This sermon on patience was part of a sermon series on James, and was also my last sermon at All Saints, Wellington. I don’t think that I speak with particular authority on this subject (!), but that may have helped…!
What certainly helped me was the IVP New Testament commentary, available online at Bible Gateway. The picture is of Job, as James uses him as an example, and I quote him quite a lot. I thought that this was a striking picture of patience in suffering (which is part, but not all, of what I was talking about).
Patience. There’s a lot of quotes about patience on the internet, but I got bored looking through them. Before I gave up, one I quite liked was: “Patience is something you admire in the driver behind you, but not in one ahead.”
Or as someone else asked “How can a society that exists on instant mashed potatoes, packaged cake mixes, frozen dinners, and instant cameras teach patience to its young?
Not everyone’s quite as complimentary though. An alternative definition: “Patience. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.”
So, when James tells us to be patient I guess that we might be a bit ambivalent about what that actually means, and whether we actually want to follow his instruction. We might be more keen for other people to follow what he says though. I think that patience is one of those virtues that we quite like to see in other people. But, we’re also good at thinking up why it doesn’t really apply to us. It’d been a long day, I was tired, if you knew the stress I was under, I was late already, that person would try anyone’s patience.
James knows this; that’s why is first practical application of what he’s saying is “don’t grumble against one another”. It’s another of those irregular verbs: I was perfectly justified, you’ve been under a lot of strain, he’s always been annoying.
James knows this: “don’t grumble against one another”. James is very practical, very down-to-earth. Practising patience starts with those closest to us, those with whom we spend the most time. Not least, because it’s there that we need to do the most practising! As I’m sure my family could tell you at some length! Which of course reminds us that, as with everything else in the Christian life, we can’t do this on our own. We need to rely on God’s love and we need to rely on God’s help through his Holy Spirit.
So, this is active, deliberate behaviour. This isn’t sitting around doing nothing. That’s shown by the pictures that James uses to help us think about patience. The first picture he uses is that of a farmer waiting for the rains. As I’m sure you know, a farmer doesn’t just sit around doing nothing inbetween sowing and cropping. There’s things to mend, things to prepare, always things to do. The farmer’s patience is an active waiting, not a passive sitting around.
This isn’t even about that British attitude of ‘well, mustn’t grumble’. That’s dangerously close, at least sometimes, to that definition of patience as ‘a minor form of despair disguised as a virtue’. The example James uses of someone who is patient is Job. I don’t know if you’ve read Job, but sitting around with a stiff upper lip in stoical silence wasn’t exactly his style:
“For sighing has become my daily food;
my groans pour out like water.
What I feared has come upon me;
what I dreaded has happened to me.
I have no peace, no quietness;
I have no rest, but only turmoil.” [Job 3:24-26]
And he goes on like that at some length! Job isn’t afraid to tell God exactly how he feels. But James commends Job as an example of perseverance. In the midst of Job’s anger and complaints he preserves with God, he remains faithful to him:
“I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes — I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!” [Job 19:25-27]
So, patience is active behaviour with a definite hope, a definite end point. The farmer is looking for the rains so that the land will yield its valuable crop. Job was looking for his redeemer and was looking forward to seeing God with his own eyes. And this of course is where the gospel passage comes in. Jesus is encouraging his listeners, his followers, to make sure that their priorities are right. God loves you, he says, you’re valuable to him. He cares about you. Do you care? Do you care enough to put him first?
As you know, I’m off to Swadlincote in South Derbyshire to be the minister at Emmanuel church there. But, it wasn’t quite that simple for us. A curate is only allowed to stay as a curate for 4 years, so the clock is ticking. You know that you need to find somewhere. But, the hard part, for many of us curates, was working out where and what and how. There was quite a lot of agonising; could we see ourselves living and working here? There was an awful lot of patience needed; Job’s sort of patience. God, I know you’ve got an answer – hurry up and tell me what it is! He didn’t. I didn’t want a burning bush; a burning twig would have done. It didn’t have to be writing in the sky. A note through the door would have done.
And as I drove round the country on yet another visit or interview, one album that got played a lot on the way was by a Christian band called the Rend Collective Experiment. We heard them at Greenbelt last year, twice, and bought their album. They’re great, but the song that really spoke to me through all this is called Broken Bread. It has the line “your will done your way”.
Your will done your way. That’s what we’re called to make our priority. That’s really what’s at the heart of both of these passages. We’re to seek God’s will, and to seek that it is done his way. We’re not bad at saying ‘your will be done Lord’. We’re less good at doing it. We prefer ‘my will done my way’. Or, at a pinch, if we’ve really got no other option ‘your will done my way’.
But patience, particularly in the midst of suffering, patience is about ‘your will done your way’. It’s about having an honest and deep enough relationship with God to be able to cope with that. At the end that is; your relationship with God doesn’t need to be particularly honest or deep at the start – but it will be. Seek first God’s kingdom. Place your treasure there. This isn’t easy, God knows it isn’t easy. We can ask him to help us. We can shout at him to help us. Psalm 69:
“Hasten, O God, to save me;
come quickly, Lord, to help me.”
So patience is active, and looking towards God’s coming kingdom, and about becoming more like Jesus. Active, hopeful, Christ-like. And that’s patience whether or not we’re suffering. The section heading in our Bibles really isn’t that helpful. James is talking about patience, sometimes including suffering. But even when suffering isn’t involved patience is active, hopeful, Christ-like.
One of the quotes I started this sermon with wondered how, in an age of instant everything, people were going to learn the skill of patience. The answer to that is, the way people have always learned things. By copying those around them. That’s the real challenge for us. If people look at us, and copy our behaviour, what would they look like? Would we like what they look like? And what will we look like when we practice Christian patience? We will look like the prophets, who kept on speaking, and like Job, who kept believing, through suffering and perseverance. Who kept on with this hope: God loves us, God will bless us with all good things.
Our actions spring out of the beliefs we actually deep-down hold, not the ones we’d like to hold, or like to think we hold. James tells us repeatedly that our actions expose our beliefs. Jesus challenges us to turn again to God, to seek his patience, to know his love, to be empowered by his Spirit. And God knows that’s hard. But God knows that’s worth doing.
So let us be patient with one another. Let us not grumble. Let us seek first God’s kingdom. Let us ask God to help us to be patient. To be active, hopeful, Christ-like. And above all, let us seek God’s will, done his way. Let us seek his will done his way in our own lives and in the lives of our church. If we do that we’ll need patience. We may know suffering. We’ll certainly have to ask God to help us resist the temptation to grumble. But, God’s promise is the most valuable crop of all; a share in his kingdom, both now and forevermore. Amen.