There are some things you can’t buy – and patience is one. James in his letter commends it to Christians (James 5:7-10), but you might wonder why we read that now. While Advent is about getting ready, it reminds us of what we have not yet got – and thus the need for patience. It fits very well with the hopeful words of Isaiah 35, the good times had not yet arrived. Life for that community, as well as the one James addresses, may have been hard, so patience is needed.
Patience is a gift (it is included in the fruit of Spirit: Galatians 5:22), the opposite of anger or short-temperedness. But, apart from saying we need it and its nice if you’ve got it, what can we do about it? James talks about farmers, and perhaps we should take the hint to look forward. His reason is that Jesus return will sort everything (and everybody) out. We talk about the Kingdom, begun among us but not yet complete.
Put it another way: it is tempting to want the last word, but less so when we realise God will have it – on everything. Or perhaps we need to go back to parables like the Wheat and the Weeds / Tares (Matthew 13:24-30), to realise the danger of wanting everything sorted out too soon, before the time is right. So we commend patience, reinforced with the reminder that it is not for us to get everything in order, but for God to do so at the right time.
But how does that fit with the urgency of John the Baptist? Are we urging patience while his call is to decisive action? Certainly John had an urgency as he told people to engage with God – but James is talking to Christians who have done that, and need to persist. We can see in John the Baptist (and especially in prison) some of the pain behind his question – “Are you the one?”. He, like many prophets before him, would die before his words were proved. But he was right – history, and the perspective of heaven, would justify what he had said.
So it is important for the Christian community to whom James writes that they should be patient. He does not mean their faith is any less vital, or that taking opportunities to share it is anything but urgent and important, but behind that is the awareness that God will sort things out when he comes, and that can be left to him. It is important for us, too. Our situation and difficulties are not the same – though grumbling seems to survive across the centuries. We are also trying to be part of our wider community, but with a different lifestyle, and set of values. Our Christian way may not be used, accepted or understood by the majority, and we need patience to follow it steadily and successfully.