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James 5:7-10

At home, our two-year-old is teaching us the definition of patience. When asked what patience means, she tells us “wait one minute.” She is still developing a relevant sense of time, so waiting one minute for her simply means to wait indefinitely. Her waiting often has the endurance of mere seconds before she bursts out in a fit of impatience. As her parents, we return again to the question, “Hadley, what does patience mean?” Through gritted teeth and crocodile tears, she responds, “wait one minute.”

In the second reading for Sunday, James has the same advice for his audience: be patient. This is advice for people caught between the “already” but “not yet” reign of God. This is advice for people like us and like a toddler, we must hear it time and again.

The book of James, referred to as a “catholic” letter, is not addressed to a specific congregation but intended to apply to a broad or universal audience. James’s letter encourages a faith in action, which is ironic, because in our text, the author of “faith without works is dead” wraps four imperatives around the analogy of patience! These commands are meant to instruct a people at the door of the Parousia. They are basic instructions for how to handle ourselves as we wait for the coming of the Lord. James urges his audience to be patient (v. 7), strengthen your hearts (v.8), do not grumble (v. 9), and to take the prophets as an example (v. 10).

An agrarian analogy is natural for near-ancient middle eastern society but not easy. The author has in mind dry land farming, which was a necessary technique in Palestine before modern inventions of drip aeration. The farmer could not rely on technology to make springs out of the desert. They were completely dependent upon the rains to make ready the seed for planting and to ripen the fruit for harvest. The season could be glorious or it could be disastrous, depending on the rain. The precipitation is out of the farmer’s control. In dry land farming, they could neither speed up nor slow down the process. The farmer must wait on the rains for the “precious crop.”

Patience is a clear theme to our passage. It is mentioned four times in our text alone, but this is not the first time we are introduced to patience. It comes to us as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), a mark of Christian love (1 Cor. 13:4), and characteristics of the Christian life (Col. 3:12; Eph. 4:2). One may be tempted to think that patience could be a mastered skill, but often we grow anxious in the waiting and return to grumbling like the Israelites in the desert longing to be slaves again. What does it mean for us to clothe ourselves with patience and wait like the farmer for the precious crop?

James’s advice is to view the prophets as an example. There is a clear connection in this week’s texts between Isaiah’s vision and James’s text. Isaiah sees with eyes that go beyond the reality of his present context; he sees the world as it will one day be. Where others see a desert, Isaiah sees blossoms and gardens exploding to life. What type of vision is this? In the midst of a people losing their identity and slipping into exile, Isaiah is able to see life. He is able to see beyond current reality to the fulfilled promises of God as God becomes incarnate and moves into the desert. Wherever God shows up, there is life bursting forth. When God shows up, deserts become gardens. This vision of God incarnate becomes the prophet’s patient hope – it is a patience that cries out with voice, artistry, creativity, and life. It is a type of patience that is ripe with hope even though Isaiah and his people will suffer as they wait for God to fulfill the promise. James implores us to take Isaiah’s patient and creative hope, among other prophets, as our example.

The reason for James’s advice to strengthen our hearts is familiar. James tells us to strengthen our hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near (v. 8). Of course, this is not the first time we have heard these words. We read in Mark that in the aftermath of John’s arrest, somewhere in Galilee, Jesus came, “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’” (Mk. 1:14-15) The patient hope of Isaiah, the creative and pregnant voices of the prophets come to life in this man from Nazareth. The Kingdom of God is at hand, it is near, and God has come to make God’s home with us.

Let us not lose ourselves to grumbling, wondering when God will pay favor to us again. Let us not grow impatient like a toddler forgetting how long a minute takes. God’s in-breaking reign has come near. The presence of this One brings forth life from dead places and causes deserts to explode into gardens. We must give our lives to this pregnant expression of hope in the way we practice patience.

This is a timely word for the days in which we find ourselves. The way we practice patience in a world that has forgotten how to wait will create distinction within us as children of God. Our distinction will shine through when the masses fret over leadership, gnashing their teeth at elected leaders, all the while the people of God point to deserts and dream of days the rain will come. As the voices in our church grow with passion to make our congregations great again, we will patiently point them back to the cross and show them life ripping through death. Patience is of course the long view, but it is the way of the prophets, and of God, and ultimately, of restoration.