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You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

Infinite Patience

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“Infinite Patience”
James 5.7-10
December 11, 2016
Rev. William Bills

Patience is something everyone would do well possess in greater degree. Who doesn’t need to practice more patience? How good are you at being patient? Ask me that question and my response might be, “depends on what day it is.” Do you ever get impatient with a Christian brother or sister? How about the pastor?

This may not be what we expect for an advent reading. James does reference the coming of the Lord but he urges patience as his readers await the second advent of Jesus, not the first. The first advent of Jesus set something in motion which has not yet come to completion. Jesus came teaching that the kingdom of God was at hand. In one sense it has come upon the world. In another sense it has not yet fully arrived. Something begun long ago is already but not yet. So Christians in the first century and Christians in the twenty-first century can easily become impatient; impatient with the world, impatient with Jesus, impatient with God and impatient with one another.

Would that the kingdom of God might fully come and we could do away with this world that is sort of already but not yet. Jesus said the kingdom of God is at hand, but we know things are not right. We see glimpses of the kingdom but the promise is not complete.

James was prompted to write by the delayed second advent of Jesus. That was a bigger issue for his people than for us. We are accustomed to the delay. Nonetheless, some speculate and even predict, the second advent of Jesus.

The delay does create some ambiguity about the reliability of scripture and Christian tradition. In verse eight James says, “You also must be patient… for the coming of the Lord is near.” Some of us might wonder, how near is near?

Second Peter 3.8 says, “A day with the Lord is like a thousand years.” There is a little sketch in John’s gospel at chapter 16, verse 16, where Jesus, shortly before his death says to the disciples, “In a little while you will see me no more. But then in a little while you will see me again.” As the discussion among the disciples plays out I imagine them scratching their heads and wondering, what does he mean by a little while? Is that three days or is that three thousand years? When you are Jesus, just how long is a day? How long is a little while for the son of God?

These are two examples, but others can be found. The early church had to cope with the delayed second advent. We are accustomed to the delay so we focus on the first advent and simply postpone the second advent of Jesus.

Being used to that delay hasn’t made us more patient, though. In Jesus, God started something that isn’t finished. In Holy Communion that we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again and we feast at his heavenly banquet. We are patient with Jesus but we aren’t always patient with one another.

Christian tradition and commonsense hold that patience is a virtue. While I acknowledge that truth I confess that patience doesn’t always come easy.

I recently had an experience with JC Penny’s credit card service that tested the extreme limits of my patience. Five months ago I made a purchase with my card for $127.20. The bill came in the mail so I sent them a check for $127.20. The next month my statement came showing the credit for my payment and a zero balance. The following month a new bill came in the mail with the old charge on it. When I called to inquire I was told that my check had bounced. “No it didn’t,” I said, “I have it right here in my hand, endorsed by your bank.” So they asked me to send them a copy of the check. Then they emailed to say that wasn’t good enough. They now wanted a copy of my bank statement. So I sent that. JC Penny sent a letter apologizing for the inconvenience and assuring me the matter was resolved.

The next month I received another bill. $127.20, plus interest and a $25.00 late fee. So I called again. I spoke with a manager who apologized profusely and assured me he would credit my account. Then another bill came with the $127.20 charge, $50.00 in late fees and interest. So I called again. Another manager apologized and assured me it would be taken care of immediately.

The following month another bill came in the mail. It wasn’t for $127.20, though. Instead of issuing a credit for $127.20 they charged me for another $127.20. The bill now was $254.40, plus late fees and interest. Back to the telephone. More apologies and reassurances that all would soon be made well. But the next month, another bill arrived, this time for $127.20. They had fixed the second mistake but not the first. There was also a note explaining that I had been turned over to collections because I was now four months delinquent.

Back to the phone. I called collections and explained the billing department’s series of errors. I was a little impatient by then. Do you know what the collections manager said to me on the phone? He said, “Please be patient while we work to correct this.” That was it! My patience was exhausted!

Sometimes it is really hard to be patient. It seemed like a simple thing. It was so clear. I paid my bill and I proved it multiple times. Getting it right was a long process, though.

This Vital Church Initiative can be a little like that. It is a process. It can be a long and drawn out process. We have an idea of what we are supposed to be doing but it isn’t always crystal clear. It can take some real time, too. We may want to rush through it to get it over with and go back to life as normal and relieve ourselves of any anxiety caused by ambiguity. But the process calls for patience. We may not know for sure when we are finally finished. Normal may not look the same in twelve to twenty-four months. That kind of thing can test our patience.

Sometimes when we are impatient we can forget to be kind to one another. JC Penny told me they were recording my call for training purposes. I’m sure it got filed under “How to Deal with a Madman.”

Waiting can lead to ambiguity, uncertainty. Ambiguity can give rise to anxiety. Anxiety can cause us to long for resolution.

So James offers this advice: You have to be patient the same way a farmer is patient. The farmer sows seeds, then waits for the rains. Of course, there are early rains and late rains and who knows if either will bring enough rain. Even though the seeds are sown the farmer knows the harvest isn’t guaranteed. Sometimes the harvest doesn’t come in, in spite of one’s best efforts. “Be patient like that,” says James. “And don’t forget the prophets,” he continues, lifting them up as examples of both patience and suffering. Patient people are sometimes called long-suffering.

Patience is a must when it comes to discerning God’s will. Rushing to judgment or rushing to a decision is an easy way to miss God’s will. That is usually just us trying to eliminate our own anxiety.

James says instead that we should strengthen our hearts. Some English translations will render that as “… be stout-hearted…” I like that. People who are patient have stout hearts.

In some English Bibles the translation says be “long-tempered.” Impatient people can be “short-tempered.” We have seen people with short tempers and we don’t like that. “Be long-tempered,” says James.

In the Greek translation of the Jewish Testament God is described as long-tempered. It is in the nature of God to be long-tempered toward us. Therefore we ought to be long-tempered with one another.

Just to make sure he is understood, James puts this both positively and negatively. Positively he says, “You must be patient.” Negatively, he says, “Do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.”

Patience is an outgrowth of love. Patience is a chief characteristic of God. God is patient toward us. We can choose to be patient with one another. Patience is a conscious choice requiring a stout heart.

Patience doesn’t come as the result of trying to be good. Patience comes from trust. Patience comes from having confidence in God. Patience comes to those who firmly believe that what God has begun, God will bring to completion, according to God’s will and in God’s time.

In verse nine James wrote, “Do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.” I think he had to write that because Christians were grumbling against one another. And if they were grumbling against one another, what might Jesus think about that?

But who hasn’t grumbled? Who doesn’t sometimes lose their patience with a brother or sister? Or with the pastor? Or with the JC Penny credit department?

Be patient. Always see your present circumstance with an eye toward the future, remembering that you are living into the future that God desires for you. Patiently live into that. Don’t force it to come to you.

Let your confidence in God take the place of anxiety born from ambiguity. Be patient and wait on the Lord. Your future is God’s future for you. Trust that God desires what is good and right for you according to God’s will.

We don’t have to manipulate, manufacture or control the future. We only have to wait confidently upon God to bring it to us.