoid inner grumbling, for nothing affects our mental well-being and our ability to cope patiently with what comes our way like the conversations we carry on with ourselves.
Despite the vast amount of work psychologists have carried out in the past hundred years, I suspect that most of us don’t know very much about our mental processes. We may think that thoughts move in and out of our brains as if we had no control over them. We often think about whatever our fast-paced society brings before us. A big news story can get us going for hours. An advertisement can awaken a desire that wasn’t present before or we may bemoan our fate if we can’t afford a fancy car like the one our neighbor bought. Similarly, the behavior of others, even our friends, can get our brains to working at rapid speed. A hasty word, a joke, a misunderstood comment, especially a remark tinged with malice – any of these can set our brains whirling along a downward path – to our own hurt and possibly that of others, all because we haven’t made the effort to control our thoughts. Maybe we think we can’t control them.
The good news is that with God’s help we have the ability to choose what we think about. Very few like to think negative thoughts, but if someone opposes a plan we think is good, we may tell ourselves that negative thoughts are inevitable. We may believe that we must surrender to an hour or two of grumbling, which will only exhaust us and make us feel sour about life. The good news is that the Lord has given us a pathway away from mental grumbling. He breaks through stirred up brains with a promise that he will return. He opens our brains and turns grumbling to rejoicing, not because we see a person who might be giving us a hard time in a warmer light, but because the Lord has enabled us to change the subject. He brings our thoughts away from unproductive dwelling on the problems of the day to reflect on the wonderful good things that will come when Jesus returns. In this way, our inner grumbling stops and our minds are at ease again.
Of course, if we fail to follow the Lord’s command about grumbling and his promise that most of the time, unless we are ill, we’ll be able to rule our own thoughts, we risk falling under judgment, because Jesus’ half-brother tells us that the Judge is standing at the door.
But the story doesn’t end there, for there’s one aspect of patience we haven’t mentioned yet – the patience of God. While he postpones his second coming, he holds out forgiveness. Everyone has a chance to repent. All sins are forgiven. He is patient with the world he created. Peter wrote: “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance.”
Our patience comes from his. The world doesn’t know patience in the Christian sense. God draws us out of the world to make us patient in his way. He washes us clean of past failures and casts them out of his sight. He gives the ability to abide times of oppression with peaceful minds, to control our inner grumbling, and to wait for the Lord’s return. As unworthy as we seem in our own eyes, he calls us to join the company of the patient that has always existed in the church. He sends many occasions that call for patience and equips us to rise to them in his way. So in Jesus’ name we give thanks. AMEN.