A sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent, 2019, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio
“Be patient, beloved.” It’s a wonderful message for this time of year, although I don’t think James meant it just for Advent and Christmas.
He repeats it four times, one way or another, in the space of seven sentences: “Be patient, beloved.”
You can hear in his words the echo of the mother of a small child, over-excited and eager for Christmas morning. You can hear the mantra of the patient awaiting surgery, or recovery, of the spouse pacing the waiting room. You can hear the prayer of the person pursuing justice. You can hear the silent plea of the person hurrying to get things done in twice the time that it takes to make everyone behind them in line impatient, unaware of their invisible struggle. You can hear the silent smile of a lover who hides a secret gift with which to surprise their spouse:
“Be patient, beloved.”
You can hear the words of Jesus to the disciples of John, worried and anxious that the Son of Man is not coming quickly enough, on sufficient clouds of glory, with enough might and majesty to wreak havoc on the earth. John sends from prison messengers to ask, “How long, O Lord, how long?” And Jesus answers, in so many words, “Be patient, beloved.”
In the meantime good things are happening, because Jesus is among us, God made Incarnate, taking on our image, Emmanuel, and the kingdom of heaven has drawn near. The eyes of the blind have been cleared, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. The legs of the stumbling have been set free, and the poor have received good news. Even the dead have a new lease on life.
Do not be offended at what I have not yet done for you, says Jesus, but open your eyes to the grace and mercy of God that already surrounds you.
Be patient, beloved.
And do not be offended at what I do not do, says Jesus.
John is still waiting for the powerful to be overthrown. Isaiah is waiting for the haunt of jackals to become an oasis, and for life to become straightforward. James is waiting for the Second Coming of Christ, as a farmer waits for his crops to come to harvest.
We tried planting a garden a couple of times at home. Each time, we waited as spring turned to summer and the sun and the rain took turns playing with our hopeful expectations. This year’s garden didn’t do well, although the cat enjoyed the mint crop. The first garden grew better, but just as the food was coming ready, someone, something else came in and ate it.
The hungry will be filled with good things, sings Mary in the Magnificat, but the rich will be sent away empty.
We are rich in many things, my family and I. Perhaps it was the turn of some other beloved creature of God to receive the bounty of daily bread, the blessing of Providence, the fruit of creation.
Do not be offended at what I do for others, says Jesus. Be patient, beloved.
When our children were small and there were too many things to do with the two hands that I have, one of the children, wise and observant, noticed that often their requests were met with the same, repeated phrase. I realized this one day when they asked me, “for a drink, please, now and not in a minute.”
Be patient, beloved.
But why, we wonder, does God make us wait a minute? Why does Jesus keep John in suspense? Why is James still waiting, patiently, for the coming of the final judgement and the day of revelation? Why are we still waiting for the day when no one, not even a fool, will go astray; because we know we’re not there yet?
It is not because God is distracted with too many things, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8, ESV).
It is not because God does not have enough hands to do it all, for, “All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord” (Isaiah 66:2, ESV)
So why do we need to remain patient, beloved?
Well, there are many good answers, but in this season, I can think of one.
In ten days’ time, we will celebrate once more that anniversary that calls for two thousand candles, for several billion voices to sing with the angels, “Glory to God! For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, unto us a Saviour is delivered into this earthly life, with all of its hope, and its promise, and its demanding patience, and its merciful mortality, and its hints of the heaven to follow.”
After Christmas, and Epiphany, in a minute or a month, we are rushing towards Jerusalem, the Cross, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Holy Spirit, then back again here to the Advent holding back, the patient season of pregnant waiting.
We reduce the whole of that infant’s life to a year, to a succession of seasons. But in the meantime, he takes his time to grow, to become fully and carefully, patiently the person he was born to be. He waits decades before he is baptized by John and begins his public ministry. He experiences hunger and hatred, hope and love, grief and the touch of a woman’s hair, wiping his feet. He is patient, beloved. He does not rush to his redeeming death, nor leap from the Cross but waits three days in the ground to return, labouring once more toward a new birth.
He takes the time to live well in this life; to do good where he can, and spread healing where he finds hurt, to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly in the image of God. He takes the time to bear that image of God in which humanity was made: the image of creativity, grace, inspiration, of love.
Be patient, beloved.
It takes time for us to grow into that image that God has of us, as humans capable of faith and redemption, fit for mercy, hungry for righteousness and humbled by mortality. It takes time for us to beat our gun barrels into ploughshares, to learn war no more, to humble our proud imaginations to the vision that God has for God’s creation. We have time to repent and make amends for our personal sins, things done and let undone; time to atone for our communal sins of racism, sexism, antisemitsm, selfishness.
We have time to enjoy this life that God has lent us: time to discover the beauty of love, time to encourage joy, time to live in hope.
In the meantime, beloved, be patient. Do not be offended at God’s slow and steadfast loving-kindness to lowly. Do not be offended by Christ’s indiscriminate healing and hope-giving, spread among the undeserving, the undesirable: God knows, we need it, too. Take the chance that we have been given actively and with awe to await with patience, with growing wonder, the birth of something new in the heart of the world.
Be patient, beloved. Christ is come among us, and Christ is coming.