It is twelve days before Christmas and you’re standing in a ridiculously long line at the post office. You’ve left things to the last minute and now you, and what seems like the rest of the world, are all trying to get your parcels in the mail at the same time. A woman you’ve never met crowds in behind you. It becomes obvious that she has little or no concern for your personal space as over the next 20 minutes she keeps pressing into your back, knocking your parcels around and just plain making you wish you were anywhere else than in that line. Who knows, maybe that’s her plan! If she frustrates you enough you might leave and she will get your place.
While standing in line for as long as you do you can’t help but notice the barrage of sights and sounds that remind you of just how secular Christmas has become. There are pictures of Santa and Reindeer all over the walls. In itself this might not be so bad, except, in the six different posters you spy, Santa and his helpers are peddling four different products. The radio is blaring out some gooey Christmas songs which really have less to do with Christmas than relationships gone wrong or x-rated. The couple in front of you have been arguing for the past ten minutes. Neither of them is happy with all of the commitments they are forced to endure. And that woman behind you just won’t back off. You try to patiently bear it all for a while, but you have a hundred other things to do, the post office is too hot, the couple is getting too loud, and you swear you can feel that woman breathing down your neck! It’s all too much. In your head you scream out: “That’s it! My patience is at an end!”
Have you ever noticed that the closer we get to Christmas, the more stressed and cheerless and impatient people seem to get? Even us. Christmas is not what it used to be. But then, that’s not really Christmas’ fault, is it? The whole thing has become a lot more commercial and a lot more frantic. Starting the day after Halloween, we have truck loads of ‘stuff’ thrown at us in the name of Christmas. You have to buy these things, you have to put up these decorations, you have to see all those people, you have to write all those cards and letters. You have to make it special, make it memorable, make it just right … or what, exactly? Is it any wonder that by this time of the year there is no more patience left?
James, and the Christians he was writing to, knew that feeling very well. James began his fifth chapter, just before this morning’s passage, by warning all those who live greedy, self- indulgent lives at the expense of others to change their ways because the time of judgment is at hand. In our text, he then speaks to all those who are pressured and victimized by these people to be patient and stand firm in the face of it all.
He tells them that if they want an example of what this patient endurance should be like, they should look to the prophets of old. Men like Elijah, who was ridiculed and hunted down. Men like Jeremiah, who was thrown into a cistern, and starved. Men who patiently bore everything that the world threw at them. In other words, James tells his readers to have prophetic patience. Be patient and trust in the Lord like Elijah and Jeremiah did.
But it isn’t always so easy to stand firm and be patient is it? Especially when James adds something like “don’t grumble against each other” to the mix. As good Christians we guard our tongues, Oh Sure! In the post office we would never think of turning around and telling off that woman behind us. But that’s just not enough. For instead, all the while, we let the people and the pressures of this world build up the frustrations and irritations in our hearts. We let it build and build and build until the smallest of things makes us blow up. James warns all Christians that You can grumble against others in your heart just as easily as you can with your mouth.
And so, lest we think that we are any better than all those around us, the overly worldly, the greedy, the self-indulgent James warns us, like he warned them. He warns us that if we impatiently grumble against others – even those who have somehow sabotaged our Christmas, either in thoughts or words we are in effect judging them. And that is dangerous, because the True Judge of all is waiting at the door.
And with that sobering thought we are pulled back from all this Christmas frenzy, into the patient reflection of Advent. Hold on, slow down, not yet … but soon! Soon He will come! Soon He will return! Soon HE will judge! And strangely enough, this thought is a heartening one for us believers. For God, you see, is far more patient with us than we ourselves could ever be! The Old Testament is one long account of how God called people to be His own and of how they failed to be faithful and how God was patient with them, forgiving them and renewing His promises to them anyway.
These promises came into sharp focus in the person and work of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. Even though He was truly God, He put aside His power and lived patiently under the Law. He patiently taught stubborn people who didn’t understand or just didn’t care. He patiently healed the sick, the dying, and the brokenhearted. He patiently forgave sins and endured rejection, abuse and mockery. He patiently bore the sins of all creation and died upon a piece of wood. Died willingly for those who had caused Him so much pain and heart-ache.
And because of Christ, God continues to be patient with us all even when we still fail Him today. In our text James gives the example of the farmer waiting patiently over his crops. It’s a beautiful picture of God Himself. “Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain.” In Palestine, the soil can easily become very dry and desert-like. The early rains, which fall around October, loosen the soil and make it possible to till and plant. These rains then help the seeds to germinate. The late rains fall in March and April, just before the harvest. These rains help the crops to ripen and produce abundant fruit. It is a system that the middle-eastern farmer has relied upon for thousands of years.
God works to produce patience and other good works in us in much the same way. Into the dry and parched soil of our hearts he sends the early rain of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit uses God’s Law to break up our hardened hearts, to furrow and turn it all over, making us ready to receive new seeds of life in the Gospel. This early rain falls in the waters of Baptism. And then, before the harvest, God sends more rain, in the form of His Holy Word, and the Lord’s Supper. These give us the strength, the nourishment, the forgiveness we need to stand firm and be patient. These rains enable us to produce all of that good fruit for the kingdom of heaven. This continual raining down of God’s blessings upon us makes us able to be prophetically patient. And not just in the sense of imitating men like Jeremiah and Elijah. God, working in our lives, gives us a patience that in itself is truly prophetic. A patience that waits for gratification in the here and now, thus pointing to the future hope we all share.
The Judge, Jesus Christ, is standing at the door! Christ is coming near! says James. When Jesus comes again, it will be to draw us all to Him, that we can live with Him forever, in perfect peace and love. No more will sin and sorrow reign! It is precisely this promise that our patience in the face of all this current nonsense points to. It is precisely this promise that lends us strength we need to be patient the way God demands. Whether that means doing a little less around the holidays, and being happier about it; or maybe taking over some of the chores of someone who just can’t keep up to it all; or possibly even turning to that woman who is crowding behind you in the post office line and offering to let her go before you!